Before World War One, women lived in a state of fashionable discomfit. They were as restricted physically as they were socially. Whalebone corsets choked their waists into tiny unnatural measurements to achieve the desired hourglass figure and fashionable discomfit. Though, according to the aforementioned link to bunnycorset.com they are in fashion again!
For centuries, a woman walked in beauty but also in pain, just like the Japanese women who for centuries had bound feet so they would look dainty. Never mind that walking was torture. Hence the shuffled gait of traditional Japanese women. Victorian corsets were the Western equivalent.
Layers of Fashionable Discomfit
In the Edwardian years of the early 1900s, a British woman needed time to dress. She had to plan the event and needed a maid to help. First there were layers of undergarments, a petticoat, chemise, and drawers or pantaloons.
Then the dreaded corset that would cinch her middle in its whalebone vice-like grip. Countless whales gave their lives so women worldwide could achieve a 55 cm or 21 inch waist measurement. The corset did not just clamp a woman’s middle section as it was laced, but propelled the bust forward to balance the bunched bustle of the dress over the buttocks.
This bustle, like the corset, surely a man’s design, padded out the derriere to a shapely but large bump, something akin to the present Kardashian penchant for a large bottom. But that was not the end of the fashionable discomfit. There’s more to come.
Garters and Hatpins Complete Fashionable Discomfit
Elastic garters which burnt into your thigh kept the stockings in place and your foot was wedged into a tight high-heeled boot often too, with laces. Then you had to wear a large wide-brimmed hat with lots of fluffy feathers, flowers or artificial fruit and a deadly hat pin to keep the decorations or accompanying veil and scarf in place.
Now, hat pins were dangerous, a hazard to passing pedestrians. Often people in crowds scored a hatpin when least expecting an aerial attack. A device called an acorn became fashionable to have on the end of the point of the pin to protect other people.
For fashionable ladies, readymade clothes were not available to buy in the shops. Most women ordered their outfits from dressmakers who required 18 body measurements, plus height and weight to fashion an outfit.
Handbags and Hankies
And what about handbags you might ask? Where did a woman keep her small change and hanky? Apparently, men kept coins in their watches which popped open at the back and women wore a muff chain that fastened around their neck. This chain extended through the furry sleeve or glove, called a muff into which the wearer could insert both hands. Inside was a small pocket where such items as coins and hankies could lodge. Mystery solved.
But I just have to share this fascinating snippet about the origins of the hanky or handkerchief. Bobby Pin Blog at Vintage Hairstyling.com cites Marie Antoinette as the inventor of the lady’s hanky. Marie, an Austrian princess was so upset on the long trip from her homeland to France where she was destined to marry Louis XVI, that she tore a strip of lacy petticoat to dab her tears. And oh, poor Marie how, years later, did she stem her tears as she climbed the scaffold of the guillotine in 1793, as a victim of the French Revolution?
However, the vintage style blogger though, as rapt as me in this story, does admit that upon further research the hanky dates to Roman times when it was a multi-functional piece of rag to dab not just tears but sweat and well, whatever. Say no more. But, apparently Marie’s royal husband decreed that hankies should be square, as wide as they are long, probably the most useful shape. Can’t imagine round or triangular ones.
Bras and Liberation to come
As this little chat about fashion has become longer than intended, I will deal with the subject of brassieres and the liberation of women’s bodies from corsets in the next post. So please stay tuned for another dose of fashionable discomfit. The change in women’s fashion reflects the changing status of women in society, so fashion is a part of our history.
Before a woman could have a voice, she had to free her body. Every woman deserves a voice and each voice is unique. Find your voice and use it for good.
Joni Scott is an Australian author with two published novels; Whispers through Time and The last Hotel.. She co-hosts a women’s blog; https://whisperingencouragement.com/ and has her own website; https://joniscottauthor.com.
Postscript from Wendy
Postscript: The long-term effect of wearing corsets, was the ribs became deformed, the spine misaligned, in order to have a more ‘civilised form’. An imprint of the corset could be found on the liver and kidneys.
One woman jokingly wrote, “It is important to note, that pregnancy has a similar effect on displacing a woman’s internal organs.” The corset did far more, and many of the older generation retained the confining custom. I remember my mother wearing a corset and always having trouble with the bone stays. She wore a corset for most of her life, even when they weren’t fashionable anymore. And, she didn’t have an hour-glass figure.
photo source. Unsplash; J.J. Jordan
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