Mass-produced items of women's wear and the most ubiquitous of commodities to be advertised in the periodical press. Like crinolines and bustles, they were both absent and present; absent because they were hidden and present because of the shape they gave. Unlike the crinoline and the bustle, which went in and out of fashion, the corset remained an essential part of fashionable female dress throughout the nineteenth century. In earlier advertisements, corsets were presented suspended empty in mid-air, and it was not until the 1880s that a woman inside a corset was shown.
Most of the corset controversy revolved around the dangers or pleasures of tight-lacing; the spectacle or promise of the wasp-waist represented the extremes of corsetry, and debates about it appeared intermittently throughout the period, culminating in a long-running controversy in the pages of The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine in the 1860s. Most commentators agreed that the sensible wearing of corsets was an essential part of female dress, although an increasing number of reformers were concerned about the health problems associated with its prolonged use. When the British Association held a meeting on the subject of stays in 1888, it was reported by both The Queen, a commercial ladies' paper, and The Rational Dress Society's Gazette, a non-profit making organ of the Rational Dress Society and the key dress-reform movement of the last part of the century. The Queen reported the speaker's claim that the Venus de Medici did not need a corset and wittily retorted that 'Venus couldn't pass muster at a London garden party'. The Rational Dress Society's Gazette, on the other hand, reported on both Charlotte Stopes' condemnation of the practice of tight lacing and Lydia Becker's support of comfortable corsets: 'stick to your stays ladies, and triumph over the other sex'.
Becker was defending the corset as an integral part of a distinctly feminine dress; it remained an essential part of women's dress well into the twentieth century and is currently enjoying a comeback in high fashion circles. But the corset embodied both literally and figuratively the question of fashion as repressive or expressive. Notwithstanding the controversy about tight-lacing, the corset could be seen as an essential fashion item which gave a particular shape and enhanced the waist; or, it could be seen as an apparatus which imprisoned and restricted movement.
The dress reformers' approved of the 'emancipation bodice' described in a regular series of articles on dress in the Girl's Own Paper a year earlier in 1887. The bodice was promoted as a comfortable version of the traditional corset, and was offered as a healthy alternative. The endorsement of this in a commercial magazine for girls and young women shows the effect that aspects of dress reform had on mainstream publications and conventional habits. However, this acceptance remained only with underclothes, and the dress reformer's call for reformed outer dress was never accepted by the mainstream, as many articles on the topic in the 1880s and 90s demonstrate. The emancipation bodice referred to the emancipation of the body, but the emancipation of the mind was a key item on the dress reformers' agenda. According to followers of fashion, the dress reformers sought to make women manly, and it was against this charge that the reformers had to fight.
The Victorian dress-reform movement gathered momentum with the formation of the Rational Dress Society by Lady Harberton, a prominent feminist, and Emily King in 1881. The Society was preceded by the aesthetic, or artistic movement in dress in the late 1870s. Artistic dress was classical in influence and was characterised by smooth lines, oriental patterns and the use of muted vegetable dyes as an alternative to the bright aniline dyes of the 1850s. By the 1880s, elements of artistic dress had influenced high fashion, notably through the 'princess line' and the tea gown, flowing, unrestricted styles of the 1890s. However, artistic dress was not rational dress and, although related to some degree and comparably comfortable, the rational-dress movement was a far more radical attack, not just on definitions of fashion, but also on the wider implications that restricted dress, as they saw it, had on women's lives.
"Locating the Victorians" conference in July 2001, Kay Boardman, senior lecturer in English in the department of cultural studies at the University of Central Lancashire, described and explored this complex relationship by looking at four particular items which are all related to the fashion system in one way or another: the fashion plate (a detachable, often coloured, page featuring models wearing the latest fashionable outfits), the corset, the bloomer and the bicycle.
|Secret History of the Corset and Crinoline||Flamboyance and the Crinoline Craze|
|From Crinoline, to Crinolette, to Bustle||Over-Structured Opulence to the 'Healthy Corset'|
|A Turn Toward the Bust: Early 20th Century||All Tied-Up: The Corset in Contemporary Fashion|
|Fashion | Page 2||Charles Frederick Worth||Court Fashion||Fashion Plates|
|Dress, Fashion and Modernity||Corset Controversy||Bloomers and Reformers||Bicycles|