Thursday, September 28, 2017

Laced into Shape and the Ideal Victorian Weight By Alanna Radle Rodriguez and Courtney Sale

We have all most likely seen some depiction of the typical Victorian woman. In antique photographs, cards, old Sears catalogues--a dramatic hourglass silhouette is quite prevalent. If you are anything like us and enjoy sifting through books and the internet to ogle the drool worthy ladies fashions of the different bustle periods, you know exactly what we’re talking about. Again and again, there it is: the tiny waist, vivacious hips and a round, lifted bustline. 

Most are aware of  the corset’s existence and that it is this contraption that helps create those tiny mid-sections and va-voom hips. It is this device of accursed apparel that is depicted in films as squeezing the air out of women’s lungs, causing the poor damsels to hyperventilate. This has been vastly exploited as the norm of corsetry. But seriously, corsets are not and were not meant for torture. The beginning concepts of the corset were originally produced in the 1500’s and were designed as stiffened undergarments to give needed functional support. But the existence of the corset soon developed a new fashion concept. Up till this point, fashion had been about shaping and altering the clothing to accommodate the body’s unique shape. When the corset entered the scene, manipulating the body itself to fit the shape and styles of the day became the new trend. Skip ahead a few centuries to the Victorian corset. It creates the envied  hourglass shape by redistributing fat and skin on the body to accommodate the ideal style; A silhouette we associate with the Victorian era. 

It became a desired and necessary addition to every Victorian woman’s wardrobe. They truly are lovely to look at. But after the many hours fawning over Victorian themed Pinterest boards, we noticed a pattern. In the most popular fashion plates, illustrations and photographs of Victorian women, they were always so flawlessly smooth and well . . . thin. Where were all the chubby ladies? You don’t see any lumpy back fat spilling off of these corseted beauties. 

Based purely on these depictions, one could easily come to the conclusion that Victorians must have all just been skinnier than we are today. We could speculate the validity of this theory using Victorian diet, economy, and/or less sedentary lifestyles as the cause, but overweight Victorian women were not uncommon. Sure Victorians were, on average, smaller all around than we are today but the interesting truth is that most of the popular illustrations for Victorian catalogues and fashion plates were actually depicting teenagers and younger women. Much like today, the Victorian fashion industry would target the younger generations to determine and set trends. It was not that the majority of Victorian women were necessarily any skinnier, merely that advertisements were alive, well, and depicting the youthful ideal of the times.

What the corset did for the Victorian lady had nothing to do with her age or weight. As mentioned earlier, the corset brought forth the concept of changing the body shape to suit the fashion. This undergarment granted the opportunity of illusion; a way to achieve the ideal silhouette and proportions, not a specific size. So upon further research, we found that there were many photographs of Victorian women who would be considered overweight by today’s standards. They had wider arms and thicker thighs, but they still achieved the infamous hourglass shape.

We were greatly inspired by one of the more well known overweight Victorian beauties, Ms. Lillian Russell (1860-1922). She was an American actress who remained a pinnacle of beauty despite her hefty weight gain in the later part of her career when she weighed 200+ lbs. 

Now don’t misunderstand and think that larger Victorian women didn’t feel a burden because of their size. There were still Victorian weight loss efforts and fat shaming--again, not much has changed--but a person’s size was still at the mercy of the ideal of beauty for the time period. They could only adapt to match it whether that meant adding to or subtracting from themselves. The Victorian corset was the equivalent of today’s Spanx or butt enhancing shapewear.

Different styles and materials within the corset would cause varying effects to the fat distribution on the body. The corset could be tailored to fit the needs of each individual in order to obtain the desired silhouette.

You can observe for yourself the effects of these different styles on our bodies. If Alanna wished to accentuate her small waist instead of enhance her bustline, she would opt for the overbust corset. For someone like Courtney, the tightly laced, sweetheart corset with flat steel boning helps define her waist and bustline.

This was the game for Victorian women: What combination of corset and petticoat layers would create the illusion of the hourglass? If you were a thin, wispy Victorian woman with no rear or hips to speak of, you would have packed on the layers of petticoats and added a “butt pillow”, as we call it, to create the illusion of having curves. It was all about tucking and fluffing to create the ideal waist to hip ratio no matter your weight.

Of course, there were individuals that went a bit overboard. Some women did in a sense torture themselves to get a smaller waist. They would deliberately choose corsets too small for them and tight lace themselves into smaller measurements. This would sometimes shift internal organs, break ribs (sometimes on purpose or even have a rib or two surgically removed), and cause fainting spells.

In all actuality, average Victorian waist sizes were somewhere between 22-28 inches without a corset on. Most would only lace their waists down 2-4 inches which isn’t so unheard of today. Have you ever measured yourself before and after you squeeze into your Spanx? This idea that every Victorian lady had a 15-19 inch waist or sought to achieve this is insane. Those women were few and far between.  Remember, these women still had to function and live while wearing the corset. So no matter their size, the average Victorian woman would not torture herself for the ideal weight, but simply lace herself into shape.
Corsets are amazing accessories of history. But the practice of manipulating the body and creating an illusion to achieve an ideal of beauty is nothing new.  We hope we can all learn from these Victorian ladies that there is nothing knew under the sun and that we only have one body. No matter the fashion trends, we are the ones who must be determined to look, feel and act beautiful. That’s the idea. 

Alanna Radle Rodriguez and Courtney Sale have a combined total of 53 years experience in the seamstress arena. Both starting at a young age, they learned the enjoyment of sewing from their grandmothers.

Courtney's interest historical costume came from watching Rodgers & Hammerstein films as a child. She fanned that flame by joining the seamstress at the University of Central Oklahoma Costume Shop. Likewise, Alanna's interest began when she joined a Medieval and Old West reenactment group.

Their paths collided in Fall 2015 and they immediately bonded as chosen sisters. They have recently started a God-centered business named The Crooked Needle to produce quality costumes, historical garb and accessories. They desire to expand and provide services to historical authors who long for accurately dressed book covers.

Alanna's first published story, Legacy Letters, came out in 2016.

Amazon Buy Link: Legacy Letters

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