Va-Va-Voom Victorians: Historical Costuming in the XL

January 28, 2013

Beauty Comes in More Sizes than Zero

Photograph of a Group of Sisters, circa 1900 from VintageJunkDrawerToo on Etsy

I had a student ask me yesterday about my Victorian costume obsession. I explained to her the basics, the ins-and-outs of the eras, the various delights of fabric and forms, and the events to attend to display your creations/acquisitions. She seemed intensely interested and expressed her growing love of costuming, “But,” she said, “only thin people can really wear those kinds of things.”

Photograph of Victorian Couple, circa 1880 from  NiepceGallery on Etsy
A very classic Victorian couple.

At first, I was a little taken aback, but I can see where her skepticism about Victorian costuming might spring from. Thanks to plenty of myth and media, we associate the Victorian era with one major thing: itty-bitty waists. When you say Victorian to anyone, they picture big skirts and corsets that will kill you if you so much as pick one up. It’s like one of those campy horror stories, only instead of a giant snake strangling our scantily-clad damsel in distress, it’s a giant, vise-like corset hell-bent on squeezing the ever-living daylights out of the poor girl.

Illustrated Police News, June 25, 1870

To put it frankly, yes. Victorians were thinner on average than we are now, but they were also shorter and smaller all around. “On average” is the key term. Just because there’s a perceived average does not mean everyone meets it. On the contraire! An average is made up of a multitude of factors (in this case dress sizes) that are all added together and divided into one number near-ish the middle of the lot. All that measuring and math adds up to a gross generalization about society.

“The Diamond Sisters,” circa 1900-1910 from thecedarchest on Etsy

Time for a word problem!

There are five friends—Nanette, Sybil, Gabrielle, Mary, and Florence. One of the friends, Nanette, was a tad late to the photoshoot and didn’t get her picture taken. Of the remaining four, the youngest, Sybil, is the smallest of the bunch with a 22 inch corseted waist (it’s important to note whether the measurement is with or without their corset which I will explain in a moment). Gabrielle and Mary both measure 24 inches in their corsets. Florence measures in at a lady-like 26 inches, corseted. Now, judging by her friends, what size is Nanette?

We can add all the known measurements together: 22 + 24 + 24 + 26 = 96 inches
Then divide the total by the number of present factors, in this case, the four pictured ladies: 94 ÷ 4 = 24 inches

So, if we are judging Nanette’s waist size by that of her friends’, she should have about a 24 inch waist, corseted. But that doesn’t really work in real life. Humans come in all shapes and sizes—even within a single family—and to narrow expectations with an “average” is unfair to everyone. Even in this particular scenario, the only limiting factor is that Sybil has the tiniest corseted waist at 22 inches. Maybe Nanette has a 22.1 inch waist or a 26 inch waist like Florence or perhaps she is perfectly average at 23.5 or nicely rounded at 34 inches…we may never know. Humans just don’t average out well on an individual scale, especially when it comes to measurements (which is why one-size-fits-all never really fits anyone). Size is determined by so many factors like undergarments, diet, genetics, and medical conditions like thyroid imbalances. These sort of factors are not new, modern additions to life. Even if unrecognized, these factors have always created variety in society, Victorians included.

Maison Léoty Corset, circa 1891

But what about those terribly terrifying corsets? Wasn’t everyone squeezing themselves down to 15 inch waists? Well, first of all, you should not be buying a corset to squeeze yourself down to an “acceptable” size. A corset’s main function is split between shaping and support. The goal is to mold the figure into the right proportions, rather than the right size. That distinction is key to understanding the Victorian aesthetic. Even the skinniest of gals will look strangely disheveled in any Victorian style if the proportions aren’t right. Victorian fashions from corsets, crinolines, and bustles to Mutton sleeves and Edwardian pigeon-fronts all shared a common goal: to make the waist look as small as possible no matter what the actual waist size.

Charles Worth Fashion Sketch, circa 1870
The wide, dropped neckline, puff sleeves, and enormous skirt all contrast with the carefully fitted, unadorned waist to make it appear even tinier. Top-heavy gals like me may want to avoid too much sleeve-poof, but wide or V necklines, plain bodices, and ornate skirts all help make the waist look smaller.

Since clothing was not bought completely “off the rack” until the 20th century, seamstresses and designers could mix and match elements to best suit each individual’s body proportions. The circumference of your waist, bust, bottom, or thighs is important only to make sure your dress fits you in the most flattering, proportional way possible! There were some pretty bodacious ladies back in the day, all looking fab in their Victorian (and Edwardian) gowns. Here’s just a small sampling:

Photograph of Couple, circa 1890 from EphemeraObscura on Etsy

1860s Ebay

Photograph of a Woman, circa 1860-1870

Cabinet Photo, circa 1885-90 from NiepceGallery on Etsy

Cabinet Photo, circa 1890 from  AlaskaVintage on Etsy

Cabinet Card, late 19th Century from PainterPoetMuse on Etsy

Wedding Photograph, circa 1889 from AlaskaVintage on Etsy

They all look just as Victorian as the next lady! They wore the same styles as everyone else with little tweaks to balance proportions out: most are wearing carefully fitted tops with minimal decoration, plus the era’s heavy skirts make a booty an asset, not a setback! Even larger Victorian ladies appear to have tiny, roll-free waists thanks to their corsets, which everyone, regardless of size, wore. In fact, a larger woman with a softer body could achieve comparatively more of a reduction than a muscular or skinny woman because a corset more easily molds softer bodies. Many of the gals in the previous photo montage would be modern US size 16-20+ without their corsets on. Corsets push up the bust and push the belly down to the hips, making for an exceptionally pronounced, attractive hourglass shape. In spite of their corsets, you’ll notice each woman has her own shape–some very rounded, others straight with minimal waist reduction. It’s all a matter of comfort and taste. That same rule applies to modern gals who love to costume: do what feels right to you!

Good Sense Corset Ad, circa 1886
While women wore corsets everyday, they didn’t all tightlace. In fact, tightlacing had been discouraged since the 1860s and wasn’t practiced by most women. Children did wear support garments at a young age and young girls were put into their first corsets in their early teens. Properly worn, corsets help ease back pain by improving posture and supporting heavy breasts. Health corsets like these became popular after 1890 as sports and exercise became popular pastimes.

However, there is one major argument about Victorian sizing that often gets overlooked: we are not Victorians. We are the products of the 20th and 21st centuries, not the 19th. Our lives and bodies are different and it’s not our duty to hold ourselves to norms that are over 100 years behind us. I can barely hope to match my own grandmother’s 23 inch waist from 1955, much less a young, high-society model’s 19 inch waist from 1895. There was a time when I tried—and golly, I may still wish I could—but my body is two generations different from my grandmother’s, with a different mix of genes, diet, and cultural norms. I enjoy corseting and girdles both as occasional and daily support, but any girdles or corsets I wear are relatively new to my life. Most earlier generations were introduced to shapewear much earlier in life and wore it much more frequently, training their waists since their teenage years. That experience is something we can’t and aren’t obligated to share.
However, historical shaping is something we can all take an interest in an explore without feeling societal pressure to do so (another big change from other eras where shaping garments were considered necessary for any decent public appearances).

Black Underbust Corset, from Hellmade Corsets on Etsy Even though they may be Hellmade, corsets and cinchers, when carefully chosen and worn, can transport you from everyday to yesterday! Feel a little nervous about taking the plunge? There is plenty of information on the internet about how to achieve the right look with or without a corset. Here’s my eBay corset buying experience and what really happens when you slip into a corset for the first time.

The point of costuming is to express something within yourself. Lots of us have “born in the wrong era” syndrome, so a hoop skirt here and a button boot there makes us giddy. Size doesn’t matter if you are a painter, wood carver, perfumer, knitter, or any other type of craftsman. Why should size matter in the costuming community? It’s an art just like anything else–an especially grand and fun one at that! Sure, body measurements matter when it comes to making patterns, but clothes should fit bodies, not vice versa.
So if you are a big woman with big dreams, don’t think you have to squeeze your hopes (or yourself!) down to size just because you don’t match the “normal” historical stereotype. It’s 2013! Resolve to costume bravely!

As with all of my articles, the pictures are linked to larger versions, helpful websites, and other informative resources, so feel free to click on them and explore!
For more info on costuming for a full figure, check out these amazing websites:

“Supporting a Large Bust” by Isabelle Mekel – How to corset for DD and larger

“Dress Culture in Late Victorian Women’s Fiction” by Christine Bayles Kortsch – Delves deeper into perception vs. reality (I also linked to it earlier in this article)

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25 Responses to “Va-Va-Voom Victorians: Historical Costuming in the XL”

  1. LadyD Says:

    I think probably if you looked at todays fashion magazines from the distant future etc. you’d assume ‘everyone’ was following certain ‘trends’. The tight lacer of yesteryear is like the size zero model. Not your every day average girl.
    You mention the 50’s may I present exhibit a

    http://www.britishpathe.com/video/women-of-fashion-reel-1/query/fuller+figure

    the ‘fine woman’ is the title given to the plus size ladies.

    • Liz Says:

      Fabulous video! I really love the suit they showed from design, to pattern, to garment and the little bit at the end with footage of everyday Edwardians.


  2. I;ve seen vistorian racy pin ups posing in thier corsets who were just as big as the woman in the black underbust, with rather chunky thighs to boot

    • Liz Says:

      Edwardian pin-up girls would actually wear padded tights to make their thighs look bigger. It’s all about proportion in Victorian and Edwardian culture. They wanted as much curve as possible!

  3. Isis Says:

    Excellent post!

    I’m lucky to have several garments that belonged to the same woman, ranging from the late 19th century to the 1920’s. It gives an insight both how a body age but also of different underpinnings allowing a body to change shape.. The oldest bodice was worn when she was a young widow (with four children) but the waist is tiny and are the proportions all over. There is a gown from the first decade of the 20th century and here she is middle age and somewaht stouter. And then newest is a coat from the 20’s when she was between 60 or 70 which fits me, so she must have grown very stout with age.

  4. Savannah Says:

    I thought this was really interesting, especially since just a couple of weeks back I drafted an original 1860 pattern from Peterson’s Magazine and it fit my younger sister almost perfectly! That was wonderful, since she was who I was making it for–but if/when I use that pattern for myself, I will have to make it smaller. And I am not super skinny myself (I am larger than both my petite grandmothers were when they got married). Thanks for the realism–people are people whatever the era! :)

  5. dianadomino Says:

    I <3 this so much, I've posted it on ebay, and it has taken off. Thank you for this article!! Inspiring!!

  6. Isabella Says:

    Based on the measurements for all the extant gowns I’ve seen, the average corset waist for the Victorian age (which was a very long period of time) seems to be about 24″ to 26″. If was assume that most of the ladies were taken down about 4″ – which seems the norm for corsets nowadays, then the average waist was really 28″ to 30″…or a modern size 8/10. This is only a size smaller than “average” today for American women(size 12 being the average size). Given that we know we are larger today and overweight as a general population, whereas they weren’t, then they probably would look perfectly normal and fit to us without corsets. To further support this, look at clothing in the 1920’s once the corset fully disappeared – all the sudden dress sizes become “wearable” for us. ;-)

  7. erin13mc Says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I admit, I sometimes feel like I don’t look “period” enough, but I look very similar to a few of the photos you posted. I feel so much better now!

  8. Mrs Marvel Says:

    Also remember that women were encouraged to be soft and rounded. My grandmother in the 10s and 20s was told to drink a cup of cream every day so her face would be plump. Things sure have changed!


  9. Reblogged this on faintingviolet and commented:
    For the costuming enthusiast…

  10. kayk Says:

    Also remember that the vast majority of clothing that has survived in museums, etc., is clothing for younger women — debutante dresses, wedding gowns, etc. Matrons (presumably stouter after childbearing) who could afford it gave away their old clothes or else recycled it into children’s clothing, quilts, etc. Also note the size rnage of period patterns — skirts are “average” at 24″ but go up to 30″ waists.

  11. Susan Masek Says:

    Wow, as a plus sized gal, I can’t thank you enough for posting this! :)


  12. Reblogged this on Lucy's Corsetry and commented:
    An absolutely wonderful post by The Pragmatic Costumer, proving that people came in all shapes and sizes even in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Highly recommended further reading as a supplement to my previous article on tips for full-figured corseters!

  13. AlexaFaie Says:

    Great article!
    Its also worth considering the fact that anyone of any size can tightlace – i.e. reduce a huge amount from their waist. A woman with a natural figure of 40″ bust, 30″ waist, 40″ hips could potentially reduce to 20″ and be classed as tightlacing. Whereas you could have a woman with a natural figure of 34″ bust, 24″ waist, 34″ hips who also laces to 20″ but wouldn’t be tightlacing, nor have as extreme a shape. Its all about proportion. The latter woman would have to reduce to 14″ to get the same proportions as the first lady.
    Just because the waist size of a corset could be seen as small, doesn’t mean the lady wearing it was. I bought several 18″ corsets when I was a natural 24″ waist. I never wore them fully shut then. I’ve since gained 2″ so am a natural 26″ now, but still wear those 18″ corsets. Again, not fully shut, but if asked I could quite rightly announce that I’m wearing an 18″ corset!
    Then of course there is the matter of what survives. How many ladies today try to lose weight before their wedding? It was similar then in some ways. Skip a few years ahead and how many can still fit into their wedding dress? Do you throw it away or store it away nicely to protect it from light, dust and moths? The latter is more likely to end up in a museum since its well preserved. Very little of what museums own is displayed, so they tend to show the most interesting (whether that be due to size or prettiness) to get more visits. I’m sure I’ve read somewhere about the actual sizes of corsets in a museum. None were smaller than I think 22″, yet so many visitors were convinced that they were looking at corsets of 18″ or smaller. The proportions just make the waist seem tiny no matter the size. :)

  14. Jaqu Edge Says:

    I found this article from steampunk on facebook and I have to totally agree. For a long time I wanted to make victorian outfit for myself but I am not a great sewer I take ages and though I would never get a pattern to fit me and if I tried it would look terrible. But I bit the bullet and started by making my own corset it wasn’t great but it was a start and from that I was able to make a full jacket, skirt and overskirt mid 1880 style. And last year I made a laughing moon corset I am really proud of that fits me great and I like to wear. I think some times we have to not pay attention to what the voice that says this won’t look right and just try it and see.


  15. There is one important difference I see between the old pictures and the model in the black corset. And it’s not size. They are all covered up. How can you claim to be dressing ‘Victorian’ by just putting on a corset? That would be like me dressed up in shirt and jeans, sticking on a helm and claiming I’m a knight of the round table.

  16. Ter Says:

    Thank you. It’s a well written and lovely to read article. As someone who doesn’t fit into the average sizes (and doesn’t care as long as my clothes look good on me) I think this is an excellent viewpoint that could (and should) be disseminated widely to women at large – whether they’re into Victorian fashion or not.

    Cheers!

  17. Bebelyn86 Says:

    Wow the tatted plus size women at the end looks better than even some size 2’s who wear unflattering low cut jeans and muffin tops!

  18. chicagofandom Says:

    Reblogged this on Chicago Fandom and commented:
    I’m a steampunk. It’s a waking nightmare to find plus sized options. I have crazy mad love for anyone with info to share.

  19. Jay Says:

    This is encouraging not just for plus-sized women, but slender women as well – with no curve to speak of. I got no cleavage, no discernible waist, and no hips, the opposite of the Victorian ideal. So I don’t angst about it and just worry about proportion and accentuating my positives.


  20. I’ve been reading back issues of you blog and I love this post!
    The Victorian Era was named after Queen Victoria who, in her latter years was most definitely a plus sized woman. We plus sized women need not fear that our bodies will keep us from this hobby!


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