Tinier than Thou
During the Victorian Period, corsets became an indispensable part of a woman’s wardrobe. All efforts and styles– huge skirts, heavy decorated bosoms, wide belts– were made to emphasize the waist, whittling it down visually. For most ladies, a corsets were worn at relatively light reductions, but for some, the tinier the waist, the better! Scarlett O’Hara in the book Gone with the Wind famously boasts about her tiny, 17 inch waist and Caroline Ingalls from the Little House on the Prairie series recalls how her husband used to be able to put his hands all the way around her waist.
This problematic scene has influenced cinematic corsets scenes for decades.
In the real world at the time these stories take place, there were real ladies who practiced tight-lacing that had never before been achieved in recorded human history: the wasp waist. The invention of the Gibson Girl furthered this ideal, but tight-lacing gained a controversial reputation from it’s start.
Many of the famous Victorian images of wasp waists were victims of what we would call “Photoshopping,” where photographers would carefully shade away the sides of a woman’s figure with a charcoal pencil, much as modern magazines do to their cover models with computer software. Notice how in the above photo it is solid black around her waist. The photographer could alter the photo before printing more copies. Many ladies had touch ups done.
While this waist may look physically impossible, similar proportions could very well be real if the model had trained long enough! The corset came under fire from health critics, feminists, and institutions since tight lacing eventually alters the actual shape of the human body, rearranging where the body stores fat and reshaping the lower ribs. For the dedicated tightlacer/waist trainer, bodily changes do take place, though not to the level depicted in popular “anatomy” drawings from the era:
Corsets are not a relic of the 19th century. Tight corseting like this was fashionable well into the 20th century, culminating with the hour-glass figure popular in the 1950s. Many of the waspy models on the cover of men’s magazines may not be wearing corsets for their photos, but their strictly defined waists and rounded hips bear witness to their off-camera corset training. (We can’t all be Betty Bosmer!) The fashion died down greatly after that as “healthier” alternatives and changing lifestyles left the corset to history. The corset, however, did not disappear. Instead, it hid underground, becoming a fetish costuming staple, surging in popularity again with the turn of the millennium and the Neo-Victorian movement of the 2000s. Now it has come back full circle to more widespread use in historical costuming.
Today, there are still women out there who have wasp waists, even pipe-stems! They are all real! For example, this corset model, nicknamed Spook, has a ghostly 14 inch pipe-stem waist at her smallest:
In previous years, she attempted to break the world-record of the smallest corseted waist at 13 inches, but she has since stopped pipe-stem lacing and returned to much less restrictive wasp-waist garments. You can visit her newer site here where she breathes a little easier in a comparatively roomy 19 inch corset!
The next amazing model with a wasp waist is Laci (19-17 inches). If you read through her profile (warning, there are some risque pics, but no pornography, PG-13), you will find that she notes the change in her rib size from 69 cm before her foray into corseting to an astounding 53 cm after.
To achieve this sort of shaping takes a deep commitment to the fashion, involving time, effort, and support from family or friends. The corseting site from which these pictures are taken offer plenty of information for novices, including an outline of proper techniques that must be used, stressing that you cannot just strap yourself into a 18 inch waist. Achieving such a tiny silhouette requires a special passion for the fashion. For example, Laci wears her corset 23 hours a day, even while playing sports!
For more information on wasp-waists in the modern world, click here to visit C&S Constructions, custom corset-makers. Their professional site offers a wealth of information about proper lacing techniques, styles, and applications that most historical corset sites don’t provide. They also provide information about male corsets, a fashion that began in the 1600s and flourished alongside ladies’ corsets until the 20th century (often called “posture aids“), but the trend has been conveniently forgotten by many costumers today.
“For men, corsets are more customarily used to slim the figure. However, there was a period from around 1820 to 1835 when a wasp-waisted figure (a small, nipped-in look to the waist) was also desirable for men; this was sometimes achieved by wearing a corset.” -Wikipedia, 2011
Whether you are a lady or a gent, costumer or casual, tight-lacer or comfort-seeker, there is a corset for you!
You do not have to be extreme to be historically accurate since most corsets were used as a body support before the invention of the bra, not just for shaping. Most costumers aim for 2-4 inches of reduction, for example.
Wasp-waists and Pipe-stem figures are extreme, fascinating, astonishing feats of fashion, not the standard. Victorian corset models were just like the waif-like fashion models that strut today’s runways: on trend and idealized. Look at them, by all means, but don’t forget to check out “real folk” photos and sources as well to learn how the fashion epitomes were adopted by the everyday woman.