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

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).

And example for a modern Black Underbust Corset, from Hellmade Corsets on Etsy Corsets and cinchers, when carefully chosen and worn, can transport you from everyday to yesterday! Feel a little nervous about trying a corset? 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 the 21st century! 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)

 

With and Without: How Wearing a Corset Affects You and Your Clothes

How Wearing a Corset Affects You and Your Clothes

An Outdated, Incorrect Diagram of a Corset's Effect

We’ve all heard the horror stories and seen the illustrations of how our corsets supposedly squish our bodies, but what about the ways in which they affect our appearance?

A corset’s most obvious effect is the reduction of the waist. The amount of reduction today’s fetish corsets achieve (up to 10″) is actually far past the historical norm even if the proportions are not. For example, “The Corset: Questions of Pressure and Displacement,” a study preformed by Robert L. Dickinson for The New York Medical Journal in 1887, sought to calculate the force of the pressure exerted on the body by the average corset and that pressure’s effect on the health of the wearer. It is an excellent article with lots of numbers for those of you who, like me, like to know a bit more about the math and science side of history!

In his study, Dr. Robert Dickinson states that, “Six inches difference between the circumference of the waist over the corset and the waist with the corset removed is the greatest difference I have measured. Five and a half and five I have met with once each. The least difference is in those cases where the measurement with and without is the same. The average contraction of the 52 cases given in the table is 2½ inches. The maximum there is 4½ inches, the minimum 1 inch.”

Note that the doctor encountered cases in which the with and without corset measurements were the same. How can that be? If  you aren’t reducing your waist measurement, why bother wearing a corset at all?

Measurements without a corset (left): 36″ x 28″ x 35″
Measurements with a corset (right): 35″ x 28″ x 35″

The photo above shows me in the same dress without and with a corset. Notice how much more smoothly my dress fits with a corset and how the bust is higher and slightly reduced, yet my waist measurement remained constant. The corset not only adds its own thickness, but rounds out the waist, a subtle, yet important factor to consider.

The oval on the left is a cross section of a 36 inch waist without a corset and the one on the right is taken in 3 inches with a corset. The shapes are to scale (remember: slight math nerd).

For many people, the human body looks skinnier from a side angle than from the front. The corset draws in the sides of the body, thinning the front view while making the waist more circular and increasing the thickness of the body. So I look smaller from the front even though my actual size hasn’t changed.

So why did/do we wear corsets? The answer lies in that fact that corsets act as more than just a measurement reducer. In fact, there are other effects a corset has on the figure that are just as important as its waist reducing properties, especially when it comes to determining historical health and beauty ideals.

Before and After, Spencer Corset Ad from 1941
Pre-20th century ladies aren’t the only ones who benefit from steel and whalebone. Until the 1970s, girdles were still essential for girls to get the nip and lift they needed.

One of the major features of a corset aside from its reduction capabilities is its rigidity and support. Further into his report, Dr. Dickinson mentions that one of the participants in his study only wears a corset to go out and works without a corset at home. He notes that because of this, her abdominal muscles have remained strong while other ladies, whose muscles have the corset to do the work for them, have weak “paunchy” abs (which I have gained even without wearing a corset. *sigh*).

The nudes of the era that feature soft, doughy forms were appreciated because most of the women, once freed from their corsets, sprang back to their natural size, but with soft bellies and low, fleshy hips. Today we consider tight, toned bodies sensual and untoned bodies casual, quite the opposite of yesteryear. However, if we looked toned everyday in society and kept our natural jiggle hidden except in the most intimate of settings, our ideas of sensuality might also reverse.

“Nana” by Edouard Manet, 1887

In a world without underwires and Spanx, the female body would quickly succumb to gravity. One of the main functions of a corset is to support the breasts. If you are like me and have boobs much too large for your frame, you know the hazards of going braless: stretch marks, painful jiggle, and general sag. It’s not fun; it’s not pretty; and the darn things can get in your way! A corset holds them up and back, like a levee lest those girlies runneth over while you’re doing laundry, cooking, or being jolted around by a runaway quarterhorse. It also provides shape to the chest which is more telling of an era’s trends than the size of the waist reduction. Thus we get Regency’s high breasts; the Romantic period’s large, wide breasts; the soft, rounded Civil War breasts, the high mono-boob of the bustle era, and the pendulous pigeon-breasts of the Edwardian era. Most misconceptions about frumpy 19th century fashions come from trying to wear the styles without the right foundation garment. A late Victorian gown just isn’t the same without its corset companion.

Besides its effect on the natural state of the body, the corset had an equally vital role in fashion development. Without it, none of the fashionable trends we’ve come to love would be possible. Again in his report, Dr. Dickinson describes what happens when a woman tries to wear the popular fashions from 1887:

“In the woman who wears no corsets the many layers of bands about the waist on which heavy skirts drag are sufficient to cause considerable constriction” – Dr. Robert Dickinson

A corset is essential…ESSENTIAL…to wearing any period gown not only to achieve the desired silhouette, but because some historical dresses are HEAVY. I have a simple 1870s wool gown with no extra buttons, beading, or trims besides a plaid capelet. There are the obligatory bones inside the bodice to further support the shape and all told, the thing weighs 6 pounds 5 ounces. That’s without the cage, petticoat, slip, and underskirt. If it had all the bells and whistles of high fashion like draping fringe, bows, and miles of ruffles, the weight increases dramatically– up to 15 or 16 pounds! Other styles, like the mounds of petticoats from the 1850s, would actually bruise your hips from the weight. A corset offers protection from the weight of a gown in addition to giving the fabric the smooth support it needs to keep from straining and sagging.

Court Dress, circa 1775
 An 18th century silhouette relies on stays to give the torso a cone shape and to flatten the front of the bust upward.

The corset is undoubtedly one of the most intriguing pieces of clothing ever devised. It is both functional and fascinating, crossing the realm between necessity and vanity. The daily fashions of the 2010s rely on exercise, good genes, and diet to achieve our ideal body shape, but the corset still lingers in spite of the changing times. Will it ever leave us?  Well, with the ability to give me a neatly defined waist where otherwise I have none, I don’t think my spiral steels will be leaving my closet anytime soon!

Happy Costuming! :)

For even more information about corsets and how they physically affect your body, I highly recommend visiting Lucy’s Corsetry. She is considered one of the leading authorities on modern corsetry and discusses everything from medical issues and myths to making your own!

Antique Measurements: That waist is how big?!

What are your numbers?

Just in case you’re curious: these are my measurements. This set of measurements is 100% natural, sans support garments. Any corsets, bras, or girdles I don will alter these measurements and since I’m not covering any particular time period at the moment, a sans-support example seems the most….fitting!

As a woman, I am infinitely concerned with my size, no matter how much pro-self-image or “love yourself as you are” talk I hear (and often spout). My sister gets quite annoyed at times because I am apt to poke her taut, shapely waist and try to guess its circumference. It’s not that I am unhappy with my measurements, I’m just always curious about what size things actually are. It’s hard to tell from a movie or picture how large or small something really is. This problem is painfully obvious when it comes to movie stars. Unlike a stage play, an onscreen movie with its many angles and shots makes judging the size of actors impossible. I visited an exhibition of famous movie costumes a few years ago and was utterly dumbfounded at how miniscule Drew Barrymore’s Ever After fairy gown was! She’s 5′ 4″, and when she made that film her waist was barely 24 inches around!

Measurements and numbers are vital to fitting costumes. One of the biggest challenges is trying to find measurements on original pieces, especially if they are in a museum and I am unable to see, touch, or wind my tape measure around them as I would like. Most museum collections– especially those I access online– rarely provide such juicy info as the waist circumference of a dress or the width of those ridiculously fab panniers. Still, it seems that the waist measurement of a gown is what everyone is most interested in, for good reason.

The “feminine” quality of a shape is largely determined by the how much the divot in the middle curves inward and where. Every body shape has had its heyday at some point in history. Fashions fluctuate and devices and “enhancers” are employed to achieve many of these shapes. The most famous shaper, the corset, has been in use for almost 500 years! But just how much the size of a fashionable waistline has changed through the years is often difficult to discern.  What exactly are “historical sizes?”

They didn’t use a number system like we do–and even if they did, it would be very different from today’s– because everything was tailor-made until the late 19th century. Patterns and tailors all used an individual’s measurements as the basis for their designs. When you look at that impossibly proportioned Edwardian gown, don’t you wonder how tiny that waistband actually is? I know I do! Happily, I discovered that the Philadelphia Museum of Art graciously measures almost all the historical gowns in their collections.

Here are a few gowns through the ages from the PMA archives, listed with their measurements:

Robe à la Française, circa 1755-1760

Waist: 23 1/2 inches
Center Back Length: 63 inches

*

Robe à l’Anglaise, circa 1785-1793

Waist: 22 inches
Center back length: 61 inches

*

Dress, circa 1785-1795

Waist: 27.5 inches
Center Back Length: 60 inches

*

Belted Dress, circa 1823

Waist: 26.5 inches
Center Back Length: 48.5 inches

*

Day Dress, circa 1855

Waist: 22 inches
Center Back Length: 54 inches

*

Day Dress, circa 1885

Waist: 24 inches

*

Dressing or Tea Gown, circa 1906

Waist: 24 inches

*

French Gown, circa 1905

Waist: 21 inches
Center Front Length: 55  inches

*

M. A. Connelly Dress, circa 1905

Waist: 20.5 inches
Skirt Center Front Length: 39 3/8 inches

*

Dinner Dress, circa 1910

Waist: 26 inches
Center Front Length: 56 inches
Center Back Length: 57.5 inches

*

Overblouse and Dress, circa 1922

Dropped Waist (hips): 36 inches
Center Front Length: 38 inches

These gowns don’t necessarily portray the “average” size for their eras, but they are great existing examples of sizing from days gone by.

Now before you start worrying about how un-Victorian your shape is, remember those corsets! Everyone wore them. EVERYONE. Even children. Ladies since the 18th century have trained their bodies from an early age to match these measurements, reshaping their rib cages and re-arranging their internal organs to achieve the perfect body. If you are a casual costumer, no one expects you to start wearing a 22 inch corset to bed every night! Another factor in size is genetics and nutrition. The human body has changed over the ages as genetic traits become more varied and some genes, like those for height, are allowed to reach their full potential.
Another great thing about knowing measurements? It reveals just how crucial pattern, fit, and style are to creating shape. Two gowns can have identical measurements, yet the decoration and color choices radically alter the silhouette! An extra inch on a bustle or a slightly lower neckline may make the difference between looking stellar and looking frumpy! For instance, I know to avoid lots of frills and ruffles on my bodices because I’m a tad top heavy (Edwardian pouter pigeon bodices are either a curse or blessing, I haven’t quite decided yet). However, costuming for the 1830s is all about those crazy ruffles and poofs and generally being enormously wide on top, so my natural fullness would just blend right in!

Oh no, dear! My sleeves are 100% natural, I assure you!