The Edwardian Silhouette Emerges

The Edwardian Silhouette Emerges

Twenty-first century corsetmakers have heard me bang on about this a thousand times, but I will say it again: I’m convinced that there is no such thing as a “modern body”.

This persistent phrase is a symbol of the popular belief that the majority of us who live in 2015 simply cannot achieve the figure of the Victorian or Edwardian woman, who supposedly underwent unimaginable torture – or years of waist training – to achieve THAT controversial figure.

Granted, not everyone who puts on a corset today is looking for a waist that’s tiny enough to inspire double-takes in the grocery store, but I do believe that, in general, the person who wants to wear a corset for whatever reason would like some degree of flattering boost in his/her waist-to-hip ratio, and is often settling for less impact than s/he’d ideally like to achieve… because, of course, we can’t expect much from our “modern bodies”.

 

Edwardian corsetry

 

Even after you get past the really honking corset myths that still seem to persist (rib removal, fainting couches, and so on), there is still a large contingent who believe that fleeting analysis of Edwardian imagery points to insurmountable differences between our ancestors’ figures and our own. We have not been wearing corsets our whole lives, true; we are not used to restrictive clothing in general, also true. But from the wealth of casual references to the limitations of “modern bodies”, anyone would think that the female human form has gone through some sort of extraordinary evolutionary leap during the last century, giving most of us hopelessly solid, near-rectangular torsos.

Especially my bony, athletic, US size ten swimmer’s torso.

I am on a mission to find out whether these limitations are, in fact, the whole truth… and when you look closely, it seems that our ancestors, so long pitied for their obvious slavery to painful fashion, were a great deal cleverer than we have taken them for.

Here I am in the corset I made in 2009 to go under the Oak Leaf dress. It’s a corset made in the accepted modern way, by fitting to my existing measurements and taking as much out at the waist as I could stand.

 

Oak Leaf dress corset, (c) Cathy Hay, 2009

 

Not much shape going on there. But here I am in the 2015 edition.

 

Corset toile and image (C) Sparklewren Bespoke Corsetry, 2015

 

This quick-and-dirty, behind the scenes photo shows a first mock-up of an antique Edwardian corset pattern, constructed for me by Sparklewren Bespoke Corsetry. Jenni has used every Edwardian trick we know so far:

  • Reducing the waist but leaving room in the bust and hips;
  • Starting with a comfortably achievable desired waist measurement, and forming an Edwardian shape around it, not adjusting a pattern to “fit” all of my existing proportions;
  • Using synthetic whalebone, not steel, and just one layer of fabric;
  • Padding the hips (we’ve actually shoved Edwardian bust forms in there, after discovering that they weren’t needed at the bust!)
  • Letting the bust sit in its natural position, not in the youthful, perky, pushed-up modern style, with a view to padding it later with a bust bodice.

 

Corset toile and image (C) Sparklewren Bespoke Corsetry, 2015

 

The results, even at this early trial stage, speak for themselves. My waist has been reduced by 5″, my hips have increased by 6″. My waist to hip ratio has increased from 12″ to 19″. Increasing the bust will also help with the overall effect when we add a bust bodice, but you can see the Edwardian silhouette beginning to emerge clearly.

Please be clear: these are not photos of someone who wears corsets regularly. Although I run the biggest educational corsetmaking website on the Web, I just run the business, let others be the experts, and attend the occasional costumed ball. As for the tyranny of fashion vs. the attraction of comfort, there is a reason I like menswear.

And yet, the drop-dead curves are now happening.

This is how our ancestors did it. They had the same bodies as we do; they just had a different approach to the hourglass figure. In 2009 I tore my hair out trying to force a corset pattern to fit the body I already have, taking out as many inches at the waist as I thought I could endure for an evening. The Victorians and Edwardians started with an achievable waist measurement (generally 1″-2″ less than their natural waist), bought or made a corset of that waist size in the proportions they were looking for, and fudged the rest.

In other words, if the Edwardians had made corsets as we do now, they wouldn’t have looked a great deal different from us. The extraordinary silhouette is a cleverly constructed illusion.

 

Corset toile and image (C) Sparklewren Bespoke Corsetry, 2015

 

Finally, of course, notice that the view from the side is not that impressive; it’s the front and back where you see the difference, and the reason for that is explained very well in this blog post. It’s all artifice and illusion. As is, of course, the posture. Edwardian corsets did not “throw” or “force” the figure into any particular posture; the forward-leaning stance was deliberately adopted. The model in the photo at the top of the page is leaning way the heck forward for the photo, just like that weird cross-legged thing that celebrities do on the red carpet because they believe it makes them look thinner, whilst actually appearing to advertise to the world that there are no bathrooms on the premises. Yes, the famous Edwardian S-bend was for the pictures. It’s illusion. Artifice.

Women are clever, clever beings, and they always have been. See? Our great-great-grandmothers are still fooling us now. But if we just adopt the same tricks that they did…

34 Comments

  1. Brilliant. Looks fabulous and I agree with every word you said. Its what I’ve always thought.

    Also, the boning. Having looked at original corsets and finding steel bones are minimal (mostly lacing and centre front busk), and that the actual “bones” (whalebone, cording including paper etc) used are far more flexible was a revelation. Even making me almost want to *make* a corset again (I had a nasty experience with one a few years ago that resulted in the outer lacing bone, twisting on its edge and curving into a C shape in the small of my back..). I want to play with the fabrics that were used as well as the boning and also a pattern.

    Love your line “… just like that weird cross-legged thing that celebrities do on the red carpet because they believe it makes them look thinner, whilst actually appearing to advertise to the world that there are no bathrooms on the premises. ”

    Every time I see a celebrity do that, I always think “poor them – holding it in for all that time!” ;-P

    Looking forward to seeing your next iteration of this corset.

    Reply
  2. I love it this is just how I need one made in the hips

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  3. I really enjoyed this inside look at your corset construction, but . . .

    I think you are overlooking a few things: one, nutrition, and two, activity. Edwardian women of the class you are trying to imitate here weren’t very athletic, and their nutrition was very different from ours. They were encouraged to eat tea and crackers and little else. The average upper-class Edwardian woman had a smaller skeleton with lower bone density, less muscle mass, and more body fat compared to you. She also had a much later menarche, due in part to differences in nutrition (see Brumberg’s “The Body Project”, which references diaries of young Edwardian women, including surveys of their diets.)

    She was also white. There are documented anatomical differences between, for example, people of African descent and people of Northern European descent. These differences include the shape of the pelvis and the shape of the rib cage.

    The “Edwardian body”, that designers encountered was a white woman with a low-protein diet and a low level of physical activity. The “modern body” that western designers encounter today is larger in both skeletal and soft tissue, and includes women of all ethnic origins.

    The Edwardian-era photo you provide isn’t an accurate depiction of an Edwardian woman, btw, because it was retouched. Her proportions were adjusted- hence the black background.

    So yes, of course there is a “modern body”, because our modern lives are different from Edwardian lives.

    Although I’ve never seen one myself, many historians who have had the opportunity to observe corsets preserved from the Edwardian era do say that the shape of the busk did actually push the upper torso forward.

    I think this is a great post about how *you* are achieving this shape today, but it’s misleading to say that this is how *they* achieved that shape then, or that the average woman’s body isn’t different today.

    Reply
    • Thank you for your comment, Ms Pris. I take your point, lifestyles were indeed different, and bone density and physical activity were perhaps different, but that does not sentence us to impossibility in creating these silhouettes. It also does not mean that a range of shapes and sizes were not in evidence, then as now. To imagine that Edwardian women had one body shape and we have another is overly simplistic.

      Let me be more specific: the particular woman I am emulating measured 38″ in the bust and 22″-24″ in the waist when dressed. The hip level is more difficult to discern, since her voluminous skirts do not provide clues on that, hence our use of the pattern of an actual corset of the era. Her waist to floor measurement suggests a height of roughly 5’9″ (although she was reputed to have been six feet tall – such are the smoke and mirrors of celebrity!)

      By comparison, I am 2″ shorter or so, the same size bust in my padded bra, and larger in the waist by 1″ in a corset – a difference that’s easily attributable to practice on her part, since wearing corsets every day did make some difference, as I touched upon above. In other words, despite differences in menarche, bone density and the rest of it, Lady Curzon and I are surprisingly similar in terms of body measurements, despite my swimming and her crackers.

      Yes, the Edwardian image I used was a hastily chosen illustration. For accurate depictions of Edwardian women in non-posed, candid street photographs of the era, and a frank discussion of whether the corsets were forcing anything at all, I repeat my recommendation of this article: The S-Bend in Context. I believe that Marion is the first to connect the myth of the Edwardian posture with candid photos of the time, which show Edwardian women standing just like we do; it’s quite illuminating.

      It’s certainly a better measure than looking at the corsets themselves. Neither the Symington Collection, nor the Bath Fashion Museum, nor the Museum of London have ever allowed me to try any of their artifacts on, so I’m not sure how looking at them on a table would allow conclusions about posture to be drawn. The busks are certainly no different from busks before or since.

      Overall, the point of the article is to demonstrate that the fantasy of these bizarrely shaped, forward-leaning, poor, tortured Edwardians is to some extent a fallacy, and that they were padding and altering much more than many who would wear corsets now have realised. The specifics of differences in diet and lifestyle between our eras do not change the fact that being born in our era does not make the Edwardian look impossible.

      Reply
  4. wow! That’s amazing!! I reLly must try that .. And make a corset! Thank you

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  5. I. Love. This. Simply fantastic detective work applied practically to remove the curtain covering the wizardry our ancestors used. Brilliant!

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  6. Exactly. It’s all padding (or smoke & mirrors). 🙂
    This looks awesome Cathy!

    Reply
  7. Wonderful post! You hit on some of my pet peeves.

    The myths about the S-bend have been bolstered up by a study done by Colleen Gau with reenactors more than a decade ago – I read (okay, I skimmed) her dissertation on the subject, and it’s impossible to tell how she patterned and constructed her Edwardian-style corsets, or whether they were accurate or well-fitted. But her results were that they were terrible for the body, so it’s been taken as a given ever since. Very frustrating.

    Reply
    • Greetings! I was one of Colleen Gau’s corset wearers for the short-term stress tests, so I can add a little insight to her process.
      First, she was looking at tightlaced corsets, not normal everyday wearing of corsets.
      Second, she made about 20 corsets in less than a semester, for a wide variety of figures. I can say that my 1860s corset was very loose in both bust and hip. The 1900 corset did change my perception of where/how I breathed, and did seem to rearrange my posture.
      I ran on a treadmill in both corsets after wearing them for a short amount of time. It’s not the best way to be introduced to corset wearing–not tightlaced, not immediately putting your body under stress.
      As a person who wears corsets on a regular basis for living history work, I stress what I feel was “normal” 19th C. corset use: not tightlaced, and properly fitted. I have to admit I’ve never found a reason to wear a straight-front corset since the tests.

      Reply
  8. Hi,

    I enjoyed your article but I have to completely disagree. Women then were definitely smaller than we are today. As someone who works in a museum with clothing from this time period, I can tell you that women’s clothing is SO much smaller than ours today (men too!). It’s not just an occasional piece either. The shoulders and busts of women were much smaller. Women were also generally shorter. All of this would proportion them to have a smaller waist.

    Reply
    • Kali, thank you for your comment. Let me answer it with a question: What factors affect which clothing survives, and which clothing is lost to time? Why did the dresses in your museum survive, when all the thousands of other clothes made at the time were cut up, re-made, handed down and re-used until they were no longer serviceable?

      I would suggest that photographs provide a much more realistic picture of a cross-section of society.

      Reply
      • Unfortunately the idea that “women were so much smaller then because the surviving garments are TINY” is a gross generalization itself. Many extant garments from many different periods exist in museum collections all around the world in obviously larger sizes. Usually because they were owned by well-to-do people who could afford to buy new fashions without remaking their old ones.

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    • I understand your point, but being shorter on average makes no difference whatsoever to the proportions of any given body within itself: the bust-waist-hip ratio can be the same for someone who is 1,70 metres tall and someone who is 1,55 metres tall. Therefore any differences in height would have absolutely 0 to do with the achievability of a given silhouette, as long as we are talking about posture, bust-waist-hip ratios etc. that can be altered (and not something like arm length, which, obviously, one cannot influence much).

      What you have said sounds very much like saying someone is “too short to have an hourglass shape” or something similar.

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    • I completely agree, have a look at the hip to waist measurements even going back only 60 years, in the “girdle era” from the 40s to 60s women (and men) were still smaller than adverage now.
      Why,,,more richer fattier food? The pill? More sitting down time in front of the TV? Modern devises taking away the “hard work” out of house work?
      As a Westerner growing up in Australia, when I visited Vietnam I felt HUGE, I am only 5.8″ and 160 lbs male but I was by far larger than any of the locals.
      Our western lifestyle is making us bigger each generation

      Reply
  9. Amazing! I love how it looks on you, this is a huge step towards the end result. Very exciting!

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  10. this is perfect! When I first tried a corset i bemoaned my lack of “squish” being slim already and after a short time made myself bust & hip pads as you have.
    As for the comment regarding people being smaller because clothes in museums are smaller. Really? I’d say it’s more to do with re-use and remaking garments. Those clothes we have left are the Sunday best, those from late teens, wedding dresses and those worn before pregnancies and expanding waistlines. I’m a museum conservator btw.

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  11. Brilliant article, as always, and exactly what I have been trying to say to people for years, in a much less eloquent way than yours, so beautifully written, and the best use of ‘despite my swimming and her crackers.’ ever! xx

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  12. Loved the detail on the corset. For those who talk about the lower levels of activity in Edwardian times – I suggest that it could well be the other way around. Walking and horse riding were much more common, as a means of getting from A to B. Nowadays,we tend to drive instead of walk,even for short journeys. 🙂

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  13. Just to expand on your comment about Edwardian women getting a corset that gives them a comfortable waist reduction and padding out the rest, think about all the ready-to-wear and mail order corsets that they were purchasing. If one looks at ads, one can see that these corsets would be sold based on one (generally the waist) measurement for size. While there were different models for stout and slight women, people were still adjusting themselves (likely through padding and other layers) in order to fill out the parts of the corset that didn’t fit instead of altering the corset to fit the body.

    Reply
    • Yes, exactly. Leicester County Council recently released digital images from the Symington Company’s mass-produced corset pattern books, and these have been seized upon by modern makers… only to start fiddling and adjusting them to “fit”, which I think rather misses the point!

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    • Having said that, there *are* extant corsets with big clumsy alterations, however, but not fine alteration to fit a specific figure in a different way.

      Reply
  14. Hello!! I was wondering if you could give us more info on what was used to pad the hips? Is it something like a fabric bustle pad but flatter, tied round the waist, or is there a specific shape to it?

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    • I refer you to researcher extraordinaire, my friend and colleague Marion’s padding Pinterest board!

      Reply
  15. Absolutely brilliant! I am giving a corset talk at a Victorian Festival next month. I would like to use your article as a reference and the pictures as well, with your permission, of course.

    Thank you do much, in advance, for your consideration.

    Miss Cherries Jubilee

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    • Hi Miss J, which festival? I wonder whether I’m close by?

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  16. Amazing! That must be uncomfortable.

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    • No, it is not uncomfortable at all. As I say in the article, the effect is created by illusion, not by compression. The painful Victorian corset is an urban myth.

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  17. I am not sure that I agree with “the painful Vic corset is an urban myth”.

    There are first hand accounts of Victorian women being in discomfort in their stays. However, I believe those who suffered did so for special occasions rather than everyday. I agree that a well fitting corset can be very comfortable, supportive and “protective”. We have to remember that it was a complete no no for Vic women to appear without a corset. This was on health, moral, beauty…and all sorts of other reasons.

    For comparison with today try these 2 ideas.

    ….How many women want to go braless in public or in the office? No, it’s just not “polite”…and sends the wrong message to men. Ditto corsets in the 19 century.

    ….How many women come home from work (example my daughters / D I Ls) and immediately take of their high heel shoes and push up bras?

    D

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  18. I’ve read your comments (and the responses) with great interest, being a costume historian and researcher and maker of replica Edwardian corsets for nearly two decades. I have to agree with much of what was said by “Ms. Pris” above.

    I work from extant patterns and documentation, including a great deal of first-hand writing done by women, for women, in the 1900-1915 era. Without a doubt, artifice was employed where nature failed (i.e. in bust padding, additional ruffles on corset-covers, etc.), and the undergarments, smoothed through the front and gathered and fastened at back, heightened the visual effect of the proportion between the derrière and the waist, which helped the illusion along.

    However bodies of women in general were less developed, both in bone structure and musculature, than is the case today. This, as others have pointed out, is partly due to a more nutritious diet (especially since the post-WWII era), and partly due to the fact that girls were put into corsets almost from infancy, both to mold the body and to accustom girls to having their torsos constricted.

    This is borne out in my work with historical sewing patterns from the 1910’s. The “average size” French pattern of this era assumed a woman with a natural bust measurement of about 35″ to 36″, waist of 24″ to 25″ and hip of 37″ to 38″. In the finished garment itself, the measurements are closer to bust: 37″, waist: 26″ to 27″ and hip 38″ to 40″, clearly allowing a bit of accommodation for illusory padding. However, keep in mind that the finished (outer) garment sizes also had to allow for 4 to 5 layers of lingerie — including the corset — underneath.

    This meant that the corset had not only to compensate for its own addition to waist thickness, but had to compress the waist down by 2 or 3 additional inches in order to compensate for the multiple layers of garment thicknesses.

    It would not have been unusual for a young woman to achieve a corseted waist of 21-22″ before donning the rest of her lingerie and outer clothing. This was completely achievable for an average young woman with less developed musculature and smaller bones than is the average today.

    Many middle-aged women too, having been “compressed” for decades on a daily basis, tightened up their corsets even further for special occasions in an attempt to revisit that ideal figure.

    It’s no accident that tea-gowns and “corsets de repose” (undress, or very light corsets) became widely popular during the early 20th century, giving women some respite from the tyranny of the corset for a few hours. The poster above was quite right in saying that fashion was a dictator at the time, and that being seen in public without a corset (or a loosely cinched one) was a mark of bad taste or worse.

    It’s also not an accident that there are endless articles in periodical publications of the 1910’s warning women about the dangers to health of corset-wearing and/or recommending particular corset designs to alleviate discomfort, pain, and even physical damage. Corset advertisements of the time are rife with touting the health benefits of their proprietary designs.

    As far as posture in a corset is concerned, the straight-front corset of the ca. 1902-1915 time period did indeed thrust the body into a somewhat artificial stance, although for the average woman this was not as extreme as in some professional fashion photographs of the time would lead one to believe. Still, remember these were bodies accustomed to fashionable molding. I also think you may be misconstruing the difference between the information conveyed by photographs showing (or advertising) corsets, and ordinary photographs of women of the time.

    Photographs of women in their corsets during the era were intended for only one of two purposes: either “naughty” images to titillate, or images designed to sell corsetry. In the latter case, the model’s stance was often exaggerated for maximum effect, and/or the waist area retouched to make it appear even smaller. I think perhaps younger people today tend to forget that images of women in their underclothing were a rather scandalous and far more rare thing than is the case now!

    This is why relying on photographs, as opposed to first hand accounts and articles by women themselves of the time can be deceiving.

    Overall, you have the right general idea with your new corset, but exaggerated hip width and hip padding was not a feature of Edwardian corsetry. A corset of ca. 1905-10 was intended to create a straight line at front, but fall smoothly and evenly over the hips, while gently forcing a slightly forward stance.

    This naturally had the effect of pushing the hips and derrière outward, and the layers of chemise, drawers and petticoat underneath did the rest to add volume to the hips and accent the whole silhouette. You only need to look at spontaneous photographs of women taken from the back during this period to see the effect. This is one reason I always tell my corset clients to wear proper period lingerie with their ensemble. I also want to mention that your second corset still appears rather low and short below the bust for a proper Edwardian corset — it should be supporting and lifting the bust upward from below, rather than sitting in the natural dip below the bust as it seems to be. I may be wrong about this, as cameras sometimes tend to distort perspective. However, if you carefully observe Lady Curzon’s gown, you will see that the bust is firmly placed and lifted into the fashionable “uni-bust” shape of the time. There is no allowance for loose flesh.

    However, I do completely agree with you that many, many modern corset-makers have completely missed the mark in creating corsets that are supposed to be historically faithful.

    I hope my comments may be of some help to you. I am of the generation that had a direct connection with Edwardians, and as a young girl heard many women of my acquaintance still complaining first-hand about their tight and uncomfortable corsets decades later in the 1960’s. These were not garments they were loathe to discard in the 1920’s, but fashion used to be a ruthless dictator, and you either followed fashion or became an outcast.

    Reply
    • Thank you very much for your insightful comment, Helena. I have no doubt that you are correct; clearly I do need to modify my thoughts.

      Perhaps I have been too sweeping in my statements. My frustration is primarily directed at present day corsetmakers who, as you say, miss the mark, and assume that next-to-nothing is possible with regard to approximating the Edwardian silhouette. I think there’s more to discover and understand about how corsetry worked in this era, and that we can come much closer to the look they achieved than has previously been assumed. In my pursuit of that end, I am very open to discussion and discovery. Where can I learn more about your work?

      Reply
  19. Cathy, send a “ping” to my email address if you’d like and we can talk, as I’m bound to clog up your blog otherwise! I’m always delighted to find others who are as enthusiastically in love with historic costume as I have been.

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  20. I’m so glad a friend pointed me at your blog. I’ve learned a lot today from reading your entry and the ensuing comments. As someone who has a natural 15″ difference between my waist and hip measurements I’ve had nothing but trouble with modern “off the rack” and so-called”custom” corsets for years . I am having a corset made from scaling up an extant 1910 pattern and it is making a huge difference in the comfort of the mock-up already.

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  21. Thank you so much! The padding at the hips makes so much sense. Have been struggling to get the look by adjusting costumes on top. Should have realized the foundations set the tone. Feel a bit dorkish for not figuring this out sooner.

    Reply

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