Health and beauty by Caplin/Chapter V
THE CORSET, ITS HISTORY, USE, AND ABUSE.
Of all articles of human attire there is none, perhaps, that has survived so much abuse as the corset. Introduced into common wear many centuries ago, it was met with the rebuke of the sober and the satire of the vivacious; always painful, and generally injurious, it has, nevertheless, outlived even the general condemnation of the faculty, and spite even of the doctor maintains ground. There must surely be some fascination in the article, or some latent conviction that, after all, it is a good thing, or it would have been banished out of the world long ago.
Now, we hope to reverse the dictum of Mr. Whitfield and other medical men, who contend that stays and corsets are bad things, and in the course of this chapter show that, properly constructed, corsets are, as articles of dress, the most useful and in every sense the most beneficial that can be constructed—that is, of course, when they are properly adapted to the body; for if, either through ignorance or a mistaken idea of fashion, the construction be faulty, and a compression of the chest ensue, why, then, undoubtedly it is far better to be without corsets altogether.
It is a matter of little consequence for us to inquire here why the female figure needs support more than that of the male. In a purely natural, or rather savage state, perhaps it does not; but in all times when beauty and comfort are studied, corsets will undoubtedly be worn, and there are many reasons why they should be. The delicacy of the intercostal muscles, the falling of the breasts, the spreading of the frame at a certain period of life, all call for support, and call for it too in a manner that must be attended to. And to what purpose are the resources of our art, if they are not to supply the deficiencies imposed on Nature in consequence of our artificial state of living? Perfection of every kind is ideal, or rarely met with, and what the artist in dress has to do is to soften the natural excrescences, and give grace and beauty to the homely or imperfect, that they may approximate nearer to that which they ought to be. In a few rare instances this may be done without corsets, but in ninety-nine cases out of every hundred the well-adapted corset is indispensable.
MARGARET, WIFE OF LOUIS, KING OF FRANCE, A.D. 1234.
It is hardly possible to say at what particular period stays or corsets were first worn. Tight Lacing is condemned by writers soon after the Conquest, indeed in the reign of William Rufus; but it does not follow that stays were necessarily worn at that time, and an inspection of a great number of ancient paintings and illuminations induces us to believe that they were not. In Strutt's "Antiquities," Plate XXXIV., there is a beautiful sketch of Queen Matilda, A.D. 1100, who is wearing an elegant and naturally-fitting dress close to the body; and that this fashion continued for a long time may be seen from a figure given in Shaw's "Dresses of the Middle Ages"—that of Margaret, wife of St. Louis, King of France, A.D. 1234.
A glance at those figures will show at once that it is possible to compress the waist by lacing the dress too tight, as well as with stays. And it is possible—indeed to our mind certain—that corsets, such as those in present use, were not known at this period. A pious monk, however, has recorded two important facts relative to those dresses; the one is, that a fine lady in the habit of wearing them died, and as she had lived an ordinary life, her sins and merits fairly balanced in the scales of justice, until her clothes were thrown in, and then the fatal scale sunk loaded with her follies. The other lady meets her reward earlier, for a great knight, who was famous all over Europe, having obtained papa's consent, came for the purpose of marrying her, and, finding her very tight laced and unnaturally small in the waist, fell in love with her younger sister, who dressed in a more natural manner; and the lady, like many others, died a maid, the victim of her own vanity.
The first figure that we have met with, in which the corset may be fairly detected, is that of Constance, Queen of Castile, who, in 1372, married. John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. From this it would appear that the custom of wearing them is of foreign, and not native origin; and this impression will be further confirmed by a study of the pure English dresses of the period. Almost a century after this, the Duchess of Gloucester may be seen (See Strutt, Plate XLIV.) dressed in an elegant and natural manner without corsets. When, however, they were once adopted, it was only natural, following other fashions, that they should run into extremes; and hence the waist was not only compressed and rendered unnaturally small, but rose and fell with the caprice of the times. At one time close up to the breasts, and at another down to the hips, it ascended and descended with the whim of the age; but the corset, for good or ill, always held its ground. The fardingale came in and went out, with a thousand other fashions, but the corset remains; and we doubt not but it will, when properly adapted to the body, remain as long as there are sensible ladies left in the world to wear it.
We should like, above all things, to possess a museum of old stays, beginning with the first rude effort of the savage to support the body, and passing on from the bodices of the middle ages down to those of our own time—the good, bad, and indifferent of all ages. Dr. Johnson defines stays, "bodice, a kind of stiff waistcoat, made of whalebone, worn by women;" but there were stays worn in England long before there was any whalebone to make them with, and they were consequently made, as they ever have been since, of different materials. The older corsets were generally made of canvas, duck, or jean, and were stiffened either with straw, cord, or what were then called "stay-sticks," that is, pieces of wood which were used then for the same purpose as whalebone and steel busks are now. Occasionally, however, leather, such as that worn for soles of shoes, was used, and formed a heavy casing for the body. Indeed, this was the case whatever material was adopted; the corset was a stiff, heavy, and unyielding envelope in which the body was confined, wanting alike in adaptation and elasticity.
There is something supremely ridiculous, to us, in the old sumptuary laws, which regulated the dress of every class of the community, the gravity with which the legislature fixes the width of a lappet or the dimensions of a ruff, and determines that no gallant shall walk the streets with the toes of his shoes more than half a yard long; but we are not aware that those sages ever dealt with the corset; what they, however, omitted, the medical faculty took up, and a controversy almost as edifying has been carried on between the doctors and the staymakers, each party being perfectly ignorant of the other's profession. A lady believes what she feels, and hence, practically, the staymakers triumphed, for the corset was still worn; but the facts upon which the medical man based his reasoning remained unanswered, for the other party, knowing nothing of physiology, made the stays with as little relation to the requirements of the body as before. This controversy, however, made one thing plain enough—the old corset could be tolerated no longer, and people began to look for something better. An attempt was made to meet this demand by machine woven and other kinds, called by the most strange and unintelligible names; but as they had all the disadvantages of the old corset, and were only better to look at, it was plain that they could not be the desideratum; neither was it possible that they ever should be, for the people who designed them were ignorant of the first principles upon which they should have proceeded, and not knowing what the body required, could not, as a matter of course, adapt their productions to its necessities. Hence, however elegantly shaped or finely stitched they might be, they utterly failed in the object which they should have served. In this case the body was forced into the shape of the corset, instead of the corset being fitted to the shape of the body; there was, consequently, an infringement of the laws of Nature, and we all know that no one can violate her canon with impunity.
The true object of corsets ought to be to support the bones as they increase in size and weight, without obstructing the due development of the muscles by which they are moved. The artist in corsets will therefore anticipate every requirement through life, and adapt her contrivances to the ever varying wants of the body.
Against tight lacing, we, in common with all who have paid attention to the subject, earnestly protest. By a perseverance in this habit, the health is injured and the symmetry of the figure entirely destroyed. The stays in ordinary use are ill-constructed, and cannot be effectual in the promotion of the objects for which they are professedly designed, whether tightly laced or not. Let us suppose a young lady who has been in the habit of stooping, suddenly made aware of the injury to her general health occasioned by this practice, going to one of the numerous staymakers with which London abounds, in hopes that she may be able to purchase what will restore her to the erect position. Most of our readers are aware that this will be attempted by a strong steel, whalebone, or wooden busk passed down the front of the corset; that the stays will be strengthened by an immense number of springs and bones, placed without the least regard to the anatomical construction of the body; and that, moreover, in order to give the necessary power of motion to the figure, pieces of elastic are fitted in at the back. Now, by this arrangement, the lady who subjects herself to this machine may for a few days be kept erect by the pressure of the busk. As for grace or comfort, that is totally out of the question, as the busk presses too much upon the chest and abdomen to permit ease to be for one moment a matter of consideration, and in the course of a very short time the busk becomes the whole medium of support; it bends under the weight, and by its inward curvature presses on the very portion of the body whose free action is essential to health. In this case the stays only aggravate the evil; for, if she must stoop, it is better that she should do so without the corset than with it. In the former case, there is only the weight of the body pressing upon itself, in the latter the busk acts as a lever to increase the pressure upon the oppressed organs.
Any person who has the curiosity to examine the figure of a lady who is in the habit of wearing stays that are ill constructed, will observe that at the back the bones with which they are filled stand prominently out, presenting a very unsightly appearance. The shoulder-straps, which in our corsets are totally unnecessary, fall over the arm, pinioning it to the side; the head pokes forward; the body is bent; and the upper and lower extremities of the busk protrude, being visible even underneath the dress. The elastic at the back prevents any support being afforded to that important region, and the spine is still inclined to bend as before. See Plate III.
The first thing that occurred to us in the construction of our corset was, that, to secure the full and healthy development of the bosom, the prominent parts of the body should support the weaker, and the vital organs be subjected to no more pressure than was consistent with their free and healthy action. The muscles of the back require an increase of strength, so as to draw back the shoulders, and thus enlarge the capacity of the chest. How to do this without the use of shoulder-straps became the problem to solve, and by a careful study of the origin and insertion of the muscles of the back and loins, together with the mode in which their fibres contracted, we at length found the precise point where traction could be made, so as to keep the body erect and the shoulders down, without in any way interfering with the natural action of the chest and abdomen. I will prove this to anyone who will allow me to place my hands on their back for a few seconds. However much they may stoop, I will place them immediately in the erect position, and at the same time occasion a feeling of the greatest relief.
The information thus obtained gave rise to the formation of the Hygienic Corset, which has from time to time been improved upon, until it is brought to a state of absolute perfection. The experience of years, and the reports of the scientific world, speak louder in its praise than it would become us to do, and we content ourselves with saying that they are made either plain, for ordinary use; with elastic fronts for ladies practising singing, or those of delicate constitution; or for supporting ladies who have a tendency to corpulency—improving the figure and affording ease and comfort in every period and condition of life.
In all our corsets and adaptations we employ different kinds of fastenings according to the requirements of the case. It is sometimes asked why, in those which fasten in front, we employ a counter-lacing at the back. Now, the mode in which corsets are laced is a matter of the highest importance, as may be explained in a few words. The back is supported by means of two levers which run along the corset in parallel lines to the spine, and in the usual mode of lacing the corset, the tops of these levers are brought closely together, by which means the lower extremities are widely separated. As the lacing proceeds, the neck is forced violently down, the ribs contracted, a great pressure is exerted on the abdomen, and, when the painful operation is at length completed, a distance of several inches is left between the lower points of the levers, this deficiency occurring at the very point at which support was needed.
Here, then, we may terminate this chapter, and proceed in the next to demonstrate practically the principles suggested here.