Let´s start with the facts: Corsets were a part of everyday Victorian life and they were considered underwear. Thus, they were worn under the dress and no one got to see them. In a time when bras did not yet exist, women needed something to support the upper body. Tada, the corset came along. Soon, tightlacing became a fashion fad: Ladies laced their corsets extra tight to make their waist look small in comparison to curvy hips and a big bosom.
Here´s another secret: Victorians liked curvy women. A misconception is that back in the Victorian era everyone loved “fat” women. This is true to the extent that the ideal Victorian woman was “voluptuous”: She had a round face and round arms, big thighs and a big bosom, but also small feet and a tiny waist - achived by wearing a corset.
In a lot of modern novels and movies Victorian women are portrayed as slender and tall - but this is only today´s beauty standard and it is a false portrayal. Victorian women may seem thin in old photographs but if you look closer you´ll notice that only their waists are thin. Therefore, the only authentic portrayal of a Victorian or Edwardian lady in a movie I have seen is Rose in Titanic.
Back to the corsets. A Victorian woman would not just put on a corset, lace it to eighteen inches and be done with it. It´s not that easy. She would start by reducing her waist only a little bit and lace her corset tighter and tighter over the course of weeks and months. When the corset can´t be laced any tighter, she will have a new one made. Reducing the waist to the legendary eighteen inches of actress and Gibson Girl Camille Clifford (the girl in the white dress) would take a lot of time and it would probably hurt.
Victorian girls started young: Some wore corsets when they were mere children, most started when they were about 14 to 16. Victorian diaries reveal that most girls loved their fashionable corsets but hated the pain they caused them. A lot of them even had night corsets that would not be laced as tight as day corsets. But even so, they wore corsets all the time, even at night. But once the waist was the desired size corsets would not hurt them anymore or even be uncomfortable to wear.
But, and that´s another misconception, not all Victorian women tight-laced. Tight-lacers were soon regarded as fashion victims and considered silly. Though corsets were worn extra tight by the 1890s, not all women laced themselves to 18 inches like Miss Clifford did.
And last but not least the biggest lie of all: There´s a rumour going around that some Victorian ladies had ribs removed to be able to lace their corsets even tighter. Should you come across this story, do not believe it. Back in the 1800s and early 1900s surgery was still very dangerous and the chance of dying was very high. No lady or surgeon would have risked death for a smaller waist. After all what is now considered a minor surgery (appendix removal) killed London´s stage Beauty Gaynor Rowlands (the girl in the black dress) when she was just 23.
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