Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Underneath it all

A 15-year-old girl works on corsets in Boston in 1917. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Comfortable, stylish and straight yet with enough curve to “conform to healthful anatomical lines.” That’s the glowing ad copy that hawked the R&G “extreme straight-front corset” to its customers back in 1900. Of course, R&G, like other corset companies, offered a variety of colors and dozens of styles “to fit every figure.” And millions of women bought them every year.

Yet corsets were far from controversial. Arguably, no woman hated them more than Alice Bunker Stockham, a Chicago ob/gyn and only the fifth female U.S. doctor. Indeed, she called the corset “an instrument of torture.”

“If women had common sense, instead of fashion sense, the corset would not exist,” she wrote in her popular 1897 book Tokology. “There are not words in the English language to express my convictions upon the subject.” She was particularly irate over women’s insistence on wearing corsets well into their pregnancies.

Yet corset lovers would not to be swayed. And corset makers would not be thwarted. Women routinely read newspaper “articles,” claiming that a corset was “indispensable to health and beauty.” Women were counseled to call on corsetieres to ensure an expert fit. And “modern” corsets promised to support spines, provide natural breathing, and prevent poor poise and stooping shoulders. There were even “college girl” corsets designed to allow movement for golfing, horseback riding and biking.

Eventually, the corset haters won out. Stockham recounted one woman’s response on having shed her corset: “For the first time in my life, I am an emancipated woman.”

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