Illusion dressing to achieve an ideal

“Yes, the ladies do choose to be shaped by their staymaker, and in these days of wondrous corsets the ladies are, as usual, right; but right or wrong they will follow their own sweet will as surely as water runs down the hill.  Well-made stays which measure round the waist 2 inches less that the nude waist will generally be found perfectly fitting and pleasant to wear.  Some figures require more hip room than the ready made corset allows; in this case the wearer must either have their corsets made for them or else wear them a little open at the back.  If the hips are not well developed it is not difficult to place a little cotton wool inside the corset and fill the space with thin soft material.” contemporary magazine advice, June 1882

“Corsetry, the obvious function of which is to improve on nature for aesthetic and erotic reasons.” Elizabeth Ewing, Dress and Undress

One only needs to take a look at fashionable costumes in historical paintings to see that there has always been a desire to create a physical shape or silhouette, which is not genetically possible.   In fact the desire to alter ones body shape to suit a cultural aesthetic dates back to biblical times.  Ancient art, especially sculpture, displayed in museums quite clearly shows examples of body modification through dress.  Many fashion historians agree that the female inhabitants of Crete as far back as 2500 BC. wore garments resembling a corset and hoop skirt or crinoline. 

The theory of “shifting erogenous zones” also plays a big part by occasionally requiring some aspect of the body to be exaggerated in some way so as to draw attention to it and thereby attract the opposite sex.  In medieval times the aristocracy wore gloves with elongated fingers to give their hands a tapered look.  Elizabethan men wore doublets with tight hose and a “cod piece” which could be highly decorated and unfeasibly large.  And in the Georgian and Victorian periods ladies wore high-heeled shoes so as to give the appearance of having a smaller foot.  Today we wear them to give height or to enhance the length and shape of the leg.  Throughout the centuries exaggeration of the natural body and illusion dressing has slowly dwindled down to shoulderpads, ‘Wonder Bras’, high heels, cosmetics and Lycra reinforced panty-hose.  But what is the purpose of these modern-day acceptable tricks of beauty?  Why illusion, of-course, making something out of nothing or making the best of what you got.

Despite the prudish reputation of the Victorians many items, which were designed to “improve on nature”, were openly advertised in ladies magazines and department store catalogues or “wish books”.  Padding in all manner of shapes was advertised for the slender lady who wished to have the latest fashionable hourglass figure, from hip pads to bust improvers in rubber, cotton wool, wire and horse hair. It is interesting to note that even today in fashion catalogues one can purchase silicone “falsies” to slip inside an underwired bra and in some specialist catalogues pre-padded panties can be bought by transvestites who wish to appear more feminine in shape.

The techniques applied today are hundreds of years old; just the materials have changed as we see from this example from a ladies journal of 1877.  “Buy a pair of Maintenon corsets, fitting your waist measure.  The other parts of the corset will be proportioned as you ought to be.  Put the corset on, and fill the vacant space with fine jewellers wool, then tack on a piece of soft silk cambric over the bust thus formed to keep the wool in place, renewing it as often as required.  This is the most natural and effectual mode of improving the figure which I have heard of.” 

In 1882 the French periodical “La Vie Parisienne” (a 19th century form of the early editions of Playboy magazine) suggested a few fanciful ideas, using the exquisite illustrations of Henri de Montaut, on how to achieve a perfect figure.  In one illustrated vignette a lady with a thin and bony figure is shown encased in artificial aides such as “rubber breasts that palpitate automatically when touched, rubber hips and derriere.”  Even long padded gloves for her bony arms are included.  Another woman is critiqued for her “plumpness…is a little overflowing…specifically, her low and remarkably voluminous bosom which tends to approach the stomach which is itself beginning to be lost in the bulging hips...” However, in a corset she is “Splendid!”  It can be read into this that the moral of the story is, the normal figure of the average woman can be sculpted into the Western idea of beauty with the use of foundation garments accentuating and creating the features which characterise femininity. Christian Dior once said, “Without foundations, there can be no fashion.”

So a woman in a corset may be a lie, but 1990’s women still seem to want to live that lie and desire more of what God gave them in the form of silicone implants or perhaps less with lipo-suction.   At least with the use of a corset the woman is in control of the shape of her figure and it can also be removed at the end of the day.  There is no substitute for the feeling one gets from wearing a corset, the confidence, deportment and, of course, the look.  The corset when sensibly laced can also be a useful aide for slimming and for abdominal support or to alleviate back pain.

Illusion dressing for men peaked in the early 19th century.  The fashionable male, known as the Regency Dandy, wished to ‘cut a dashing figure’ and his corseted figure was a sign of status or social rank.  Worn for health, support, protection and to curb obesity, it accentuated the waist especially when worn with tight “stovepipe trousers” and gave the illusion of a broad chest in a coat designed and cut to pull the shoulders back in a proud manner.

“Each lordly man his taper waist displays,

Combs his sweet locks and laces his stays,

Ties his starched cravat with nicest care,

And then steps forth to petrify the fair.”  The English Spy 1826 

Most items of apparel that were designed to create an illusion were worn beneath the outer clothes usually as a foundation garment or simply underwear.  But nothing can compare to the extravagance of the 18th century in the European royal courts where jewellery could be worn to give the impression of a small waist.  Known as ‘stomachers’ or ‘placards’, inverted triangular shapes of jewels were tied onto the front of a court dress bodice with ribbons not only to display vast wealth but also to draw attention to the waist at the bottom point of the triangle.   I have no doubt that jewelled shoe buckles were also used to draw attention to a dainty ankle too.

Illusion is not everything though.  The fact that one appears well dressed is important enough, but to be able to appear well dressed one requires a good foundation on which to build.

“For the usual height today between 5’6” and 6’ in shoes, corsets between 20” and 25” will do quite nicely.  It is the roundness of the waist and the curve of the hip, the way the figure is held in below it and carried above it, that tells.”  Lady’s Realm 1906

In 1962 painter and fashion designer Nicholas de Mandeville  wrote and illustrated “The Gift of the Noble Corset” describing his disappointment at the lack of women wearing corsets and the fashion industry’s lack of interest in them.  “Something must be done about women’s shape today, something that will restore their lost womanhood...  A woman yearns to be complete…  A graceful figure is essential.  Gracefulness is unattainable in elastic foundations.  Elastic cannot hold the line on excesses and irregularities of the figure.  Only real corsets of firm materials, beautiful traditional corsets, can create graceful contours…

She enjoyed her right to womanly beauty, unspoilt by masculine lines, by pencil figures, or by thick-growing, gross waists… The real corset is universal and timeless; it always returns to fashion... Even in the ‘elastic era’ artists have given fashion sketches tiny waists of corsetted proportions… The boned and laced corset can correct a bent spine, rounded shoulders, a sagging bust, bumpish tyres of fat, thin shapeless hips, obesity and an uncouth silhouette… Many times, women of today admire the fashions of yesterday and wonder why the fashion world does not introduce some new creations of similar elegance for them.  There is good reason.  Elegant fashions require elegant figures, and these do not exist!  The noble corset idealises women, raises them to a rightfully earned position of respect…  Half of life is what we see, and half of a woman is how she is seen.”

Just ask yourself, does you dress look like $10.00 or a million?  All it takes is a little bit of extra attention to your body’s shape and attitude when dressing to achieve the illusion of a million.  It begins with a good foundation on which to build.  Pay particular attention to the overall silhouette you make.  Is it balanced?  This is an important question as all too often we appear to be either pear shaped in some way or possibly we have no shape at all.  Femininity is not just about being thin or having long legs, curves are vital.  Think of how you can create an hourglass shape; with a hat or “big hair,” a shorter or narrower skirt, shoes not boots, shoulderpads and a padded bra, big jewellery, scarves or a belt.  Just as blending is the secret to good make-up, so is balance to good dressing.  Starting with a well-controlled figure and working outwards right down to your accessories.  Good grooming is the start of confident deportment, feeling good about yourself and a positive image.  Sensible corseting is the best place to start.

“The corset reigns supreme, it waves a banner of femininity.” Gianni Versace

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