Dress Reform and The Belle Epoque


By the 1880’s, corsets could have as many as 16 pieces of boning and 20 shaped pieces of fabric in addition to a spoon busk.  This busk was designed  to hold in the rounded belly produced by organ displacement from tight-lacing.  The heavy-duty metal busk widens like a spoon towards the bottom and curves slightly inward at the waist and back outward over the abdomen.  As a result of the extreme curve of the cuirasse corset, additional boning and cording was used to prevent the busk from breaking under tight-laced pressure.  A corset like this was built to last a lifetime. 


Such obvious displays of a lady’s curves beneath the narrow, figure hugging dresses of the 1870’s and 80’s was quite a contrast to the crinoline look of the previous decades.  So restrictive were these dresses, the skirt tied from underneath behind the knees, for a better display of the curving shape of a lady’s hip and thigh.  Fabrics like jersey allowed dresses to be clinging and promote a well-developed (or padded) bust, tapering waist and large hips.  Possibly to aid the purpose of the excess numbers of women out husband hunting!  “…the improvement in materials and finish meant that the corsetier could now produce an elegant “glove fitting” garment guaranteed to mould and shape the most difficult figure.” Norah Waugh, Corsets & Crinolines 1954


“In 1877 tight-lacing became as ferocious as it had been in the early thirties…But even over the best fitting corsets it was difficult to draw the skirt as tightly as fashion demanded, and so about the year 1878 we find a new development in costume.  The corset, for the first time since the eighteenth century, begins to be worn over the skirt, to form, in fact, part of the bodice.  It was very tight, and ran down to a sharp point in front.  The skirt then appeared, so to say, from underneath it, and was adorned with drapery, the purpose of which was to widen the apparent size of the hips in order to make the waist look smaller… In 1880 the corset became for a time almost the most striking part of feminine costume.  It was very narrow at the waist; it accentuated the hips, and it pushed up the bust almost under the chin.” James Laver, Taste and Fashion  1937


 Punch magazine and other satirists had their heyday with the fashions of the 1870’s.  They were seen as ridiculous and extreme especially in the case of false hair pieces, high heels and corsetry.  These were thought to be worn only by silly, vain women without care for their own physical well being.  A true “Girl of the Period,” sporting the “pouter pigeon look,” in her Grecian Bend corset could be a fashionable young lady of breeding or a social climbing shop assistant.  Despite the severity of the cuirasse corset style, this is the period when women openly began protesting for emancipation and sought new liberties.  When she was being admired for her struggle for equality in the law and education, the girl of the period was more respectfully known as the “New Woman.” 


The unnatural figure created by the corset was not to everyone’s liking and some found it down right ugly.  In Great Britain artists, poets, followers of the Arts and Crafts Movement, actors, dancers and fans of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood attempted to influence fashionable society through new stores like Liberty’s in London which were willing to display their ideas and designs. Oscar Wilde and his wife Constance were open supporters of the movement.  “Did the enlightened mind admire the body’s natural shape?” asked writer Cecil Saint-Laurent.


The International Health Exhibition of 1884 was held in London to bring healthy diet, hygiene and exercise to the attention of the populace.  Amongst the displays in the “sanitary” clothing section were healthy or sanitary corset designs and aesthetic dress designs of the Dress Reform Movement, the Rational Dress Society and the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union (which was made up of the union between the aesthetic and rational factions).  These costumes attempted to encouraged freedom and ease of movement using “classical lines” which were considered to be romantic and reminiscent of an idyllic medieval past, without the use of corstery,  much like the fashion rebellion of the “Hippies” in the 1960’s against conformist clothes in favour of colourful costumes not pertaining to any strict style or fashion edict.   The public did not, however, readily accept the new fashions feeling they were “old fashioned and strange.”


A happy medium was suggested by German physician Dr. Gustav Jaeger with his “Sanitary Woollen Corset” of 1884 which was made of unbleached wool with removable flexible “watch spring” steels and was not meant to be tight-laced.  Dr. Jaeger had a theory that the wearing of wool next to the skin would purge the body of impurities.  He also preached that the entire household should be furnished with only products made of wool.  Some of his words were taken very seriously and in turn became the commercial success we still know today as the Jaeger clothing label.


Science now openly played a part in the development of the many variations of healthy corsetry.  A good example is the “electric corset” which promised its wearer vigorous health and a graceful figure by virtue of the magnetic properties of the garment’s metal components.  “The New Woman”, as she could now be called, was acceptably far more active and health conscious than her ancestors and even participated in sports such as riding, roller and ice skating, hill walking and climbing, bicycling, golf and tennis. This new found feminine vigour inspired shorter skirts, bloomers or breeches, and lightweight corsetry.  Being now required in a form that allowed a woman to have greater freedom of motion, new sports corsets were designed like the ribbon corset, also known as a “Swiss belt.”  These corsets were cut low under the bust and high over the hip and designed to be light and flexible like a wide belt constructed out of petersham ribbon with very few bones at the side.


Previously corsetry had been traditionally made of thick cotton or silk fabrics in white, grey, beige or black, so it was quite an innovation when a summer/tropical or safari corset was designed. Corsetry made of a cotton, open weave mesh fabric would provide support yet allow the skin to breathe in the heat.  This “ventilated” corset also had open areas between the boning.  There were even corsets designed specifically for swimming or “bathing.”


Another area of development for the corset was the replacement of whalebone as the chief stiffener in the garment.  After hundreds of years of hunting whales close to extinction, whalebone became expensive and hard to obtain in quantity.  By 1860 alternative boning started to make real progress in the form of thin steel strips known as “flat steels” but these tended to rust and further substitutes were sought.  Featherboning made of goose quills, platinum dress bones made of a mix of silver, steel and platinum, and “cording” made from cane, stiff twin or reeds were also widely used.  Finally, by 1894, galvanisation and a cellulose coating on the flat steels seemed to do the trick.  Also developed about this time too was the “spiral steel” made of galvanised steel wire, wound into a spring and then milled flat creating a very strong flexible bone.  Further details about boning and other components can be found in the glossary.      


Mercifully, ladies needn’t lace all day.  The loose fitting afternoon tea gown of the 1890’s allowed a lady to free herself from lacing for a few hours in the afternoon before dressing for dinner.  Sometimes described as an “overly decorated gown worn by married ladies to entertain guests in,” the tea gown was originally based on the peignoir or “wrapper” worn by ladies in the mornings before they dressed to go out visiting.  The tea gown later came into its own as the epitome of fashionable elegance to the Edwardians.  The gowns, usually pastel in colour, were so lacy they resembled lingerie, the most subtle of sexual suggestion. C.W.Cunnington wrote in 1939 “The years from 1840 to 1910 were the Golden Age of Underclothing, starting as a makeshift and rising to an art.  At first utilitarian merely, then gradually assuming a moral significance, and at last becoming a picturesque weapon of charm.”


After almost 20 years of very tight fitting bodices, the early 1890’s saw the return of illusion dressing with the resurgence of the gigot and “leg of mutton” sleeve.  Combined with a floor length sweeping skirt, the illusion could be created of an hourglass shape without lacing in too tight.  However, before ladies could think of dressing in comfort, the mid-1890’s saw yet another severe style introduced by the fashion houses.  The straight-front corset or “S” bend corset, previously known as the Louis XV line introduced in 1888 by couturier Jean Worth, became the new line of fashion. 


The first fashion icon to put this style to the test was the “Gibson Girl.”  This was the name given to a woman illustrated by the political cartoonist Charles Dana Gibson, who desired to lampoon the “New Woman”, but, instead, unintentionally created a heroine (some say based on his beautiful wife Irene) for the young independently minded female populace.  She made an impression worldwide, enough to influence fashion and dictate that a woman should be tall and statuesque, full bosomed and shapely like the illustrations.  Fashions were very frilly, flirty and feminine.  The Gibson Girl was possibly the first “It Girl.”  Music hall personalities took the challenge to embody the new ideal and attract as much attention as possible. 


If you want to lead the fashion,

In an independent whirl,

Walk with a bend in your back,

And they’ll call you a Gibson Girl.”  Contemporary song lyric


The “S” Bend corset at the turn-of-the-century lasted in popularity for only a decade.  This “swan” design was not for the faint-hearted, being designed to force the wearer to stand in such a way as to present the bosom forward and bring the hips back.  This was a true fashion statement and would have been attempted only by advanced lacers like the publicity seeking musical hall actress and jealous, competitive upper class ladies.  With miles of lace and frothy undergarments they could delicately suggest rather than reveal any sexual desire. For those who could not accommodate the S-bend they could always have their photos touched up to appear smaller waisted! 


After 1900 respectable mature women wore the lacy, drooping Edwardian blouses that created the “mono-bosom” style to great effect which could be rather amusing.  “As if the female body had been cut in two at the waist, and the pieces put together again after the upper portion had been pushed several inches forward, so that the whole looked like a ship’s figurehead, curved to fit the prow of the vessel.”  James Laver, 1946  Fashion found favour with the mature figure which had been previously corset trained in a severe style.  


Also during this period, fashionable women had the added discomfort of daywear with unusually high collars that encased the entire neck yet was made to look light and delicate with lace or bows.  In reality these collars would be quite stiff with tiny bones for support made of either whalebone, celluloid or  steel wire.  A prudish spin off of the Victorian era - a woman’s body was completely hidden from view except for her face in the most stylish of daywear. Men had their fair share of collar trouble too, only theirs were made of layers of starched linen or celluloid not unlike the stocks of their Dandy ancestors.  The summers must have been unbearable!


From 1903 the use of elastic suspenders attached to the bottom of the corset was common and the line of the corset retreated to well below the bust as it migrated well below the hips too.  The idea was to not so much to create a narrow waist but narrow hips to suit the new “hobble skirts” which were so narrow at the ankle as to impede the wearer’s gait and cause them to take tiny steps like a Geisha.  It was said that some ladies took to wearing shackles made of fabric around their ankles to keep their steps small and not damage a delicate skirt hem.  No doubt much ridicule was expressed in the form of cartoons and jokes in newspapers about this tubular look.  The knee-length training corset was designed to train the gait of the wearers walk in very small steps but it did not allow for the wearer to sit down!  Only wealthy fashion victims of the couture houses fell for this one. 

hand, it was thought by some that “The possession of a slender waist is a question of race,” so that corsets with “aristocratic” names might also implicitly have promised a refined figure.”


The fashionable silhouette was a top heavy one incorporating huge picture hats and drooping blouses with narrow hips and skirts.  Because there was no longer support for the bust with the corset, ladies could purchase a delicately boned “cache-corset” which was like a long-line bra made or broderie anglaise with ribbon shoulder straps.  The brassiere has several “inventors” one inspirationist being Mary Phelps Jacob, also know as Caresse Crosby who, with the help of her maid, tied two handkerchiefs together with fine ribbon to create a practical and comfortable bra.  In 1914 she was granted the patent on the design which was later sold to Warners.


“The corset makes the figure… the contour of the season’s figure gives the effect of the natural waist which simulates both the Grecian and the Oriental- with long lines and a slightly curved but confined hip…” Fashion Journal 1912


It would not be long before the corset and the couture houses had less control of the shape of women’s bodies, heralding the end of an era, when a woman of style was forced to conform to the shape of the couture fashions by drastically modifying her physical appearance to suit.  Fashions would be designed for the natural or real figure, not the grotesque, evolving into a loose or even baggy fit which would not require the foundations of a smooth figure, at least not for a while…“Generally speaking, the female figure went to pieces, and matters grew from bad to worse.  Tired of the restrictions of war, they abandoned themselves to the corsetless craze with unsightly results.  By the middle ‘twenties, when the corset was worn, it was an unstiffened shapeless affair, with no recognition of the bust or the waist, so that the figure became tube-like in appearance.” Emily Yooll, History of the Corset 1946