The corset: a close fitting piece of clothing worn around the stomach, which has been stiffened in some way to add fashionable shape to a woman’s body.
The term ‘corset,’ was widely used throughout the 19th century, but there are many documentations of similar garments, referred to as ‘stays,’ which were widely in use before this time.
Most legends of course are about impossibly small waists. The “oldest” and most extreme one is the one that asserts that Katerina de’ Medici, Queen of France in the late 16th century, required her ladies-in-waiting to have 13 inch waists. Someone who doesn’t use inches in everyday life will first try to convert that into centimetres and then start to wonder which inch they should use since there were so many different units of that name. Someone must have written about it in Katerina’s time – which inch did they use? Did the author (19th century, I think) that spread this legend know or even think about the fact that there were different inches about? Did they convert them to modern inches, and if yes: To which one? And did they have proper information about how long a contemporary inch was? That’s a lot of questions already. And the 19th century author may well have invented it all, because as far as I know, no contemporary source for the statement has been found. Well, let’s just say we’re talking about 13 British Imperial inches. Even the most extreme modern-day exponent of tight-lacing, Cathy Jung, only manages 15 Imperial inches in an hourglass corset. With a 16th century conical corset, this would be impossible even if one takes into consideration that women used to be smaller then.
The waist of Empress Sisi of Austria is sometimes given as 40 cm, sometimes as 47, and even as 50 cm. That variance alone should engender doubt. However, it is well known that she was a victim of her own vanity.
Some early photographs show women – mostly actresses – with extreme waists. In some cases, the rigid, artificial-looking posture shows that this was not their normal state. Retouching was used extensively in those days and brought forth masters of the art. Porn photographs of the time show women who would not be considered slender by modern standards. Contemporary patterns of the 1880s quote waist measurements of 58-64 cm, those of the 1890s (the height of tight-lacing) 54-60 cm. With an average height of 160 cm, this seems realistic.
Corsets have been known to damage and tear the flesh, bruise internal organs and even crack ribs. There are also tales of death associated with its wear, when it’s use has been taken to extremes.
As you can guess, I’m now writing about my heroine ‘Jennifer Redcliff’ being laced into her corset. Will I take it to extremes? Of course! (It’s my fantasy after all…)
Image credits: sex.com and cumonmy.com