cort ad royal worcester

From the Met Museum:

The torso atop the bustle also reflected increasing technological innovation in the construction of foundation garments. With the increased reliance on steel boning and ever more complex pieced construction, the corset became capable of delivering an armored underpinning to conform the body to an hourglass silhouette. The innovations in corset construction also allowed for more pressure to be placed on the waistline than had been possible in the eighteenth century. This would place the objet de luxe which the corset had become at the center of increasing controversy over health issues attributed to the wearing of corsets, but not before the hourglass silhouette it offered had become iconic to the whole of the nineteenth century. Nineteenth-Century Silhouette and Support

image via Wikipedia
image via Wikipedia

The illustrations in advertisements don’t have the same impact as photographs, as with this photo taken about 1890 of an unnamed model.



A typical training routine begins with the use of a well-fitted corset and very gradual decreases in the waist circumference. Lacing too tight too fast can cause extreme discomfort and short-term problems such as shortness of breath and faintness, indigestion, and chafing of the skin if a liner is not worn. It should also be noted that lacing too tight or too fast can irreversibly damage a corset and they should be seasoned appropriately.

The primary effect of tightlacing is the decreased size of the waist. The smallest waist recorded is that of Ethel Granger, who tightlaced for most of her life and achieved a waist of 13 inches (33 cm): a reduction of over ten inches.  Such extreme reductions take a very long time to achieve. At first, corsets with waist measurements four inches smaller than the tightlacer’s natural waist size are recommended. The length of time it will take a tightlacer to get used to this reduction will vary on his or her physiology; a large amount of fat on the torso and strong abdominal muscles will mean that it takes longer for the tightlacer to wear their corset laced closed at the back. Thereafter, reducing another couple of inches is not much more difficult, but each inch after a six-inch reduction can take a year to achieve….

The volume of the lungs diminishes and the tightlacer tends to breathe intercostally – that is, with the upper portion of the lungs only, rather than the whole torso. Intercostal breathing is what gives the image of “heaving bosoms”. Due to the lower portion of the lungs being used less there is often a stereotype of mucosal build-up there; a slight and persistent cough is the sign of the body trying to clear this (and might also have led to the Victorian hypothesis that corsets caused tuberculosis).

The liver is pressed upwards.  As it continually renews itself, it adapts to fit its new position, and in a long-term tight lacer it can develop ridges where it rests against the ribs. It is also possible that tight lacing exacerbates the tendency of some livers to develop accessory lobes, to the point where the accessory lobe becomes as large as the main portion of the liver.


NYT February 12, 1882

STAYS AND BONNETS. Then what shall be said about the corsets? does the Ladies’ Rational Dress Association, with Lady Haberton at its head, say about the advertisements in the Queen anent corsets? “They reduce the size of the figure without causing any injurious pressure, while their graceful shape adds a new charm to the form.” Whether the audacity or the mendacity of the statement is the greater may be a matter on which opinions can differ, the magnitude of each being so great. A liver compressed till the marks of the ribs are visible after death; that is not “injurious pressure.” Neither is displacement of some of the less fixed organs “injurious pressure” I suppose? To have the viscera driven downwards until displacement follows is quite a trifle from the modiste’s point of view, perhaps; but to the physician it is a grave matter, often entailing ill health for the rest of a life-time. And as to the “graceful shape of a wasp-waisted lady” that, too, only exists from the modiste’s point of view.


Original publication: Western Appeal (Saint Paul, Minn.) Date: October 08, 1887  via

Slaves to their corsets

The Lancet [the premiere UK medical journal]: It has always seemed to us to be somewhat of a satire on the work of nature that the female form should be thought to require the support of a corset in order to make it graceful. We observe, therefore, with satisfaction that ladies — and even young ladies — are here and there to be found who have, with equal courage and good sense, dispensed with this unnecessary aiticle of dress.

Among the majority who continue to wear it there are also signs, though less pronounced, of the same healthy tendency. Tight-lacing is viewed with much less favor than formerly. Women as well as men are coming to see that artificial slenderness is not beauty, and indeed the sham and unreason apparent in a figure wantonly contracted must create in all thinking persons a feeling of repugnance which effectualy prevents the possibility of admiration. Victims of this hurtful practice and grievous error in taste are still, however, not uncommon.

Only a few days ago, an inquest on the body of an elderly female revealed the fact that death was due to the direct consequence of her having the stays too tightly laced. This is by no means the first instance in which the coveted fineness of waist has been thus dearly purchased. It is, in fact, impossible that this custom can but injure health, for what are its effects?

By tight lacing, which forces together the elastic ribs and narrows the space within the thorax, free action of the lungs is obviously rendered impossible, the liver and heart are displaced, and the great blood vessels unnaturally stretched. The unfortunate worshiper of a false ideal loses with free respiration the due effect of the most powerful force which aids the heart in driving its blood through the body — the force of thoracic suction.

Displacement of the heart, moreover, can only result in palpitation or severer cardiac troubles. Thus it comes to pass that every organ and tissue is undernourished, digestion is little more than a meaningless term, and healthy life in any part of the body is unknown.

This may seem to be forcible language, but it is nevertheless the clothing of facts which it does not merely envelope, but in many cases fits with a strictness not incomparable to the firm embrace of the most fashionably straight corset.

Dress Reform

Rational Dress

Victorian dress reform was an objective of the Victorian dress reform movement (also known as the rational dress movement’) of the middle and late Victorian era, comprising various reformers who proposed, designed, and wore clothing considered more practical and comfortable than the fashions of the time.

Dress reformists were largely middle class women involved in the first wave of feminism in the United States and in Britain, from the 1850s through the 1890s. The movement emerged in the Progressive Era along with calls for temperance, women’s education, suffrage and moral purity. Dress reform called for emancipation from the “dictates of fashion”, expressed a desire to “cover the limbs as well as the torso adequately,” and promoted rational dress. The movement had its greatest success in the reform of women’s undergarments, which could be modified without exposing the wearer to social ridicule. Dress reformers were also influential in persuading women to adopt simplified garments for athletic activities such as bicycling or swimming. The movement was much less concerned with men’s clothing, although it initiated the widespread adoption of knitted wool union suits or long johns.

Artistic Dress


Among the earliest aesthetic dress reformers were those associated with the English Pre-Raphaelite painters. As the Pre-Raphaelites and their devotees gained recognition in the 1860s and 1870s, the public had opportunity to see historic and aesthetic dress in paintings and on women who attended exhibitions at the Royal Academy and the Grosvenor Gallery in London. Many of the fabrics for artistic dress were supplied by Liberty’s, the shop on Regent Street which had been established in 1875 by Arthur Lasenby Liberty as the East India Shop. Specializing in the silks most suitable to clinging robes and draperies worn by the artistic community, Liberty’s introduced delicate pastel tints which they called ‘Art Colors’ to dye imported silks.

In 1884 Arthur Lasenby Liberty asked reformer Edward Godwin to direct the dress department in the Liberty store, making artistic dresses readily available. In its catalogs the Liberty Company offered artistic dresses which were modified to follow the conventions of modern life, but shared design elements with classical Greek clothing as reinterpreted during the Empire and Renaissance periods. The Liberty gowns were given appropriate names such as “Jacqueline”, a velvet and silk crepe gown fashioned after a French fifteenth-century gown for indoor use, or “Josephine”, an Empire-style (high-waisted) evening dress and they worked well with Liberty’s soft and very drapable fabrics. Liberty gowns were well publicized and available in their own Paris shop and other stores throughout Europe as well as New York.


Reform vs Artistic Dress

There was, however, a distinct different between rational and artistic dress reform.

Since the heyday of Artistic Dress corresponds roughly to that of Reform Dress, and both called for the abandonment of the corset, the two movements are often conflated or Artistic Dress is viewed as merely a more visually appealing style of Reform Dress.  Reading Artistic Dress as a subcategory of Reform Dress is certainly a legitimate approach to the topic.  The shared objection to fashion and the similarity of the rhetoric defaming the corset link the two movements.   Additionally, some Artistic Dress designers defined their work as a beautification of Reform Dress, which they described as “homely” and charged that the dresses “neglected entirely the consideration of beauty.”  (Barrows, Artistic Dress)

Criticisms of tight lacing

Gaches-Sarraute in her (not fashionable) reform corset from about 1892. It was in fashion from 1900 to 1913, but only after many years of hard work.
Gaches-Sarraute in her (not fashionable) reform corset from about 1892. It was in fashion from 1900 to 1913, but only after many years of hard work.

See also: Corsets

Source: Fashions in the 1850s through 1880s accented large crinolines, cumbersome bustles and padded busts with tiny waists laced into ‘steam-moulded corsetry’. ‘Tight-lacing’ formed two sides of the argument around dress reform: for dress reformists, corsets were a dangerous moral ‘evil’, promoting promiscuous views of female bodies and superficial dalliance into fashion whims. The obvious health risks, including damaged and rearranged internal organs, compromised fertility; weakness and general depletion of health were also blamed on excessive corsetry. Eventually, the reformers’ critique of the corset joined a throng of voices clamoring against tightlacing, which became gradually more common and extreme as the 19th century progressed. Preachers inveighed against tight lacing, doctors counseled patients against it and journalists wrote articles condemning the vanity and frivolity of women who would sacrifice their health for the sake of fashion. Whereas for many corseting was accepted as necessary for beauty, health, and an upright military-style posture, dress reformists viewed tightlacing as vain and, especially at the height of the era of Victorian morality, a sign of moral indecency.

American women active in the anti-slavery and temperance movements, with experience in public speaking and political agitation demanded sensible clothing that would not restrict their movement. While support for fashionable dress contested that corsets maintained an upright, ‘good figure’, as a necessary physical structure for moral and well-ordered society, these dress reformists contested that women’s fashions were not only physically detrimental, but “the results of male conspiracy to make women subservient by cultivating them in slave psychology.”  A change in fashions could change the whole position of women, allowing for greater social mobility, independence from men and marriage, the ability to work for wages, as well as physical movement and comfort.1

Despite these protests, little changed in restrictive fashion and undergarments by 1900. The Edwardian Era featured a decadence of fashion following the ideal shape of the Gibson Girl, a corseted, big-bossomed ideal of femininity and sophistication. Corset styles had altered slightly from the shorter-waisted, bustled 1880s vogue, but they still constricted the waist, forced the hips back with a pointed front waistline, thrust the bosom forward and curved the back into an exaggerated ‘S’ shape. Skirts weighed from the hips, high collars chaffed the neck, and the whole costume prevented natural movement, harmed internal organs and threatened childbearing potential. Invariably, the ideal image of feminine attractiveness that a Victorian woman saw around her (in fashion plates, advertisements, etc.) was of a wasp-waisted, firmly-corseted lady.

‘Emancipation Waists’ and undergarment reform

‘The Emancipation Waist.’ Excerpt from ‘Catalog of Dress Reform and Other Sanitary Under-Garments For Ladies and Children’ George Frost and Co., Boston Mass June 1, 1876.
‘The Emancipation Waist.’ Excerpt from ‘Catalog of Dress Reform and Other Sanitary Under-Garments For Ladies and Children’ George Frost and Co., Boston Mass June 1, 1876


Dress reformers promoted the emancipation waist, or liberty bodice, as a replacement for the corset. The emancipation bodice was a tight sleeveless vest, buttoning up the front, with rows of buttons along the bottom to which could be attached petticoats and a skirt. The entire torso would support the weight of the petticoats and skirt, not just the waist (since the undesirability of hanging the entire weight of full skirts and petticoats from a constricted waist — rather than hanging the garments from the shoulders — was another point often discussed by dress reformers).  The bodices had to be fitted by a dressmaker; patterns could be ordered through the mail. Physician Alice Bunker Stockham railed against the corset and said of the pregnancy corset, “The Best pregnancy corset is no corset at all.” The “emancipation union under flannel” was first sold in America in 1868. It combined a waist (shirt) and drawers (leggings) in the form we now know as the union suit. While first designed for women, the union suit was also adopted by men. Indeed, it is still sold and worn today, by both men and women, as winter underclothing.

In 1878, a German professor named Gustav Jaeger published a book claiming that only clothing made of animal hair, such as wool, promoted health. A British accountant named Lewis Tomalin translated the book, then opened a shop selling Dr Jaeger’s Sanitary Woollen System, including knitted wool union suits. These were soon called “Jaegers”; they were widely popular.

It is not clear how many women, in either the Americas or on the Continent, wore these so-called “reform” bodices. However, contemporary portrait photography, fashion literature, and surviving examples of the undergarments themselves, all suggest that the corset was almost universal as daily wear by women and young ladies (and numerous fashionable men) throughout much of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The bloomer suit

Most famous product of the dress reform era is the bloomers suit. In 1851, aNew England temperance activist named Elizabeth Smith Miller (Libby Miller) adopted what she considered a more rational costume: loose trousers gathered at the ankles, like the trousers worn by Middle Eastern and Central Asian women, topped by a short dress or skirt and vest. She displayed her new clothing to temperance activist and suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who found it sensible and becoming, and adopted it immediately. In this garb, she visited yet another activist, Amelia Bloomer, the editor of the temperance magazine The Lily. Bloomer not only wore the costume, she promoted it enthusiastically in her magazine. More women wore the fashion and were promptly dubbed “Bloomers”. The Bloomers put up a valiant fight for a few years, but were subjected to ridicule in the press  and harassment on the street. The more conservative of society protested that women had ‘lost the mystery and attractiveness as they discarded their flowing robes.”
Amelia Bloomer herself dropped the fashion in 1859, saying that a new invention, the crinoline, was a sufficient reform that she could return to conventional dress. The bloomer costume died — temporarily. It was to return much later (in a different form), as a women’s athletic costume in the 1890s and early 1900s.
See also: Reform Dress Movement


Show 1 footnote

  1.  “Women’s Clothes and Women’s Right,” Robert E. Riegel, American Quarterly, 15 (1963)

Men’s Fashion

Men’s clothing was just as diverse in the 1880s as it is today.  Photographs are an excellent but limited source of information, simply because whether or not a person was ever photographed had to do with economic, ethnic, and regional characteristics.

Skilled Labor

Butcher. Fulton Market 1880.
Butcher. Fulton Market 1880.


Lumbermen, ca 1900
Lumbermen, ca 1900


Middle Class

Men's Fashion, ca 1880
From The Gentleman’s Emporium (click on the image to read more about men’s fashion in the 1880s on that website): The gentleman in the front center displays the most popular style of closely tailored sack suit with a wingtip collar and four in hand tie.While the other suits are in a variety of colors and fabrics, they all show evidence of the narrow lapel, and tightly fitted clothing. Ties were still available in the bow tie style and, as seen on the gentleman with the fishing pole, tied with a small ribbon. All manner of hats are on display in this picture and highlight the variety available during this decade. This rather candid photo of men was taken in Wyoming in about 1880. These are not fashionable or well-to-do men, but by modern standards they still seem to be fairly formally dressed. They may be clerks or shopkeepers or teachers.


grocery store clerks 1880
Grocery store clerks, New York city 1880


The Well-Off

young aa male ca 1890
Portraits of African Americans from the Alvan S. Harper Collection (1884-1910)  Source: State Library and Archives of Florida Photographic Collection. Photo ca 1890.


Unnamed man ca 1880
1880. Unidentified young man, clearly well off and carefully dressed. Note the collar, tie, the width of his lapels, the length of the jacket and the vest that peeks out.Note also the lack of beard or mustache, unusual for the time period.


Middle class couple
Middle class couple


The Wealthy

John D. Rockefeller 1880
John D. Rockefeller 1880
The height of fashion for men: Charles Guillaume Frédéric Boson de Talleyrand-Périgord (1832-1910),Prince de Sagan – by Nadar 1883

From Wikipedia:

Charles Guillaume Frédéric Boson de Talleyrand-Périgord (1832-1910) was a famous French dandy, and the grandson of Dorothea von Biron. A cavalry officer, he was one of the major figures in French high society in the second half of the 19th century. Boni de Castellane wrote of him:“ A cabotin, brave, amiable, high but without airs-and-graces, he had a supreme elegance, with the air of a grand seigneur, but with a certain something of the actor Gil-Pérès. Quite diplomatic, very ignorant, without taste for things of value, he was full of a “chic” which showed itself in all his sounds, gestures, poses and even the black band of his spectacles. He excelled in the art of paying homage to women who showed themselves attentive to him, like a cat, without good-faith or law. He reigned in Paris over a crowd of personalities from the “grand monde”, just as over more dubious people. A prince as well as a prince of fashion, he held the titles of peer of France and compère of the revue.”
See Ask Andy on the history of checked trousers.