Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Mercredi: The Art of Beauty

Though decried as an outrage to the female form since before the turn of the 20th century, I'm not the only one around who is fascinated by and just a bit nostalgic for the good old fashioned corset.  Corsets, far from being some sort of insane torture device applied slavishly on a daily basis, were a fundamental garment in the wardrobe of almost every woman in the western world by the 18th century.  As fashion historian Valerie Steele puts it in her book The Corset: A Cultural History:

Most people today tend to think of the corset as a waist-cincher.  Certainly, women could and did use corsets to "improve" a relatively undefined hip-waist ratio or to suppress a heavy abdomen.  However, the corset also functioned as a brassiere, indeed as a kind of Wonderbra, lifting the breasts, "augmenting their volume" and allowing them to "blossom in all their splendor and amplitude."

The points in quotations are from advertisements for corsets, mostly from the second half of the 19th century.  During this period the appearance of so called trade cards, like the one shown above, began a long and sometimes lugubrious tradition of playing up what the consumer wanted and making it look like something he, or in this case she, really needed.

Before the Industrial Revolution, corsets were made by hand.  In fact, the vast majority of women made their own corsets right along with all their family's other clothing.  With new technology - and new wealth - came the ability for manufactures to mass produce this basic item.  And with mass production came mass marketing.

The cards often focus on the health benefits of the corset being sold.  The card above shows that Ball Corsets are available not just to the ideal sized woman, but to everyone and their excellent fit is not sacrificed by this diversity.  Here is the young miss who can "breathe to live" in her first corset.  Meanwhile the nursing mother can enjoy the same comfort, accommodating her baby without having to abandon the benefits of a well fitted corset.

The idea of marriage and family appeared early and often in the corset trade cards, either overtly or in much more underhanded ways.  Marketing has always been marketing after all and, despite what Mad Men would have us believe, they didn't suddenly come up with "the hook" in the 1960s.

Cooley's Corsets featured a folding card that showed a distressed, frumpy woman on the front wearing a shapeless, gray-toned corset.  Looking into her mirror she bemoans "How uncomfortable I feel!  And how horrid I look!" (Yes, our ancestors were not above abusing exclamation points, either.)  When the card is folded out, our ugly duckling has become a swan.  Dressed in a gleaming white Cooley's Cork Corset, she can now say "I hardly know myself! How comfortable!"

An even less subtle card offers a cartoon and calls it "A true story of the Madam Warren Corset, illustrated in 4 Chapters."  In the center, of course, is our ideal lady, snug and curvy in her 1881 Madam Warren.  To her left is the "before" picture.  The young woman is shaped like a man with the exception of her dress' prominent bustle.  "Oh! How horrible I look in this old corset," she groans.  The next picture shows the same girl in her new Madam Warren: "What an improvement the Madam Warren corset and how comfortable."  The third square shows the lady out in public with a crowd of six men tipping their hats as they stare at her.  "How delightful to be admired by everybody," she gushes.  The final picture shows our happy lass at the altar, her Madam Warren now concealed by a white wedding gown.  "The happy result," reads the caption.

Corset trade cards of the same era often showed small children and especially the little angels known as putti.  As Steele notes:

Winged putti peek out from inside corsets, lace up corsets, paint or photograph corsets.  Since nineteenth-century doctors frequently warned that tight corsets could complicate pregnancy and injure the fetus, the putti may represent not only cupids or angels but also healthy babies.  At a time when many women experienced repeated pregnancies, they may also have hoped that a good corset would counteract the ravages of both pregnancies and time. 

One could hardly argue that modern ads for Victoria's Secret bras or Spanx tummy controlling underwear do any better job at grabbing women by their subconscious fears.  And with that, enough on corsets and advertising and the numerous shapes of the female body...  At least for now.

Header: Ball Corsets trade card via


Timmy! said...

Not surprisinigly, I'm sure, my favorite quote from this post is this: "blossom in all their splendor and amplitude." That is too funny, Pauline.

Pauline said...

I like that one, too. As I remarked to Undine yesterday, at my age there's more "amplitude" than "splendor" I'm afraid. Just another reason why a good old school corset would be a blessing.