The ideal ‘Grown Figure’ had high, rounded breasts with long, well rounded limbs. Soft, light muslin dresses clung to the body revealing the contours. Superfluous undergarments were discarded, including the boned stay. This was ideal for the younger ladies, but the older or less perfect woman kept her stays!
The simple muslin dresses of C.1800 were usually mounted on a cotton lining with separate side pieces which crossed over and fastened under the breasts, supporting them like a bra. In England, whalebone stays of the late 18th C type continued to be worn, sometimes lengthened over the hip and gussetted, to give the fashionable line under the muslins, if the body was not of the fashionable ideal.
Around 1810, curved lines now flowed out from a small waist. For this shape, a lighter and more flexible corset arrived that still supported the contours like the old rigid and straight whalebone stays. However, women tended to over-squeeze the hips into a straight line with the waist and push the bosom up to the chin into a fleshy shelf.
Even ‘Pregnant Stays’, of dimity (striped or patterned cotton), jean (strong, heavy cotton twill), or silk, encased the body from shoulders to hips and had ‘elastic bones’ between the lining and covering of the stay to move a little with the growing child. They were still quite robust and armour-like in their design and support.
Early 19th C corsets were constructed of two panels of material each for front and back, with the back seam shaped and sometimes also the centre front seams. Gussets on each side of the front at the top of the bust gave roundness to the bust, and one or two more gussets at the base shaped the hips. As the waist was lowered and defined, extra side pieces were added, until around 1835 when a basque shaped piece was introduced, fitting the hips to give a longer line. It usually laced up the back, and until the 1840s had shoulder straps. Upmarket corsets of the 1830s had ‘India rubber’ substitutes for ‘elastic wires’, avoiding snapping and corrosion.
Corsets followed the ever-changing fashionable silhouette of the dress in shape. Boneless corsets, for Calisthenic exercises, were also available.
In the 1840s, the French popularised a gusset free corset, made from seven to thirteen pieces following the natural contours of the body to give a smooth, wrinkle-free line. A ‘rational’ corset of 1848 incorporated rubber thread covered with cotton, allowing an aeriated, elastic corset (Messrs Thomas & Co, Cheapside). Mid 19th Century stays were lightly boned and stiffened by cording and quilting and worn over the petticoats and crinoline, with the centre front busk (a rigid panel) and back bones highly curved into the waist.
White corsets were considered more ‘ladylike’, but the more economical corset was grey, putty, red and black, made of coutil (strong cotton) and lined in white.
1800s to 1830s – From Ionic Column to Double Pyramid
Referring to the wealthy, upper class of society, grand and stylish.
A heavy fabric made from silk yarn, woven with a raised pattern.
A pad attached to the back, below the waist level. The pad could be stuffed with down, cotton wadding or horsehair and was worn under the skirt, giving a ‘bottom’ interest.
A firm undergarment worn from the early 19th Century to the early 20th Century to support and shape the torso fashionably and give a small waist (or an illusion of one). Corsets were made of strong cotton twill, quilted and stiffened with whalebone or steel, and laced at the back. They could either be elasticated and comfortable to wear, or destructively tight laced. Pulled to an ‘ideal’ 17 inches (43cms) the rib cage could be crushed, causing serious damage to internal organs.
Pointed arch style in churches of Western Europe during 12th to 16th Centuries, incorporating geometric and naturalistic carvings.
A formal day dress.
A fine woven cotton fabric, which has a gauzy appearance. The name is derived from the city Mosul on the Tigris River, North Iraq. Imported to Europe in the 17th Century.
A coat made along the same lines as the dress, but opening down the front.
Cord encased in a tube of fabric, applied to seams as a detail.
Long rectangular wrap worn around the shoulders.
During the 1830s the waist was tightly laced, its smallness emphasised by the wide shoulders and skirt. Corsets were laced at the back by cords running through over sewn eyelet holes, and another person was needed to tighten the laces.
Collapsible spoked fabric cover to protect from the sun, or the rain if waterproofed.
1840s to 1850s – From St. Paul’s Dome to Bell Tent
Short-sleeved or sleeveless, knee-length shift made from linen or cotton. This was worn next to the skin, under the corset, and was the ancestor of the modern T-shirt.
The 1840s and 1850s saw Victorian home life expanding. Women were now organisers and entertained at home, guided by etiquette books: ‘a wife should be a model of domestic virtues’, (1840).
Two tubes of fabric gathered onto a waistband and left open at crotch, worn to below the knee from the 1840s onwards. Made of wool flannel or cotton calico and fastened with a drawstring or buttons.
Madame Caplin was awarded a prize in the Great Exhibition of 1851 for her health corset, which gave support to the body without confining the chest. She was praised by the medical profession for her innovative corset.
Hair from horse’s tails and manes used as a stiffener for petticoats.
It was woven with wool to make a heavy fabric.
Skirts worn under the dress during the 19th Century to give fullness and shape. Made from cotton, wool or linen, some were woven with horsehair to make them stiffer, others were shaped using whalebone hoops. Many were frilled or flounced; piping or horizontal pleating held out hems. Starch was generally used on cotton to help keep the shape.