How the Victorian Corset Became a Thing of the Past

How the Victorian Corset Became a Thing of the Past

Photograph of Emilie Floge and Gustav Klimt

I recently blogged about celebrated Viennese fashion designer, Emilie Flöge, whose signature loose fitting, wide sleeved dresses featured in many paintings by Gustav Klimt.


Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Eugenia Mada Primavesi


But this style, known as Reform Dress, didn’t begin in Vienna, and its significance went way beyond being simply a fashion statement.

The task of getting dressed in the 1850s was an arduous one. Every morning, fashionable women would begin putting together structures that would create the perfect frame upon which to hang their gowns: stockings gartered above the knee, which restricted the circulation, knee length drawers and chemise, hip length vest and petticoat, a corset stiffened with strips of whalebone, which was tight laced, squeezing and rearranging the position of her internal organs. Next there was a corset cover, a bustle to make her look as if she had a ‘perfect’ bottom, and finally, another petticoat worn over the whole kit and caboodle.

4 Victorian corset.jpeg

A growing number of people – feminists, doctors and educators began warning against the physical and moral dangers of this style of dress. Physicians counselled patients against tight lacing, due to its effects on fertility and women’s health in general, while others claimed that corsetry turned women’s bodies into sexual objects, forcing the hips back and thrusting the bosom forward. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Women’s Dress Reform Movement began offering a number of stylish alternatives.

Dress reformists were largely middle class women involved in the first wave of feminism in the United States and Great Britain. At a time when women were campaigning for the suffrage, better educational opportunities etc. dress reformists also called for emancipations from the dictates of fashion.

In 1851, a New England temperance activist, Elizabeth Smith Miller adopted the bloomers suit: loose Middle Eastern style trousers, topped by a short dress. The bloomers suit was adopted by suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton and promoted enthusiastically in the fashion magazine The Lily. But it suffered ridicule in the press and harassment on the streets with many critics saying that women had lost their attractiveness and mystery.


Bloomers Suit

In the 1870s, a largely English movement led by Mary Eliza Haweis sought dress reforms that would celebrate and enhance the female form. This Aesthetic Dress Movement preferred the looser lines and draped fabrics of medieval and renaissance eras. This was echoed in the work of Pre-Raphaelite artists, who saw the corseted style as ugly and dishonest. Their own wives and models wore fabrics coloured with vegetable dye, hand embroidered with oriental designs. Their hair was unbraided and they sported puffed Juliette sleeves and flowing skirts.


John William Waterhouse, Windflowers

There were also reforms to women’s undergarments. The reform corset, or liberty bodice was a tight sleeveless vest which buttoned up the front. There were also a series of buttons along the hemline upon which the skirt and petticoats could be attached. Therefore, the weight of the clothing was supported by the whole body rather than just the waist, as had previously been the case.


By the 1920s, the women’s improved social standing inevitably brought with it marked changes in fashion. Women began wearing more masculine inspired outfits such as tailored skirt suits, ties and starched blouses. The tubular, boyish figure became the ideal, rather than the wasp-waisted silhouette of the nineteenth century. Women became accustomed to wearing more comfortable clothing in their homes and during physical activities and saw models wearing more simply designed dresses in ladies’ magazines.


All efforts towards reforming dress clearly had a lasting influence. Although corsets are still worn to this day, women’s dress reform has gone way beyond anything early activists could have imagined.


Emma Rose Millar was born in Birmingham – a child of the seventies. She is a single mum and lives with her young son who keeps her very busy and very happy. Emma left school at 16 and later studied for an Open University degree in Humanities with English Literature. She has had a variety of jobs including chocolatier, lab technician and editorial assistant for a magazine but now works part-time as an interpreter. Emma writes and historical fiction and children’s picture books. She won the Legend category of the Chaucer Awards with FIVE GUNS BLAZING in 2014. Her novella THE WOMEN FRIENDS: SELINA, based on the work of Gustav Klimt and co-written with author Miriam Drori will be published in December 2016 by Crooked Cat Books.

Find Emma Rose Millar on Amazon



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