If you research Edwardian fashion online for two minutes, you’ll immediately find hysteria about the poor fainting women, oppressed by their corsets and struggling to breathe. This is due partly to all the photographs we have of women with exaggerated hourglass figures that many people today find unnerving. Then we tend to assume that the waist actually is as small as the photograph would lead us to believe- but there actually may be several other factors going on, such as the optical illusion of S-bend corsets, the proportions of the clothing, Edwardian photoshopping, and many other possibilities. I’m writing this post in hopes of clarifying exactly how small were these women, what’s real, what’s fake, and how does Belle Epoque corsetry actually work.
First of all, it’s helpful to know that the Edwardian era was a highly aesthetic period in fashion history.
We refer to the rough era of the 1870s to World War I as the Belle Epoque, or Epoch of Beauty. The standards of living dramatically improved for the upper class at that time, and it was a relatively peaceful time for Europe and America, so people became focused on the aesthetic value of things as well as the practical. Whenever there’s a time of peace, fashion develops better and people have more time to think about how they dress. This is one reason why tightlacing started to become popular with some people in the late Victorian and Edwardian era.
Another thing that’s important to know is that people generally had different body types in the early 1900s than we do today.
If you were a 20 year old woman in the Edwardian era, you were born any time between the 1880s and mid 1890s, so you would have been accustomed to corsetry from an early age. While I am a proponent of wearing corsets for the health and beauty reasons, I don’t think you should have children wear fully-boned corsets with the intent of waist training them early on. But most people had been wearing corsets since childhood, and that makes your lower ribs and abdominal muscles quite flexible, so therefore you can reduce your waist more easily.
Here’s a child corset from the 1890s.
And here’s an 1892 ad for children’s corsets.
Another factor is nutrition and how it relates to overall body size. Victorian and Edwardian food was not nearly as sugary or fat-filled as it is today, and some people just didn’t get enough nutrition in general, so people were generally shorter and thinner at that time than they are today. Take my 1910 tea dress which I bought at an antique store. It is the perfect length and width for me. Do you know how impossible it is for a 5’2″ girl to find a long dress or skirt that’s short enough to fit these days? Pretty much nobody sells skirts that short unless they’re a brand that specializes in petite sizes. Shoes in the early 20th century were usually pretty tiny as well.
With all this being said, we can argue that Edwardians had naturally smaller measurements than people today (though I have seen plus size pictures of Edwardian clothing too, but it was less common back then).
So yes, people were smaller back then, but there were also optical illusion factors involved in corsetry.
First of all, one little-known fact about corsets is that the ones with big reductions, reduce way more at the sides than they do at the front.
To see for yourself why this makes sense, put one hand on your stomach and another hand on your back. Then squeeze your waist slightly as if you are trying to make it smaller. It doesn’t feel good, does it? It puts uncomfortable pressure on the diaphragm and gives you that panicky “I can’t breathe” feeling. Then, put one hand on your left side and one hand on your right side, underneath your ribs. You can squeeze your waist a lot and not feel uncomfortable, and still breathe just fine, because the sides are way more flexible than the front and back. Now use your common sense- if you were making a corset, would you put more pressure on the rigid front and back, or on the soft and flexible sides?
I love this picture of an Edwardian girl in her corset because the mirrors show us all the angles of the corset. Compare the front and back view with the side view. Do you see how, when viewed from the side, her waist looks bigger than it does from the front?
If you look at it from the side, it hardly looks like her waist has been reduced at all. But from the front, it looks kind of startling to a modern audience. This is one of the optical illusion factors of a corset. I find this fascinating because it can make you look like you’ve reduced your waist a lot when you’ve only reduced it a little bit.
The proportions of Edwardian clothing also help make the waist look smaller. Check out all the ways you can pad your bust out:
You can wear a ruffled corset cover…
Or padded “bust improvers…”
…Or a boned bust improver.
Padding out the bust makes the waist appear proportionally smaller. They also had hip pads to do the same thing.
You know what was another trick? Really big hats. If you think about it, you can pad your hips and bust to create a fake hourglass figure, but not really fool anybody because your head is still relatively small in proportion to your body, and so you just look bigger overall as a result. But if you have super long hair, you can pile it up in a really big updo, and wear a really big hat, making your head appear to be bigger and, therefore, your waist smaller.
Take this picture as an example.
Some people might be tempted to cringe at the tiny-looking waist. But take away the fluffy bodice, the poofy hair and the big hat, and you will observe that her waist is not reduced to an extreme at all.
Another point is that Edwardians sometimes photoshopped their pictures.
Yep, you heard me right. While there was obviously no digital technology back then, we do know that Edwardians would often hand-tint the photos with paint to alter the photo. Take a look at this picture.
I found some people on Pinterest hysterically screaming about how horrible this is. But it just kind of makes me laugh…. I mean it’s so obvious that this was touched up by hand! That would be super easy to do with the black background. Just grab some ink, do a few brushstrokes and there you go, you get a cartoonishly tiny figure. Often in this situation you just have to cut through the hysteria and get to the common sense. Your ribs could physically not fit if this picture were actually real. This picture represents an exaggerated beauty ideal that was not feasible for anyone.
All this leaves one final question. Did anybody actually do extreme tightlacing, where you reduce your waist by 6 inches or more?
I’m certain at least some people did. But not everybody. People who were really rich or famous, and could afford to not do physically taxing activities, did tightlacing much more frequently than, say, the working class people.
Here are some middle class women who are probably still wearing corsets, but obviously not tightlacing.
Meanwhile here are pictures of Queen Maud of Norway. Many historical costumers don’t think her pictures are photoshopped, but that she actually did tightlace.
Even in these pictures, though, you can still see that her bust and hips are padded out a bit, adding to the optical illusion.
I don’t have a problem with this. Some modern corset wearers, such as Lucy’s Corsetry, know how to achieve these sort of proportions in a safe way.
I hope you enjoyed this Corset Mythbusting post! I love doing these. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that our ancestors were regular people, just like us, who lived normal lives and their clothing had to accommodate that. Thanks for reading!