The corset was an essential garment in shaping the figure to the required silhouette. No fashionable or indeed respectable woman went without one.
Corsets were indispensable in creating the small waist and lengthening waistline of the 1830s and '40s. The early Victorian corset was very much like that of the early nineteenth century, i.e. long, with shoulder straps and a front busk (a strip of wood) to flatten the stomach. It laced up the back only. In 1829 the front clasp was introduced, with metal loops and studs to fasten in front. The lacing at the back remained, to further tighten the waist. Shoulder straps disappeared on these front fastening corsets. The older, back fastening corset with shoulder straps continued to be worn by some into the 1850s. Early Victorian corsets were generally white or grey.
During the 1850s and early 60s skirts swelled so much that corsets were often quite short and not always tightly laced. In the 1860s black and even red corsets became fashionable.
A craze for tight-lacing emerged again in the late '60s when the skirt was gored and slim fitting at the waist and across the stomach. The development of the bustle by 1870 temporarily offset this. However, in the mid 1870s, dress bodices further tightened and lengthened. Corsets had to follow suit. This was only possible due to new developments in corset manufacture. A greater number of shaped pieces, many more bones, starch and steam moulding gave a well-sculpted, armour-like garment. Spoon busks were also used during the '70s and '80s - curved front clasps that widened over the stomach.
These late Victorian corsets were more than just utilitarian. The best examples were made in costly silks in a variety of colours and decorated with embroidery, lace and ribbon.
By 1900, suspenders had become attached to the bottom of corsets. The curved front of the corset straightened, no longer dipping in at the waist. This was considered to be a more healthy cut.
During the nineteenth century, the corset tended to be worn under the petticoat, until the cuirasse dress of the 1870s induced the fashionable woman to wear her under-petticoat beneath her corset. The corset shaped the Victorian woman. It tended to elevate the bust (a leftover of the Regency period) flatten the stomach, narrow the waist and generally smooth out the irregularities in her figure. The result was very curvaceous and womanly, though very restrictive. The culmination of this hourglass look came in the 1870s with the cuirasse bodice, when even the outward curve of the hips was revealed by the clinging cut of the dress. During the later bustle years of the 1880s, the figure remained sleek under all of the drapery. By the 1890s it was on show again, bust, waist and hips smoothed out to curvaceous perfection. The 1890s closed, however, with a new note. The straight fronted corset of the late 1890s pushed the bust out in a continuous whole, (the mono-bosom) and tilted the wearer forward, heralding the S-shaped stance of the Edwardian era. Throughout the Victorian period the emphasis generally remained on mature, womanly curves, not on girlish slimness. This would continue into the new century.
Tight-lacing and the corset itself were contentious subjects in the Victorian era. The aesthetic and dress reform movements advocated simplification and even abolition of the garment. But while a few leading aesthetes may have discarded their corsets, the majority of women refused to do anything so disreputable.
The cage crinoline appeared in Paris in 1855 and by 1856 in London too. Empress Eugenie of France was said to have popularised it. It freed the limbs of the women who wore inumerable petticoats to create the wide, domed skirts of the 1840s and '50s. But it had its disadvantages. Accidents and inconveniences, involving open fires, stairs, doorways and omnibuses, were reported. But they were largely ignored by the women of all classes who wore the crinoline.
The cage crinoline was made from lengths of steel riveted to form rings and suspended by cloth tapes from the waistband. Soon watchspring steel would be used - light, flexible and strong enough to support the ever-widening skirts. Whaleboned petticoats had already begun to be used in the early 1850s but they had not been as strong. Before that, horsehair ("crinoline") petticoats had borne the burden of the skirt. These also gave their name to the new cage crinoline, which, being strongest of all, allowed the skirts to further increase in width.
The crinolines of the late 1850s were domed, but by the early 1860s, the front became flattened, and the weight of the cage shifted further towards the back.
This threw the skirt out more behind, giving the appearance of an ellipse by 1862. Skirts became gored and the crinoline very triangular and back-weighted. After 1866 the skirt and its crinoline began to shrink.
By 1867 the crinoline was expected to dispappear completely. Empress Eugenie, having apparently encouraged its rise, now spearheaded its decline. The crinoline did not disappear immediately - it was too well-loved. Instead it shrank to a mere shadow of itself. Some fashion historians call the reduced crinoline a crinolette or half crinoline. It did not remain small, but began to enlarge behind, just below the waist, to form the bustle.
The story of the bustle is difficult to follow at its height in the 1870s and 80s, due to the vast array of names for it, but its early development is more straightforward. Tiny bustle pads had been used in Regency times, on high waisted dresses, to fill in the hollow over the wearer's spine. Bustles of the 1830s and '40s were either large, down-filled pads or frills of stiff fabric, which tied round the waist. They were often called dress-improvers as they threw the skirt out in a dome at the back, thus 'improving' its silhouette. With the invention of the cage crinoline in the 1850s, this domed effect could be built into the shape of the steel hoops. For a while in the 1860s, the fashionable silhouette became so triangular that no bustle effect was required at all. But in 1867, the crinoline was greatly reduced and a new emphasis began to be placed on the rear of the dress. Bustles returned, to be worn with or without the shrunken crinoline. They could be as simple as the pads and frills of the 1830s and '40s or more complex constructions of steel and horsehair. They could even be built into a small crinoline or a horsehair petticoat.
The French word tournure is used almost completely interchangeably with bustle to describe any garment or part of a garment that improved the rear of the dress. Even the bustle effect was called a tournure. The substitution of tournure for bustle is a classic example of Victorian prudery. (Other terms for bustles include pannier and crinolette).
The bustle declined in favour in the mid 1870s. The dome-like rear, narrowed, lowered and shrank. By 1876 a new line was established, requiring only a little padding over the seat and hips.
During the 1880s, pannier-like skirt drapery reappeared, and the bustle soon followed. This time the silhouette was less domed and more angular, the skirt jutting out horizontally and then sharply dropping down like a table. The 1880s bustle can be achieved with two or three steels threaded horizontally through the back panel of a dress underskirt or separate petticoat and tied across the inside, with the addition of a small pad to prevent the top from sagging. However, a good variety of patent bustles were available in the 1880s to be worn under the petticoat.
In 1889, the bustle collapsed rapidly. From the 1890s, the fashionable silhouette would apparently depend entirely upon the wearer's corseted figure and the cut of her clothing. In reality, nature's shortcomings continued to be augmented discreetly by small bustle pads tied around the waist. The bustle ended as it began, in a deceptively unimportant way.
Bust-improvers enhanced the bust when fashion demanded it. They ranged from light padding on the inside of 1840s bodices, (filling in the hollow below and the ridge above the elevated bust-line), to the wire domes of the curvaceous 1880s, (which look suspiciously like two small sieves on a piece of string). It is difficult to give these garments the serious attention they deserve.
In 1878 stocking suspenders attached to a belt put on over the corset, were beginning to be worn. They had been seen on the London stage at a French revue in 1876 and had soon caught on. Hitherto, elastic garters had served the purpose. By 1900 (some say 1901), suspenders were attached to the front of the corset. With the introduction of suspenders, whether separate or attached, it was impossible to wear a long petticoat underneath the corset.
Fashion columns of the nineteenth century often distinguish between lingerie and underclothing or underlinens. In the 1860s, the Englishwomans Domestic Magazine, for example, discussed lingerie as if it encompassed all of the white items that a woman might wear, other than dresses and outdoor clothing. It included caps, collars, cuffs, handkerchiefs, blouses, chemisettes, undersleeves, nightclothes and fancy dressing gowns, as well as the kinds of underlinens discussed above, petticoats, chemises, drawers etc. By the 1890s, however, lingerie and underclothing had become synonymous.
Early Victorian underwear was very plain and utilitarian and often made of firm, white linen, though cotton was emerging as an alternative. Everything was handsewn, and trimming was kept to a minimum. As the century progressed, cotton began to replace linen as the affordable fabric of everyday underwear.
In the 1870s and 80s a craze for woollen underwear arose - wool next to the skin was the newest health fad. Fitted combinations of knitted woollen fabric were promoted by Jaeger - a high street label that is still around today. Cellular cotton (Aertex) underclothing also enjoyed limited popularity. These kinds of fads erred on the sensible side and though popular, were not considered highly fashionable. One fabric that emerged in the 1880s, however, was extremely fashionable. Silk underwear, along with the finest cottons and linens, was luxurious and highly favoured. White was still the predominant colour of most underlinens, but cream silk was available as was black by the 1890s. Flannel underclothing, however, was often coloured, as were many decorative petticoats by the 1860s.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, over-decorated underwear was considered extravagant and even immoral. Underclothing became progressively more decorated during the second half of the century. This can be attributed in part to the invention of the sewing machine, to affordable, machine-made laces and embroideries and to the resulting increase in ready-made underwear.
However, the Victorian woman's attitude to
underclothing must have also undergone a significant
change, in order to be able to wear some of the very
highly decorated lingerie of the last decades of the
century. These garments were so excessively ornate that
the former sense of immorality had to be firmly put
aside. The Editor of the Lady's Realm called this
new style the cult of chiffon. A few fashion writers
would not change their attitude, and hinted at the
"cheapness" of this largely invisible show.
Some approved only of entirely hand-sewn lingerie,
trimmed with a little hand embroidery or "real"
lace - all very expensive if purchased. They advocated
simple, home-made, hand-sewn efforts instead of
elaborate, ready-made, machine-sewn ones. But on the
whole, extravagant, pretty underwear was widely accepted
by the close of the century.