The Victorian Wasp-Waist

11 Aug

The Victorian ideal of female beauty was characterised in an 1871 issue of Le Follet as ‘Height, five feet and so many inches; age, five-and-twenty, more or less;  figure, slight and undulating.’[1] This standard to which nineteenth century women aspired was extremely narrow-waisted. According to one pattern for a bodice, an ‘ordinary figure’ will fit a woman measuring ‘24 inches round the waist.’[2] For those who wished to reduce their waist size, it was possible to do so using various methods, the most common being tight-lacing. The dimensions of tight-lacing are provided in Beauty and Hygiene for Women and Girls (1893), which states that ‘twice round the throat for once round the waist, [gives] a waist of from twenty-three to twenty-four inches.’[3] References to the ‘small of the waist’[4] pervade contemporary ladies’ magazines such as The World of Fashion and Continental Feuilletons, which advises that attention can be drawn to this area by means of jewellery, or a ribbon ‘that incircles the waist’ [sic].[5] For those who did not wish to engage in the potentially harmful practice of tight-lacing, it was possible to create the illusion of a small waist by altering its shape ‘from oval to round’.[6] This effect can be achieved by using the ‘Fairy Belt’ that:

slightly presses the sides of the waist without pain or inconvenience, and by so doing shortens the lines of the front and back, and produces the effect, as far as appearance goes, of the waist being at least two inches smaller.[7]

A further means by which the Victorian woman could appear narrow waisted was by increasing the size of other articles of dress, thus creating the impression of trimness in contrast to shawls, wide sleeves and crinoline skirts. Myra’s Journal of Dress and Fashion (1879) relates how the waist can be made to appear smaller by adding to the hips:

[l]adies with slender figures, who wish to make the most of a small waist, wear Juic bodices with long points and full panniers, which by adding to the apparent size of the hips, diminish the waist.[8]

In addition, the crinoline that appeared in 1854 and the bustle that became popular in 1880 created curves, by which the waist seemed narrower in contrast. Following these came the advent of large sleeves that produced a similar effect, Alison Adburgham recording that ‘by 1893 the bustle had completely disappeared and leg of mutton sleeves had blown themselves out into balloon sleeves of even greater size.’[9]

 

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough


[1] Anon., ‘There are Three Ways of Describing the Appearance of a Beautiful Woman’, Le Follet: Journal du Grand Monde, Fashion, Polite Literature, Beaux Arts &c. &c., issue 297 (London, England), 1st June, 1871

[2] Young England: An Illustrated Magazine (1889), p.208

[3] Beauty and Hygiene for Women and Girls (1893), p.58

[4] The World of Fashion and Continental Feuilletons, issue 38 (London,England),1st July, 1827, p.153

[5] The World of Fashion and Continental Feuilletons (1827), p.153

[6] Anon., ‘At the Shops’, in Hearth and Home: An Illustrated Weekly Journal for Gentlewomen, issue 174 (London, England), 13th September, 1894

[7] Anon., ‘it is very certain that beauty, as well as the apparent size of a waist depends far more on its shape than on its dimensions’, in Le Follet: Journal du Grand Monde, Fashion, Polite Literature, Beaux Arts &c. &c. issue 577, (London, England), 1st September, 1894

[8] M. Goubaud, ‘Dress and Fashion in Paris’, Myra’s Journal of Dress and Fashion, issue 7 (London,England),1st July, 1879, p.145

[9] Adburgham, Shops and Shopping, p.225

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