Tag Archives: dress

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


Fashion: From Regency to Victorian

11 Aug

At the century’s outset, prior to the fashion for wasp-waists and stifling corsets, the Regency’s ‘naked fashions’ were in vogue. Originating in post-revolutionary France, these gowns were characterised by a waistband that was gathered immediately below the bust. The terminology used to describe this particular fashion arose from the frequent use of sheer materials such as muslin, and lack of accessories including the crinoline, corset and bustle that would subsequently become popular during the 1800s. Some British women, however, rejected ‘the hideous fashion of the “Empire”’[1] and continued to tight-lace, rather than have ‘their waistbands as high as their armpits’.[2] One female correspondent of the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine questions:

[w]hy should we, who have been disciplined at home and at school, and laced tighter and tighter month after month, until our waists have become “small by degrees and beautifully less”, be expected to hide our figures (which we know are admired) under such atrocious drapery?[3]

By the 1820s, this mode of dress which had been adopted by ‘the ill-formed and waistless ones’[4] was discarded as the elevated Empire-line was replaced by a narrow waist situated in its anatomically correct position: as the EDM claimed ‘where nature has placed it, and where art has improved it’.[5]

Following the Regency fashions, a beautiful figure came to be regarded as slender, yet curvaceous. In order for the majority of women to accord with this aesthetic template it was necessary to employ forms of artificial augmentation. The use of articles such as the corset and bustle was endorsed by Beauty and Hygiene for Women and Girls (1893), which applauded women who:

have at least learnt that much may be done to make a good figure, where Nature has been too kind, or not kind enough, by judicious padding or subtracting, and proper attention to the underwear.[6]

The principle means of physical alteration was through the use of corsetry, which, due to its lacing and whalebone reinforcement caused gradual shifting of internal organs to create an hourglass figure with exaggerated bust and hips, offset by a narrow waist. For those who did not possess the curves necessary to achieve an hourglass effect, the corset proved an indispensable item of clothing. An 1880 issue of Le Follet advertises a corset named the ‘“ideal”, for by its wear the flattest and thinnest figure is transformed into a small round waist, and proportioned bust with graceful curves, to replace the straight lines, so unpleasing to the eye’.[7] This was also reflected in contemporary dressmaking patterns, such as that provided in Young England (1889), which admonished that when cutting the bodice, care should be taken to:

curve your seams in to waist, and out again below; not above the waist-line, because by doing so you give an appearance of roundness to the figure, and make the waist look small, a thing most young ladies think very desirable.[8]

Thin figures with ‘straight lines’ were considered unattractive and required improvement with ‘chemist’s or jeweller’s fine wad,’[9] since ‘[a] healthy, firm impress and fullness of contour is admired, especially in middle life.’[10]

The importance of employing artifice and illusion to enhance an unappealing figure is also emphasised by Myra’s Journal of Dress and Fashion (1880):

[t]he most successfully “improved” figure I know personally is that of a Parisienne, who is a tiny skeleton really, but outwardly possesses the roundest and prettiest figure possible.[11]


Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough

[1] The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, issue 38 (London,England),1st February, 1868, p.110

[2] The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine (1868), p.110

[3] The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine (1868), p.110

[4] The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, (1868), p.110

[5] The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, (1868), p.110

[6] Beauty and Hygiene for Women and Girls (London, 1893) Bodleian Library

[7] Le Follet: Journal du Grand Monde, Fashion, Polite Literature, Beaux Arts &c. &c., issue 402 (London,England),1st March, 1880

[8] Young England: An Illustrated Magazine, issue 92 (London,England),May 1, 1889, p.208

[9] Myra’s Journal of Dress and Fashion, issues 2 and 11 (London,England),2nd February, 1880, p.85

[10] Beauty and Hygiene for Women and Girls (1893), p.31

[11] Myra‘s Journal of Dress and Fashion (1880), p.85