Tag Archives: fashion

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

Ugly and Covered Up? The First Live Fashion Models

10 Aug

The first models of the nineteenth century were unattractive since ‘as a guarantee of the respectability of the establishment the director could be relied upon to choose only the plainest of girls to show off his creations.’ Lucile, who was ‘the first Englishwoman to become internationally famous as a dress designer’ employed live mannequins upon which to display her garments. Live models were used in Paris, yet since they were for the sole purpose of exhibiting the clothes, rather than their own bodies, they were enclosed ‘in a garment of rigid black satin, reaching from chin to feet’. This prevented the model showing ‘the glow of youthful flesh, or the curves of young ankles’ that may distract attention away from their attire. Lucile’s mannequins were tall, heavy women and ‘[n]one of them weighed much under eleven stone and the six-footers considerably more. It was an era when “big girls” with “fine figures” were the ideal of beauty’. In 1893, Beauty and Hygiene for Women and Girls describes three models of female beauty, ‘the beauty of Juno, of Venus and of Psyche’, to which the majority of women’s bodies conform:

[t]he daughters of Juno are “full” bodied women on the whole well-formed…Their hips are wide almost to massiveness the bust being full and inclining even to embarrassing opulence. “Fine” women is the term which best describes them.


Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough

Nineteenth Century Fashion Plates – Help or Hinderance?

10 Aug

The story of women’s fashion from the mid-Victorian to the Edwardian era is one of struggle over the female body politic. This was expressed through efforts to influence and control the socially desirable shape and appearance of women’s figures in public. In July 1847, an issue of Punch advised its female readers:

 A BALL is Bliss. A Small Waist is Elegant. Adore Young Officers. Preserve Your Complexion. Seek Approbation. Live Wholly for Dress.[1]

According to David Kunzle, Punch is regarded as ‘the perfect mirror of Victorian bourgeois mores…it became an accurate barometer of the conservative male upper-middle-class view of women’s role in society’.[2] Thus, the advice to ‘Live Wholly for Dress’ suggests a male desire for female adherence to current fashions, by which women’s bodies ought to be shaped. This quotation also expresses patriarchal approval of the ‘Small Waist’, which, as will be argued, possessed both biological and moral implications. In this article, women are recommended not only to maintain a slender waist-line, but also preserve a beautiful complexion, indicating a masculine preference for young and attractive partners. In addition, the direction to ‘Seek Approbation’ reveals the magazine’s intention to persuade women to dress and behave in accordance with social norms, as outlined by Punch and other contemporary publications. Despite alterations in sartorial fashion during the latter half of the nineteenth century, the ideal female form that was created by social structures pertaining to the bourgeois readership of magazines such as Punch, was a masculine image of womanhood.

In order to achieve patriarchal inscription of women’s bodies, a visual culture was created that provided templates to which the Victorian woman was supposed to reproduce. These exemplary forms were presented in ladies’ journals and fashion plates, which eventually led to the distribution of a feminine ideal.[3] Fashion plates first appeared in magazines at the end of the eighteenth century, including The Lady’s Monthly Museum (1798),[4] and were portrayed in the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine[5] from the 1850s. By 1868, the EDM included ‘The Corset Book’ that displayed ‘elaborate engravings of every kind of Corset and Crinoline that has ever been adopted.’[6] At end of the nineteenth century, on December 17th 1892, Vogue began as a weekly society publication whose cover featured ‘[a] debutante’ wearing a gown with a small corseted waist. The first issues of Vogue ‘were filled with society ladies, such as Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, wearing their own clothing.’[7] Aristocratic women were the fashionable ideal and set the standard to which people aspired.

With such proliferation of the female form, it was possible for women to be viewed from a new perspective. The fascination with these images lay in the fact that, unlike the body itself, its representation could be gazed upon without impropriety. The inanimate fashion plates could be dominated by the female viewer, who, by gazing upon the picture, felt that she had mastered the form that is the focus of her admiration. In the case of the Gibson Girl, women could not only look upon her image, but actually transform themselves into her through financial exchange for the correct ‘skirts, shoes, [and] hats.’ Fashion thus became pursuit wherein it was possible to gain pleasure from looking at potential versions of the body, and actualising the ideal through purchase of modish items.

Not only was the female form available as a two dimensional image in nineteenth century magazines, the introduction of glass windows allowed for clothing to be displayed upon dress mannequins, so that they could be viewed from the shop’s exterior. A description of Regent’s Park in 1837 states that:

[t]he buildings of this noble street consist of palace-like shops, in whose broad shewy windows are displayed articles of the most splendid description, such as the neighbouring world of wealth and fashion are daily in want of.[8]

The static representations of the female figure provided by fashion mannequins in shop windows were more lifelike than the images of women presented in magazines, yet they remained masculine constructions for capitalist purposes. In either form, women’s bodies were exploited and fashion was one of the prime mediums for its achievement.


Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough