Tag Archives: waist

Want to Attract a Husband? Tight-Lace!

14 Aug

In the nineteenth century, women went to great lengths to achieve a narrow waist-line.  Scientific developments have proven that this wasp-waist served an evolutionary, as well as social, purpose originating in the desire to attract and ‘find a mate’. In Survival of the Prettiest, Nancy Etcoff writes that ‘[e]volutionary psychologists suggest that men are automatically excited by signs of a woman who is fertile, healthy, and hasn’t been pregnant before.’[1] The physiological indicators of this state correspond to the physical ideal of a Victorian female, comprising an hourglass figure offset by a small waist. Within a theoretical context, this ideal is the result of biological attraction since, according to Etcoff, ‘[t]he waist is one of the body’s best indicators of hormonal function’.[2] Women whose figures were hourglass in shape, with ‘a waist-to-hip ratio below .8’ are twice as likely to conceive and bear children than those ‘whose waist-to-hip ratio was above .8’.[3] A narrow waist was only desirable, however, if accompanied by wide hips and a full bosom, thus pairing an indication of virginity with symbols of reproduction. Consequently, there were social and moral dimensions to physically manipulating a woman’s body. The virginal, yet reproductively capable female figure that an hourglass shape literally embodied reflected the patriarchal fascination with, and the supposed biological imperative for, the sexually passive and delicate woman who was also capable of bearing children.

The small waist was eroticised not only because it represented reproductive potential, but because it suggested weakness and vulnerability to the male seducer who was accordingly placed in a position of sexual dominance. The Dart: The Midland Figaro (1884) defines the ideal embodiment of girlhood as including a narrow waist that can be encircled by her lover:

Such a waist, such a waist, so small and tight-laced, Inviting the arm to surround it.[4]

In addition, La Belle Assemblée (1830) describes the happiness of a married couple in terms of the husband’s ability to enclose his wife’s waist:

[a] beautiful girl was sitting there, and circling her small waist was an arm that seemed grown to the graceful stem it projected; the girl was a bride, and the youth beside her was her own – her husband; they were the happiest of the happy.[5]

Likewise, in Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), a woman’s waist is described as a feature by which she can be physically ensnared as a male character throws ‘off all his constraint in an instant, and [seizes] the hostess round the waist’.[6] Enclosing a woman’s waist in this way could also be interpreted as a vaginal reference, wherein gender roles are reversed as the masculine arm envelopes a straight-laced, phallically shaped midriff. By doing so, however, the male character symbolically pre-empts and appropriates any female power that his wife will obtain from surrounding and enveloping his phallus following their marriage.

Women were aware of the male attraction towards a small waisted figure, using that to their advantage to snare a husband. An article entitled ‘Fashionable Suicide’ published in Punch (1863) reveals that one woman endured the practice in order to entice gentlemen who:

admire a slender figure, and think it most becoming. And as I’m dying to get mar—I mean, to please the gentlemen, why you see of course I must lace in my waist a bit, though it makes me feel quite faint at times.[7]

Likewise, another correspondent writes to the EDM (1868) that she maintains her small waist ‘because a certain friend has said that he could never survive if it were any larger or shorter.’[8] In Sarah Grand’s The Beth Book, Beth’s friend Geraldine boasts that she ‘“laced till [she] got shingles”’[9] in order to reduce the dimensions of her waist to ‘“only seventeen inches”’,[10] by which means she hopes she will obtain a husband. Beth’s mother also counsels her to make the most of her figure in order to attract a wealthy suitor, a process that is contingent upon her waist:

I don’t know what your waist is going to be, but you shall have some good stays. A fine shape goes a long way. With your prospects you really ought to make a good match, so do not slouch about any more as if you had no self-respect at all.[11]

As a result of this, Beth ‘tightened her stays to make her waist small’.[12] Since women did not have the same employment and educational opportunities as men, their principle means of gaining financially was by attracting a wealthy husband, and since importance was placed upon the size of the waist, tight-lacing was one of the principle ways by which this could be achieved. This is explicit in Geraldine’s words to Beth, that ‘“[m]y husband won’t think me silly once I get command of his money”’[13] and is echoed by Judy (1882) which states that ‘[t]he “primary object” of the female girl of the feminine sex is to land the good golden youth, and this is only to be done by the small waist’.[14] In Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), Mrs Durbeyfield dresses Tess in such a way as to make her figure appear fuller, and consequently sexually mature, in order to draw the attentions of the supposedly wealthy Alec D’Urberville. She puts upon her:

the white frock that Tess had worn at the club-walking, the airy fulness of which, supplementing her enlarged coiffure, imparted to her developing figure an amplitude which belied her age, and might cause her to be estimated as a woman when she was not much more than a child.[15]

‘[I]mpelled by natural instinct to find a mate’,[16] Victorian women employ ‘every little art of dress and manner’[17] in order to render themselves appealing to the opposite sex.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough


[1] N. Ectoff, Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, (New York: Random House, 2000), p.71

[2] Ectoff, Survival of the Prettiest, p.192

[3] Ectoff, Survival of the Prettiest, p.192

[4] Anon., ‘A Paragon of Girls’, in The Dart: The Midland Figaro, issue 390 (Birmingham,England),11th April, 1884

[5] La Belle Assemblée; or, Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine, issue 67 (London,England),1st June, 1830, p.234

[6] Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit, p.100

[7] Anon., ‘Fashionable Suicide’, in Punch (London,England),19th September, 1863, p.123

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

[9] S. Grand, The Beth Book (London: Virago, 1980), pp.316-17

[10] Grand, The Beth Book, pp.316-17

[11] Grand, The Beth Book, p.225

[12] Grand, The Beth Book, p.231

[13] Grand, The Beth Book, pp.316-17

[14] Judy (London,England),8th March, 1882

[15] T. Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.52

[16] Grand, The Heavenly Twins, p.279

[17] Grand, The Heavenly Twins, p.279

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