|Location(s):||NEW YORK, New York|
|Tag(s):||fashion, corsets, women's rights|
|Course:||“The Historian's Craft,” University of Alabama at Birmingham|
|Rating:||4.5 (4 votes)|
Victorian women liked their corsets tight. If a person looked up and down any busy street in the late nineteenth century, they saw townswomen that struck dramatic silhouettes. The corset, a tight fitting, boned garment, restricted movement and reshaped the natural position of organs inside a women's body. A trade card from 1885 featured a corset typical of the period dubbed the Double Hip "Ironsides" Corset. The construction of this corset placed stiff cords diagonally under the boning that ran perpendicularly over the hips. The advertisement proclaimed that the hip bones are longer than those found in competitor's corsets "producing a corset of great strength." The card then explained that "the bones on the sides and hips, and also the sides steels, are doubly protected by three or four thicknesses of jean" which diminished the likely hood of snapping a steel bone from wear and added "much to the durability of the corset."
From a construction standpoint, this corset was solidly built. It is no wonder the manufacturer used the nickname of the USS Constitution, a ship whose "ironsides," made of tough oak were said to be impenetrable by cannonballs. However, four layers of denim over the hips, even before the addition of steel bones and cord, made moving the hip joints very difficult. A woman wearing such a rigid undergarment found even simple tasks much more difficult to complete. Household duties such as chasing after children, cooking a meal, or even tidying the house while wearing a corset made some women begin to wonder if the practice made any positive impact on their lives.
Middle and upper class women found themselves restricted in many ways during the Victorian era. Though Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton launched the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869, women did not have the right to vote on factors that affected their lives. In addition, the majority of women did not have jobs outside the home. In the home, society expected a woman to keep her household running seamlessly. However, restrictions placed on women branched into other areas beyond social expectations. While performing the roles assigned to them by society, Victorian fashion expected women to maintain specific hemlines and necklines. The clothing that women wore took restriction to another level, and the corset led the way.
The difficulty of performing daily tasks as well as health concerns soon led to the formation of rational dress societies and movements across the Western Hemisphere. Many of the members simultaneously fought for the right of women to vote, and encouraged them to choose clothing more appropriate for healthy lifestyles. The rational dress voices represented a minority at the time this trade card was printed. The fight to loosen the corset raged for several decades, but by the time women won the right to vote in America they were able to show up to polling places in much more comfortable clothing.