Corsets and Stays

I found the following information in Karen Bowman’s Corsets and Codpieces: A Social History of Outrageous Fashion (2015) from Pen and Sword Books.

Everyone knows the dangers of corsets. The Victorians knew the dangers. I’m not going to talk a lot about that today. What I am going to talk about, however, are other types of corsets, like Regency stays, or “short stays” which were used to accentuate the breasts under high-waisted Regency dresses, like so:


My understanding is that these stays were one of the first garments to provide actual cups for breast support, rather than just smooshing them down like previous stays had done. Suprisingly, not everyone was a fan of perky, accentuated breasts. An article in the Morning Herald said, “The bosom, which Nature planted at the bottom of a woman’ [sic] chest, is pushed up by means of wadding and whalebone to a station so near her chin that in a very full [i.e., busty] subject that feature [her chin] is sometimes lost between the invading mounds“.

Have you guys heard of my new roccoco garage band, Invading Mounds?

Mrs Fitzherbert, the Prince Regent’s long-time mistress, was caricatured for this new dress style which accentuated her . . . uh . . . natural charms:


Thankfully these short stays were nowhere near as dangerous as later corsets. A quick note on proper Victorian corsets that I’d never heard before: apparently the common understanding was that a grown woman (starting at about age 16, and obviously before having given birth) should have her waist in inches correspond to her age in years. Therefore, a 16-year old should have a 16-inch waist, a 21-year old a 21-inch waist, etc. The ideal measurements were between 17 and 21 inches, probably because this was the age range when women were typically “out” in society. Any younger and she’d probably be considered by many to be a child, and any older and she mostly likely be married with children.

Of course, one cannot resist the odd horror story or two. “One 23-year-old Parisian woman at a ball in 1859 proved to be the envy of all with her 13in waist; two days later she was found dead. An autopsy showed that her liver had been punctured by three ribs. A chambermaid who said she had extreme stomach pains was also found dead soon after; her stomach was nearly severed in half ‘leaving a canal only as narrow as a raven’s feather‘” (98). Everyone knows how corsets move around and squish internal organs, causing serious health issues. What I didn’t realize was that most fatalities came from corsets more or less cutting the liver in half.

We’re used to seeing the typical Victorian corset style, which looks like this:


However, as clothing changed silhouette by the fin de siecle and Edwardian era, so did corsetry. Rather than simply cutting a woman into two round halves, the slenderer shape of gowns required something called the “S-bend” or “Swan’s Bill” corset:

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It’s actually a pretty weird shape, all things considered. The ideal figure, which this corset promoted, was long and lean, with a graceful but extremely severe curve of the back. The most defining characteristic, though, was to create a bulbous, puffed out chest, which (unlike the previous types of corsets) didn’t separate the breasts: rather, it lumped them together into a giant mono-boob.


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One Response to Corsets and Stays

  1. Pingback: BizarreVictoria: Celebrating 3 Years | BizarreVictoria

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