The Move from Over-Structured Opulence to the ‘Healthy Corset’

Corset - Red-Gold 1883By the 1880s the corset had become a very elegant and desirable object in a woman’s wardrobe and much attention paid to its design and execution. The rapid growth of the corset manufacturing industries meant that there was greater variety in materials, colour, size and fit. The most expensive might be made of satin, brightly coloured corsets also became more acceptable.

Corset makers and manufacturers prided themselves on the excellent fit that could now be had with ready-to-wear corsets. As well as being made for different bust and hip measurements they were also designed to suit a variety of body types from ‘stout’, to ‘slim’ and ‘full’ to ‘graceful’. Manufacturers also tried to boost sales by giving corsets fancy names such ‘La Fiancée’, which not surprisingly promised physical beauty and success in marital competition, and ‘Swanbill’ with a logo of a swan gliding past waterplants, probably intended to conjure up an image of demure elegance and a gently curving figure.

In the mid 1880s, after a brief respite, bustles returned and in a more exaggerated form than before. They were usually very structured and sometimes jutted out at right angles from the centre back of the body. This gave rise to the popular belief that a tea tray could be balanced on them. Steel strips were also often attached to the insides of dresses to exaggerate the backward curve of the bustle.

Bustles came in all shapes and sizes. Some were constructed almost entirely of steel, others resembled colourful cushions. These were often stuffed with horsehair, down and even straw to achieve the desired fullness. Bustles were often ridiculed in journals and the popular press. But although they could be cumbersome and uncomfortable, as with the corset and crinoline one must be careful not to focus on extremes. Most bustles in museum collections are not as enormous as all the written criticisms would have us believe. They were usually adjustable in size and women could wear different styles according to their activities and the time of day. Small ‘tournures’ fastened to the corset were recommended for walking, small ‘puffs’ were for the early afternoon to remove the flat look of the dress and larger, longer bustles were suited to the ballroom.

‘The New Phantom’ bustle, dating from about 1884, had a special feature. The steel wires are attached to a pivot so that they folded in on themselves on sitting down and sprang back when the wearer rose. A novelty bustle made to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebrations contained a less useful device. It was fitted with a musical box that played ‘God Save the Queen’ each time the wearer sat down.

source: Victoria and Albert Museum