The Tyranny of Corsets

In 1894, Montagu Lomax spoke to four hundred women of Christchurch, NZ about their corsets. It was a brave thing to do, and it resulted in a furore.

The lecture was part of a series of twelve given at the Christchurch Art Gallery with the aim of ‘helping women to put to the best use their newly acquired political rights’ [1]. They covered ‘Woman in all her chief relations of life: physiological, educational, domestic, social, economic, sexual, emotional, moral, political, intellectual, national and religious’.  Lomax published his contribution to the lecture series in a short book the following year because he had been told that his talks deserved to reach a wider audience and their content was ‘more or less inaccessible to the ordinary public’ [1].

As a doctor and a married man, Lomax considered that he was expert enough to explain the evils of corsetry and tight lacing. Lomax commented that the ideal corset should push the bust up without constricting the waist and that, like a man’s vest, it should cover the whole chest. He thought that the fashion for constricting the lower ribs to reduce the waist circumference was injurious to a woman’s ability to breath, and certainly ‘tight stays’ made athletic activity next to impossible. Lomax said that the average, uncorsetted waist of a woman under 25 years was 20-25 inches*. He believed that the hour-glass waists which were then in fashion were the ‘quintessence of deformity and ugliness’.

Lomax went on to rail against the use of feathers and fur in women’s fashion, and reminded women that they were made for a different purpose than men. He suggested that whilst some exercise was good, the sight of a woman with a gun or a fishing rod  was abhorrent to men, and women who played football have ‘lost all sense of decency and decorum’ [1].

The excellent ladies of Christchurch were outraged. There was mayhem in the Art Gallery. The correspondence columns of the Christchurch newspapers were filled with suggestions that the good doctor should keep his nose out of women’s business, especially their undergarments. Indeed, when the audience was asked at the subsequent lecture whether they were in favour of corsets, almost all of the four hundred women present held up their hands [2].

To be fair, Lomax had a point. The practice of lacing corsets tightly to produce the famous hour-glass waist of around 18-20 inches did seriously restrict a woman’s ability to move freely and to breath. Fainting was common amongst Victorian women, and such swooning was not because they were the weaker sex. Even before his ill-fated lecture, women themselves had started to explore the possibility of comfortable clothing. Dress reformers had been campaigning since the mid 19th century for less restrictive clothing, particularly foundation garments which would allow women to take part in sport. Wikipedia has a couple of fascinating articles on Victorian dress reform and Corset controversy which are  well worth reading. However, the trussing of women into whalebone corsets continued into the early 1900s until the corset firm of Symingtons released the ‘liberty bodice’ in 1908. This was  designed to flatten the bust and release the waist, and was considerably more comfortable than corsets. The liberty bodice soon became near universal wear amongst the women of Europe, and America where it was known as an emancipation waist.

Bibliography

1. Lomax-Smith, M., WOMAN in relation to physiology, sex ,emotion and intellect. 1895, Christchurch, New Zealand: Russell and Willis. 91.

2. Lectures to Women, in Lyttelton Times. 1895.

*   In 2019, young American women had an average waist size of 37 inches.

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