When thinking of corsets, the picture that usually comes to mind is that of a tiny waisted Victorian lady, wearing a tightly laced, heavily boned contraption that looks more like a source of pain than a piece of clothing. While this is true to some extent, the first, confirmed corset as a piece of underwear, originated in Italy and was introduced to the women of France in the 1500’s. The long, tight bodice, which was worn under the clothing became popular, and the emphasis was on flattening the chest so that your chest bulged seductively over the top of your bodice. The belly was held relatively flat, but this was not the focus, and there was no attempt to tighten the waist.
Typically made out of multiple layers of fabric, held together by glue, the corset was laced tightly at the back, but there were none of the rigid bines or other similar elements that we see later. As an item of clothing they were worn only by the rich, who were able to afford such things as fancy underwear, and women without money to burn on such luxuries were left to live with big, lace-up bloomers to keep their butts warm and no upper garments to stop the girls swinging freely in the breeze.
19 The Lady In Red
Between the 1580’s and the 1630’s there was a trend in England for what has become known as the “pregnancy portrait,” and this example is thought to be Anne, the wife of Sir Philip Constable Bt, of Everingham, Yorkshire, who had several children between 1618 and 1630.
It is unclear why the craze started but as it was the wife's role to pop out as many healthy little puppies as she could to carry on her husbands family line it is possible this was a type of showing off and that the portraits served to say “Hey, look at us, we’re a successful and fertile family.”
The other possibility for the craze is much darker.
At a time when pregnancy and childbirth were incredibly hazardous for a woman, families of wealth could have been commissioning portraits of the expectant mothers
in order to have something to remember them by if they, as was entirely possible, lost their lives while giving birth. Until this time pregnancy was seen as a regular part of everyday life but still something quite private.
However, the commission of a portrait was not a cheap endeavor, and you would only pay someone to come to your home and immortalize you on canvas if you intended to display the finished product for everyone to see. For this reason, these paintings would generally be objects of pride and would be shown in a public area of the house.
18 The Mom-To-Be With The Pearl Necklace
This portrait was by the same artist as the first but was painted earlier and is one of the rare sixteenth-century paintings to show the subject smiling. Usually, a woman smiling in this way would be seen as undignified, and they would instead be expected to sit with a neutral expression, but it is refreshing to see a painting of a woman who is clearly depicted as feeling cheerful. The drawing next to it is of a typical corset of the time, in which a woman would never be seen wearing by anyone other than her husband and lady's maid.
Before the pregnancy portrait became the Tudor homes “must-have” item, it was unusual for a woman to be shown as unambiguously pregnant in this way, despite the fact that most women of childbearing age spent most of their lives in that state.
The identity of the mom-to-be here is unknown but her sumptuous dress, with a vast number of pearls sewn on to it, indicates that she is from a family of high status and wealth. Monochrome fabrics, sometimes decorated with pearls as in this painting, were the height of fashion for both the male and female elite during the 1590s.
The pearls she has adorning her dress and hair were seen as a symbol of purity and therefore appropriate for a faithful and fruitful wife. Indeed, the preacher Thomas Becon wrote in The Book of Matrimony, London, 1564: “as the woman’s duty is to be in subjection to her husband: so likewise she is bound by the commandment of God to be chaste, pure and honest ... that whosoever beholdeth her, may justly seem to look upon a perfect pearl of precious purity.”
17 Who's The Lady In The Baby Bib?
As the Georgian era emerged, men and women developed a fondness for mile after mile of fabric and ruffles, as seen in this dress, which is topped off by a bib that tied around the neck to make breastfeeding easier. This spectacular garment is worn by Anna Margareta von Haugwitz who was a German noble, married to the Swedish count, Carl Gustaf Wrangel.
As a poor orphan, Anna Margareta met her husband-to-be Carl Gustaf Wrangel in the Swedish military camp and the marriage caused a scandal as the couple met, fell madly in love and married because they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. This was something that was almost unheard of at the time.
The couple had eleven children in twenty years and the timing of their children, as well as the length of time they lived, reflects what was average for the day.
Their children were: Hannibal Gustavus -born 1641 and died aged 18 monthsMargareta Juliana - born 1642 and died aged 57, Achilles - born 1643 and died aged four, Augustus Gideon - born 1645 and died aged three, Carl Philip - born 1648 and died aged 20, Eleanor Sophia - born 1651 and died aged 36 during childbirth, Charlotta Aemilia - born 1652 and died aged five, Christina - born 1654 and died aged twoPolydora Christiana - born 1655 and died aged 20 during childbirth, Augusta Aurora - born 1658 and died aged 41 during delivery, Herman - died shortly after birth in 1661.
16 The Secretly Pregnant Laborer
This is a painting of Praskovya Ivanovna Zhemchugova-Sheremeteva, who was born into serfdom in eighteenth-century Russia. Serfdom was a type of slavery where a family would live on the estate of the lord of the manor and work for him in return for a place to live and his protection. Unable to move up the social ladder in any way, they were considered property and little better than, and in some cases less important or valuable than, the livestock on an estate.
As a young girl, she was given to a relative of her master in order to work as a lady's maid, and it was discovered she had a beautiful singing voice. Praskovya was trained as a professional singer and joined a serf opera company started by her master and his son. The son, Nikolai Sheremetev, and Praskovya fell in love and when her master died the couple set up house together, causing a national scandal.
Here she is dressed in traditional clothing of the time, and although she is wearing a corset, it is a typical example from this period, and it does not attempt to flatten or hide her growing baby belly. You might also notice the subtle portrait pendant she is wearing. This is a picture of her love, Nikolai Sheremetev.
15 Not Sad To Be Pregnant, She's Sad To Be Gone
This second portrait of Praskovia was painted when she was 35 years old, pregnant with their first and only child. It is unclear whether she was alive when this was painted or whether it was commissioned after her death which occurred just 20 days after her son Dimitri was born.
It is possible that Nikolai had this painted in memoriam as his love and passion for Praskovia was legendary and he is quoted as saying “'I observed the character and qualities of my heart's desire and found in her a mind adorned with virtue, sincerity, a true love of humanity, constancy, and faith in God.”
Praskovia was already suffering from “consumption” when the couple was secretly married, and it was only a few months after their marriage that Praskovia fell pregnant. In her already weakened state pregnancy and childbirth took a terrible toll on her body, and as she was shunned by society, Praskovia had no moral support other than that of her husband.
Even the few medical professionals at the time, who had limited knowledge anyway, refused to attend her because to do so would end their careers and destroy their own standing in society. Just before she died Nikolai informed Emperor Alexander I of his marriage and requested official recognition, which he granted.
14 The Uptight Victorians
The term corset was first used in England in the 1830’s which was around the time that fashion was changing from the Empire line dress of the Georgian period. These dresses emphasized the shoulders and the breasts but pretty much left the waist alone, and so the corsets or “stays” as they were known up until then had reflected this by pushing up the boobs up and out while ending not far below the chest and leaving the waist alone.
The Victorians rediscovered the waist and maintained their appreciation of the chest and shoulders. This led to a new type of corset, the kind we usually think of when we think of the Victorians,
a heavier, stiffer contraption that required the wearer to be laced into it, usually from behind. In the meantime the Victorians also took being prudish to a new level and as such any depiction of a woman being pregnant be it in a painting, a book, or a photograph was severely frowned upon.
For this reason, photographs from the Victorian era of women who were pregnant are relatively unusual and challenging to find. When a woman did have her photo taken when she was “with child” you would often see her in a pose like this one, with her hands crossed across her bump.
13 The Fun French
At this time clothes were being manufactured on a larger scale then sold in stores or via catalogs. As dresses and underwear became more readily available and affordable, the concept of maternity clothes began to emerge.
The stiff and rigid corsets of the period were designed in such a way that they could not be just worn a bit looser when you were in the family way, so an entirely new product was invented the “maternity corset.”
Adverts for “undergarments” generally were unusual as you would not want to depict something so salacious where a man might see it and become all hot and bothered. A corset for a woman who was pregnant, no matter how respectability married would have just screamed “This Is For Women Who Have [...]” and as such an advert for one would never have got past an editor, even if it had been tried. In Victorian England, even the word “maternity” was too saucy.
The French, however, had no such hang-ups and happily advertised maternity corsets, like this one, in newspapers and magazines. Apparently, the testicles of French men were not going to explode the moment they saw a picture of a woman in her maximum coverage undies.
12 Meanwhile In America
This young woman would have had much more freedom than her counterparts in England because she lived in Manheim, Pennsylvania, and although the US was hardly a hotbed of progressive attitudes towards women at this time, they were, generally, in no way as uptight and buttoned up as the English of the time. This attitude, along with the style of dress allows it to be respectable for this woman to be going to have a portrait taken.
This was taken in 1840, and her large hooped skirt is typical of the style of the time and although you cannot see her waistline because of her fastened coat, it is likely that she would be wearing one of the corsets that were still fashionable at the time, which ended at or near the waist and did extend to, or past, the hips.
Having said that, it is entirely possible that she has foregone a corset entirely as she appears to be heavily pregnant.
The only reason for a corset at this stage of pregnancy, at this time in history, would be to support the breasts and as such her undergarment may have been of a shorter “stay” style.
In an excess of modesty the young woman has left her coat on, and this was probably because to have actually whipped off her jacket and bandied her belly about might have been pushing her luck.
11 The Week Before Willie
This glowing mother to be and her husband were photographed by Wm. Latour, in Sedalia, Missouri in 1861. As in the previous photo the woman has kept on her coat in order to minimize the appearance of her swollen pregnant belly and in this case we can be reasonably confident she is around the nine-month pregnant mark because on the rear of the photo is the inscription “Taken 1 Week before Willie was born.”
As you can see the giant hooped skirts that were so in vogue twenty years before have been replaced by a straighter, although not actually straight, skirt that emphasizes the backside. The same dress would have been worn between pregnancies and it is likely that this woman would be indulging in “tight lacing” which had first become popular in the 1840’s and 1850’s.
Another sign that this is a pretty progressive couple, as well as the fact they are at the portrait studio and immortalizing the evidence of their horizontal mambo, is that the dress is daringly high at the front, possibly as much as three inches off of the floor. Just think, people might even be catching a glimpse of her feet. How scandalous.
10 What Is She Thinking About?
Fast forward another couple of decades, and you have portraits like this one taken in New York, probably in the 1890’s. This outfit does not look like it would be particularly comfortable at the best of times but this was the peak period for tight lacing and women would feel compelled to carry on the practice for as long as possible during their pregnancies.
Waists would be cinched in as tight as humanly possible, with women sleeping in special night corsets to prevent their waist expanding too much while they were asleep. This was not a matter of vanity but one of practicality.
If you let your abdomen expand, without restriction, overnight, then it would be more difficult and subsequently more painful to be squeezed back into the same shape as the day before.
There are records of women who laced until they had a 17-inch waist and would wear a corset that allowed their waist to expand to no more than 19 inches at night because of the pain involved. This tiny waist was thought of as the height of attractiveness, and young ladies considered it essential to nab a suitable man so she could marry well and have children.
9 Entering Confinement
The irony of wearing a corset to produce a tiny waist was that you were doing so to attract a husband, get married and have children, thus expanding that itty bitty waistline you worked so hard to get. As a consequence, many women at this time attempted to stay in their corsets as long as possible and would move to a maternity corset only when there was no other option.
Even some of these maternity corsets gave the wearer the option to lace as tightly as they were comfortable doing, although this was by no means a common practice. Most pregnant women would wear something to keep their stomach and waist as small as was comfortable but the practice of “confinement” in Victorian England gave many women an out.
Once you reached a stage of pregnancy where it was considered “unseemly” to be parading around in public with the evidence of your intimate life on show, a woman would spend most of her time in, or be confined to, the home. This left you free to wear clothes that allowed you to be comfortable and did not require corsets underneath in order for you to pour yourself into them.
The mom-to-be in this photo is likely to be entering that phase at any moment.
8 It Wasn't All Black And White
Pregnancy was not, however, all doom and gloom for the expectant Victorian woman. In most of the photographs available the moms-to-be and, when accompanied, their husbands always look at the very least a bit stern and at worst, positively scary, but there is a simple reason for that.
At this time photographs had to be staged, usually in a studio where the photographer could control the light and a lack of airflow would prevent anything moving and spoiling the picture.
Subjects would have to sit very still as the exposure of the photographic plate would take several seconds so you would be encouraged to have a neutral expression on your face. Otherwise, if you try to hold a smile for several seconds, it comes out with you looking like a deranged psycho.
The fact that the photos of the time are all black and white also gives a dreary impression but there are actually many maternity dresses from this period, and the one above is an excellent example of the bright and vibrant colors that were available.
The woman who wore this dress must have been very wealthy in order to afford something so spectacular when she would only wear it for a very short time. Confinement meant you did not need fancy clothes in which to go out in and only the very rich would be able to indulge in such a luxury.
7 Look, No Men!
These young ladies show what it would have looked like to be pregnant in the 1870’s. American women who were active in the anti-slavery and temperance movements at this time demanded sensible clothing that would not restrict their movement. These reformists said that women's fashions of the time were not only causing them physical and emotional damage but were “the results of male conspiracy to make women subservient by cultivating them in slave psychology.”
They believed a change in fashions could change the whole position of women, allowing for greater social mobility, independence from men and marriage.
In 1873 Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward wrote:
“Burn up the corsets! ... No, nor do you save the whalebones, you will never need whalebones again. Make a bonfire of the cruel steels that have lorded it over your thorax and abdomens for so many years and heave a sigh of relief, for your emancipation I assure you, from this moment has begun.”
While there are no details available about the subjects of this photograph it is interesting to see that it is of two women and there is no husband in the picture. Of course, it is possible he was at work, abroad, or deceased, but even then it would be unusual for a pregnant woman to be so bold as to pose for a photograph with her bump clearly on display and with a friend or sister to accompany her.
6 Not Giving Up Your Seat Then?
The expectant mother in this photograph is held very upright, with a tight upper stomach which is likely to be as a result of wearing a corset.
Despite the rallying calls from some corners of society many women still used tightlacing and corsets to obtain a figure they thought would be desirable to men. This did not end when they were married either. One woman wrote a letter to “All The Year Round” in which there had been much discussion in the letters page about tightlacing.
“I did not commence to lace tightly until I was married, nor should I have done so then had not my husband been so particularly fond of a small waist; but I was determined not to lose one atom of his affection for the sake of a little trouble. I could not bear to think of him liking anyone else's figure better than mine, consequently, although my waist measured twenty – three inches, went and ordered a pair of stays, made very strong and filled with stiff bone, measuring only fourteen inches round the waist. These, with the assistance of my maid, I put on, and managed the first day to lace my waist in to eighteen inches.”
Rather her than me, is all I can say to that.
5 Maternity Corsets Could Be Attractive
The constriction of the waist and flattening of the stomach that was obtained with a corset was no longer desirable when you were pregnant, but women still needed breast support. The bra as we know it was not invented until 1889 and was not widely available until later again, so women who were unconcerned about tiny waists but still did not want pendulous breasts swinging down to their belly buttons still needed support.
For these women, the maternity corset was the answer. A maternity corset would need to be adjustable, so they had laceable slits either down the entire side of the corset, as in this example from the Victoria & Albert Museum. This particular corset is a high end one and also has poppers at the breast to allow for more comfortable breastfeeding. "Maternity waists" were a softer alternative unboned and often buttoning down the front instead of lacing. Both maternity corsets and waists were made specifically to curve around the body, rather than to press the fetus inward and hide it.
The woman in the photo is Lillie Langtry, a famed actress of the time who had a scandalous three-year affair with The Prince Of Wales. She also briefly became the mistress of Prince Louis of Battenberg and was seeing them both, as well as a third man, when she became pregnant. The only person she was sure was not the father was her husband. With all of this being common knowledge it is likely that the potential for scandal from posing and publically publishing a photo of herself, obviously pregnant was not something she was worried about.
4 Meanwhile, For Working Women
As one century turned into another, the upper classes in Victorian England maintained the same attitudes to pregnancy as the previous generation, but it was not the same for women of lower social standing nor for women in other countries. For example, the streets of the goldrush fields in Victoria, New South Wales, Australia, are recorded as having shops selling breast pumps and nipple shields for the nursing mother, something unimaginable in “polite society.”
Back in England, Queen Victoria recalled in later life how she hated being stared at in drawing rooms during her pregnancy,
and this feeling is what made confinement appealing for some women, but women of less social standing and security than the monarch had little choice about seclusion before birth.
Although many women stopped working outside of the home when they got married and had children, many women were required, due to economic circumstances, to continue working, as shown in this photograph taken at the Globe Cotton Mill, Georgia, USA, in 1901. The picture, by Lewis Wickes Hine is labeled with the date and location as well as noting that the woman standing on the left was “with child.” Even though she is clearly pregnant and working the photographer still could not bring himself to be so crass as to say she was pregnant.
3 Don't Mention The Baby
It was not until the Edwardian era that manufacturers, advertisers, and the media finally call around to using “maternity” out in the open in the English speaking press. This did not, however, mean they could go as far as saying pregnant. As this advert demonstrates, you could say maternity, and you could allude to “the entire wearing period” but any direct mention of pregnancy, let alone a baby was still very much verboten.
At this time women were also beginning to be seen in public more frequently when they were expecting, but it remained a novelty, and to some people, it was tantamount to going out with a big sign saying “I am disgusting. I had [intercourse]” and so any woman going out with a baby bump would have to put up with at least some sideways glances and raised eyebrows.
This must have been so difficult. On one hand, you were expected, as a wife, to provide “the comforts of marriage” to your husband and give him children and omen who were unable to do this were made to feel like they were failures. Yet as soon as you found yourself up-the-duff, you were simultaneously congratulated for reproducing for your husband and condemned for being a woman who had allowed a man to defile her.
2 Imagine Putting This On Each Morning
At this time the typical Victorian crest that promoted the exagerated hourglass figure was falling out of favor to be replaced by "the straight-front corset. Also known as the swan-bill corset, the S-bend corset or the health corset", it became popular from 1900, and "it’s name is derived from the very rigid, straight busk inserted in the center front of the corset. This corset forced the torso forward and made the hips jut out in back."
This style of "straight-front corset was popularized by Inès Gaches-Sarraute a corsetiere in France with a degree in medicine." It was apparently less likely to cause harm or injury to the women wearing them since they added less pressure on the woman's stomach and abdomen. "However, any benefits to the stomach were more than counterbalanced by injury caused to the back due to the unnatural posture that it forced upon its wearer."
By around 1910, "corsets began to fall from favor as the silhouette changed to a higher waistline and more naturalistic form." But maternity corsets were still a thing as this pregnancy corset, by R. Loewy, excerpt from "Surgical Paris," March 1911 shows. You can't help but notice that even though this is supposed to be a medical text the woman's face is covered to protect her reputation and dignity.
1 There Is Nothing New Under The Sun
It is easy to travel the internet today and find plenty of discussion about post-pregnancy bodies returning to their pre-pregnancy state. One page will champion the women who barely show a baby bump at nine-months and have killer abs a week after the baby vacates while others display multiple photos of celebrities who “didn’t make it back” to celebrate the fact you don’t have to worry.
Unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon.
Walter Schwieger was a U-boat commander, born in 1885 whose mother was famous as having given birth to him, taken one look and then said “How nice. Now take it away.” The new mom then asked for her underpinnings, and within a day, her "once-elegant figure was returned to its pre-pregnancy glory" thanks to her corsets and an army of maids. "This feat would neither have been easy, nor comfortable, but with her opinions about the importance of her body shape and plenty of strong maids to dress her, it was quite achievable." However, "this act would ensure that Frau Schwieger would never actually regain her true figure without aid."
The postpartum girdle pictured above was from much later than this, around 1955, but that just goes to show just how important the shape of the body after birth has always been for many women.
In theory, I would love to have the sleek, slender, flat belly of my youth but even the thought of trying to get myself into one of these complicated articles is exhausting.
References: tate.org.uk, costumecocktail.com, collections.vam.ac.uk, fromthebygone.wordpress.com, corsetiere.net, Maggiemayfashions.com, motherandbabyhomes.wordpress.com, exhibits.hsl.virginia.edu, pre-raphaeliteramblings.blogspot.com, sucheternaldelight.wordpress.com, jstor.org, sucheternaldelight.wordpress.com