Browsing through photographs of the 1880s to 1900s Chula Vista, one is immediately struck by the wasp waists of the ladies. At this time the ideal woman's shape included a very, very tiny waist. The stylish woman of yore was expected to have an "hourglass" figure achieved by the use of an undergarment called the corset.
I got to thinking about these garments when examining the particularly lovely Gibson Girl- styled dress of May Belle Chapman Starkey, included in the Starkey family story of Chula Vista Historical Society's "Family, Friends and Homes." Posed with her arms behind her to show off to best advantage her 24-inch waist, her somewhat pained expression may reflect her actual physical condition.
Corsets, also known as "stays," were made of fabric stiffened with long steel straps. Depending on the style, there could be two dozen of them. There were many types of stays. Corset shapes themselves varied depending on the styles of the day. For instance, those of the Gibson Girl era pushed the buttocks out to the back, making the desirable "S" shape of the time. Other styles flattened the breasts, and yet others pooched them up and out.
The corset was constructed in two halves, each of which ran front to back. The front halves hooked together and the back halves featured eyelets or hooks that long laces were woven through in the same manner as shoe laces.
Pulling the laces harder cinched the waist to a smaller diameter. Very tight lacing sometimes resulted in cracked ribs. These garments were a regular cause of the malady called "vapors" (fainting). Back problems were a common side effect of this distressful shaping of fashionable female vestiture. Corsets displaced and constricted internal organs and caused injury to digestive, reproductive and respiratory organs.
Later stays often had handy little "suspenders" on them. These suspenders went down (not up) as their function was to hold up stockings. If they weren't on the corset, the fashionista could purchase them separately. They came in various styles, hanging from the waist or a shoulder-mounted type.
Laura Ingalls Wilder described lacing a corset in "Little House in the Big Woods," and there was a scene in the movie "Titanic" showing this. My grandmother, born in the 1890s, believed her corset, which she wore throughout her lifetime, helped strengthen her back. And it probably did, since her muscles were weakened by it to the point that when she was elderly she did need it to keep her upright. Little girls were encased in stays at an appallingly early age. There were even some that had attachments to hold up diapers!
There were also specialty corsets: Some were made for general wear around the house that were less constricting, others were specifically for wear during pregnancy and those for breast-feeding use. There were "ventilating" styles for hot weather and in later years certain versions allowed the female figure greater flexibility during athletic endeavors. And, hey guys, you didn't always get out of this. There were several types of corsets available for you stylish men...
Although considered one of those "taboo" topics, corsets however, were regularly illustrated in newspapers and magazines. The above illustration is from a handy calendar that helped count all 1890's 365 days of pain.