Dressing for 1861 – Wearing a Corset


When I was preparing for my full-costume author visit to Manassas in honor of the sesquicentennial last year, I wanted to be as authentic as possible.  I have described in a previous post how the hoop crinoline was actually surprisingly comfortable and freeing to wear (http://blytheforceytoussaint.com/2011/05/07/dressing-for-1861-my-hoop-skirt-arrives/), and I have promised for some time to share more about what it was like to wear the corset.

This type of “wasp waist” was generally only required for fancy dress occasions (and expected only of younger women!), and could be very harmful if done often.

While I had no aspirations to achieve the sort of glamour Scarlet O’Hara achieved with a (God-forbid), 14-inch waist, I did want to experience what the corset would have been like for an ordinary woman to wear.  Note that most of the horror stories about corset wearing refer to the more extreme fashions portrayed above. To achieve effects like that, women would often have to eat nothing all day and have themselves laced as tightly as possible.  Women who did this often damaged internal organs, and it interfered with breathing, digestion, and overall health.  It was also a reason women were seen as having “fainting spells” in those days. Their blood pressure and oxygen intake were compromised by a tight corset.

However, for the ordinary woman who did not “tight-lace” for everyday wear, the effects were nowhere near as extreme. And women did indeed wear them every day.  Most “proper” women would have felt as undressed without a corset on as similar “proper” women would feel today if they were not wearing a bra!

This is the profile most women aimed to achieve for every day wear.

Note, in the picture above that rather than a tiny waist, the look is compact and somewhat high-waisted.  One reason for this profile is that women who were pregnant–which many were much of the time than–could wear conventional clothing for the first months and just loosen the corset bit-by-bit to remain “presentable” until the last couple of months.

You can see also that the look also is rather flat-chested. The goal of the corset–again except for fancy dress–was to minimize the bust rather than highlight it.  Reasonable compression of the entire upper-torso was the goal. Usually proper everyday dresses were high necked and long sleeved (even in warm weather) as exposure of the upper-chest and arms was considered risque in anything but fancy dress.

Anyway, as I outlined in my previous post outlining my plan to dress in full period costume for the Manassas event (http://wp.me/p1olRu-1S), I obtained an authentic reproduction corset to wear.

A genuine reproduction corset as one would have looked in 1861.

When I got the corset, it came with elaborate instructions about how to put it on and wear it. As you look at the picture of the front to the left, you cannot exactly see that the front side fastenings are entirely hook-and-eye. There are several dozen of them.  The goal with a corset, I learned, is to adjust it properly one time using the lacings (at the back) and then use the hook-and-eyes to take it on and off every day.

Note that the corset is worn over a camisole. It would be very uncomfortable to wear directly against the skin.

Back view with lacing. You would not adjust the lacing often in general.

The back view (below)  shows the lacings.  To adjust the lacing, you do need the help of another person. Note that most middle-class women then did not dress every day with the help of servants, so it was important that the corset be something they could manage on their own.

The instructions that came with the corset said to lace it so that it felt close to the body, but did not impede your breathing. It also said you should start adjustments at the bottom and work up.  Note that there are separate lacings for top and bottom adjustments. It is much easier to get the lower half “right” and tie it off and then  adjust the upper half separately to tie it off as well. Once it is adjusted as you want it, double-knot the ties.  As I said, your aim is to not have to adjust it any more than necessary.  Most women only adjusted their corsets for pregnancy or weight loss or gain.  I would imagine, much like jeans can be for modern women, the fit of the corset every day would be a good indicator of how one’s figure is changing or remaining the same!

Taking all of this into account, I asked a friend to come over to help me adjust the corset. I donned my camisole, made sure all the corsets lacings were quite loose,wrapped it around me (sort of like a vest) and then made sure the hooks-and-eyes were all firmly closed (and lined up properly)–they are actually a bit of a chore to close! Then, joking about needing a bed post to hold onto, I asked my friend to tighten it firmly but not too tight.

As she pulled the laces tighter, I was surprised that it really didn’t feel that uncomfortable, but was, in fact rather reassuring in a way. It made me think of jeans again and I venture that somewhat-tight but well-fitting jeans are the modern equivalent of the corset.  We all can remember (especially when young), fitting ourselves into tight jeans for the sake of fashion–and also that it was indeed something one sort of got used to.

In any case, when I was all laced up, I put on my hoop and my dress and got the full effect. I walked around a bit and kind of liked the whole feeling.  With the legs completely free, under the hoop, and the firm posture support of the corset, I didn’t feel as immobilized as I had imagined 19th century women might have.  This remained true when I wore the whole costume for the actual event. Even the over about 8 hours of standing, sitting, and walking for the event was not really that uncomfortable.

However, at this point, I was just trying it on and testing it.  I didn’t wear it that long and then wanted to get back into my ”regular” clothes (jeans and a shirt), so I threw off the dress and quickly unhooked the corset–then nearly collapsed before I could completely remove it!

I had forgotten a warning I had gotten from another woman who dresses in authentic costume. She had told me to unhook the corset slowly  from top to bottom, and now I knew why! I guess, when you unhook it quickly, all the blood rushes back to where you have been constricted, and you can feel very lightheaded.  That is true.  If my friend hadn’t been with me to catch my arm, I probably would have hit the floor.  I did remember, then, after the Manassas event, to undo it slowly, taking a breath or two between every several hooks, and then it was OK.  This is a critical point

Anyway, I didn’t get a picture of myself in the whole outfit that shows things as clearly as the one below does (and the several I did get were lost when I had a very 21st C computer mishap . . .). This dress however is similar to the one I wore, and the woman even looks a tiny bit like me, so this is a good one to use to show what the full effect can be.  Somewhat surprisingly, I’m sort of looking forward to doing it again–and I’ll make sure to get some good pictures!

About Blythe Forcey Toussaint

I have studied 19th Century American history and culture for many years, including a 1992 PhD in 19th Century American Literature from the University of Colorado at Boulder. My academic career included several years as faculty at North Carolina State University and some visiting assignments at the University of North Carolina. I chose to leave academe for industry over fifteen years ago, and have built a career around marketing, training, and business writing. I founded my own consulting company, Performance Trajectories LLC over four years ago and now balance my time between consulting projects and fiction writing. I recently published Year of Disunion: A Novel of the Dawn of the American Civil War. (Available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.) This novel tracks the life of a family in 1861 as the Civil War begins, and as some of them were to be among the civilians who went to watch the Battle of Bull Run/Manassas thinking it would be a fun picnic. This novel also includes events in Washington, Baltimore, Cairo, Raleigh, and Hatteras Island. I am at work on my next novel, working title Gilead’s Fate: The Life of a House that is set in upstate New York beginning in 1811. I come from a line of writers including my grandmother, Anya Seton and great grandfather, Ernest Thompson Seton. I now live in Longmont, CO with my husband and three dogs and finds a lot of writing inspiration hiking the mountains there.
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One Response to Dressing for 1861 – Wearing a Corset

  1. Chris says:

    This was fun to read. I am looking forward to seeing pictures of your next corset endeavor.

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