A history of corsets is closely tied to women's status in society

October 16, 1991|By Valli Herman | Valli Herman,Los Angeles Daily News

Scarlett O'Hara symbolized in fiction what many real women in history suffered for beauty.

In a memorable opening scene from "Gone With the Wind," the young heroine held onto a bedpost while a servant struggled to lace Scarlett's corset into an 18-inch waist.

Such manipulation of the human form stretches as far back as recorded history, said Jack Handford, a retired professor of costume history at the Otis Parsons Institute of Design.

"The most recent era of corsetry was the 1950s," Handford said.

The current resurgence of girdles, push-up bras, merry widows and other vanities that bind is another revolution of the fashion cycle, a cycle that often parallels repression of women's freedoms, he said.

Corsetry can reshape the body permanently, as was demonstrated on the Island of Crete in the years before Greek civilization.

"Men's and women's waists were bound with metal and leather corsets," he said. "It misshaped organs, but it wasn't fatal if it was done at an early age. Then it has less effect on the body.

"But nobody lived very long anyway," he said.

Women's wear continued to integrate all manner of stiff structures to change the silhouette of clothing, including whale bones in corsets, wooden hoops in skirts and metal stays in bras.

Stiff chest plates called stomachers were popular for men and women for nearly 200 years starting in the late 1500s.

"I've always been convinced that Elizabeth was known as the Virgin Queen because she wore a wooden stomacher a board pressing down on her waist and hoops to hold out her skirt. No one could get close to her," Handford said.

Even when the women's liberation movement began, progress was mixed. The liberation movement started in the 1920s with the flapper dress, which supposedly got rid of the corset, he said. But then women bound their breasts so they would look like boys, he added.

"Paul Poiret, the French designer (famous from 1910 to about 1915) is given credit for getting women out of corsets. So he put them in hobble skirts which were called that because they were so tight around the knees that you couldn't walk in them.

Earlier in history, the clothing of harem girls reminded them of their servant status.

"Inside the harem, they walked on silken carpets," Handford said. "If they ventured outside, there were sharp stones and glass. They wore 12- or 13-pound anklets of silver. And their only shoe was a platform clog that they held in between the big toe and the next toe.

"You couldn't run very fast in those," Handford said.

An immobilized woman was useful and fashionable in the upper class of China, when only the wealthy could afford a person unable to work.

"The Chinese-bound foot, which the men considered very sexy, is a crippling example. Their feet were bound from the time they were 6 months old into the lotus foot shape 3 to 4 inches long.

"Of course, they couldn't walk, except with someone on either side of them," he said.

But perhaps the most significant modern era of corsetry was Scarlett's time, the late 1800s, Handford said. From that time until the 1960s, women were slavish followers of fashion. It was also during that time that women and the clothing they wore became men's status symbols because menswear had turned so somber.

So if history is any lesson, perhaps the solution to freeing women from fashion vicissitude is giving men more fashion choices. What will it be gentlemen? The cravat, cape or kilt?

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