Women's Work in the Long 19th Century

18 Inches of Fashion - Cultural Context

In the 19th century, some middle-class and wealthy women were slaves to fashion. In a sense, that was their job, looking fashionable at all times in order to impress others. The way a woman dressed was a visual statement of her place in society. "Women of fashion" (a phrase often used throughout the century) were in constant competition, trying to outdo each other by wearing the latest styles and cultivating a physical image in line with ideals of the day. The lady of the mid-19th century "presented herself as the finest example of America's urban class, plumped out above and below, piously exposing a narrow waist" (Haller and Haller 148), but she was often unable to bend over or to exercise.

In the 19th century, what was thought of as beautiful was not always healthy. Some women sought to have tiny waists at all costs--both to contrast with the ideal of broad hips and large busts and to contribute to an overall "hourglass" figure. It was considered unfeminine to eat more than a snack in public, no matter how severe the hunger pangs. The somewhat mythical "ideal" circumference for the waist was thought to be 18-inches; this ideal was "so out of line with normal body dimensions" that women could achieve it only by wearing and tight-lacing a corset (Banner 48). Despite this stereotyped ideal, the actual waists of women who wore corsets came in various sizes. Working women as well as wealthier women sometimes wore corsets, and current research indicates that lacing was more moderate than the hourglass stereotype would suggest. Nineteenth century corset advertisements indicate that waist sizes from 18 inches to 30 inches could be accommodated with a standard-sized corset, and even larger sizes were available (Steele 101-102).

Though opposed by many physicians of the day, ladies' corsets were occasionally marketed in the 19th century as health aids which would improve posture or support nursing mothers, as in the advertisement below from an 1878 Peterson's Ladies National Magazine.

Extremely tight lacing of a corset could lead to fainting and headaches, or even to internal organ damage, but some women endured these problems because they were seeking to embody an extreme ideal of beauty. Though such drastic waist-cinching was not common, its mythology is preserved in popular novels about the nineteenth century. One of the more unforgettable scenes in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind involves Mammy reducing Scarlett O'Hara's waist to a minuscule 17 inches (70-72). The 19th-century corset, therefore, was a symbol of both beauty and pain, of an ideal and the price paid to achieve it. Along those lines, as Lois Banner has said, of "all the elements of women's separate culture, the pursuit of beauty has been...ultimately, the most oppressive" (Banner 14).  

Note: Thanks to our colleague Hope Greenberg, of the University of Vermont, for directing us to Valerie Steele's helpful book, The Corset.


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