Many years ago in Chicago, while I was attending a Romance Writers of America conference, my sister had friends of ours drive her all over the city looking for a certain type of camisole. This isn’t my only sister or the only crazy one. I have three of them. I didn’t ask for siblings. They were completely my parents’ idea. I was fine with being an only child. But over the years, they have proved useful, and a truce of sorts has been effected. Cynthia always accompanies me when I travel without spouse (because otherwise I would get lost the instant I left the hotel and never be heard from again), and I hardly ever try to kill her anymore.
Cynthia is the Princess & the Pea sister. I cut the labels off most clothing because they scratch. She checks the necklines on knit tops to make sure the side seams are tucked under the neck seam because that little bitty seam bulge irritates her princess skin. If comfort is a priority, this is the girl you want helping you choose underwear. I often follow her recommendations. However, I did not send her all over Chicago looking for the camisoles. That was her special little obsession.
So what would Cynthia do if she had to wear Regency era corsets? I think she might do all right with them. There is a commonly held but mistaken belief that the corsets were horribly uncomfortable and possibly optional (and I am guilty of propagating the myth in at least one of my earlier stories). This may be because people confuse Regency corsets with Victorian ones. The Regency corset was intended to (a) create a smooth line for those high-waisted gowns and (b), in the case of dinner and evening dress, display as much of a girl’s assets as possible, short of toplessness. Not that the topless look was necessarily a bad thing, especially during the 18th century. According to Vyvyan Holland in Hand Coloured Fashion Plates 1770 to 1899, “ in the eighteenth century, and indeed in the first decade of the nineteenth century, the female bosom was not considered to be the shameful object which it became in Victorian days, never to be mentioned and certainly not to be revealed in its entirety.” In one of the plates, dated 1778, from “La Gallerie des Modes”–a fashion book, not a naughty book–an otherwise fully dressed lady displays one breast in its entirety. Her shawl or “mantelet” partially conceals the other.
But to return to corsets: Here are some samples.
There’s nothing like seeing a corset close up, though. I had this opportunity a few months ago at the New England Romance Writers annual conference. Costumer Heidi Hermiller did a workshop on Regency ladies’ attire. This wasn’t simply slides & talk. She brought a mannequin dressed in Regency clothes and undressed her–it–layer by layer, from bonnet and outer garments (I can’t remember whether it was a spencer or a redingote) to underwear. We in the audience got to pass around the clothing. And yes, we fondled it. No one who was in that room wasn’t a Regency nut, and we viewed these garments with the same reverence and longing we–or most of us, at any rate–usually reserve for, say, Colin Firth or Pierce Brosnan or–well, you fill in the blank.
I think what most intrigued the majority of us was the corset. It was surprisingly soft, thanks to the padding, and while it might have been a bit confining once laced up, I imagine it wasn’t much harder to get used to than a bra. And I couldn’t help thinking that the girdles of the 1950s must have been far more uncomfortable. What I liked about the Regency corset is how it made one stand–or sit–very straight, a discipline I’ve always lacked. Had I been required to wear a corset, starting from about puberty, my posture today would be magnificent.
I am not so enamored of the Victorian era corsets–and that covers many decades of torture devices. The tiny waist Scarlett O’Hara was so obsessed with was not a Regency phenomenon but a Victorian one–and not one of the better ones. I say this though I am quite fond of the Victorian era (which puts me firmly in the minority on this blog). Good posture, displaying one’s assets–I can get behind those concepts. But crushing my innards for a teeny waistline? No, that’s like buying beautiful shoes that hurt my feet…which I’ll maybe rant about one of these days before too long.
Right now, though, I’ve got to go see some pigs.