The following survey is transcribed here in an abridged form from the typescript given me by the distinguished military historian, the late Sir Basil Liddell-Hart, who believed it to be authentic. It is stated to be derived from The Gentlewoman, a luxurious weekly which started in 1890. This magazine is, alas, far too bulky for me to have verified the exact date, but the language in which the survey is couched, and particularly the surprising exclusion at the end of the upper classes from the practice of tight-lacing, speak for its authenticity.
In addition to interviews with several leading corsetières, I have been able to elicit a large amount of interesting and valuable information by means of forms of enquiry, which have been sent to many of the best known artistes en corsets in London and elsewhere.
There seems to be but little doubt that tight-lacing is considerably more in favour than it was some years ago. As Madame -- observed, ''women will have waists,'' and during centuries they have vacillated, at the bidding of Dame Fashion, between the excruciating torture and comparative unstayed freedom.
It was with the object of satisfying myself, and gaining information for the benefit of my lady readers in particular, that one day some time ago I called on Madame --, whose extensive clientèle and long business experience makes her opinion of great value.
''Madame -- will see you in a few minutes,'' was the message an extremely slender-waisted young lady assistant brought back, when she had taken my card.
Madame -- disposes of her ''confections'', principally corsets and underclothing, in a semi-private manner at a private house in the West End; and her goods bear the cachet which patronage of Royalty and the aristocracy gives.
The young lady who brought me the message had been instructed to give me any information and to show me anything she could, and so I inspected the stock, which was displayed with charming effect on the various chairs and pegs in the two spacious showrooms, which had evidently once been a double drawing-room.
''An artist in corsets such as Madame really is,'' exclaimed my instructress, ''never fails to fit each type of figure. Madame does not really care to supply ready-made articles at all, but she keeps a certain stock, in about eighteen or twenty types of figures, so as to oblige her clients in case of emergency. Oh, yes! There are special corsets for the stout and thin, and for rowing, tennis, riding, and even bathing. Lady X--, for example, will never wear anything but cardinal satin, fan-stitched with black silk, and trimmed with a particular pattern lace. Then young Miss -- has a fancy for cerise; the Hon. Mrs. -- for pale blue, trimmed with white lace. But here comes Madame herself''.
''No, I do not mind telling you anything in reason,'' said Madame --, ''provided, of course, that you do not let my name slip out. If you were to, I should perhaps lose some of my customers. If you want to mention names, I must tell you very little.''
I satisfied Madame that I should not divulge her identity.
''Most certainly the average waist is smaller, and in my opinion, it is going to be still smaller, than even two or three years back. Many of my customers lace exceedingly tight, although I never approve of the practice nor encourage them to do so. I am not a dressmaker, you see, and therefore I do not want to persuade them to have a hard, wooden figure, so that it might be easier for me to fit bodices. Very few, however, seem to be much the worse for doing so,'' Madame admitted after a pause. ''But of course they must be. Moderate lacing does not in my opinion, cause injury, but it is the tight lacing which is so dangerous.
''What makes women lace?'' continued Madame, repeating my question. ''That I can hardly say. Probably, principally, vanity and the spirit of rivalry. Some few, no doubt, because the sensations of very tight-lacing, when one has got over the pain, are to many women not unpleasant. If you had been, as I was in my early days in Paris, very tightly laced, you would understand better. You see these?'' taking up a pair of white coutil stays, laced with a pale blue silk lace, off a show case, ''well, I made them only ten days ago, and now Miss de L-- has sent them back to be repaired. They are 17 inches, and she has split them slightly trying to get into them. The reason is her younger sister is just home from a fashionable French school in Brussels with a 16 inch waist, and Miss de L--, though she isn't of nearly so slight a build, wants to rival her.''
''Is there much tight-lacing in schools?'' we asked.
''Well,'' replied Madame --, ''not, of course, in most schools, but I know of one - two - three - four - five, yes five, what are called 'finishing' schools, where the young ladies are encouraged to tight-lace to an extreme extent; and two, at least, where the pupils are laced in small, as a matter of course. Oh, I can't tell you the names of these schools, it would never do, but two are in London, and all, except one, of the rest, within a hundred miles.''
''What are the largest and smallest waisted corsets I have ever made? I can't tell you right off from memory for certain, but I believe the largest are thirty-nine inches, and the smallest thirteen inches. I think that I have a pair of the latter size finished for a customer abroad. Miss G--, are the Countess of M--'s corsets packed?''
''No, Madame; they are here''.
They were brought by Miss G--, and Madame -- handed them to me. They were of pale blue satin, beautifully finished, and looking almost too delicate to be touched.
''Does the Countess really wear them?'' I asked incredulously.
''Oh dear yes,'' exclaimed Madame; ''and has what - from a fashionable standpoint - I always say is the best figure I have ever seen.''
''Though my clientèle is so large a one, of course, very few tight-lacers go to such extremes as the Countess; but two young ladies, the daughters of a North country cotton spinner, do; and fully a dozen more of my customers would tape well under sixteen inches. Tight-lacing to such an extent as I have mentioned is mostly indulged in by the ultra-fashionable members of the aristocracy, the nouveau riche class, and the lower middle class.''
''Are children corseted earlier than formerly?'' I asked.
''Most decidedly. Many young girls wear regular corsets at thirteen, and are well laced in from fourteen to fifteen...
Some women seem able to bear almost any amount of lacing in, whilst I have known others to go off in a dead faint when only drawn in moderately tight. Oh yes, I have seen some queer things and still queerer devices for getting slim and getting on corsets two or three sizes too small, laced close. You know some of my clients wear scarcely any underclothing in anything like mild weather. You would hardly credit what some of them risk and go through to get or retain a slim waist''.
(At the next establishment I visited, that of Mrs. --):
There were two other young lady assistants in the shop, which was a large one, and the younger of the two had a waist which it was almost impossible to keep one's eyes off, it was so abnormally slender. I found myself in what might fittingly be described as ''a ladies paradise''. Dainty and extravagantly befrilled, belaced and beribboned undergarments of all shapes and materials, from silk to finest nainsook, were displayed or negligently thrown across chairs or settees; whilst in a sort of alcove or sanctum sanctorum at the end of the room, the lace curtains of which were still pinned up, we caught a glimpse of two life-size figures, on which were displayed the newest departure in underclothing.
Mrs. -- was both courteous and communicative, and the information she gave quite bore out Madame --'s statements as to the increase of tight-lacing.
''I am reputed,'' she said, ''to have the tightest-lacing customers in London; and I think that some of the waists my corsets encircle would be hard to beat. Do you know,'' she continued, ''I think that some of my customers positively like the sensations produced by tight-lacing, or they would never take all the pains they do to get thin, such as dieting and sleeping in corsets, as some of them do.''
''Sleeping in corsets!'' I exclaimed.
''Oh yes, a good many, especially young ladies, do; an opera stay or riding one is a favourite made for the purpose. Let me think. Yes! The largest pair of corsets I have made had a waist measurement of thirty-five inches. The smallest - well, you won't believe me, perhaps, but twelve and a half inches was the size. No, I don't think she will be able to get them close. Every inch under fifteen with most ladies means a tremendous lot of lacing in. I've known a young lady break five or six silk laces, as strong ones as are made, in getting a pair of new stays close.''
''How small is your pretty assistant's waist?'' I asked.
''Miss --'s? Generally about fourteen to fourteen and a half inches.''
''She scarcely seems to mind it at all,'' I remarked.
''Oh no. She is used to it. I find it best for all my assistants to have trim figures; but she has tight-laced to that extent entirely of her own free will. Lots of my customers lace to seventeen, sixteen, and even fifteen inches. I suppose you haven't seen a smaller waist than Miss --'s?''
''Would you like to?''
''Yes,'' I replied, ''if such a thing is practicable.''
Mrs. -- rang a bell.
''Ask Miss -- to come to me.''.
In a few minutes the young lady appeared, and Mrs. -- and she went into the alcove. Another assistant was summoned, and then a whispered consultation took place. After a minute or two we heard Mrs. -- ask, ''Can you bear it?'' and the answer, ''Quite, Madame.''
Mrs. -- voice again: ''There Miss --! I think that the laces are close; tie them tightly.''
Two or three minutes later Mrs. -- and Miss -- came out from the alcove, the latter incased in a long-waisted black satin corset, which made her waist look scarcely larger than her throat. It seemed incredible that any girl - for she was little more - could breathe and move, let alone move about, without much apparent discomfort, when tight-laced to such an extent.
''I suppose,'' said Mrs. --, smiling at my look of astonishment, ''that you will now believe what I told you before, namely, that a well-cut corset and strong arms will make a woman's waist almost any size she may wish. See!'' she exclaimed, taking up a measuring tape off the chair, ''Miss B--'s waist is just thirteen - thirteen and a quarter inches.''
''How long could you bear being laced up like that?'' I asked.
Miss -- smiled. ''Not very long - it is rather painful - half an hour; perhaps an hour.''
Mrs. -- said, just as we were leaving. ''You know, I think tight-lacing becomes a positive mania with some women. There are two of my customers, for instance - theatrical people - who usually wear their waists about nineteen inches. Well, when at home they both screw themselves as tightly as their maids can do it.''
I went to several other leading manufacturers, but the information on the whole was so similar that it does not necessitate detailing at length.
One celebrated artiste en corsets could not grant a personal interview, but promised to give any information on the subject in her power by letter. This suggested to my mind a novel and extended form of inquiry, a kind of symposium on the ''corset question'', the results of which I am able to place before you.
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