The small wasp waists of women in the nineteenth century and the very tightly laced corsets needed to produce them have a curious fascination for many people of both sexes. Those interested in this subject will find that although most works on the fashions of this period discuss wasp waists in general terms, and some describe the corsets themselves in detail, few make any proper attempt to establish how small their waists really were, or the motives which led to the practice of tightlacing. What follows is an attempt to answer these questions.
Of course, women have constricted their waists with tight belts and corsets to varying degrees throughout history, from Minoan Crete in 1500 B.C. onwards, but never before with such intensity and ruthless determination as in the latter part of the nineteenth century. It continued into the beginning of this, although its ferocity was then abating, and ended abruptly with the First World War. Then it returned to a slight degree for a short period in 1947 with Dior's New Look waspie, only to disappear again soon afterwards.
What, then, is the fascination of the very tightly laced wasp waist? Why did women in the past, and particularly in the last century, squeeze their waists into such tight corsets?
Many works on the history of fashion have pointed out that a small waist is essentially a feminine characteristic, and that to reduce the size of her waist with a tight corset is a way of exaggerating this characteristic as an aid to beauty. No doubt this is so, for it is common for women to try to alter the shape of their bodies to make themselves more beautiful and sexually attractive. This was particularly so in the nineteenth century when to be beautiful and feminine was regarded as more important than it is today, and when fashionable women were 'ladies of leisure' with more time to spend on such matters, and indeed in some cases little else to do. We are of course, considering here only these fashionable women; those who had to work for their living could not have done so in the fashionable woman's tight corsets.
In so far as women have neatened their waists with a slight degree of compression, suffering only minor discomfort in the process, this might seem a plausible reason, but it seems a quite inadequate motive to explain the ferocious tightlacing of the nineteenth century, for example. But before seeking alternative explanations, it is necessary to be sure just how severe tightlacing really was. How small a waist did fashionable women in that period really achieve, and how much did they suffer from it?
This is more difficult to determine than it might at first appear, and fashion historians are curiously divided in opinion. One might think it would only be necessary to turn to records of the time, but these are frequently only descriptive in general terms, and reliable measurements are more difficult to come by. Furthermore, it is insufficient to know that a particular woman had a corseted waist of a certain size unless we know, or can make a reasonable guess at, her uncorseted waist size as well. The two measurements are necessary to appreciate the severity of the tightlacing.
It is also important to distinguish between what most fashionable women wore most of the time, and the extremes that a few achieved on special occasions. There is obviously likely to be a considerable difference between the two, and it may be that different fashion historians are looking at different situations.
There is also a difference between straight sided corsets which compress the whole of the rib cage and produce a shape in which the smallest point of the waist is not much smaller than the ribs immediately above, and the rounded wasp waist corset which curves sharply into the waist and where the greatest constriction is between the ribs and hips. The ribs can only be compressed to a limited extent, even with long practice, and a very small waist is not possible with straight-sided corsets. The waist itself, however, between the ribs and hips is unprotected, and the extent to which it can be constricted is governed only by the amount of force that can be applied and what the wearer can bear.
When considering the very small waists of the middle and end of the nineteenth century, it must be remembered that these were usually produced by rounded corsets giving a sharply indented wasp waist. That does not, of course, mean that there was no compression of the ribs; on the contrary, the lower ribs were greatly compressed to give the rounded shape into the waist. It does mean, however, that the point of the waist was much smaller than the ribs above.
How tight were they really worn? We can, of course, find occasional references to actual sizes in magazines of the times, giving both natural and corseted waist measurements, but these are not necessarily reliable, particularly when they are claims for exceptionally small waists made by women themselves. Confirmation is needed, and the best way to do this is to look at contemporary advertisements and illustrations of corsets, to see what degree of tightlacing they were intended for, and then see if the probable effects of this degree of constriction are evident in the social behaviour of the times.
One has only to look at illustrations of corsets in the Victorian era to see how strongly made and heavily boned and laced they were, and that they were clearly intended for very great compression. In considering how small a waist they were intended to produce, one must remember that appreciable compression is possible without the use of laces at all, simply by holding in the stomach and fastening the corset.
Laces are intended to have a pulley effect, so that the force pulling the corset tight is many times greater than the force applied to the laces. They would not have been necessary, nor would the large number of bones have been required unless very considerable constriction were practised. In addition, eyelets for the laces were often closer at the point of the waist, and a separate lace recommended here so as to increase the tightening force at this point. Even so, women were often unable to draw the laces tight enough themselves, and another person's assistance was needed to tighten the corset to the required size.
An example of the severity of tightlacing then being practised is given by the magazine The Queen in the middle of the nineteenth century, when it refers to waists of 26 inches being reduced to 19 inches, which '... otherwise wellgrown young women are not ashamed to exhibit in public places, to the amazement of all who know what the compression has been by which they were produced.' The corsets of the period were certainly capable of this, and there seems no reason to doubt the veracity of that magazine. They were not praising or advocating such severe tightlacing; on the contrary, they were criticising and objecting to the practice.
It is interesting to note here that throughout the period, women's magazines (with the exception of the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine) were united in discouraging and condemning excessive tightlacing. This is unusual, in that women's magazines tend to encourage and urge women to greater extremes of fashion than the women themselves want. Yet where tightlacing was concerned, women's enthusiasm ran beyond what fashion magazines recommended. It must not be supposed, of course, that most women were wearing corsets as tight as this all day every day, but a number, particularly young women, undoubtedly did so frequently on social occasions.
Towards the end of the century, tightlacing became progressively more and more severe, and some women found that even these corsets could not be tightened sufficiently. All sorts of devices were invented and advertised to enable the waist to be constricted still further.
The problem was that, by this time, the lower ribs were already compressed to the limit. To make the waist even smaller, it was necessary to tighten the corset at the point of the waist only, without affecting the upper part and ribs. Various types of belts, for example, were invented for this purpose, some springing from the corset, others being separate and used as an underbelt.
That these devices were advertised and presumably sold is evidence of the extremes to which waists were being constricted. By the 1890's, we are told that the 'correct' proportions for a young lady's figure had become 38-18-38, and 'correct' here means the proportions the young ladies themselves had decided upon, not the fashion magazines.
These proportions imply a waist of about 27 inches being laced into an 18 inch corset. For some reason, an 18 inch waist was regarded as a kind of 'magic' size which every fashionable woman was supposed to attain, perhaps because with these corsets and belts it was within reach of most normal size young women. But as small as possible was the ideal, so that to maintain the same proportions, a 24 inch waist had to be reduced to 16 inches, for example. Indeed, if they were not doing so, what were these fearsome corsets for?
This is borne out by many facets of social behaviour of the times. The very restricted, inactive lives fashionable women led enabled them to wear such tight corsets, and the tight corsets forced them into inactive lives, making it difficult to distinguish between cause and effect here. Furthermore, the established security and highly ritualistic formality of the times encouraged the rigidity of tight corseting.
The effects can be seen, for example, in their reluctance to walk any but very short distances and then only slowly and carefully, or in the invention of the 'tea gown' which was to enable them to appear in the afternoon without tightening their corsets and without the fact being evident. More important was their tendency to faint at the slightest exertion, shock or excitement; young ladies were even said to have fainted on being kissed! It is these frequent fainting fits that suggest that they were so tightly laced as to be already near to fainting, and it needed little or sometimes nothing at all for them finally to succumb.
We can also read how some women's faces, necks and arms were red and flushed on fashionable occasions, the result of the compression of the abdomen and internal organs into such a small space that the blood was squeezed into the upper and lower regions of the body, (like a tube of toothpaste squeezed in the middle). Some of the consequences of this are discussed later, but we should note here that very severe waist constriction is necessary to produce this effect.
These secondary effects are in many ways the best evidence we have that extreme tightlacing was being practised, since they are not dependent on boasts or reported measurements.
There is also evidence that a very few, usually young women, were on occasions constricting their waists to the very ultimate that is physically possible, and two strong women were sometimes needed to tighten their corsets to the extent they demanded. Even then, some of them were not satisfied, and there was talk in some fashionable circles of having a rib removed to enable their waist to be made smaller still. It seems highly improbable that such an operation was ever carried out, but the fact that it was ever even suggested is evidence not only that for these few, tightlacing had reached its very ultimate limit, but of their almost fanatical determination to have the smallest waist possible.
This was true even in midcentury. In the 1860's, the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine was exceptional in that it encouraged extreme tightlacing and published a number of letters from girls and young women claiming to have constricted their waists to the most incredible degree, although it is not always clear whether they were claiming to have worn them regularly or only on a single occasion. A 27 inch waist laced into a 16 inch corset or a 23 inch waist constricted to 13 inches were the sort of sizes claimed; one schoolgirl even boasted she had squeezed her waist to 11 inches!
It has been suggested that many of these letters were not genuine in that they had been written by the editor, and were not real correspondents at all. Whether this was so or not may not be as important as it at first seems however, because even if they were real correspondents, that would not prove that the waist sizes they claimed were in fact genuine.
The importance of this correspondence (whether genuine or not) is the fact that it was published in a respectable woman's magazine, and in the evidence it provides of the extraordinary fascination that small waists and extreme tightlacing had for Victorian women. To wear their corsets as tight as they could possibly manage and to boast of the small size of their waist, to admire (or envy) others who had achieved an even smaller waist than they could themselves, to read of women who bad attained the most incredibly small waists, it was a subject in which they showed perennial and enthusiastic interest.
Some forty years after these letters in the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, there appeared on the fashionable scene Mme. Polaire, who certainly regularly corseted her waist to 13 inches. Being an actress and in the public eye, both on the stage and in society, her 13 inch waist is fully authenticated. We do not, unfortunately, know her natural uncorseted waist size, but it is unlikely to have been less than about 21 inches..
It might be suggested that Mme. Polaire was unique and that no other women reduced their waists to this extent, but it seems more likely that there were a few others who did so, but whose corseted waist measurements were not recorded because they were not well known. Mme. Polaire's waist does in any case lend some credence to the earlier claims in the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine Its readers were wholly women, and they must have been prepared to believe that such extreme waist constriction was at least possible.
It is also interesting to note that claims or boasts of extreme waist constriction at different periods in the nineteenth century were of about the same extent. A reduction of say 27 inches to 18, i.e. of about one third does not seem to have been sufficient to boast about. A reduction of one half seems never to have been claimed, and is presumably impossible. The claims for extreme constriction were usually for a reduction of about two fifths. The 1860's claim of a 27 inch waist to 16 is almost exactly this, and 23 inches to 13 just slightly more. Mme. Polaire's waist must surely have been reduced by about this fraction, and this consistency does suggest actual experience and reality.
Leaving aside these few exceptional cases, however, there is no doubt that many fashionable young women were, at the end of the century, constricting their waists by about one third on social occasions. How often they did so and for how long at a time depended on their circumstances of course. For some, it would have been only on rare occasions, for others a daily occurrence. Nevertheless, they would certainly have taken every possible opportunity to obtain relief, loosening their corsets whenever they could and then having them tightened again when they had to reappear fashionably dressed.
What of the others, perhaps the majority of women, who were not so enthusiastic to be in the forefront of fashion? In some ways these are more difficult to determine, being less well documented, but we can assess from the waist sizes that were regarded as exceptionally small, the sizes that were regarded as normal and unremarkable. From this and from the general descriptions we have of the fashions of the time, it seems likely that a woman would not have regarded herself as acceptable on a fashionable occasion unless she corseted a 27 inch waist to about 21-22 inches or 24 to about 19, for example. This is also likely to have been about the sizes that those who sometimes reduced their waists by a third would have usually worn on less important occasions.
Of course, women would not have divided neatly into these two classifications, and 27 inch waists would have been reduced to all sizes from 22 to 18 inches, and there would have been some who did not tightlace at all. Nevertheless, these do represent two distinct types; those who wore corsets no tighter than they had to, and those who wore them as tight as they could possibly manage.
We now have a fair picture of the sizes of fashionable women's wasp waists during this period. This picture is easy to describe, and people reading about them today are apt to assume that Victorian women were made that way, without appreciating what they had to suffer in those corsets, not only the many young women who made their waists as small as they possibly could, but the majority who were nevertheless very severely corseted. Nor did critics of the practice in the nineteenth century discuss this aspect very much; they tended to concentrate on the more visible and obvious effects such as short breath, fainting fits, lassitude, indigestion, flushed faces and arms etc. What the woman herself suffered was referred to only occasionally and then only indirectly.
Perhaps this was because the Victorians accepted pain and suffering in a way we do not today, and to suffer in silence without complaining was regarded as a virtue. Writers describing the social scene of the times also seem to overlook or ignore the extent to which a fashionable young woman's life was dominated by the agony of her wasp waist corset.
The medical profession, however, was more outspoken. The Lancet commented on the way in which women tortured themselves with tight stays and belts ... and the word 'torture' is not one the medical profession uses lightly. They were, not surprisingly, highly critical of the practice.
Try to imagine a fashionable young lady in the 1890's with a 24 inch waist dressing for a social occasion and being laced into a 16 inch corset (or some other sizes in proportion). It involved an hour or more of pulling and struggling at the laces by a strong muscular maid employed for that purpose. Her sides and ribs were subjected to considerable pressure, but we have seen that the greatest constriction was between the ribs and hips, and it was undoubtedly her stomach that suffered most.
By the time the 16 inches was attained, all her internal organs were squeezed so agonisingly that she would have been writhing and bent double were it not for the rigid corset which held her body straight. Her face was covered in perspiration and she was dizzy and near to fainting, her whole body throbbing and pounding under the pressure and she could hardly totter across the room. She was gasping and panting for breath, not only because of the pressure on her ribs, but because normal breathing affects the abdomen and diaphragm as well, and the intense squeezing of the stomach prevented any expansion there.
Then, her toilet complete, she would attend the social occasion concealing the agony she was in as best she could, the world seeing only the beautifully and elegantly dressed young lady. There could be no relief until the occasion was over, and she could only hope that somehow she would get through without actually fainting. Then at last she returned to her bedroom, and frantically and desperately undid the laces and breathed a tremendous sigh of relief as the corset expanded, and its agonising grip was mercifully relaxed.
It is only by imagining herself in the scene described above that a modern woman can appreciate what it was like to be laced into a very small wasp waist corset, and she is likely to shudder, regarding it as more like a Medieval dungeon and torture chamber than dressing for a fashionable occasion. Yet a number of young women did torture themselves in this way, and a few to an even greater extent than this. Looked at dispassionately and objectively, it was a curious and extraordinary practice. Why did they do so?
To say, 'it was the fashion', is really no explanation at all. Any particular woman would have given that as a reason, but that does not explain why it was the fashion, or why women were prepared to follow a fashion that was such torture.
Generally speaking, women's fashions satisfy the unconscious motives of women themselves, and it is to the unconscious motives of the women of the period that we must look to provide an explanation of the wasp waist. Before doing so, however, we should examine other theories that have been put forward. Probably the most common assumption is that they wore these wasp waist corsets to please and attract men, and this seems a suitable place to discuss the reasons why it should have done.
There is probably no other device which women have used as an aid to beauty which has such a profound effect on them as a tightly laced corset. Even such extreme deformities of the past such as Chinese foot binding or giraffe neck affected only that particular part of the body, whereas the corset, by compressing all the internal organs, affects the behaviour of her whole body and her mental attitude as well.
Its most obvious and primary purpose is to make the waist small, and in spite of all its secondary effects this probably is its most important attraction to men, for as we have seen, a small waist is essentially feminine. This makes the hips and bosom seem larger by contrast, although this is only a secondary effect. We have seen too, that when very tight, it makes her pant for breath, and this produces a heaving bosom, also making it appear larger by drawing attention to it.
An interesting point here is that it used to be thought that women's breathing was fundamentally different from men's, and that a woman breathed solely by use of the upper ribs whereas a man breathed by the additional use of the lower ribs and diaphragm. In fact there is no difference. The doctors had been misled by the compression of the stomach by women's corsets which prevented movement of their diaphragm and lower ribs, and forced all their breathing into the upper part of their chest; further evidence, if such were needed, of how widespread and severe tightlacing was.
A tight corset also affects a woman's walk, preventing slouching or striding, and forcing her to adopt a slower, more graceful and elegant walk, giving her hips a swaying movement. It makes all her movements less aggressive, giving her a submissive, helpless appearance, and when as ferocious as it sometimes was in the nineteenth century, a woman was indeed helpless and relied on a man's assistance for anything that required exertion, needing his arm at every step, every movement. All this was undoubtedly attractive to men of the period, and he was flattered to think that she suffered the agony of those corsets to please him. In this he undoubtedly deceived himself.
The theory that women wore these tight corsets because men liked wasp waists is not really tenable. So many aspects of women's fashions have been obviously unattractive to men but that has not prevented women following them if they satisfied their unconscious desires. Nor is it likely that women would have suffered such agony for that reason. They may have wanted to attract men, but not to that extent.
It has sometimes been suggested that women were compelled by men to wear these tight corsets whether they wanted to or not, but this is surely even more improbable. There may have been isolated instances of a man forcing his wife, for example, to have a certain waist size, but these must have been very rare. Since when have men had any say at all in what women wear, let alone dictate to them? It was the women themselves who decided how tight their corsets were to be. No doubt some young girls were forcibly put into tight corsets; indeed we can read of cases where they were tightlaced to extremes and then being made to wear them all night, the laces being sealed so that they could not loosen them. But it was their mothers or other women, not men, who made these decisions and carried them out.
Another theory is that tightlacing was symbolic of the rigid moral attitude of the times, and this seems to be coming closer to the truth. It has been pointed out before that these things go together; rigid sexual morality, tight corsets; loose or permissive morality, no corsets. The words 'straightlaced' and 'loose woman' are part of this phraseology and symbolism. But why should this be so?
The theory is advanced here that the clue lies in the sexually arousing effect that tight corsets and belts have on some women. There is nothing new about this in itself, and although most women today are unaware of the fact, in times when corset wearing was normal, it was well known. Long before the Victorian age it was said that, 'tightlacing kindles impure desires', and one young lady writing in the nineteenth century said naively, 'I find the sensation of wearing corsets delightful, though they are so tight I can hardly breathe ... I generally sleep in stays.'
The reason for this effect is mainly that constriction of the blood vessels caused by tight corsets or belts results in congestion and engorgement of the pelvic region, and consequent stimulation of the sexual organs. We have also seen that when a corset is very tight, blood is squeezed into the upper and lower parts of the body, adding to the engorgement of the pelvic regions. The result was that some women found increasing sexual stimulation as the corset was progressively tightened. Sometimes there may also have been some direct pressure on the pubic region from the busk used in some types of corset.
Was it then a desire for the sexual stimulation of tight corsets that was the unconscious motive for the fashion of the wasp waist, and particularly for the extreme tightlacing of the Victorian era? This period was probably the most rigidly and sexually moral for centuries. During such times, women are denied normal sexual gratification to a great extent, and indeed in the nineteenth century, girls were supposed to know nothing whatever about sex, and certainly not have sexual feelings of any kind. It seems that the more women have been denied normal sexual gratification, the more they have tightened their corsets.
Now it is not for one moment suggested that every woman who wore tight corsets did so because she was conscious of sexual stimulation; of course not. What is suggested is that a large number of women found a vague feeling of satisfaction in being tightly corseted, and being quite unconscious of its nature, rationalised the need for them. Those who tightlaced to extremes were more likely to be doing so conscious, of its effect on them, although sex was such a taboo subject in those days that they would not have described it in that way, even to themselves.
If this is accepted, then a number of otherwise inexplicable facets of Victorian tightlacing fall into place. Throughout the nineteenth century, and particularly the latter half, the battle raged over the wearing of tight corsets. Those concerned with health, dress reform, women's freedom and the puritanical were united in violent opposition to them. Fashionable women themselves, however, brushed these objections aside contemptuously, and found every conceivable justification and improbable reason why tight corsets were essential.
They were supposed to be necessary to 'support the stomach muscles', for example, or to 'strengthen the internal organs', or to 'aid the development of the chest', and women who tightlaced to extremes claimed to have remained in perfect health, as though that were in itself a reason for doing so. Some of the reasons they invented were more revealing, however. For example, that tightlacing was beneficial 'as it released the blood from an inactive locality and le it free to be used in the brain and elsewhere'. We have seen where! Then they invented the 'magnetic' corset which was supposed to have some mysterious invigorating powers ... surely no comment is necessary here.
Of course, no reference to the sexual consequences of tightlacing could possibly have been made openly in Victorian times, and we cannot expect to find any direct mention of it in the literature of the period. On the contrary, it was its supposed moral purpose which was used as one of the justifications. For example, it was said of the tight corset that it 'is an ever present monitor, indirectly bidding its wearer to exercise self restraint; it is evidence of a welldisciplined mind and well regulated feelings'. But when we look more closely, a different picture emerges.
The comment in The Queen quoted earlier is a case in point, when it referred to 19 inch waists which young women were not ashamed to exhibit in public places. Why should they have been ashamed if tight corsets were a display of strict morality? Surely this wording is an indication that women accepted that there was a sexual aspect of tightlacing provided it was referred to in this roundabout way; and of course, anything to do with sex was referred to in a roundabout way in those days.
The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine in the correspondence it published on this subject and in some of its lines of verse also suggested discreetly that tightlacing would produce pleasurable sensations, and by implication, sexual stimulation. It is irrelevant whether these were genuine letters or not; the fact they were published in a respectable woman's magazine with a large circulation is evidence that women understood and accepted the implications. Indeed, some young women may have been pleased to be given secret encouragement to attain a very small waist when they were being criticised by others for wearing excessively tight corsets.
The objections by the puritanical are also relevant. To most Victorians, provided behaviour was moral, that was sufficient; but to the puritanical, no sexual stimulation was permitted at all. Hence their violent opposition to tight corsets which one might otherwise have thought they would have approved of. They obviously understood their real purpose.
We are now in a position to understand why wasp waists were fashionable in the nineteenth century, and indeed became progressively smaller. Individually, women complained at what they had to suffer in their corsets, but it is not unusual for women to complain at what they have to suffer to follow a particular fashion, yet at the same time find reasons why they must follow it to satisfy unconscious motives. So it was with tightlacing.
We have seen how they derived unconscious sexual satisfaction from their corsets, satisfaction they were otherwise denied and could not admit to wanting, even to themselves. In order to continue to derive this satisfaction, they had collectively to invent reasons why corsets were essential, and they had to be of the 'corsets are good for you physically and morally' type for the justification to be acceptable in those times. Having invented them, many women undoubtedly believed them in spite of their absurdity, because they unconsciously wanted to. They were then obliged to suffer the consequences, which they were only too conscious of and which they complained about.
Once wearing tight corsets had become normal for fashionable women, it was inevitable that those who were particularly susceptible to the sexual effects of tightlacing should want to tighten their corsets more than most. Unlike the majority, they were probably conscious of its effect on them, but could not admit to themselves either the nature of the effect, or their desire for it. Thus they unconsciously sought an excuse that would make it essential for them to wear their corsets very tight, and one which would enable them to justify themselves against public criticism.
The 'corsets are good for you' idea was insufficient for this purpose, and so, quite unconscious of their reasons for doing so, they enthusiastically adopted the fashion of the very small wasp waist. By insisting that this was the ideal figure, judging each others beauty by the size of their waist, and being determined that their own waist must be at least as small, and preferably smaller than any other, they set up a vicious circle which demanded ever smaller waists, ever more ferociously tightened corsets, and what they unconsciously sought, ever increasing sexual stimulation.
As we have seen, some on occasions tightlaced to such extremes that the agony became almost unbearable, and they complained bitterly at a fashion which caused such suffering. Individually, they would have said that they had to do so to be in the fashion. So they had; they were trapped in the fashion that their own unconscious minds had created ... for no one else had done so.
Criticism of such extreme tightlacing, particularly on health grounds, became more and more vocal, for the justification that it was the ideal figure was inadequate morally. Nevertheless, in spite of the agony, they unconsciously wanted to keep their wasp waists, and they fought off all attempts to change the fashion, claiming that they remained in perfect health and that it was necessary to suffer to be beautiful.
This brings us to those few who tightlaced to the very ultimate possible, the 13 inch waist of Mme. Polaire, for example. This must have been such excruciating torture that a considerable degree of masochism and exhibitionism would have been necessary. These are, of course, words they would not have understood, but they must have derived a perverse satisfaction from the gasps of amazement that their tiny waists would have brought, and to have seen other women shudder as they tried to imagine their own waist being squeezed into that corset.
It may be said that tightlacing to this extent bears no relation to what normal women were wearing, and this is undoubtedly true. But the few extremes of fashions often give an insight into the motives of the majority, and the fact that the majority were prepared to admire and regard as beautiful a waist so small it could only have been produced by suffering torture, is an indication of the extent to which women in general were fascinated by extreme waist constriction.
How else can one explain the passionate enthusiasm and determination of Victorian women for the ruthless and ferocious tightlacing they subjected themselves to, except from powerful unconscious sexual motives. No other explanation seems adequate.
It is interesting that this theory also holds for the brief period during which waspies were worn in 1947. Then, the war had just ended and women were looking forward to life and love again and to the men returning home. But the men had not yet returned, and until they did, the girls began to squeeze their waists into tight waspies. Of course, they were not tight by Victorian standards and they were waspies, not corsets, because corset wearing requires considerable practice. A waspie, which does not compress the ribs very much except the lowest, could be tightened appreciably without very much effort. Furthermore, it did not restrict normal activity or movement like a corset and was more appropriate to the times. But very soon, the men did return, the girls were satisfied, and the waspie disappeared.
Today, we live in a time not so much of loose morals as no sexual morals at all, to a degree unprecedented in history, and it is of course a period of no corsets. What of the future, and will we again see a fashion for the wasp waist? Forecasting the future of women's fashions is a hazardous occupation. How many people in the 1920's would have believed that women in 1947 would be wearing tight waspies? How many in 1947 would have believed that women in the 1970's would be wearing miniskirts?
Nevertheless, however rash it may be, it seems essential to conclude with a prediction for the future of women's waists. Fashions do not remain static or proceed continuously in one direction, although at any given time, many women assume they will. They recur in cycles, but they are not regular cycles and do not exactly repeat the previous ones. Furthermore, the extent to which any fashion is taken at its time in the cycle depends on the moral and social climate of the times and the unconscious motives these create.
Undoubtedly, the fashion for a small waist will return, not next year or the year after, but in some years time. The questions are what shape it will take and how small it will be.
While the present lax moral climate continues, waists are not likely to become very small, and a fitted or only slightly nipped waist is most probable. If, however, the moral climate does change, then a more tightly constricted waist is likely.
What shape will it be? A return to the rigid corsets of the nineteenth century seems highly improbable. They are quite unsuited to the speed or activity of modern life, and this seems unlikely to alter. A return to the waspie is possible, but just as the corset shrank to a waspie, so it seems more likely that the waspie will shrink to a narrow belt.
My prediction therefore, is for a sharply indented wasp waist, produced by a narrow underbelt, about two inches wide or less, slotted between the ribs and hips. This has the advantage that it can produce a very small waist whilst allowing maximum mobility and flexibility of movement, and can be tightened by the wearer herself to a considerable extent without much difficulty.
How tight these will be worn depends on how much the moral climate changes. A return to more normal moral standards may seem as improbable to women now as the present moral laxity would have seemed to others thirty years ago, but once sexual morality has moved as far as it can in one direction, history has shown that it will not remain unaltered, but will swing back to the opposite extreme; and the further it has gone in one direction, the further it will swing to the other. Indeed, we are probably now at the nadir of the reaction from the Victorian period. A violent swing of the pendulum to strict sexual morality seems likely therefore in some years time.
As we have seen, strict morality is usually accompanied by a fashion for very small tightly constricted waists. If morals do change to this extent, then we are likely to see belts such as these worn progressively tighter and tighter, until many fashionable women will on occasions be pulling them as tight as they possibly can using all their strength. No doubt women's unconscious minds will invent reasons why they should have to do so, just as they have done in the past, perhaps, for example, regarding a small waist as a demonstration youth and virginity, as well as saying, 'it is the fashion'.
Just how small it is possible for a woman to squeeze her waist by pulling her own belt tight is difficult to assess today. Whatever size she does attain, however, once small waists have become the fashion, there will inevitably be a few ultra smart and fashionable young women who will be determined to have a waist smaller than anyone else's, and to do so these few will need another's assistance to help them tighten their belts to a greater extent than they could themselves. Ultimately, there may be the exceptional and enthusiastic young woman who will on occasions insist that two people pull at her belt with all their strength, tightening it to the very utmost, in the quest for the smallest possible waist.
This prediction may sound wildly improbable today; the fashions of a different age usually do. Seen in the context of the size and shape of waists during the last 150 years or so, however, it would not in fact be very extraordinary at all. What women have done with their waists in the past they may well do again in the future, and they may torture themselves with fiercely tightened belts no less than Victorian women did with the tightest of corsets.
Women today will shudder at the thought, and will almost certainly refuse to believe either that fashions will change to this extent, or that women will ever again torture themselves to attain tiny wasp waists. They may be right; but women in the past have often refused to believe in the fashions that the moral and social climate and their own unconscious minds would force them to adopt, and have subsequently been proved wrong.
Who knows what the future will bring?
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