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“Corsets and Crinolines” by Norah Waugh – an overview

This post is a transcript of my video, “Book Review: Corsets and Crinolines” which you can view here:

“Corsets and Crinolines” is a book containing historical summaries, corset diagrams and patterns, and collection of period letters, articles and other fashion publications directly pertaining to women’s undergarments. Written in 1954 when corsets and fluffy skirts were coming back into fashion; Ms Waugh observed how fashion trends were cyclic and discussed how small waists and big skirts came in and out of fashion 3 distinct times in history. Each of the three eras are given their own chapter:

  • Chapter 1 is dedicated to the 1500’s – 1670 when the pair of bodies became popular and the farthingale (the predecessor of the hoopskirt) was first seen in Spain.
  • Chapter 2 is from 1670 – 1800 when the stays and hoop petticoats were fashionable.
  • Chapter 3 is from 1800 – 1925 when the corset (as many of us know it today) were popular, as well as the crinoline (in the Victorian era) and the bustle (in the Edwardian era).

The Chapters

Each of these chapters contain a section on the history of these garments: how they came to be , how they spread in popularity, what they were made of, etc. The next section in each chapter contains references to the garments from contemporary sources – bits and pieces of people’s journals, diaries, poems and song lyrics, articles from old newspapers. One thing I found interesting is how in every era, there are people who both love and detest the fashion. One particular entry I noted was written by a man who was convinced that corsets and hoopskirts were a sin because it allowed a woman to lie about about the shape of her body – they gave the impression of a small waist and wide birthing hips until she removes the garments. I can see how that would be a disappointment, but a “sin”? That’s a bit of a catch 22 since a lady would be considered loose and indecent if she hadn’t worn this foundation gear.

The Illustrations

Corsets and Crinolines cover. Link will take you to Amazon.

As far as the illustrations go, there are over 100 illustrations in this book. All illustrations are described and listed in the front of the book so you can find the page of what you’re looking for. Some of these visuals are old paintings done as far back as 1560’s, all the way up to photographs taken in the 20th century. There are portraits of ladies, caricatures and fashion/costume sketches. This book also contains a ton of patterns. Every section includes scaled-down patterns of the stays, the corsets, and the hoopskirts, true to the period, so you can make your own. Later editions of this book include a legend with every pattern, showing how much each one should be scaled up.

The Appendices

There are four appendices total: the first two are instructions on how to construct corsets and hooped skirts. The third appendix talks about “supports” (the bones) – the book touches on everything except whalebone – they discuss geese quills and cane in corsets, saplings in farthingales and steel hoops in crinolines. The fourth and last appendix is entirely dedicated to whalebone: the book explains where it comes from, (the cartilaginous jaw of the baleen whale), and the fishing industry and its role in economy – how people reacted to the rising prices in baleen when whales became endangered.
Lucy’s side note: 
If you have never seen what baleen looks like, watch Disney’s Finding Nemo at the part where Marlin and Dori are trapped in the whale

Lastly, there’s a glossary of terms in the back and a pretty exhaustive index.

Who is this book for?

This is a must for fashion historians and those interested in first-hand accounts of fashion. You can buy it for the patterns, there are approximately 25 patterns included so it works out to $2 per pattern – just be aware that there are no step by step instructions.

One important thing to note is that many of the contemporary sources are in French. This isn’t a problem for me because I can somewhat read French (I read it a lot better than I speak it, anyway) but if you can only understand English then only about half of the written content of this book will be useful to you.

The cheapest place I have been able to find this book is on Amazon. You can also see select pages inside the book on the Amazon site.