Did Victorian Women Break In Their Corsets?
Many moons ago, one of my Tumblr followers asked: “Did people season their corsets in the 19th century?”
Not really. But they molded to the body much faster than many corsets made today, and some corsets came out of the factory already seasoned, in a sense.
Victorian corsets were usually single layer and molded quickly to the body
The vast majority of corsets in the 1800s were utilitarian, daily pieces – often a single layer of cotton, with lap seams that were either wide enough to hold a bone, and/or separate channels that were sewn on externally or internally. I have tried some single layer corsets and MANY multiple layer corsets, and single layer corsets always mold to the body faster and season very quickly. If you’ve ever had a mockup fitting, think of how well the single-layer mockup fits you, and how much heavier and stiffer the final corset feels in comparison, even with the same or similar measurements.
I also own some single layer corsets – some homemade, some factory samples, and some that were deliberately commissioned as a single layer like my Bizarre Design corset, and they have all felt fairly broken in after only 1 day.
Victorian corsets had a different construction (and shorter stitches)
In the case of those single-layer homemade mockups or samples that I’ve worn for extended amounts of time, they also started falling apart faster too, mostly at the seams. But why wasn’t this the case in Victorian corsets?
I remember at the Symington museum collections where they have dozens of antique corsets from the 19th century you can touch and study – there were hand-written factory specs of many corsets, but one of them in particular caught my eye because this one said that it was sewn with a stitch length of 26 stitches to the inch (the stitches were less than 1mm long!).
Compared that to an OTR corset today, which has about 8.5-9 stitches per inch. (Of course, thread quality strength matters too, not just stitch length.) With a shorter stitch length, there is less “sliding and redistribution of the threads so you get less of a shear force. And with lap seams, flat felled seams, or seams straddled by a boning channel, these types of seams put much less stress on the thread compared to, say, the sandwich method that is popular today.
Whalebone (baleen) molded to the body with body heat and perspiration
Remember that prior to steel, the corsets contained whalebone which were thinner, lighter and – when exposed to warmth and moisture – the baleen became very malleable and could be bent in pretty much any direction. So when the corset is put on, the warmth and perspiration from the body would soften the corset more – and when the corset was removed, the bones would get the chance to cool and dry out, but could retain the shape of its wearer.
Steel bones do not have these same properties, especially some of the cheaper, rigid, less-comfortable flat steel bones often found in budget OTR corsets.
Side note: Second-hand / hand-me-down corsets were more common than you think!
Anthropologist Rebecca Gibson has studied the skeletons of impoverished French women from the 1800s and she said that it wasn’t uncommon for corsets to be be passed down from mother to daughter, or from mistress to maid – hand-me-downs and 2nd-hand purchases were a thing in the 19th century! So in that sense, the corset was already very much seasoned, but Gibson’s research also showed that just because they were seasoned doesn’t necessarily mean that they fit well – because the corset might not have matched their measurements.
Some corsets were steamed and “pre-seasoned” before being sold
After the industrial revolution in the 1830s, some factories actually steam molded their corsets which is kind of like rapid seasoning before it ever sees a body. Here’s one example from the V&A museum:
Quote from this page:
To improve shape, performance and comfort, manufacturers claimed numerous inventions. One of the most successful was the steam-moulding process developed by Edwin Izod in 1868, and still used in the 1880s to create elegant corsets such as this one. The procedure involved placing a corset, wet with starch, on a steam-heated copper torso form until it dried into shape. The result was a beautifully formed corset, whereby ‘the fabric and bones are adapted with marvellous accuracy to every curve and undulation of the finest type of figure’ (The Ladies’ Gazette of Fashion advertisement, London July 1879).
Victorians were accustomed to restrictive, non-stretch clothing
Almost all clothing today contain at least a small amount of spandex/lycra for comfort and positive ease. With the exceptions, say if someone puts on a nice work suit with no stretch they think it’s confining enough – imagine when they put on a corset for the first time and they’re introduced to the concept of negative ease! I’ve found that when someone is new to wearing corsets, they have a much more positive association with it if they only wear a corset gently for a small amount of time and build up from there (as opposed to taking 6 inches off their waist immediately and wearing it like that for 12 hours). As Ann Grogan of Romantasy says, “You wouldn’t put on a pair of 6-inch stilettos and run the Boston Marathon, would you?”
For this reason, I consider the seasoning process as important for a novice’s body, or probably more important for the body, than it is for the corset.
Victorians, on the other hand, had no stretch in their clothing per se (although pleats and gathers do what they can), and wore stays from childhood. Now, these stays wouldn’t take much (if anything) off their waist, they were corded stays and fastened with buttons instead of laces – but they would be quite snug and be close to fitting their natural waist measurement – such that their waist circumference was probably held more or less constant even as the rest of their body grew.
Tightlacing was less common; light reductions were more the norm
Props to Alexa for pointing this out: Most Victorian women didn’t tightlace, but rather their corsets were worn more for support (bust support and back support), supporting the heavy skirts, and perhaps gentle cinching. So even when worn daily, their wear might not be as rigorous as someone who laces down 6-8 inches and wears it 23/7 today.
This one study from the Victorian era mentions that corsets were typically laced with a reduction of 1.5 to 4.5 inches, with the average being just 2.5 inch reduction from the natural waist (26.5 inch natural waist, and 24 inch corseted waist). When you consider that a reduction of 2-3 inches is recommended during the modern seasoning process, it’s really not all that different from how many Victorians wore their corsets all the time.
How long was a corset supposed to last, anyway?
Another thing to consider is how long a typical corset lasted back then. Some corsets boasted that they’re guaranteed to last 12 months, which implies that many other corsets didn’t last that long (but, as we know from Gibson’s research, hand-me-downs were not uncommon so they probably got a few years of use, and they mended and repaired where they could).
Some Victorian women may have bought a new corset every few years or up to multiple times in a year, depending on the family’s wealth, the quality of the corset, and the amount of wear and tear on the corset from the woman’s activities. But they would likely find it unreasonable to expect a corset to last 5-10 years or up to a lifetime, the way that some people consider modern corsets to last.
So although Victorians didn’t having a seasoning regimen the way it’s been popularized today, their corsets were very different to modern corsets. Today, corsets come out of the factories fairly flat, and often contain multiple layers of fabric (often a mix of fibers too, like polyester). They’re decidedly crunchy due to the starch and sizing, and they contain almost exclusively steel bones (which don’t change properties when exposed to body heat), AND also consider the fact that that people today are not used to wearing restraining clothing.
I hope this answered the question as to why seasoning was probably not done during the Victorian era, but was also likely not required.
If you have any comments or questions on the matter, leave a comment below!