Hygeia: Interviews on the Waist measurements Shop-Girls (1893)
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Other evidence: Waistlines and corset in letters (1880-1890)

David Kunzle: ''Fashion and Fetishism''

The best evidence of 13 inches as a permanent acquisition comes from a very different kind of source: the memoirs of the distinguished military authority General Sir Ian Hamilton (pp. 191 and 204; the date referred to is 1870): ''...There were the Alexander Dennistouns at Roselea, a pretty place (where) many roses grew - including a bunch of pretty daughters: Edith, Augusta, Katty, and Beryl, all tall and fit and supple although they had the smallest waists in Scotland, Katty's being 14 inches and the others' 15 inches. The sun-basking damsels of today may raise those streaks of pencil they call eyebrows, but not only was I told this over and over again, but I have squared these circles myself and should know. 'Come along, Katerina' I cried, one lovely afternoon at Armadale, to the lovely Katty Dennistoun as she stood - a dream of beauty under a laburnum tree, croquet mallet in hand, her far-famed fourteen inch waist, her masses of glistening hair twisted into a royal coronet of curls - 'do come along and go snags in the waterproof bath and mosquito net.'''

From a letter written to the late Sir Basil Liddell-Hart by the author of the above, dated from 1 Hyde Park Gardens, W.2., 7 June 1939: ''A line about two of your queries. The first concerned the 14 inch waist of my dear friend Kattie Dennistoun whose photograph I enclose. The fact is still known and can be vouched for by many that her waist was 14 inches and her sisters' 15 inches. She married Sir Marteine Lloyd (who may be found in) Who's Who... Send me back Kattie's photograph without fail.'' From another letter to Liddell-Hart, dated 7 October 1939 (enclosing a later photograph, to keep, of Kattie taken in the '90s): ''Here is one taken after bearing three children. You can still see the remains of the 14 inch waist.''

An unusually authentic-sounding letter to New Fun (30 January 1915, p. 14) was written by Medicus, a seventy-year-old doctor with professional experience coinciding with the whole peak period of tight-lacing, to which he was sympathetic. He testified that he had known a few extreme tight-lacers, notably the patient of a colleague who had died of tight-lacing, and had worn an 11 1/2 inch corset. ''I have had numbers of patients with 16 inch waists, and 17 and 18 was common enough.'' The extremest cases tended to be found among Irish girls. An Austrian countess set a record, at height 67 inches, bust 35 1/2 inches, hips 38 1/4, and waist 18 1/4 uncorseted, and 12 1/2 corseted. Medicus also remembered certain West End shops encouraging salesgirls to tight-lace (cf. below).

The situation as regards claims made of and credence given to low measurements remains roughly the same in the correspondence of the interwar era. Most corsetières and shop girls with experience dating from the pre-war period put the limit at around 15 inches. A long and credible letter from the corsetier Lawrence Lenton (Bits of Fun, 3 January 1920), who claimed to have had ''thousands of clients, and to have made more wasp-waist corsets than anyone in the world,'' states that he had over the last ten years made less than a dozen size 13. The London Life correspondence, unlike that of previous eras, often brings up the 10 inch waist. This appears to have exercised a ''magical'' (cf. below) fascination with some readers, who invented obviously spurious bibliographical reference in support of its existence in the past, and autobiographical fantasies in favour of its present or recent existence. The more rational readers poured scorn upon it. From the Sales, Wants and Exchange column which flourished briefly in 1934, one may infer that few London Lifers actually laced much below 20 inches.

Correspondents in the Victorian era did not like to reveal bust and hip measurements. The small group of Family Doctor tight-lacers who did give such measurements, at around 34-35 inches both, were evidently of slender build. They had started with a roughly 8 inch bust, hip and waist differential, and ended with one of about 18 inches. Height was included very rarely indeed, but tends to confirm the obvious: tight-lacers were of average height. Four Sisters (F.L.M., 23 February 1889) were all tall (around 66 inches), had bust/hips around 33-34, and waists trained since the age of twelve to 14-16 inches. Contrary to received opinion, women were not much shorter in the mid and later 19th century than today; the magazines inform inquiring readers that a ''good'' (i.e., tall) height was considered to be 65 inches, and that 63 was an average. This much is corroborated from surviving costumes by Doris Langley Moore. Reformist opinion put ''ideal proportions'' at 65 inches height, 31 inch bust, 26 1/2 inch waist and 35 inch hips (Steele, p. 72).

Most correspondents skirted the problem of ''outside'' as opposed to ''inside'' or corset-size measurements. If the measurement claimed is that of the corset size, the outside measurement could be between one and three or even four inches larger, depending on three factors: the arrangement of the underclothing, the amount the corset had stretched in wear, and the amount it was left open at the back. The latter factor carried the greatest margin of variability, but an excessive (over two inches) gap was inadvisable because it tended to cause chafing and distortion of the boning. The many who insisted on always being laced close presumably gave the most ''truthful'' measurements; others allowed themselves varying degrees of relaxation, according to occasion and mood, and presumably gave minimum and momentary measurements.

We have commented in the Introduction on the propensity of tight-lacers to reduce their underclothing. The difference between the over-the-corset and over-the-dress measure of tight-lacers was considerably less than the two inch minimum of the normal. One enthusiastic young wife, engaging in a crash lacing program, discovered that merely by discarding and rearranging her underclothing, she had reduced the bulk at her waist by two inches. Four extremist tight-lacers gave, on various occasions, both measurements, over-corset and over-dress; the difference was exactly one inch.

In sum: there were in the late 1880s, in London alone, by a conservative calculation, a few thousand women who laced below 20 inches; hundreds who laced below 18; dozens who laced below 15. These few thousands, these hundreds and dozens are admittedly not many in a youthful female population of a million or so. The visibility and notoriety they attained towards the end of the century was due to the publicity as much as the personal example.


Hygeia: Interviews on the Waist measurements Shop-Girls (1893)
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