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The Corset Trade in the Later 19th Century

David Kunzle: ''Fashion and Fetishism''

The controversy surrounding corsets intensified in the later 19th century in part, at least, because of their increasing economic importance. The publicity accruing to tight-lacing was both stimulating and threatening to the trade. Around mid-century the corset became ''democratised''; once a relative luxury, it now was available to the new urban masses. Improved methods of manufacture, and particularly the invention of the sewing-machine, made the price of the mass-produced article fall within reach of the working and rural classes.

England, France and Germany competed against each other, and for the lucrative American market. Tons of metal eyelets were exported from Birmingham and Sheffield all over the world. Around 1860 there were already 3,772 corsetières working in Paris; the number must have risen considerably thereafter. In the London area 10,000 persons were employed in the manufacture of stays; provincial English firms used another 25,000 hands, mostly female. The industry was recognised at the time as particularly exploitative; wages were described as ''excessively unremunerative,'' and profits for the owners were colossal. In Germany, many firms operated for the American market alone; one in W"urttemberg, where the industry was concentrated, was exporting 630,000 corsets annually in the early 1880s. By the end of the decade, however, local industrial development in the U.S. was ruining many of these firms. (Larousse 1869, Plummer, La Santé, and Heszky).

The medical campaign against the corset, and the introduction at the end of the century of the new ''straight-fronted'' and more ''hygienic'' versions seems to have acted as a spur to the trade, at least in France, where between 1889 and 1901 no less than 678 tradenames for new inventions in corsetry hardware (busks, springs, boning and lacing-systems), and 433 new tradenames for the corset as a whole were registered, and often under the most peculiar names (Les Dessous Elégants, passim). New lacing devices included horizontal hinges, side-springs and conic ribbons; busk-clasps used cams, levers and mobile hooks; a combination of clasp and lacing ''united in parallel conjunction'' permitted instant donning and removal, tightening and loosening. There was a ''compensatory corset'' of porous asbestos and bisanté whalebone, and another (by the famous Léoty) ''à construction spiraloidale.'' Exotic sounding materials like fibre agate and something called itzle were used for boning; and in their attempts to simplify the putting on and off of the garment, inventors resorted to systems of ever increasing complexity, the drawings for which are those of the mechanical engineer. An invention of almost diabolical ingenuity was the Ligne corset of Abadie-Léotard (Etude, 1904) which was deliberately so constructed as to become extremely painful if any attempt was made to lace it too tight.

In 1900 the French wholesale industry sold 50-55 million francs worth of goods, rising in 1902 to 85 millions. Of this sum, 12-14 millions were from export sales, which were literally world-wide. In Germany, meanwhile, where the Reform Movement was most tangibly successful, the corset trade actually declined by 18 percent during the decade 1897-1907.

Until the 1860s, the primary means of luring customers was by the placing of corsetry on dummies in shopwindows, a practice at which Daumier and Dickens expressed amused shock. In the 1870s, magazine advertising became highly competitive, especially after 1877, when illustrated display advertisements were introduced in English magazines. This was also the peak of the cuirasse period, and the cuirasse corset proved a boon to the industry, since it involved a kind of steel busk (sometimes called the spoonbill) which not only rendered all previous corsets outmoded, but also discouraged the making of corsets at home, being exceedingly hard for private persons to obtain, and impossible to make without special riveting tools. By the 1880s and '90s, in France and the U.S., the corset was literally part of the cityscape, being advertised on huge billboards.


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