10. At what age (if a very Waist measurements WASP WAISTS - A Study of
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Waist Size and Marriageable Age

David Kunzle: ''Fashion and Fetishism''

''A great mass of contemporary evidence makes it clear that at the time of her marriage a young lady's waist should not exceed in inches the number of years of her age; and most hoped to marry before twenty'' (Cunnington, 1941, pp. 161-52 - my stress). This striking, much quoted, and entirely unsupported historical connection, made by the foremost authority on Victorian fashion, tempts one to seek another symbolic significance to the fixation on waist-size, which seems to be imbued with some numerological magic. Cunnington connects two Victorian concerns of a very different kind: tight-lacing and marriageable age. There can be little doubt that many young ladies hoped to get married before they were twenty, but they were not supposed to make this, the most critical choice of their life, until they had attained sufficient emotional and mental maturity, and gained sufficient experience of the world, to enable them to make it in a rational and balanced way. For complex economic reasons, middle-class girls were getting married much younger in mid-19th century than a century earlier. It was, above all, the tight marriage market and the fear of having a daughter remain on the shelf if any reasonable offer were refused, which forced anxious parents to countenance early marriage.

Magazine editors disapproved. To the question frequently fired at the editor of the EDM, ''what is the correct age to get married,'' the answer was ''not under twenty.'' To another often repeated question, ''what is the correct waist measurement,'' the answer was the same. For normal purposes, twenty demarcated marriageable from non-marriageable age; acceptable lacing from tight-lacing. We may speculate whether the acquisition of a small waist by young teenagers did not serve, unconsciously, to advance their sense of nubility to an age when marriage was ill-advised; and whether the fantasies about 15 and 16 inch waists are not somehow grounded in fantasies (male of course as well as female) about 15 and 16 year-old brides. Both kinds of fantasy were, in a real sense, taboo. If, in respectable opinion, neither waists nor marriages should be contracted under 20, the imagination imbued the ''natural'' waist of nigh 30 inches with some of the dread of those for whom the approach of the third decade without a husband portended eternal spinsterhood.

To preserve the measure of one's waist was to preserve the measure of one's years; perhaps it still is. Lady Dolly in Ouida's popular novel Moths (1880, 1, p.5) is the stereotype of the frivolous, neurotic, depraved woman of fashion who, at 33, is still the Dresden statuette, the ''eternal beauty,'' as pretty as when she was her 16 year-old daughter's age. Married at 17, she preserves a waist younger yet (15).

The categorical significance attached to the figure of twenty (years or inches) may be due, in part at least, to its decimality; and one wonders whether the same factor may not underlie the apparently arbitrary choice by the Guinness Book of Records of ''close to ten inches'' as the ''theoretical limit'' of the waist. The curious use of the word ''theoretical'' in this context reminds us of the extent to which ''magical'' numerological considerations may enter into tight-lacing fantasy and practice.


10. At what age (if a very Waist measurements WASP WAISTS - A Study of
Contents | Previous: 10. At what age (if a very | Up: Waist measurements | Next: WASP WAISTS - A Study of
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