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Waist measurements: Values/Overview (1880)

the Family Doctor surveys of the 1880s

The most reliable and complete statistical data for the prevalence of tight-lacing comes from the sales figures given by the made-to-measure and ready-to-wear trades. Most if not all the major London corsetières specialising in custom-made tight-lacing corsets were interviewed for the Family Doctor by comparatively objective, if reform-minded reporters, notably a woman calling herself Hygeia. During the late 1880s she made repeated visits to corsetières, corset wholesalers and dress stores; she talked to any tight-lacer she encountered. She reported not only to the Family Doctor, but also to the Rational Dress Society, confirming the latter's worst fears, and contributing much to the general opinion that tight-lacing was indeed on the increase quantitatively and qualitatively.

From her first series of interviews with specialist corsetières (5 March 1887) Hygeia found that ''several'' 14 inch corsets were sold (all for pupils at the same school), 16 inches was ''fashionable''; one 15 inches came to an untimely end. Six months later (3 September 1887), Hygeia repeated her enquiries among other corsetières, both French and English. A Regent Street store (Walsh and Mirza?) which displayed a 13 inch corset in the window ''identical with the one made for the 20 year-old Comtesse de V.'' reported that ''we seldom make a pair now for young ladies above 20 inches... These here are all 15 inches, these 14, these 13; these two pairs of 12 inch ones are just finished, made for 13-year-old ladies at a fashionable Brighton school. I doubt whether they will be able to wear them... Their waists are nearly 15 inches now. In have known only one or two who have worn 12 inch corsets out of doors and their figures are simply superb. I know, however, several ladies who lace into 12 inches when in their boudoirs. But their maids say they seldom bear it for more than an hour at a time.'' While travelling in the north of England, Hygeia saw a sale poster advertising ''5000 pairs of corsets, sizes 17 to 26 inches. Special line 16 inches.'' 300 pairs size 17, over 300 size 18 and 80-90 size 16 had been sold. Hygeia was also able, through a corsetière, to transcribe a school ''tight-lacing register'' which tabulated the degrees of reduction expected of various pupils.

Hygeia was soon improving on her results with some really precise sets of figures (28 January 1888). Insisting particularly on their accuracy, she concluded that the extent of ''tight-lacing which emerges is, if anything, underrated.'' Her inquiries now covered both the ready-to-wear and custom trade. According to the figures supplied by twenty of the leading ready-to-wear firms, 52,432 corsets were sold in the year 1886. The average waist measure was 23 inches, which gave a compression total (taking the number of corset wearers in England at 3,543,000, and their natural waist measure at 27-28 inches) of 134 miles. The annual mortality rate resulting from this compression stood, according to a ''competent authority,'' at 15,000.

The size breakdown was as follows: 16 inch - 237; 17 inch - 362; 17 1/2 inch - 189; 18 inch - 543; 19 inch - 602; 20 inch - 1073; 21 inch - 3451; 22 inch - 6689; 23 inch - 12,023; 24 inch - 19,807; etc., down to 28 inch (maximum size).

For the same year, twenty of the best custom corsetières gave figures totalling as follows: 14 inch - 76; 15 inch - 127; 16 inch - 103; 17 inch - 208; 18 inch - 527; 19 inch - 437; 20 inch - 609; 21 inch - 347. Significantly, it was estimated that 30% of the corsets in the smaller sizes (14-18) were made for girls under 16 years of age.


Data from paper patterns Waist measurements Hygeia: Interviews on the
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