PROBABLY no article of feminine attire has ever been the subject of so much argument as the corset. Perhaps no other has ever been so paradoxical in its nature–capable of benefit and injury, and by use or abuse productive of either. It has its adherents and its antagonists, and, provided they are not extremists, there is much in the views of each that must be acknowledged by the opposing party.
Since the early days, hundreds of years ago, when Roman women wore bandages wherewith to support the breasts and found that they also imparted a slimness to the figure, corsets under various names and of various constructions have been worn ; and in spite of the warfare made upon them by the comparatively few, the majority will continue to wear them for centuries to come. That the vital point of the argument–the evil effects of corset-wearing upon the general health–has some foundation, is proved by the fact, that within the last two decades, medical men, scientists, men and women of general intelligence and those who have made a study of anatomy and physiology with a view to producing a sanitary corset, have all interested themselves in the manufacture of the article. This considered, it certainly is reasonable to suppose that corsets may be found to suit the requirements of all figures, and if their adjustment is accomplished with a moderate display of judgment, no harm can arise but benefit may result.
There are women whose figures require support and who, without aid of this kind, are rendered extremely uncomfortable to themselves, and beyond question, unsightly to others. There are hundreds of corsets, corset-waists, and boned or corded articles intended to take the place of regular corsets, in which a woman very much inclined to stoutness may encase herself and suffer no injury thereby, but on the contrary, derive benefit therefrom. A reliable manufacturer of sanitary corsets considers the various figures he is providing them for, and designs them upon corresponding lines. He makes them long and short waisted ; with or without an abdominal support; adds or omits shoulder straps ; inserts rubber gores over the hips and spiral springs between the front and back so that these portions of the figure are not in the least restricted; uses flexible bones and steels so that there shall be no unyielding longitudinal pressure, and in fact does everything that he can to successfully overcome all cause for complaint and remove every well founded objection to the corset. With all these improvements over the ancient corsets, which between their broad busks of wood or steel compressed the figure in a cruel manner into a still more cruel space, it does not seem as if a modern corset, judiciously worn, could, to any very great degree, if at all, prove injurious to womankind. It is the latter, instead of the former, we are strongly inclined to think, who are responsible for many of the injuries laid at the door of the corset. Of course, if corsets were not provided, women would not have this possible means of injury within their reach; but in some way they would manage to reduce their figures to their ideal of beauty in this respect. Not long since, a fashionable woman, an ardent advocate of dress reform, was arrayed in a charm ingly fitted gown. "See," said she, "how I have proved to you that a dress may look just as well as though fitted over one of those murderous corsets!" The dear woman fully believed that she was emancipated from a slow death caused by corsets. Her consistency, however, was subject to criticism, for in every seam of the waist of that charming gown was a stiff whalebone, and it required the united efforts of herself and maid to hook the waist about the graceful figure of the wearer. And yet she had discarded corsets because they constricted her person ! Does not this prove the point just taken ?
A certain amount of compression is necessary to graceful effects in the present day, because of the fashion of the clothing, which does not conceal but reveals the outlines of the figure, especially those of the waist and bust. Without it there are figures which could not be fitted at all, as the tendency to stoutness often merges into actual obesity, and, without the corset, the possessors of bulky figures would suffer both physically and mentally. The slender woman who "looks like a rail," is also subject to ridicule, and to her the corset is a boon, since she may depend upon its furnishing a shapely foundation for the fitting of her gowns, while there is no need of drawing upon its laces for a reduction in the circumference of her waist. The woman of average intelligence, whose vanity does not dominate her judgment, can wear an ordinary corset with as little injury as she can her gown; and, vice versa, the woman who tightens her corsets with all the strength she possesses, can do herself as much injury in a so-called sanitary corset as in any other. It is the judgment of the wearer that renders a corset injurious or otherwise. She need not "cramp her ribs and cause them to bend or overlap, thus displacing vital organs," unless she wishes to ; though it must be confessed that, given the corset, this is exactly what nine women out of ten risk doing, by drawing the laces too tightly. And in just this direction lie the abuses of the corset.
Many ladies complain that a corset "hurts" them over the hips or at the end of the breast bone. If it were adapted to their figures it would not hurt. A corset should be fitted just as much as a shoe, and both can inflict an immense amount of suffering if they are not adapted to the shape. Where it is possible, let a saleswoman who thoroughly understands her business, try corsets on you until you find one that feels perfectly comfortable when properly laced, and wear it thus. Resist the temptation to draw it a little closer and thus make it uncomfortable and verify the utterances of its adversaries. If you will wear it tight, let the pressure be directly at the waist-line, below the ribs. Do not draw the laces until you feel uncomfortable across and above the stomach, or over the hips and abdomen. You can lace your corset so that with every inspiration you can breathe from the very bottom of your lungs, and feel no pressure over the hips. But your corset must be suited to your figure, and then laced as follows: Take two long laces and begin at the top of the corset. Put them through the eyelets in the usual manner until about two inches above the waist-line. There tie them in a hard knot, and proceed as before to an inch or so below the waist-line. Tie another hard knot here, and finish lacing in the usual manner. Put the corset on, and, drawing the strings just as usual, make it as snug about the waist as you can comfortably wear it and get it off and on without untying. Now have some one adjust the rest of the lacing both above and below the hard knots, until it is smooth but does not in any way bind your chest, bust or hips, and when so adjusted, tie the ends of the lacing cords, both at the top and bottom, as the adjustment permits. In this way you will feel perfectly easy, unless you have made the waist-line lacing too tight. If you have, the fault and any injury that may result, will lie at your own door. If you have faithfully followed the above instructions, your corset will do you no injury and will give you a gentle support that is grateful and beneficial.
Do not lace your corset so that the bones at the top of the back meet, while their lower extremities will be far apart. If you do, and have adopted the corset for the grace of outline you expect it will give you, you will be disappointed, since the shapeliness of a corset depends upon a parallelism of the bones at the back; or if they diverge, they must do so on lines like these, )(. Then you will get a breadth of chest and hips, and the corset will impart its shapeliness to your figure. The occasion of the divergence first described is generally due to the corset being too narrow over the hips. If you cannot get one that is wide enough, slash the one you have, through the most prominent portion of the hip from the edge for about two or three inches upward, according to the length, and set in a gore of strong fabric or elastic. Then you will have hip room and can lace your corset into its proper position, in which, if not too tightly drawn, it can do you no harm.
The bones and fabric of a well fitting and well made corset or corset-waist are protective of the tender skin of the flesh beneath them, since they come between it and the bands of the skirts, which must necessarily be moderately tight to insure a proper hanging. The reverse is true when the skirt bands are worn underneath the corsets, for then even a light pressure will produce welts and marks from these bands, often almost causing an abrasion of the skin.
For those who are convinced of the harmfulness of the corset, a variety of articles called corset-waists are made. One which is especially adapted to ladies who cannot endure the pressure of a corset, and yet affords all the advantages of the latter and none of its discomforts, is shaped like a corset-cover and closes like one. It is provided with lacings midway between the closing and under-arm seams and is supplied with bones enough to produce an unwrinkled effect. A full bust portion is set in from each arm-hole to the closing, thus providing space for the natural or reinforced amplitudes of the figure, and producing a graceful foundation for the fitting of a gown. No corset-covers will be needed with a corset-waist of this kind. Any lady can make it easily, assisted by the pattern, which we are able to furnish, and which may be seen in our catalogue of fashions. Another article, for which we also provide a reliable pattern, is an abdominal supporter, to be used by ladies whose necessities of figure or health call for such support. It is made of strong fabric, belting, elastic, and whalebone and affords both relief and comfort for the very stout, while in no way cramping or compressing the breathing portion of, the anatomy.
Now a word or two about tight garments–especially waists. As much harm as a corset may do, as much petty torture as it may inflict, it cannot begin to compare with a tight waist in the production of misery and all its visible indications. Before putting on her waist, a lady is usually perfectly comfortable, but afterward–well, one look at her face, a glance at her pose, will assure the observer that she is the very reverse. Why? Because, in a misdirected effort to obtain a snug, smooth fit, her bodice has been made too narrow across the bust and back, and this fault has been aggravated by adding the sleeves–they too, or their linings being tight; and the result is that the poor woman cannot draw a natural breath, and her reddened face and hands show how sadly her gown interferes with a proper circulation of the blood. Possibly the waist is tight below the chest, but even if it is, she finds herself comfortable when she has undone the fastenings of her gown from the throat to the top of the corset; whereas, were she to undo them only from the top of the corset down, she would be quite as uncomfortable as before. Too much cannot be said against this practice of compressing the chest and therefore injuring the strength of the lungs and the shape of the bust, which in this way is flattened and pressed in a downward direction. Give your shoulders, chest and arms room enough in your gowns, and you will add both to your happiness and your beauty; for tight gowns certainly mar the temper, and otherwise as strongly militate against a prepossessing appearance as any improperly adjusted corset that was ever donned: But where both corset and gown are improperly adjusted, then, indeed, does the victim suffer, though the tortures of the former can be easily ended by letting out its lacings. But with the gown the matter is a more serious one to remedy, since it will entail considerable labor and then with not always successful results.
All the whitening preparations for the hands, which we shall give later on in this volume, will be of no avail, if by tight, binding sleeves you force the blood into your hands and also thus prevent its proper return to the fountain from which if issues. Redness of the nose often results 'from impeded circulation–and with young ladies the obstruction is usually found in too tight clothing. A red face will also result from the same cause, and those afflicted with either and who are addicted to wearing their clothing too tightly adjusted. will find it profitable to experiment with a looser attire before seeking other remedies. This course will often prove a cure as well as an economy.
While gloves and boots are not, strictly speaking, portions of the attire which are capable of producing serious evils, their use is abused quite as often as that of the corset. A shapely hand, an ugly one or one of indifferent shape should never be crowded into a glove. A tight glove makes ugly the pretty hand, still uglier the unshapely one and in no wise improves the appearance of the ordinary one. It renders the hand almost powerless, produces an aching, burning feeling, and when withdrawn leaves on aching, hand an angry looking print of every seam and a skin crimsoned by the blood which has been dammed up from wrist to finger-tip ever since the glove was buttoned. Besides, a tight glove is extravagant as well as untidy, for it will soon split, tear out at the button-holes and become generally demoralized. One size larger would have been economical, comfortable, shapely and tidy.
In the preceding chapter we referred to the length of shoes, but in this one it is the width that needs attention. If a lady buys a shoe longer than her foot, she will find she can wear a narrower one than she has been accustomed to and yet have it feel comfortable; but when she buys a shoe that is no longer than her foot, in order to make the latter look slender she will select a width that keeps her in constant misery, and bestows its compliments in the shape of a crop of corns that can never be cured as long as she wears duplicates of the shoes that produced them. Together the shoes and the corns, though actually hidden from view, throw their shadows so that the face of the sufferer reflects all the misery they are causing and becomes flushed and pained and altogether unlovely, as far as expression goes. We have shown you how the mind should be calm and the disposition amiable in order that the face may be lovely ; but, dear reader, if you persist in wearing tight shoes, we shall feel that the advice just mentioned has been uselessly offered. By and by we are going to tell you how to care for and dress your feet so that they will not set themselves in frowns on your brow. The little talk upon them which we have just given you is to tell you what not to do, for tight shoes will destroy peace of mind, cloud amiable faces, cripple graceful motions and in many ways make your condition anything but lovely or happy.
Elastic garters, if worn, should be only tight enough to securely hold the stockings in place, and they are less injurious if worn above the knee. A garter of coiled wire is probably as healthful as any that clasp about the limb, as it allows perfect circulation, and while it is fully the equal, in holding qualities, of the elastic garter, it is narrower and more flexible, and therefore easier to wear. Stocking-supporters, however, are superior to circular garters, as they do not in the slightest degree interfere with the circulation, and when attached to the corset, corset-waist or shoulder straps, remove the strain upon the hips that is complained of by many who wear the belted supporters.
In recommending you to wear loose clothing of every description, we do not wish you to understand that you are to do so to a conspicuous extent. That would be a too radical acceptance of the suggestions offered. But have every article of wear sufficiently loose to allow your body to perform properly all of its functions, your limbs to move with their full power, your circulation to exert its proper activity; for upon these three necessities depend your health, your strength, your beauty. Interfere with one, cramp the other, or retard the third–from either will arise derangements of the system that will develop still others, and instead of the bonny, blooming woman "God meant you to be when he first thought of you," you will be a pale, puny flower whom all pity but none greatly admire.