Victorian Fashion & the Corset: Bounded Oppression of Women

There has never been a time that women’s fashion reached such elaborate, painful, and dangerous extents than that of the Victorian Era. Women became art rather than human beings, trophies that moved and spoke that were easily punished by the very things they sought to qualify them as beautiful.  All of this at the hands of men who designed the garments, aiming to not only control their women mentally but alter them physically. These extremities were not only hazardous in the cases of emergencies but also dangerous to women physically. The restrictive nature of Victorian fashion was medically unsound and a major health risk. Something as seemingly innocent as fashion proving to be one of the rising causes for health issues in women. If women in today’s society were to practice tight-lacing, torturing themselves in pursuit of a wasp waist, we would consider them extreme dangers, and assumed suicidal due to the obvious health risk. Yet even then they were aware and some experienced the risks, yet and still mystique and want to maintain this fashion didn’t lose its popularity for 100 years. Victorian fashion, the implied tradition it brought into families and the social pressures experienced by women were strong enough to keep women aesthetically oppressed for nearly a century.

Reason and fashion had no relation during the Victorian era, skirts grew so large that no more than two women could maneuver in certain spaces; gowns had become so heavy and intricate that women could not possibly dress without assistance of 1 or 2 members of her staff. The Victorian Era marks the point where woman go become an “artistic object to the artistic subject”.[1] The materials alone and size of the garments worn during the Victorian era are alarming. The boundaries of Victorian Fashion were made to create the ideal shape for women in the eyes of male designers. None of which considered the actual health issues that women would face to uphold the aesthetic. This included the corset, a chemise and crotch-less underwear so that the wearer needn’t get fully undressed to use the bathroom, a wire cage skirt topped with layers of petticoats, a fitted and solid bodice. These garments caused difficulty in breathing and child bearing, yet women forced themselves into them. All of this has recently been argued as a perfect example of early oppression by the fashion system, which is usually interpreted as an “instrument of patriarchy”.[2]

Focusing solely on the aesthetics of Victorian fashion based on the design of corsets, and layered skirts that follow the template of the ideal Victorian body and idea created by men. The boundaries of Victorian Fashion were made to create the ideal shape for women in the eyes of male designers. None of which considered the actual health issues that women would face to uphold the aesthetic. “It is…not difficult to see where the archetypal image of the meek, servile Victorian woman comes from, with drooping waist and low stooped shoulders, staying at home, encased in her restrictive underwear and layers of heavy petticoats.”[3] There are clearly sensibilities lacking in the expected dress of women in the Victorian era. The everyday life of the Victorian women and the hindrance of her garments that not only restricted her body physically but made it nearly impossible to attempt any acts other than that of a housewife. It involved more sitting for the woman doing menial chores that didn’t require excessive movement, and less talking as to conserve breath since the torso was crushed together to achieve the most fashionable waist possible. This assured that most women of the age were merely something ‘beautiful’ to be ogled by men. The Victorian woman didn’t have serious occupations most sat at home daily.

The most extreme part of Victorian fashion being the corset, the Victorian era was not the origin of the idea of it but it was the dawn of the name corset for the structure and tight-lacing. Add to this several layers of crinoline placed over a wire frame attached to you undergarments and top that with heavy layers of silk and velvet, bordered in gold and more expensive threading. At the height of the Victorian era women’s skirts were weighed down with up to and some times over 14 lbs. there skirts up to 4 meters in circumference. Some of the first uses of the corset were seen in European boarding schools. Historically it is shown that un-corseted women or girls were seen as undisciplined. “…donning a loose gown to visit their neighbor, go to the grocery store or run to the pump…they were systematically arrested like prostitutes.” [4]The lacing of the corsets was tight enough so that the wearer could just barely breathe.

During the Victorian Era, fashion was closely related to social stability and economic prosperity. This led to haughty decorations on top of the senseless uniform of the Victorian woman.  Victorian fashion created social tensions generated by the separation of classes. These distinctions between the rich and poor hardened at the emergence of Victorian fashion, but were later blurred as the effects became more commonly available. The wardrobe of those holding a higher social standard made the clothes of the lower classes shameful and embarrassing. The people in wealthy households were able to afford the adornments of the time. There are documented accounts of tight lacing by mothers, and school mistresses that are easily compared to that of corporal punishment. The lacing of a corset was used not only as punishment but as a way to shape the body more “fashionably” as decided in the eyes of a Frenchman in 1839. The source speaks of young girls who were laced into corsets that restricted there waist measurements to smaller than even 18 inches. Corsets were something that was very often used by their oppressors.

Victorian fashion used the practice of corsetry to “police” middle and upper class women.  “Un-corseted women or girls were seen as undisciplined”[5] The reliance of those women on fashion was unimaginable they literally became slaves to the industry. The corset first was only available to those who could afford to splurge on their clothing but at the height of the industrial revolutions cheaper versions of the elaborate corset of those higher class women were made available to some peasants even as they attempted to blend in with their superiors. Victorian fashion was also was channeled in Victorian England as a sign of great wealth. Middle and upper class men showered their wives and daughters with lavish and extreme garments that consisted of several petticoats large framed skirts, and corsets. The idea of Victorian fashions as a gift was another way to force the image into the minds of women. The man who doted the most on his loved one was seen as higher up in society. This turns Victorian fashion into a constant reminder during the time of the constant societal expectations. The Victorian woman –instilled with a fear for the repercussions that would come from dressing outside of the required garb—would have no choice but to remain under the oppression they faced.

If a woman were to go without her petticoats bustle and layers of heavy clothing she was either associated with poverty, loose morale or compared to the likeness of a prostitute. The fear of these assumptions—also created by men & the Catholic Church—kept women in the Victorian era in these elaborate and ridiculous ensembles. The reliance of those women on fashion was unimaginable they literally became slaves to the industry. The corset first was only available to those who could afford to splurge on their clothing but at the height of the industrial revolutions cheaper versions of the elaborate corset of those higher class women were made available to some peasants even as they attempted to blend in with their superiors.

Historians have found several links to disease and health conflicts of the Victorian woman to the corset. There is a laundry list of negatives for “gave birth to ‘frail scrofulous children’ because of ‘obstructions in the respiratory system’. These obstructions… were a direct result of the corset. The corset allowed the ‘mother’ to breath enough to sustain…but…she did not inhale enough oxygen to sustain the inter-uterine being”[6] Miscarriages is one of the most severe and devastating negative possibilities that came with tight lacing. If the body was strong enough to carry a child past the beginning phases it was what we would consider today a “high-stakes” pregnancy that was likely to be lost or result in malformation of the baby. The extremity to which Victorian fashion controlled the mind of its woman is shown here clearly. One thing that is innate in most women is a maternal instinct. This instinct and assumed automatic want to protect your child from the womb is clearly dismissed in a vain and despicable since of pride, falsely garnered to keep up with what was considered fashionable.

Women were no more than ornaments to the men of their family’s ego. Comfort and sensibilities aside women began to admire the restraints of fashion thus the birth of the term “fashion and beauty is pain”. Women began to associate their dress with being lady-like and well-disciplined their ability to control themselves, and also their respectability, because that is what was taught by the patriarchal society they lived in. Living in a world dominated by mostly patriarchal societies makes female submission an obvious association. However that submission is taught, not innate. The Victorian woman’s obsession with ornamentation and fashion and up keeping trends is taught and passed down. “For decades, feminists have analyzed how fashion operates as a psychically powerful sign system for seducing women into becoming narcissistic, passive objects to be looked at by men”.[7]

There is much to admire about the Victorian Era, however there is a responsibility to look at both positive and negative parts. Victorian fashion would fall into the negative. It’s fascinating that this specific trend came right before the women’s suffrage movement. Such a confining style of dress and then such a liberal jump it’s hard to understand how exactly women fell into submission to Victorian fashion. Especially since they were well aware and most experienced the risks.  The mystique of Victorian Fashion’s control over women still lasts to this day. The Victorian fashion era is important because it marks the beginning of women’s submission to the fashion industry and the idealized male designation of beauty becoming the ‘norm’. From this era spewed the idea of “Stepford Wives” a term coined in the United States by author Ira Levin. In this novel much like the Victorian era woman were “designed” by their husbands. The Victorian woman was very much at the hands of the men who influenced society bending to their aesthetic. After the French revolution there was a decline in the use of corsets. But even today there are garments designed by both men and women that contort the female figure to make it more appealing to men.

Women became obsessed with fashions and ornamentation as it was the only outlet they had to show individualism in their society as they were allowed to do nothing else with their time. Those living during the Victorian Era especially those in western European were well aware of the issues the aesthetic presented. However they allowed the vanities consuming the integrity of the woman and the chauvinistic views of their male dominant figures to allow it to go on for nearly a century. Victorian fashion very well disregarded the well-being of woman who were daily bound quite literally into these extreme clothing. This bounded oppression lasted for nearly a century because fashion was implemented and abused to affect not only the mind of the woman but her body as well.

Bibliograpy

Blanchard, Mary W. “Boundaries and the Victorian Body: Aesthetic fashion in gilded age

America.”American Historical Review 100. no. 1 (Feb 1995).

Marcus, Sharon. “Reflections on Victorian Fashion Plates.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist

Cultural Studies 14. no. 3(Fall 2003).

Summers, Leigh. Bound to Please. New York: Berg Publishing.

Steele, Valerie. Fetish. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Steele, Valerie. The Corset: A Cultural History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, “Restrictive Flamboyance and the Crinoline Craze: 1830

1860,” The Secret History of the Corset and Crinoline,

http://www.fathom.com/course/21701726/session1.html.


[1] Blanchard, Mary W. “Boundaries and the Victorian Body: Aesthetic fashion in gilded age America.” 22

[2] Valerie Steele, The Corset: A Cultural History, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

[3] The Victoria and Albert Museum, “Restrictive Flamboyance and the Crinoline Craze: 1830-1860,” The Secret History of the Corset and Crinoline, http://www.fathom.com/course/21701726/session1.html.

[4] Ibid., 29.

[5] Valerie Steele. Fetish (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

[6] Leigh Summers, Bound to Please (New York: Berg Publishing), 200.

[7] Sharon Marcus, “Reflections on Victorian Fashion Plates” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural

Studies 14. no. 3(Fall 2003).

One thought on “Victorian Fashion & the Corset: Bounded Oppression of Women

  1. [...] women are corseted up to the gills and are treated like queens (ironically, a fashion choice that has been linked to the oppression of the era), men swagger around holding doors for ladies (gasp!) and posturing amicably, and so forth. Yet, we [...]

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