Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Georges Doeuillet (1865-1930?)

Georges Doeuillet may be the least-known couturier I've written about so far - or perhaps second, after Jenny, since his real name is generally available. The only time his name comes up is in conjunction with Doucet, when the two houses merged at the end of the 1920s. But in fact (let this not be a total shock), he was a more interesting and important figure than his present obscurity would make him appear.

Born in 1865, Doeuillet was part of the same generation as Louise Chéruit, Charles Poynter Redfern, and Jacques Doucet. (That is, the second generation - the first generation being born in the early part of the century, like Charles Frederick Worth, John Redfern, and Edouard Doucet.) However, his start came a little later in life. Some sources state that he first worked as a business manager for Callot Soeurs, which opened in 1895. It seems likely that he began working there from the beginning, so one has to wonder - what did he do until then? At thirty, he would not have been starting his career with them. And for them to choose him and keep him on, he must have had experience and talent. Perhaps he had been managing another fashion house before them.

"Dress by DOEILLET, 18 Place Vendôme, worn by Mlle Adèle Richer", Le Cri de Paris, November 1899
The reason I think it likely that he was with Callot Soeurs from their beginning is that he left fairly soon: by 1899, there are matter-of-fact references to his own fashion house at 18 Place Vendôme (an address he shared with Victor Klotz, perfumier under the name Edouard Pinaud, as well as a solicitor), later expanding into 16 as well. According to a contemporary source, it was common for couturiers of the 1900s to be first and foremost businessmen, buying designs rather than inventing them. As a couturier of this era, Doeuillet would mainly need "a triumphant combination of business ability and beaux yeux", which writers assured us he had.
In Vanity Fair, 1906 - he doesn't look that handsome to me
Doeuillet was reputed to make extravagant gowns for the ultra-rich, though evidently they were less expensive than those by Callot Soeurs, and he seems to have been very successful through the 1900s, 1910s, and 1920s, judging by the numerous highly flattering mentions he received in fashion publications. He licensed several New York department stores to use his designs, displaying his international appeal while also increasing it.
Dry Goods Economist, 1909 Fall Fashion Number
Theatre Magazine, 1911
During the 1910s and 1920s, Doeuillet was quite successful. He appeared in the Gazette du Bon Ton, and can be found getting long descriptions in trade journals alongside Jenny and listed as a "celebrated couturier". I don't always give credence to the flattery in fashion magazines, but the wearability and "quiet, distinguished note[s]" given in the Garment Manufacturer's index does line up with the examples shown in magazines and museums. The house's style tended towards simple and unadorned elegance.
Vogue, April 1922
As I described last week, Georges Doeuillet (by then a member of the Paris Fashion Board) merged his business with that of the ailing Jacques Doucet around the time of the stock market crash and just before his own death. Under the direction of Georges Auber, Doucet-Doeuillet closed not long after.

There are very few things associated with Doeuillet because of his present obscurity, but one concept I've seen floating around is that he brought out the first robe de style, that it was later called a cocktail dress, and therefore he invented the cocktail dress. Frankly, I cannot tell where this comes from. Searching Google Books is not a precise survey of fashion texts of the time, but when doing it I can only find one reference to Doeuillet in conjunction with the robe de style, and it describes Doucet as the gown's "exponent" and lists several designers making them in 1922.

Part of the trouble is that the term robe de style is not specific. In French, the term was used from the beginning of the century as part of a phrase, comparable to the 18th century robe à la - robe de style Louis XVI, robe de style Empire, etc. I can also find references to robes de style without the reference to an historical time period from an early point: here in 1906 in French, here in 1903 in English. Unfortunately none are pictured, but from the description, it sounds as though the robe de style was mainly in the fabric and trimming, less in the cut: Louis XV bows, an open skirt with a lace tablier, a fichu, and such things.

From Gazette du Bon Ton, 1915; MFA 2004.25.12
From the very beginning of the 1910s, the historical era was more frequently dropped, but it seems to have kept the connotation of the robe de style Louis XVI or thereabouts. One of 1914 (called in the English translation a gown in "the picturesque style") is described as having a puffy drapery around the hips, as well as short sleeves with lace ruffles. Overall, it was a highly fashionable collection of unfashionable elements - thus the full and long skirt in the 1920s. The style can't be said to have been invented by anyone because it was always present in the early 20th century, a reaction to the increasing speed of modern life and the increasing sleekness and starkness of modern dress.

The term "cocktail dress" does not seem to be extant during this time; "cocktail party" is only attested from 1928, and it makes sense for the dress name to arise after that. As "cocktail dress" first appears in print in the early 1930s (as far as I can tell), it could have been used as a label by Doeuillet-Doucet, but there's no evidence that it was; likewise, there's no evidence that the robe de style was considered a cocktail dress. I have to conclude that this is a myth based on garbled half-truths and leave it there.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The House of Doucet (1816-1928)

Just as John Redfern began as a mercer, the Doucet family's business began in fabric and lace. In 1841, La Mode described the Doucets (then at 17 rue de la Paix) has having a "numerous and noble clientele", highly stylish in late spring for "trousseaus and corbeilles" - the corbeille being the gift of material wealth given to a woman by her husband the morning after the wedding, a continuance of the medieval Morgengabe - and was frequently recommended for fine lace for ruffles, berthas, and skirt flounces.
Toilettes from Petit Courrier des Dames, including chemisette and lace from Doucet, 1840; NYPL 802380
The business was split by 1862 into two parts, both housed at 21 rue de la Paix: Mme Doucet was a lingère, selling women's chemises, drawers, caps, and other linen and cotton articles, while her son Edouard was listed as a tailleur-chemisier, selling men's underwear and outerwear, and marked a "notable business". (Quite a few other Doucets were in the luxury and clothing market - they may or may not have been related.) The premises were shared with a skirt (or petticoat) maker, a pair of seamstresses, and a court lawyer.
Toilette at Doucet's. Dark green cashmere dress. L'Art et la mode, 1884, no. 24
By the 1870s, the shop was also listed as among the best for linens and gloves, not yet able to or perhaps not attempting to match the houses of Worth and Pingat. According to Jeanne Philomène Laperche, Edouard Doucet's reputation in women's dress was first made in the early 1870s (his earliest extant gown is from around 1878); he must have climbed during the 1880s, appearing from time to time in the French periodical L'Art et la mode, but it's not until the 1890s that I can find him listed with Worth and Felix (another couturier commonly listed as one of the best; someday I will write him up). At this time "Doucet skirt" (as well as "Paquin skirt") became a term used in dress construction, describing a skirt made on a gored silk foundation.

There is, however, not much to suggest what effect Edouard Doucet may have had on fashion or what his taste was for - compare to John Redfern's sporting outfits or Pingat's austere elegance. He contributed to the historicism at the end of the nineteenth century, and it sounds as though he reliably produced attractive and well-made gowns (as well as lingerie). From extant examples, it seems unlikely that his background in tailoring was highly influential on his design sensibilities. When he died in 1898 The Sketch described him as "like Worth ... a Triton among the ruck of modish minnows" - although from the description of "Papa Doucet", he was much more personable and politic with his clients than Worth, convincing them that they were beautiful in the right clothing.

It's important to remember Edouard - the vast majority of sources, including museums, present his son as the one Doucet couturier and the person who turned the family business from lace and silk to women's dress. They cite his son Jacques as the designer of outfits that were made before he was actually in charge of the house of Doucet.
Evening or reception dress, Edouard Doucet, ca. 1879; MMA C.I.37.59.1a-b (OASC)
Jacques, the Doucet who is more well-known today, was active at the time in his own establishment. By 1877, at 24 years of age, Doucet jeune was recommended as a chemisier at 10 rue Halevy, just around the block from the elder Doucet's salon. While his father was alive, Jacques seems to have stayed in the rue Halevy and kept his focus on men's shirts, underclothing, and fabric accessories - and he may have been very successful, as he was even at that time known as an art collector; later he was a friend of the Impressionist painters. The establishment in the rue Halevy continued under the same name despite Jacques's lack of children, as in 1946 it still existed.

Upon inheriting the business, Jacques did not allow it to sink, but kept it among the top "equally good" firms at the turn of the century. Sources are divided on whether Paul Poiret began working in the couture house in 1896 or 1898, but 1898 seems the most probable - meaning that he would have been hired by Jacques Doucet during his first few months as head of the business. When Poiret left for military service two years later, he had become the head of the tailoring department.
Ball dress by Jacques Doucet, Les Modes, 1904 or 1905; NYPL 818397
Doucet's other famous protégée, Madeleine Vionnet, had worked at Callot Soeurs since 1900 and came to Doucet in 1907. As head designer, she was in a strong position to influence a house which itself was in a position to influence fashion, and it is generally accepted that she did so. In 1908, both Callot Soeurs and Doucet were singled out as bringing in a "return to Nature" with a Neoclassical revival (which, entertainingly, the magazine believed would not have much of an effect on fashion as a whole) - it seems likely that Vionnet was involved with this.
"La Souris", Suit by Doucet, Gazette du Bon Ton, 1913; MFA 2004.16.10 
Like Redfern, Jenny, and Chéruit, Doucet was also published in the Gazette du Bon Ton, that excessively expensive and exclusive publication.

After being an early adopter of the slim Empire line, Doucet may have introduced or at least used some of the first hooped versions of the robe de style. Then in 1918, he was credited in a trade journal as designing a "sack dress", unbelted and unwaisted, "on the lines of a Japanese kimono". While his name does not have much cachet today, he was clearly at the forefront of his field - it's impossible to know who exactly came up with each of the various gradual changes that pushed fashion along its track, but that Jacques Doucet was designing in this way before these elements became standard does say something about his ability to either spot where fashion was going or influence its destination.


Doucet dress, Good Housekeeping, 1922

Doucet dress, Harper's Bazar, for November 1916


























Some sources give the tired old story told of many designers who are not Vionnet or Chanel, that the house of Doucet fell out of fashion in the 1920s because Jacques couldn't give up a luxurious and structured style of dress that no longer had a place in the postwar world. As usual, I disagree: 1920s fashion flowed naturally from late 1910s fashion, as the above left illustration shows, and Doucet was well able to keep pace with the changes, above right. Jacques Doucet was in his mid-70s, possibly in failing health given his death in 1929, and was most likely simply not up to the task anymore. Sources conflict as to whether Maison Doucet merged with Maison Doeuillet in 1928 or 1929 (1924 is a very early date given by only a few) - but a 1931 source states that "M. Doucet has recently died", which implies to me that he died after giving over his business: therefore, 1928 seems most likely. The 1931 source also speaks of Doeuillet in the past tense, so he had probably also died by that time, leaving Doeuillet-Doucet to be directed by a Georges Auber. It probably retained all of both houses' prestige, as a 1933 textile arts syllabus lists it after only Worth and Jenny under "noted designers". References to the house stop appearing in the early 1930s, so the amalgamation probably closed in 1934 or so.

Until fairly recently, it was not common for fashion houses to continue under the same name with a new designer, unless it remained in the family - Redfern being an exception, but then, Charles Poynter had his name legally changed to Charles Poynter Redfern - and Jacques Doucet had no children. Given the timing, the merger may have been a last-ditch, desperate measure to keep afloat, but the fact that it occurred at all should not be taken as meaningful with regards to how women felt about their designs. It was a business transaction that gave Doeuillet (and Auber) the benefit of a second excellent reputation to add to his own and a new pool of experienced and adept workers to draw from; meanwhile it ensured that Doucet's name, one that had been in the industry through almost the entire 19th century, would continue after his death and allowed his clientele to expect the same service they were used to. The merger might have also given his widow needed money to live on.

The Great Depression was extremely hard on the Paris fashion industry. I previously discussed this with regard to Chanel, listing the many houses that closed from 1929 on, but it can always be restated: the business world is not a pure meritocracy. Success can mean that a company makes a better product than its competitors, but it can also mean that it was better funded, ran more seductive advertising, had personal connections behind the scenes, or even that it used unethical practices. We cannot look at a successful fashion house as one that captured the zeitgeist more fully or created a standard others were unable to match, and we cannot look at shuttered fashion houses as ones that failed to make clothing women wanted to wear. Did Amazon and Barnes & Noble beat Borders because Borders didn't stock the right books? No. In fact, most of the problems had little to do with the products themselves.

So Doeuillet-Doucet's closure in the early 1930s should not be interpreted as being meaningful about the state of their clothing. Rather, it should be seen as an example of how devastating the Depression was, that it could even kill a couture house with such a weight of history and two reputations behind it.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Redfern Ltd. (ca. 1855-1940)

Redfern is relatively well known as an early couture and tailoring house, but the specific people involved, or their talents beyond women's suits and riding attire, are often overlooked when discussing the progress of fashion - which is usually distilled down into a few vibrant personalities and their innovations. Redfern's early years overlapped with Charles Frederick Worth, who steals the spotlight from all contemporaries.

Label from walking dress, 1885-1888; MMA 49.3.32d (OASC)
John Redfern (1820-1895) opened a draper's establishment in the city of Cowes on the Isle of Wight in the mid-1850s, where he was joined by his sons. In the early 1870s, his shop expanded to sell silk as well as wool, and also clothes for mourning; a little later it seems to have added yachting dress, as Cowes was historically a center for boating and regattas. The early obscurity of the business means that many sources give slightly contradictory information, but it's connected to Lillie Langtry's "Jersey Costume" worn in 1879, with a yachting outfit consisting of a wool pullover worn over a heavy skirt.


Not long after, possibly because of this celebrity patronage, Redfern was able to open a salons in London and send an employee, Charles Poynter (later taking the name Charles Poynter Redfern), to open one in Paris. (Twentieth century sources conflict over which was opened first - both are given in various books as opening in 1881. Perhaps they opened in the same year.) From this point, Redfern & Sons began to appear in fashion magazines, usually in mentions of tailor-made outfits and in conjunction with titled clients. By 1882, they were Tailors by Appointment to the Princess of Wales, and by 1885, to Queen Victoria, Maria Feodorovna, Queen Emma of the Netherlands, and numerous others as well, and they also had a third salon in New York City.

Redfern designs, Harper's Bazar, Sept. 17, 1887
Fitted street costumes were clearly the firm's forte during the 1880s, often of wool serge trimmed with braid, but they also sold mantles and wraps, and continued to furnish mourning on short notice. On the whole, the tailored look was popular: ordinary dress had been well-fitted to the upper body for some time, incorporating elements of menswear such as prominent center front buttons, basqued bodices (resembling coats worn over skirts), and lapels. In working as a tailor, the Redferns' advantage was that their talents were perfectly suited to the prevailing taste. I am not sure how much effect the house had on fashion, except that it was noted as resisting attempts to bring back the train in the early 1890s; however, this may have more to do with Redfern concurring with the prevailing taste again.
"New Redfern Dress", To-DayApril 1895
Intricate braid patterns and embroidered panels were as much a part of the Redferns' style as good fitting, and seem to have continued on in the house when fit began to allow for more looseness. Starting in the early the 1890s, the house was associated more frequently than it had been with more fanciful and dressy gowns - even wedding dresses! - while also still making the original braided wool jackets. It is probably not an insignificant fact that John Redfern was by this time rather old, and perhaps even ill (as he died in 1895). As the business came under Charles Poynter's control, possibly in 1892, when it was renamed Redfern Ltd., the focus shifted. However, changing tastes in the public were also a factor: the strict tailor-made was becoming more dressy across the board, and gathering and draping in the body were taking precedence over perfectly fitted shells.
"Costume at Cowes, by Messrs. Redfern", Cassell's Family Magazine, August 1895
"Redfern Dinner Gown", Godey's, February 1896
By the 20th century, Redfern was still acknowledged as the maker of outerwear, but the house was producing some extremely frilly and untailored gowns far removed from the original design ethos. (NB: Around this time the Redfern Corset, from the Warner Bros. Co., began to be advertised. So far I have found no connection to the couture house. However, Redfern may have made custom corsets for their clientele.)
"Pannier dress of gray cachemire de soie by Redfern, Paris", Dry Goods Economist, July 1909
While Worth was no longer represented quite as frequently in the fashion magazines during the first decade of the century, Redfern was at center stage with Beer, Paquin, and Drécoll. Fashionable actress Mary Garden attributed the draped Greek styles she wore onstage in 1909 to Redfern, which is notable as the house is rarely if ever mentioned in conjunction with the transition into the high-waisted styles of the early 1910s.

Garden party dress from Redfern, Gazette du Bon Ton, April 1913
The same state of affairs persisted in the 1910s, with Redfern included along the greatest couturiers of the age in the Gazette du Bon Ton, and continuing to be showcased as a top fashion house in magazines. Like the other Paris houses, Redfern produced perfumes as well, beginning with Sourire de Paris in 1915; Chypre de Paris was introduced in 1920, and more 1929-1930 and then in 1938.

Both from Harper's Bazar, March 1916
Given the limits of the public domain, it becomes harder to track the company after the early 1920s. One source reports that the house closed 1932-1936, most likely in response to the economic depression, and then in 1940 - like many others, due to the war. And, like many others, it did not reopen afterward.

I leave you with an adorable short story from the early 1900s, "Miss Brown's Baggage", in which a Redfern dress plays a part.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Everyone Else is Writing about Outlander, And I Want To, Too

You were supposed to get a well-researched post on Redfern Ltd. this week, but I've read several posts on Outlander lately and I want to add my two cents.

To be perfectly honest, my initial impression was (and is, for each new outfit), "hmm, I see where they were going; I wonder if they know about [construction thing]? [Aspect] makes it very costumey." Overall I would like to see more winged cuffs and caps, but I'm very happy with the materials used, Annette Badland's tying-over-the-kerchief brown gown, and Claire's 1940s wardrobe.

One thing that is really bothering me, though, in this dialogue - and how wonderful is it that in this day and age, film designers, fans, and recreationists can now communicate with each other directly? - is the idea that discussing issues of dubious accuracy is insulting the designer or saying that the costumes are terrible because they're inaccurate. I can appreciate the handwork put into the wedding robe de cour, even while I believe that a robe à la française would have been a better choice of dress.

I feel very comfortable asserting that we all understand that television is not the same as a reenactment, that the number of garments that have to be turned out in a short time means machine-friendly methods have to be used, and that the people who get the final say on costuming decisions are mostly not people with any experience on the subject. Right? It's common sense, and I think we're all on the same page.

As I've previously discussed regarding The Great Gatsby and Pride & Prejudice, and as Lauren discussed regarding Outlander, there's a lot of room to talk about costumes that aren't 100% accurate in terms of their inspiration, what they're saying about the characters, and why the changes from the accurate were made. But you can be interested in all of these things and accept the prior paragraph, and still want to talk about what wasn't quite right. For one thing, it can be fun to test yourself on how much you know, what you pick up on - sometimes you notice things that you didn't realize you knew, just by analyzing what it is that's bothering you about an outfit. (This is how I tell if a museum garment is an antique reproduction or has been messed with. What's off? Why do I have a weird feeling? Ah, there's something wrong about the closure/the fabric/the trim.) For another, it's a way to vent and get over the annoyance.

Claire likes a drink. And laced-on sleeves.
But see, here's the rub: Rowenna makes a good point - it's not right to imply that the clothing that makes it on the screen is entirely the result of research if you know there are other factors involved and you know it's not totally accurate. The discussion around Outlander has been influenced to an extent by a now-deleted post on the designer's blog (viewable through the Wayback Machine) which contained various incorrect statements - that women only bathed once a year, that it takes 20 minutes to lace up stays, the dreaded bodice - presented as fact. It's natural and understandable for people who study history to be annoyed when a professional presents myths as facts to an audience willing to believe them. When questioned, Ms. Dresbach started out dismissing the critics and eventually fell back on "I have 25 years of experience, I know what I'm doing."
Sidebar: I wasn't involved in this, but I've had the "decades of experience" card played on me in online discussions - and I just want to put out a plea to everyone everywhere to avoid this defense even when it seems totally appropriate to the situation. Either your data stands up to scrutiny because you have a good citation for it, or it does not. I could have spent five years researching 18th century French dress in detail, and still have a newcomer stumble across a primary source reference to something rarely mentioned that turns some of my statements upside down. Someone else could present a belief about Regency dress based on years of looking at fashion plates that my patterning would overturn.
I'm concerned about the way this has been represented in the comments to Lauren's post - this isn't a case of reenactors being too picky about what appears on the screen and being hostile to a costumer because of it. The issue runs deeper than that, and it has to do in part with a widespread perception that reenactors/historians are unable to deal with anything less than 100% accuracy without being mean - which means that of course someone who self-defines that way will have a shallow opinion of film costuming ("it's not totally right, so I hate it") and has no business getting involved in a discussion about it.

Of course it's not practical for a costume designer to badmouth the higher-ups who nixed accuracy for a particular costume in order to make it cost less, pick up the light better on camera, stand out more, or look sexier. And I'd never say that professionals should kowtow to their audience and apologize for everything wrong in advance. But can't we have a middle road?

Let's treat each other as equals. Because costume designers are usually so far from us, it's been easy to imagine all kinds of motivations for them and put inaccuracies down to ignorance. So let's stop assuming that and try a little harder to see the positives and possibilities. I admit that I wasn't very good about it myself until I started reading Tom & Lorenzo's Mad Style posts, and then started applying the same type of analysis to Downton Abbey.

The squared lower edge is straight out of Costume Close-Up; the seams and sleeves, not so much
On the other hand, it's important for costume designers to understand that we don't go looking for mistakes: we just see them. If you spend enough time studying the construction of a type of gown, it can be like nails on a chalkboard to see (for example) the modern armscyes and pieced backs that are a constant presence in 18th century costuming. It's not that we seriously expect the same level of accuracy that we bring to bear on ourselves - it's just an unavoidable side effect of this field. It's also important to remember that while the majority of us don't do this on a paid, professional basis, that doesn't mean we aren't knowledgeable: it means that we're so devoted to the subject of history that we do it despite the lack of payment.

The costumes in Outlander are demonstrably not 100% accurate, even if we use a movie definition of "accurate" and not a progressive's. (Geillis's are especially odd.) Let's not gloss over the steps between the research and what appeared on the screen - there is a sizable group of people here who would love to talk about what had to be left out and why. Why do Claire's jackets have princess seams and (in one case) laced-on sleeves? Are any costumes repurposed and dressed up/down? Why do the petticoats have so many pleats?

I don't understand. I don't understand the giant eye brooch either.
I'd wondered about the knitwear, and Ms. Dresbach's explanation for it is illuminating. I hope that in the future, more costumers will talk directly to us about topics that might be considered too esoteric or boring for a mainstream interview, instead of actively discouraging our participation on an involved basis.

PS: There is a reference to a spoiler in the comments. I put SPOILER markings around it, but please be warned.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Corsetry and Feminism: Appendix

As mentioned in the third part of this series, there are many modern women who regularly wear corsets who have never been scientifically studied. Obsolete Victorian medical science is far too frequently cited as an objective, truthful source - but there have been a few recent studies that are also brought up to defend the idea that corsets are inherently harmful. It is my belief that these studies, however, are flawed and do not prove what they intend or what they are used to prove. A short summary of each, the valid points, and their flaws:

Historic Medical Perspectives of Corseting and Two Physiologic Studies with Reenactors
Colleen Gau
(PhD Dissertation, 1998)

This paper is obviously - as it is a dissertation - very involved. At base, though, it is an exploration of Victorian health claims against the corset and a study of corseted women performing physical tasks.

The main strike against this study is that it is not impartial. From the beginning, Gau showed a predisposition toward taking Victorian assumptions (and those problematic, fetishistic stories of boarding school sadism) as "honest and accurate"; she also showed a real concern that modern women might begin wearing corsets to the detriment of their own health, and that reenactors might hurt themselves. Numerous quotes from earlier fashion historians were used to emphasize women's physical restriction and pain due to their clothing; an explanation was given for female doctors who did not join the dress reform movement. Overall, Gau repeatedly rationalized positive or neutral historical attitudes towards the corset but very rarely speculated on negative ones, and routinely used unnecessarily negative terms that bias the reader even before the statistics from the study were brought up.

Corset, ca. 1875; MMA 2009.300.3044a-b (OASC)

In the limitations of the study delineated at the beginning of the dissertation, she identified reasons why the results might be biased in favor of corsets not reducing the body's abilities - such as the subjects' potential underreporting of discomfort - but no reasons why the subjects might report discomfort that Victorian women might not have felt. One problem with this latter issue that occurs to me is the construction and fit of the corsets used. Gau noted that the corsets were made to produce the fashionable silhouette of 1870 - but there is little specific information about their individual shaping. Given her statements in the dissertation on the abdomen and chest being compressed while wearing a corset, in addition to her bias against corsetry as a whole, leads me to be highly skeptical that she would have had the knowledge of corset-fitting based on experimentation and practice that is a little more common today. Another problem is that all the subjects reduced their waistlines by 3", rather than a percentage of their waist, so that thinner women were more tight-laced than larger ones.

In the end, her lung capacity findings do not show anything drastic. Gau's subjects lost an average 9% of their tidal lung volume while wearing a corset, but, as previously noted, an ordinary breath takes about 18% of the lungs' capacity - the total lung capacity is so large that 9% is not a significant loss. The lower back pain reported by the subjects was possibly or probably a result of improper fitting. For the most part, the actual symptoms reported during the study - different breathing patterns, decreased eating and drinking - are not actual negatives, just an awareness. The reenactor subjects also reported finding their backs supported during work.

It is rather impressive, given Gau's admission that she encouraged the subjects to loosen or remove their corsets and note discomfort, that they seem to have been unmoved by her bias and reported less pain and difficulty breathing than she expected, especially given their changes in lung capacity. Her rationalizing was continued to the subjects' attitudes themselves, with suggested reasons for their not removing their corsets despite their lack of complete physical comfort. In sum, while the text of the dissertation (discussing historical context) is overwhelmingly negative, the result section, especially the subsections on reported experience, is mainly positive. Really, despite Gau's ending statement of concern for actresses and other women's health, this study should be taken as supportive for women who choose to wear corsets.

Binding Femininity: An Examination of the Effects of Tightlacing on the Female Pelvis
Katherine Klingerman
(Master's Thesis, 2006)

While Gau's paper focused on the effect that corsets have on the lungs, Klingerman examined the size and shape of the pelvis. As with Gau, my impression is that Klingerman had a bias going into the project, wanted to find that tight-lacing caused severe pelvic defects (her hypothesis was that the, and took many dubious historic sources at face value. And again as with Gau, despite the apparent desire to prove that corsetry was a medically harmful practice, the conclusion of the study is fairly positive. Klingerman's findings were that tight-laced bodies had slightly narrower pelvises, but that the women were still capable of bearing healthy children.

When I first came across this thesis, it was being used to show the dangers of historical corsetry - because even though the conclusion is positive, the non-scientific sections describing the practice are written with a strong slant. For example, the earlier history of the corset heavily relies on a sixty-year old source that treats Catherine de' Medici's 13" waists and iron torso-cages as facts (a story which comes from the 1860s and is patently untrue). Klingerman cites Valerie Steele quite a few times, but often for "facts" like the just-mentioned 13" waists and heavy iron stays at Catherine de' Medici's court which Steele specifically refutes; she also cites other sources for "facts" (like sadistic, tight-lacing headmistresses, or women unable to do anything physical while dressed in corsets) that she would have found were untrue in Steele. This helped to add to my feeling that Klingerman seriously wanted to find that corsets were very harmful and actively ignored information that contradicted her prejudices.

The historical section as a whole is shallow and rife with assumption, based on stereotypes and few reputable, modern sources - you may notice the same few citations appearing over and over again. When discussing the medical community's reaction to corsets and women's health, Klingerman flips back and forth between doctors' opinions being reasonable (when anti-corset), and doctor's opinions being misogynist (when not attributing diseases to the corset). There's no point in my going into the medical history section in detail, as the first post in this series essentially refutes it - basically, the conditions described are either not simply caused by the corset or are not demonstrably related to the death of various autopsy subjects (eg. overlapping ribs). From the discussion of pregnancy, one would think that our foremothers had few-to-no healthy births and small families, but this is clearly not the case.

And at the same time, the fact that the skeletal samples run from 1729 to 1857 while the bulk of the criticism of tight-lacing in the text is based on post-1870 corsets means that much of the above is simply unnecessary.

"Mlle Colombe L'Ainee", Jean Baptiste Patas, ca. 1778; VAM S.3835-2009

My understanding of the science is not advanced enough to allow criticism of Klingerman's methods in examining skeletons. I confine myself to critiquing her interpretation - of the remains of younger women showing evidence of tight-lacing while the remains of older women do not - that women who tight-laced died young, rather than considering the possibility that women stopped tight-lacing after a certain age. She also goes further and assumes that the change in pelvis size from tightlacing must also indicate horrendous organ damage.

Despite determining through her studies that the pelvic opening was not narrowed to the point that it would cause difficult births, Klingerman is unable to let go of her hypothesis, in the end attributing difficult births to soft-tissue problems caused by the corset. I can sympathize with her for having disproved her intended point rather than proving it, but at bottom it's important to keep one's mind open and base theories on solid data rather than the belief that corsets simply must be extremely bad.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

It's My Body: Corsetry and Feminism, Part Three

A Modern Health Perspective

Historical views on corsetry cannot be divorced from the world their creators lived in. When dress reformers wrote about the practice of wearing corsets, they were referring to a context in which women were not sanctioned to be seen without them in public. Is it even possible to infer how they would feel about corset-wearing in a world where it is the extreme anomaly rather than the norm? This was also a context in which medical claims that we now know to be incorrect were taken seriously based on very little evidence. There is no reason to apply Victorian perspectives (feminist or not) to the practices of modern corset-wearers, since none of their experiences would have approached the modern situation.

It never ceases to amaze me that critics of modern tight-lacing or moderate corseting ignore and dismiss the experiences of those modern corseters in favor of the Victorian medical claims. Regardless of the official statistics on total lung capacity and the workings of the digestive system, modern women who actually wear corsets with the same frequency as Victorian women have an understanding of the physical effects of corsetry that is superior to the understanding of someone who has not done the same or specifically studied the subject. For one thing, living as these women do in a world with antibiotics and other medicines, they avoid many of the health problems previously attributed to the corset and thereby prove them to be unrelated.

Scarlet Empress, April 21 2014
An overwhelming amount of evidence from modern corseters is that there are complications that can arise from corsetry - raising or lowering blood pressure, slight constipation, skin infections - but that these are not constant, life-threatening, or dangerous, except in very special cases. There is no reason to speculate that their kidneys, heart, or liver are damaged and will soon cripple or kill them. Cathy Jung, the most famous and most extreme modern tightlacer, has been reducing her waistline since the 1980s and attests to skin issues (though she says that her skin is naturally very sensitive), but she is not suffering the effects of organ damage. X-rays of her torso show that her heart is not affected by her corset. When mainstream media sources quote doctors' opinions on the dangers of tightlacing or moderate corset use, there are no modern studies underlying their statements. Bruising of the liver, spleen, or kidneys, for example, has not been attested by any modern tightlacer to my knowledge.

To go further, modern corseters have found corsets to have some health benefits. They have been used to treat extreme scoliosis; they can support the back during hard work and prevent bending from the waist, like a back brace; after childbirth, they support weakened and overstretched abdominal muscles; as they reduce stomach capacity, they cause the wearer to eat smaller meals, and to avoid fatty foods and fizzy drinks.

There are also many modern women who have worn corsets and reported pain and discomfort. Jessica Findlay Brown (Sybil on Downton Abbey) has said that she "absolutely hates corsets", and others who work at living history museums in costume or in the theatre have agreed at times. In these cases - so often cited as proof that corsets are harmful - the wearers are probably or possibly wearing a corset that has not been made with a proper understanding of how body fat redistributes itself. (Based on Lady Mary's corset, those on Downton Abbey are not properly shaped for the period, covering far more of the bust than was usual, which makes it likely that they are also not built correctly for the body, either. That said, Michelle Dockery has said that she doesn't mind hers.) Professional corsetiers understand how to fit individual bodies, and that adding ease in the hips and bust allows for easier and greater reduction without difficulty. Historically, women might have corsets made specifically to fit them, or more commonly availed themselves of a company with professional fitters and many different styles and sizes of corset to fit different figures. Today, this knowledge is mostly lost, with corsetmakers constantly having to remind the public that they will not be able to simply buy one based on their dress size and have it reduce them comfortably.

Feminist or Regressive?

And now we come to the basic question which caused me to write these thousands of words. Is a modern woman who chooses to wear a corset regularly - whether she is achieving a smooth hourglass shape or an exaggerated wasp waist - an empowered feminist, or is she moving backward?

This is a trick question. It is impossible to answer.

"Third-wave feminism" is a term used to broadly cover the strains of feminism existing in the present. The second wave of feminism focused, like the first-wave feminists discussed in previous posts, on legal and social issues that oppressed women, but much of post-modern third-wave feminism examines the interlocking structures of gender and race and focuses on issues within traditional feminism. A strong but controversial branch (sometimes called "choice feminism") argues for individual agency in deciding whether a particular practice is is personally empowering or misogynist, especially with regard to practices that have been previously considered incompatible with feminism.

For example: some women today are choosing to be stay-at-home mothers rather than to work outside the home, and are not being forced into it by economic necessity (the costs of childcare that would be incurred if they were to work). Ideally, a feminist stay-at-home mother would not argue that all stay-at-home mothers are making a deliberate choice and that working mothers are making a bad choice, accepting that the satisfaction she derives from it is personal to herself, while another feminist would attempt to see the situation from her point of view without assuming that the first woman is misguided or lying.

Likewise, many women who wear corsets today feel a sense of empowerment. The shape they give their bodies pleases them, and the feeling of the corset itself is described positively as "hugging". Some, like Cathy Jung, did begin tight lacing on their husbands' requests, but in an informal poll of corseters and non-corseters in their late teens and twenties, within the 79% of respondents who lace moderately or tightly on a regular basis, 93% said that they liked the way corsets feel, 82% wore them for back support, and 87% wore them to look sexy for themselves. (Several respondents mentioned that the sensation helped them with anxiety)

Scarlet Empress in one of Cathy Jung's corsets with a 16" waist, July 1 2014
For some reason, we can easily accept that an historical woman making aesthetic/clothing choices that conflict with the standards of her context - but agree with ours - is behaving as an individual by bobbing her hair, wearing trousers, shortening her skirts. Yet when the case is flipped, and a modern woman makes an aesthetic choice that conflicts with modern standards, she must not be behaving as an individual but as a freak or oddity which must be corrected.

The objective feminist value of the corset itself in a modern context may be uncertain or impossible to determine, but what is more clear is that the frequent treatment of women who wear them today is not within the bounds of feminism. How does it promote equality to stand by outdated (and frequently misogynist) medical science while disbelieving the evidence given from numerous lived female experiences? To say that tightlacers must have a disorder because their shapes are not traditionally attractive? To call them "gross" or judge them as insecure? To state that it's all done for male attention?

Popular feminist history holds that women threw off their corsets in 1920, picked it back up with the New Look of the late 1940s, then shed the uncomfortable girdle in the 1960s. This fairy tale is an important part of how modern women see themselves: we no longer require artificial means to achieve a fashionable figure, because the fashionable figure is one that is unconstrained. Except that this high-minded ideal is both false - Spanx and similar stretchy shapewear are extremely popular, attracting the same type of medical fears based on worst-case scenarios and exaggeration - and disingenuous, since the "natural" body is often altered through intense dieting and exercise, to the point where the corset is now an invisible, unremovable restraint.

Wearing a corset in the modern milieu is no more a promotion of female repression than is regular exercise to obtain a fashionable figure. The fad diets that have predominated since the mid-twentieth century and the rise of malnutrition as a method of shaping the body have measurable negative results that far outweigh the imaginary risks of corsetry. Athletes do actually die from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy related to overtraining; young female athletes in particular are highly subject to disordered eating - and yet you rarely see negative comments on the same scale attached to articles about sports.

There is something about the refusal to accept that corsets do not cause organ damage that strikes me as suspicious. It is as though citing the unproven risks allows the public to express socially-accepted judgement and control over women's bodies: the bodies of women who transgress social norms, in particular. Are the disdain and ignorance displayed over modern corset-wearers essentially a form of concern trolling, pretending worry about tight lacers' health in order to undermine women's agency?

Perhaps this is too extreme a theory. But perhaps those who actually wish to uphold feminism will attempt to understand the women inside the corsets before judging them.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Fact and Fiction: Corsetry and Feminism, Part Two

Suffrage vs. Dress Reform

Given that the members of the women's rights movement lived at a time when there was no scientific evidence against the intensely negative health claims, it is no wonder that they might regard the corset as a death-trap. However, early feminist opposition to the corset is vastly overstated today. To illustrate, see the fashionable photograph of Susan B. Anthony at the end of the 19th century:

Susan B. Anthony, ca. 1895
Based on the smoothness of her bodice and the curve of her waist, we can say that she was clearly wearing a corset even late in her successful career. (Other photographs of Anthony show corsetry as well, as do photographs of other proto-feminists.)

The Dress Reform movement associated with the women's rights movement began in the 1850s, promoting the "freedom suit" or "Bloomer costume" consisting of a loose dress over full trousers, worn without a corset. The suit attracted ridicule from the public instead of praise, and faded into obscurity. Several decades later, the Rational Dress Society (and the Aesthetic/Artistic movement whose clothing derived from the pseudo-medieval pre-Raphaelite costume; it was not overly concerned with woman's position as a whole, mostly remaining the province of the wealthy and bohemian) took up the cause - and even they were more focused on tight-lacing than the corset itself, and tried to distance themselves from the accusations of cross-gender dressing that had been leveled at Bloomers. The idea that women were trying to dress as men had been more of a problem than their getting rid of the corset specifically.

Satire of Frances Power Cobbe, a women's rights reformer, in Punch, 1877: a common stereotype of feminists has always been that instead of insisting on equality, they intend to subjugate men
During this time, most of the people involved with the women's rights movement were occupied with the legal rights of women and the progress of female suffrage. There was not - as there still is not today - a united community composed of all the people working to champion women, and the suffragists did not always cross over with the dress reformers. In fact, women in the suffrage movement frequently used fashionable dress, including the more difficult s-bend corset of the 1900s, to emphasize their respectability and attractiveness and to show their opponents as old-fashioned.

Whenever an inaccuracy is as widespread as this, one has to ask what purpose it serves to the people who eagerly repeat it. Why do we want to perceive early feminism as being tied up with dress reform? And the main answer that occurs to me is: because the popular narratives of women's history and twentieth century history require broad stereotypes. In both, there is the idea that the 1920s were a revolutionary decade, with women winning the right to vote and outdated social mores being flung to the winds after World War I, one of those mores being the necessity of wearing corsets.

In actuality, there was no sudden moment of change. The fashionable figure had changed from a voluptuous hourglass into a shapely column by 1910, requiring a similar change in corsetry; the new corsets did not exert much force on the waistline, and do not fit in with the idea that corsets were meant to force the body into an exaggeratedly sexual shape. From the beginning of the century, the top edge of the corset descended until it was just above the waist during the war years, and rubber and elastic panels were used to increase the garment's flexibility. After the term "corset" fell into disuse, both girdles and corselets (foundation garments that supported the bust as well as the hips, usually fitted with straps) were used as different figures became fashionable: they flattened out curves in the 1920s, slimmed the hips in the 1930s, and created a more hourglass figure in the 1940s and 1950s. It was not until the 1960s and the style revolution of that era that shapewear really became unfashionable.

"A new Thompson Glove-Fitting Corset ...", Corset and Underwear Review, 1920
Another part of this mythology is the idea that women suddenly entered the workforce during World War I and stopped wearing corsets, either because their jobs required more flexibility or to give up the steel to be used in the war effort. Well, women had been working as teachers, clerks, doctors (see also), dentists, journalists, and factory hands for decades before this period - WWI may have opened new doors for women who had not previously needed to work, but it did not create a female workforce. During the war years, corset factories were declared an "essential industry", while men in steel complained that women were buying too many corsets and depleting the raw iron they needed. (Corsets were apparently later declared an inessential industry on the advice of Alice Roosevelt , which has led some to say that she killed the corset - but all this means is that new corsets would have been in shorter supply during that time.)

One reason for the distilled narrative of women's liberation is that it is easier - the story is simple, made up of distinct steps, with obvious cause-and-effect and clear correlations between fashion and women's position in society. However, the idea of a direct progression is also important to many in terms of self-perception: that is, it feels better to see oneself as being at the end of a chain of improvements. Seeing the Victorian and Edwardian eras as a mass of female oppression, followed by women proving themselves and seizing independence during the war, then celebrating and finding more personal freedom during the 1920s, followed by more seized independence during WWII and the clear political gains of the 1960s and 1970s can give one a sense of satisfaction, a feeling that women today have much better lives and more opportunities than ever before. And that is true! But acknowledging that women had more control over their lives and more opportunities during the 19th century can bring the feeling that we haven't come as far as we'd like and are not as free as we think we are.

I have digressed. But to move onto my next sub-point: because the popular narrative of women gaining jobs and suffrage lines up with the popular narrative around dress, they are elided together and it is assumed that the women who fought for suffrage also fought for the abolition of the corset.

That the suffragists were not fighting against the corset despite its general reputation as a health hazard suggests several things. One interpretation is that women may have been relying on their own feelings and experiences in wearing corsets, deciding independently that they were not in pain and did not succumb more easily to illness. The extreme claims from doctors and anatomists of the period would have been easily ignored by women who did not suffer from and knew nobody who suffered from tuberculosis, cancer, or circulatory and digestive problems.

Another is that the women who worked for a reform in the legal and social oppression of women - difficulty in procuring a divorce, inequal pay, fewer property rights, the expectation that they were passive and weak - may not have generally viewed the corset itself as an instrument or symbol of that oppression. Scientifically-minded feminist Lydia Becker was in fact reported in the Rational Dress Society Gazette as telling women to "stick to your stays, ladies, and triumph over the other sex"; even many of the few female doctors practicing in the 19th century did not speak out against corsets. While some activists did eschew corsets from an early period, most others apparently did not see themselves as needing to get rid of their corsets to achieve equality. That corsets were a manifestation of the societal repression of Victorian women is a later interpretation, not a fact.

Male and female suffragists, the women in corsets and fashionable dress, 1913; Library of Congress LC-B2- 2810-14
Modern scholars and non-academics routinely describe corsets in this way and ascribe their use only to social pressure, falling into the same bent as the scholarship in the Victorian era in characterizing the majority of women as stupid or frivolous fashion-followers, or painting them all as victims. While these scholars see themselves as following in the footsteps of the proto-feminists, the lack of feminist support for the dress reformers means that, in effect, they are actually aligning themselves with Victorian moralizers and misogynists, and are patronizing the very women they intend to support.

And More Fictional

Another part of this misreading of the history of the women's rights movement is our present-day obsession with unconventional heroines in historical fiction. We have much more contact with historical fiction than historical fact, especially if myths perpetrated by docents and fiction are weighted on the former side. We see our current dress as the most acceptable, we value the individual's ability to change society very highly, and we have these popular narratives embedded in our culture: these are layered onto our perception of history and reinforce the inaccuracy. When confronted with facts, people generally insist that the perception they have is correct instead.

Fictional women oppose the corset as individuals who personally dislike it, usually because they find them uncomfortable; their bodies often conform to a more modern, slimmer ideal and they do not benefit from them. (The ideal example of this is of course Elizabeth Swann, of Pirates of the Caribbean - who can forget her fainting into the ocean, or the line, "You like pain? Try wearing a corset"?) They represent the modern woman's publicly stated feeling on restrictive shapewear - it's unnecessary and worn to attract men at the cost of one's comfort.


One heroine who has influenced a great many people's opinion on corsets is Scarlett O'Hara. The iconic book and film scene where she is laced down to a 17" waist is commonly cited in popular articles on the practice by horrified writers. Perhaps Gone With the Wind has achieved something near to the place of a primary source because it was written decades ago ... but, of course, it is not a primary source. It is a work of fiction that was written by a woman who most likely never wore a traditional hourglass corset; moreover, early 20th century commentary frequently mythologized the Victorian era as a far more repressive time than it was in order to play up the new mores and speed of life in the 1920s and 1930s.

Of course, few would actually state that they believe all fiction is objectively true. But historical fiction has a tendency to stick in the mind through its vividness and its ability to set out the thoughts and motivations of people who did not leave much of a record of their personalities. In the case of Shakespeare's Richard III, for example, the fiction was accepted as historical fact for centuries due to its position in the literary canon.

Some vivid fiction is historic, rather than historical: there is a myth, spread by fictional letters written to mainstream Victorian magazines, that young girls were ruthlessly squeezed by sadistic headmistresses in order to get waists many inches smaller than their natural ones. By looking at advertisements, we can see that young girls (of a particular class background) were actually gradually shaped into the fashionable figure, just as modern adult tight-lacers recommend working very, very slowly to reshape the ribcage. Rather than having a ribcage just like ours suddenly pushed into more of a cone, they were molded at a time when their bones were more flexible. Thus, as adults, they would be able, if they wished, to achieve a figure that appears even more extreme to our eyes by reducing only a few more inches.

Another reason for historical fiction's effect is that it can often resonate more with the present than a straight, factual narrative would. A novel about a past war can give its hero an attitude more common to those surrounding a present war; rather than seeing a shapely corset as a desirable symbol of beauty and adulthood, a young woman can display the modern reaction of disgust and distaste. It does not seem a stretch to speculate that historical fiction with more modern attitudes could seem more vibrant and accessible to the modern reader and therefore become more popular than the truth.

I have no scholarly sources or studies to prove that. But it goes a way toward explaining how certain ideas are so frequently ascribed to Victorian women and proto-feminists when they did not actually express these ideas that often, and when modern corset-wearers can and do give their impressions of living regular life in a corset.

(For more on modern corset-wearers, see next Wednesday's post, "It's My Body: Corsetry and Feminism, Part Three".)