Printer Friendly


During the nineteenth century virtually all free-born women in the United States wore corsets. Yet from mid-century onward the purpose and meaning of the corset generated heated debate among physicians, ministers, couturiers, feminist dress reformers, health and hygiene activists, and advocates of tight-lacing. Their lengthy argument suggests that keeping women in corsets was an ongoing project.

In the early twentieth century these corset debates intensified. Turn-of-the-century corset styles became even more constricting and thus protests against their use gained ground. In addition, young women in the 1910s began to reject the Victorian moral sensibilities--and the fashions inspired by them--which symbolically and literally restricted women's mobility in both private and public spheres. Women's claims to wage work, to academic and physical education, to public protest over access to suffrage and birth control, and to pleasurable leisure activities such as dancing at tango parties all brought daily corset wear into question. However, in this period, corset defenders gained a powerful new ally. The most vigorous supporter of corsetry became the well-organized and well-funded Corset Manufacturers Association, founded in 1907. Arguments supporting corset use changed as a result. Yet, though most women continued to wear corsets, demands for more comfort in clothing and the rising appeal of "modernity" as a sales tool changed their shape.

G.B. Pulfer, treasurer and general manager of the Kalamazoo Corset Company, explained in the trade journal Corsets & Lingerie why women wore corsets in 1921:

Fear! Fear of ill health, fear of sagging bodies, fear of lost figure, fear of shiftless appearance in the nicest of clothing, fear of sallow complexion. Fear sends them to the corsetiere, trembling; the same corsetiere from whom they fled mockingly a couple of years back, at the beck of a mad style authority who decreed "zat ze body must be free of ze restrictions, in order zat ze new styles shall hang so freely." [1]

Pulfer addressed these comments to the journal's national readership of corset manufacturers, retailers, department store buyers, and saleswomen. His article was one of a series addressing industry concerns about women's continued consent to wearing corsets, and part of an intensive coordinated effort by manufacturers to revitalize and revamp pro-corset argumentation. Thus, Pulfer's article also addressed the fear of corset manufacturers. Their fear, which exploded on the panicked pages of Corsets & Lingerie throughout the early 1920s, was of losing control over how and when women changed the way they dressed. [2]

Scholarship on nineteenth-century women's history and dress explores the power of corsets to regulate women's behavior as well as to signify women's subordinate status. Studies by Helene Roberts, David Kunzle, Lois Banner and Valerie Steele demonstrate the well-established and lasting iconic power of the corset as a conveyor of social meaning. As these scholars disagree about just what that meaning was for female corset wearers as well as for corset defenders and opponents of both sexes, their studies also make abundantly clear that the corset became a locus for a number of competing significations. To move beyond previous corset controversies we thus need to ask not only how dressing practices function as structures of domination or as resources of resistance, but also how these functions are instituted and why these practices generate both contested and contradictory meanings. These questions address not only the history of the corset as a pervasive and persistent article of women's clothing, but also the history of how the corset's meanings affected women's lives as they struggled to alter the shape of femininity and gender relations. [3]

Building upon earlier studies, this article picks up the chronology with the turn-of-the-century period when use of the rigid nineteenth-century corset declined, and continues through the first decades of the twentieth century when challenges to the corset intensified. Significantly, this time frame also encompasses an era of heightened agitation for women's political, sexual, economic and social equality. Yet we also know that achievements in one period do not prevent backlashes in succeeding decades. Analysis of how the commercialized practice and ideology of corsetry worked in significant ways to form the way women viewed, imagined, and experienced their own bodies can help us understand both the persistence and reshaping of problematic gender structures and identities.

Fashions in dress are particularly useful for analyzing culture as contested terrain because a central defining element of fashion is change. Controlling the direction of this change is difficult, not only because of the fashion industry's perpetual dependence upon innovation but also because of the simple fact that everyone wears clothes. As a result, the apparatus which monitors dressing practices, evident in written and unwritten dress codes and their enforcement by myriads of "fashion police," is widely dispersed. The accepted power of clothing to express identity, in such categories as gender, personality, sexual preference, class, and social status, heightens the stakes for how fashion changes take place and take shape. Fashion, both a system of signification and a set of regulatory practices, is thus an arena of social struggle over meaning. [4]

Corset manufacturers' coordinated response to women's new widespread defiance of older fashion standards, which enlisted corset saleswomen to deploy their merchandising campaign against the "corsetless evil," emphasized youthful standards of beauty, developed scientific discourse that viewed the female body as inherently flawed, and connected ideologies of racial purity, national security, and heterosexual privilege to corset use. Examining the marketing strategies developed and disseminated to keep women in corsets, as well as the oppositional practices which these strategies sought to corral, reveals how the corset's instrumentality changed in the twentieth century. Nineteenth-century efforts to keep women corseted drew upon, legitimated and constructed particular notions about femininity, propriety, and the female body. In the twentieth century, corset discourses also incorporated ideas about race, nation, and the importance of science and modernity to everyday life. The meanings corsetry impressed upon w omen's bodies thus shifted with industrialization, as women's fears of aging, imperfect, inferior, unfashionable, and unscientific bodies replaced earlier fears of moral turpitude and questionable respectability. And most significantly, industrialists' fear of diminishing profits played and preyed upon the long-standing fear of unrestrained women.

After 1900 corsets got progressively longer on the hips, and the top of the corset moved down the torso toward the waistline. The popularity of the uncomfortable S-curve corsets favored by Gibson Girls of this era, which threw the bust forward and the buttocks back, declined after 1905 with wider use of straight-front corsets. The S-curve blunted the athleticism and mobility of the Gibson Girl, and the obvious manipulation of the body necessary to create the S-curve silhouette was an easy target for anti-corset agitation which defended the "natural" body. However, the necessity of wearing a corset was also vigorously defended throughout this period, and, once the straight front corsets succeeded the S-curve corsets, anatomical reasons were stressed as the basis for the corset's necessity. [5]

Havelock Ellis was among the experts cited in the popular press who claimed that female humans required corseting because the evolution from "horizontality to verticality" was more difficult for females than for males. "Woman might be physiologically truer to herself," Havelock Ellis insisted, "if she went always on all fours. It is because the fall of the viscera in woman when she imitated man by standing erect induced such profound physiological displacements ... that the corset is morphologically essential." [6] A supporting argument claimed that recent archaeological finds in Crete and Greece, in addition to the discovery of cave paintings in Spain and France, proved that women had cinched their waists for the past 40,000 years due to anatomical necessity. Thus, corseting continued to be an evolutionary requirement. The extent to which present concerns colored the interpretation of ancient representations may be seen in the detection in cave paintings of the "debutante slouch," a hunched posture populari zed by young women in the 1910s.[7]

Straight front corsets continued to be quite long over the thighs in order to conform the body to the slimmer line of skirts. These longer corsets could be extremely confining, as wearing one actually made it difficult to bend the legs enough to sit down. The binding of the legs persisted with the notorious "hobble skirt" introduced in 1908, which had an extremely narrow hemline around the ankles that inhibited walking. French couturier Paul Poiret relates his claim to invention of the hobble skirt to another claim, that of successfully waging "war upon [the corset]." Poiret states in his autobiography, "Like all great revolutions, that one had been made in the name of Liberty--to give free play to the abdomen: it was equally in the name of Liberty that I proclaimed the fall of the corset.... Yes, I freed the bust but I shackled the legs." [8]

Women in the United States did not toss away their corsets en masse after Poiret's introduction of dresses designed to be worn without corsets. Achieving the fashionable line actually still required most women to be corseted. In fact, Poiret's corsetless fashions were in part an appropriation of design ideas from the cultural fringe which he marketed to the middle class. Since the nineteenth century, the idea of abandoning the corset had been floating in the margins of feminist dress reform and of aesthetic and communitarian movements. In addition, turn-of-the-century health and hygiene movements, as well as the availability of bicycles, encouraged active play for adult urban dwellers. Furthermore, growing numbers of women experienced the benefits of organized sports in women's colleges. Women's access to sports and physical exercise in this period heightened their desire for less restrictive garments and prompted the development and marketing of sports corsets made of lighter and more flexible materials. Em bedded in sports corsets was thus a measure of give and take between women's demands for greater comfort and freedom of movement and manufacturers' needs for profits from continued corset sales. [9]

By 1914 another popular phenomenon, the tango, also affected active American women's corset use. Women began removing their stiff corsets at parties in order to dance, and corset manufacturers responded once again by marketing dance corsets. But, like the flapper herself, who appeared in the mid-1910s but was not to gain mainstream attention if not cause outright alarm until the next decade, corsetlessness remained a situational phenomenon practiced by a daring minority of mostly young and slim women at this time. Yet, while Vogue conceded in 1914 that "the mode of the corsetless figure is an established one-- for a season, at least," it also noted that "the point has been reached where women do not have to be dictated to, as formerly, in the matter of corsets." Rather than doing away with corsets entirely, Vogue argued that since many corset models were now available "the present mode is not a uniform one.... A year ago where one or two corsets would answer, it is now not a luxury, but a necessity, to have a greater number, and each of a different sort." Thus, corset manufacturers' decision to supply women with lighter and more flexible corsets was not mere concession, but also a means to increase the total number of corsets sold. Nonetheless, increasing the number of corset styles available also created a situation in which a monolithic fashionability began to dissolve, and women's power to determine their own shape within fashionability expanded. [10]

Vogue duly noted the dangers of women's expanded power in a 1917 article entitled "Woman Decides to Support Herself." Giving sportswomen the credit for the initial blow toward "undermining the power of fashion" while also castigating her "absurd willingness to support her figure without external aid," Vogue then proceeds to analyze "the fatal mistake of couturiers" which caused this turn of events. Couturiers, Vogue explains, did not foresee the ramifications of their recent designs based on the so-called "natural figure." Significantly, shaping a woman's body into the "natural figure" required looser corsets than those worn previously. When couturiers attempted to reimpose a more constricted waist, "the unexpected, the unprecedented, happened. Women refused to wear them; they actually did that unheard-of thing." Eventually, according to Vogue, fashionable women and couturiers reached a compromise--waists would be taken in, but not much. [11]

Women's desires for self-sufficiency, alluded to in the article's title, were not, of course, limited to the sphere of dress. Agitation for suffrage and birth control was in full swing by 1917, including daily picketing in front of the White House until the passage of women's suffrage in 1919. In addition, once World War I ended, some of the mid-1910s sub-cultural trends hit the mainstream. Shorter skirt lengths, which resulted in the shocking appearance of women's bare legs, became a focus of controversy. While ministers admonished from the pulpits, college deans instituted dress codes, and women formed short skirt defense leagues, debates raged in the popular press over what was seen as either the new immodesty or the new freedom in women's dress and behavior. [12]

Debates regarding the redefinition of women's propriety took place in a context of uncertainty during post-war reconstruction. In 1919, an unprecedented four million workers participated in over 3000 strikes to consolidate wartime gains and achieve further improvements in working conditions. Employers characterized this labor unrest as unduly influenced by the Bolshevik revolution, and saw both as merely the first stage in the undoing of the current world order. In 1920 the Department of Justice responded to this fear by arresting thousands of radicals and deported hundreds of immigrants to quell opposition. Known as the Red Scare, this state suppression of dissent disrupted many lives and raised troubling questions about the government's role in maintaining power at the expense of constitutional freedoms. [13]

The construction of corsetlessness as a dangerous evil drew upon similar moral language employed in the domestic suppression of radicalism. Corsetlessness had, after all, been long identified with radical feminist and utopian movements. Confusion also persisted about which post-war changes were American and modern, and which foreign and menacing. New York City resident Mildred Rosenstein, for example, whose lifelong anti-communism probably began in those years, was called a Bolshevik by her brother when she bobbed her waist-length hair in the late 1910s. As late as 1925 a report on corset manufacturers efforts to "reestablish a vogue for their wares," related the current posing of the "query, 'are corsets only another obsolete tradition to be cast aside," to "the unchartered freedom of the Bolshevist figure." [14]

Trade journals were an industry mechanism for disseminating pro-corset argumentation. In 1921, Corsets & Lingerie identified corsetlessness as a dangerous and evil fad. According to subsequent trade accounts this fad began after the end of World War I. However, as we have seen, corsetlessness had been a twentieth-century "look" since Poiret's introduction of corsetless dresses in 1908. Vogue magazine acknowledged this fashion trend in a 1914 pro-corset article entitled "Corseting the Corsetless Figure." That same year Corsets & Lingerie noted "the popularity ... of the corsetless figure," and a 1915 ad for foundations advertised its product on a similar basis. Yet six years later, this trade journal expressed a decided panic about corsetlessness. Moreover, it continued to refer to the specter of the evil corsetless fad throughout the 1920s. [15]

In his 1921 Corsets & Lingerie article, "Fighting the Corsetless Evil," G.B. Pulfer described industry strategies working to stifle corsetlessness:

The same publicity media which spread this first corsetless fad story ... is now being utilized to spread the story of danger, the warning that has aroused our sane women to righteous fear, the warning that's sending them back to the corset shop ... in droves.... When it was announced that no corset shall now be the rule, it was expected that the American corset manufacturer and the merchant would gasp, then bow their heads in gentle and piteous submission to the commands of the Parisian boulevardier. But did they? They did not..... The publicity campaign that sprang into life immediately could not have been more ably managed if it had been under one directing general.... The corset manufacturers have flooded the trade with literature and advice on how to spread the true story of the corsetless fad. The newspapers have helped considerably. [16]

Pulfer concludes by exhorting readers to "keep your literature going out Mr. Corset Maker; keep your customers informed, Mr. Dealer."

Trade journal articles, such as "Evils of the No-Corset Fad," "Flappers Are Responsible for Corsetless Craze," and "Eminent Surgeons Endorse the Corset," indicted corsetlessness as a threatening menace. Reasons given included dissipation of muscular strength, injury to internal organs, corruption of standards of beauty, damage to moral fiber, contamination of race pride and purity, and destruction of American sovereignty. Some of these contentions, particularly the medical and hygienic, had been articulated previously as part of nineteenth century debates about the corset. Other claims, like the patriotic and racial, were more recent concerns. [17]

The identification and explication of corsetlessness as an evil fad not only served to bolster support among those whose livelihoods depended upon the continuing use of the corset, but also armed the industry with the weapon of ideology. As G.B. Pulfer quite openly pointed out, this ideology could then be further disseminated in a range of tactical discourses, from public advertisements in mass circulation print media to private conversations with women customers in the intimacy of corset fitting rooms. This deployment of pro-corset ideologies, culled from the discourses of professionalized medicine, the eugenics movement, and Victorian constructions of femininity, and their circulation through mass media and the marketplace, reveal how manufacturers constructed the corset as an instrument of cultural hegemony.

Extreme assertions in the trade journals about the wide-ranging detrimental effects of corsetlessness convey the panic manufacturers felt about the potential for women to stop wearing corsets. Panic is also revealed by many contradictory statements that at one moment express relief over the fad's demise, at the next moment state the continuing need to exhort against it, and end by bemoaning the fad's ongoing effect on sales and profits. In addition, panic can be sensed in confused comments regarding manufacturers' continuing ability to manipulate women's fickle fashion sensibilities. Moreover, the sensibilities expressed in the trade journal articles seem to emanate more from emotion than fact because the authors never produce any concrete data to support their anxious fears about declining corset sales. As one popular magazine put it, "Naturally these groups of elders are in a panic--'Are corsets doomed?'" [18]

The post-war economic depression of 1920 to 1922 also contributed to the climate of anxiety. The clothing industry was one of the first to decline, in April 1920. Prior to this time, production had finally reestablished levels close to those in force before the 1914-1915 depression. In other words, 1919, a year of "general prosperity and expansion" in the industry, was followed by yet another slump. The lowest level of employment reached in the garment industry occurred in June 1921, and was 35% below June 1914 levels. Figures for the underwear industry, which did not include corsets, show a dramatic 50% drop in sales between 1920 and 1921. Profitability in that sector of the trade returned in 1922, though sales remained below 1920 levels for several years. [19]

Census statistics for the corset industry, however, indicate insignificant change in the value of products manufactured between 1919 and 1921, and a 3.2% increase between 1921 and 1923. Therefore, there is no evidence to substantiate a frightening drop in corset sales, especially considering the depression in the garment industry and in the U.S. economy generally. In fact, the corset industry managed very ably through this short, but sharp, economic decline. Thus, the corset panic looms even larger as a strictly ideological phenomenon, spawned by wider circumstances of social transition and economic upheaval. [20]

The three tactical strategies of the corset panic articles--denial, attack, and incorporation--utilized assertions drawn from medicine, politics and the culture of beauty and fashion, but not economics. Corset manufacturers and department store buyers, often the authors of these articles, drew on proscriptive discourses to infuse corset use with ideologies of domination. As a result, corset manufacturers as well as the dominating classes as a whole benefitted because these discourses circulated in new ways, including the further commodified probing of female flesh. The successful imposition of dominant ideologies via the corset thus worked to reinscribe women's subordination generally. Corset manufacturers' panic about losing control over their female market would be eased by invoking, and thus reenforcing, broader structures of control.

Denial of the fad's existence worked as a strategy to mitigate the fears of people in the trade. It also reproduced the deflating idea that corsetlessness was not popular, and therefore not fashionable. In a July 1921 interview entitled "Corsets Still In Vogue," Miss O'Neill, a department store corset buyer states that "while the fad for the corsetless effect is still raging, it is more a matter of 'effect' than of actuality." Manufacturers accommodated modern sensibilities by offering the new lighter and more flexible girdle to women as the up-to-date alternative to the corset. Though girdles initially were considered appropriate only for smaller women, the Elastowear Manufacturing Company opened up the girdle market by producing Elasro girdles for "stout women." Trade journals also discussed the importance of renaming corsets as girdles in order to shake off passe connotations. In addition, the older corset itself was cited as the cause of current figure problems which required newer corsets and girdles fo r correction. [21]

Assigning blame for the instigation and spread of the corsetless fad was, however, problematic for manufacturers. Laying the blame on Paris had its appeal, but was also double-edged. Ultimately this argument undermined manufacturers' desires to keep women under the sway of elite style makers as much as possible. The idea of a top-down fashion regime appealed to manufacturers because it provided a more controlled progression of fashion changes. Breaking down the importance of Paris as arbiter of fashionability could be dangerous.

One way out of this dilemma can be seen in an article from August 1921 entitled "Parisian Women Wear Corsets." This article claimed within one paragraph that Parisian women had gone without corsets in past years, that the idea circulating in the United States in 1920 that these women weren't wearing corsets was erroneous, that the corsetless trend in France existed but was exaggerated in the American press, and that in any event, all French women, including couturier mannequins, were wearing corsets once again. Three months later an article entitled "Paris on the Corset Question" reasserted Parisian hegemony.

The question of corsets or no corsets as raised by the recent styles put forward by the foremost Parisian couturiers is being answered by Parisian couturiers in a characteristically Parisian fashion. The new corsets are more like the corsetless figure than the corsetless figure itself.... That is Parisian cleverness all over. They have made a figure more natural than the natural figure and far more beautiful....... [22]

American women's distinctiveness provided a basis for other arguments regarding nationality. In a curious Corset and Underwear Review article called "The American Woman and Her Corset," columnist Gertrude Nickerson claimed that American women must wear restrictive garments because she

has no definite type. We are a composite race of women.... [who] must acknowledge our mixed blood and, while we are very proud of it, let us not forget just what it means where our figure is concerned. As we develop and approach maturity some "wayback" foreign grandmother, or several at once, may and most likely will make her hereditary attack upon us.... We now realize that we have indeed a handicap which we must accept as a result of our mixed races. We can understand now why the real American woman requires her corset or confining foundation for figure training more than her sisters overseas. [23]

Sisters closer to home unfortunately bore the brunt of racial argumentation. Mr. Leonard Florsheim, Corset and Brassiere Association Vice-President and head of Kabo Corset Company, constructed the spectre of the "grotesque" Indian squaw to safely position white middle-class American women between overly sophisticated French women and uncivilized Native American women. In his November 1921 Corsets & Lingerie interview entitled "The Evils of the No-Corset Fad," Florsheim first preyed upon fears of corsetlessness as a cause of premature aging and a thickened waistline before launching into his racial attack.

The Indian girls are known for shapely body lines in their youth, despite the fact that they never get a chance to enjoy the protection of corset or brassiere. They grow and develop "wildly." But at the age when they acquire the sobriquet of squaw, what a transformation! Squaws, especially those who have become mothers, are well known for their grotesque bodies. Nature has given them in youth well developed, shapely lines, muscles that withstand the first score and ten, but then nature changes her course and begins to add weight that gradually rounds out and converts form into the well known "mattress-tied-in-the-middle" proportions. [24]

Florsheim's depiction allowed white women to both identify with and reject the impact of "nature" upon Native American women.

Dutch surgeon Dr. Jan Schoemaker broadened the scope of racial concerns in an interview printed the following month.

Firmly-muscled women are vital, charming, full of that potential race force which must be coined into American supremacy among men tomorrow. But we are not trying to breed Amazons, nor are we trying to raise a race of Oriental dancers. Your corsetless girl has naturally to fall into one class or the other. The moment you begin to get too much of the Amazon variation, you begin to get fuzzy upper-lips with them, and a frothy type of male, a sort of listless love-bird, sufficiently spineless to be able to mate and marry the domineering female of the Amazon type. [25]

According to the doctor, corsetlessness promoted dangerous transformations in male as well as female character and anatomy with disastrous consequences for the white American "race" and its global prospects in the political and economic realignments of the post-war era.

The homophobic hint about "fuzzy upper-lips" gained further embellishment by Dr. Schoemaker in his discussion of the exercise regime required in order to maintain muscular health without the use of a corset.

There is in Holland a Mrs. Dr. Mensendieck who undertakes this sort of work for women who have ambitions in that direction. She compels them to go through their exercises absolutely nude, and on each individual of a class ... she keeps her eye. When a certain set of muscles sag down, as of course they will, she cries our at the woman, 'Keep that stomach in. Hold up there in the rear.' And so on. [26]

The liberation promised by renunciation of the corset thus produced a new sort of subjugation. The required submission to bodily discipline entailed submission as well to the critical and intrusive gaze of a harsh and clearly unfeminine female authority.

Schoemaker expounded further on the dangers of women's claims to new forms of authority in spheres outside of fashion and health. While the doctor conceded that women of a certain natural build may go without corsets, he disparaged these active and politically engaged New Women as failures at being either men or women.

[T]he woman with a tight-muscled tense abdominal wall, flat hips, mannish chest, is usually to be pitied. She is unfortunate. If she has been produced and admired in quantities in England ... it is not because the English are producing any healthier race, but because the number of biological mistakes among females are [sic] increasing.

He also linked this type of woman to feminists who favor corsetlessness. "There is a certain strident type of woman publican abroad in the land today who welcomes any move toward freedom appearing to register new approximation to sex equality." However, the race will survive such women because "women who imitate men are not the kind that Nature selects to mother the next generation." Connecting corsetlessness with a dismissive portrayal of radical politics and ideas about racial degeneracy, Schoemaker attacks all three in an effort to stifle women's desires to control their bodies and their destinies in the post-suffrage era. [27]

In November of 1922 the Royal Worcester Corset Company announced the "retreat to the perfect figure," a figure which could only be created with the aid of a corset. Census figures do indicate an increase in corset manufacturers' profits for the following year. However, in what is perhaps a measure of their lingering anxiety, the trade journals continued to proclaim the end of corsetlessness throughout the decade. The "renaissance of the corset" and a decline in popularity of the corsetless figure is noted as late as 1930, while Lily of France president Joel Alexander assured buyers of the long-awaited return of "real corsets" in January 1935. [28]

A 1921 series of articles on specialized fitting procedures discusses the importance of corseting young girls because they are the "future mothers of our race." When this time arrives maternity corsets will protect not only her health, but also her child's. Utilizing the strategy of incorporation, the new 1920s emphasis on the science and art of corset-fitting acknowledged past discomfort, but laid the blame on the fit, not on the corset itself. The science of corset-fitting, often taught at special sessions organized by corset companies, particularly identified a young girl's first experience in the corset shop as critically important in making her into a lifelong corset customer. [29]

The discursive linking of corsets with "science" dated back to the nineteenth century, with the use of medicinal arguments for corset promotion, and for combatting the health claims of opponents to corset use. Nineteenth-century doctors like brothers I. De Ver and Lucius C. Warner, founders of the Warner Brothers Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut, named their late-1870s designs the "Sanitary Corset" and the "Health Corset" to stress their healthful benefits. In the 192Os manufacturer's reliance on scientific arguments intensified, as they expanded marketing strategies from the focus on corset design to include corset fitting. [30]

Corset fitting became a part of corset selling and marketing after the introduction of the straight front corset, which needed "to be fitted in nearly every case. This resulted in the installation of corset fitting rooms within most corset departments. Modart Corset Company Supervisor of Instruction Bertha A. Strickler's 1925 publication, "The Principles of Scientific Corset Fitting," explained that recent changes in corsetry compelled a greater level of specialized training for corset fitters. The past practice of buying corsets over the counter was possible when corsets served the singular purpose of suppressing the waist. She claimed that fitting contemporary corsetry required more than waist measurement because "today corsets are scientifically designed and must be scientifically fitted." However, an earlier account provided an alternative viewpoint, explaining that "these advantages are not altogether new in the modern corset except in so far as they are now universal whereas they were formerly restrict ed to the made-to-order corset or the ready-made one of exhorbitant price." The wide availability of ready-to-wear corsets through their mass production and marketing changed the nature of their consumption considerably. [31]

Recasting corset fitting as a science in the 1920s relied on the widespread knowledge and faith in the practices of scientific management. The transformation of industrial work in the early twentieth century through implementation of the concepts of efficiency and rationalization, as well as the turn to technology for problem-solving promoted de-skilling of workers, and thus loss of an important basis of their power in the workplace. Utilizing the ideologies of scientific management, corset manufacturers transformed the consumption experiences of saleswomen and their customers when they bought, sold and wore corsets. While this strategy sought to keep women customers bound in corsets, it did, at least temporarily, give corset saleswomen a measure of new status and prestige. However, women's bodies were literally the vehicle for the successful shifting of scientific management ideologies from the workplace to the marketplace and the home. [32]

Many of the major corset manufacturers sponsored special courses in "scientific corsetry," "scientific reduction," or "scientific corset fitting." The courses took place most often in New York City, where many corset companies's showrooms and factories were located, though companies also sponsored courses in regional commercial centers like Chicago, Dallas or Atlanta. These courses offered a new way for companies to distinguish their product from others on the market. In addition, the courses demonstrated a company's seriousness regarding women's medical health and their reliance on scientific methods to insure it. [33]

Some corset school curriculums especially stressed the importance of medical knowledge for corset fitting. The International School of Scientific Corsetry sponsored by the International Corset Company included the subjects of anatomy and medical fitting in its 1921 curriculum, which also covered modern merchandising, retail advertising, and "scientific salesmanship." Kleinart's School of Scientific Reduction employed Dr. Harriet Von Buren Peckham in 1925 to explain in a series of lectures "the proper way to reduce every part of the body, together with practical suggestions for fitting every type of figure." For the latter part of the course, Dr. Peckham was "assisted by expert fitters, competent models and an experienced sales woman." Attendees would also have the opportunity to "fit the reducers on a live model." [34]

The Modart Company's course included a section on "The Anatomical Requirements of a Corset," which explained a medical condition called "ptosis." Modart claimed that most women suffered from ptosis, "a loss in muscles of the power to contract." However, while improperly fitted corsets caused ptosis, properly fitted corsets were needed to arrest its development. Ptosis was particularly associated with the stress of "modern city life to which women are not yet adjusted.... Constipation, debility, headaches, backaches, sallow complexion, appendicitis, general weakness are some of the ailments associated with this condition." [35]

Department store retailers nationwide became persuaded of the value of sending their employees to corset fitting schools as evidence surfaced regarding the profit margins of corset departments. In 1917 Women's Wear Daily credited the presence of trained corsetieres in department stores with increasing the sales of higher priced, and thus more profitable, corsets. Trained coresetieres also inhibited the number of returns and the need for alterations, the bane of retailers. Moreover, corset departments from the 1920s through the 1940s usually had the highest profit margins of all departments within a store. [36]

The Warner Brothers Company noted the profitability of corset departments in a 1921 trade journal advertisement, citing a National Retail Dry Goods Association report. Warner's then argued that merchants would see even better profits if they carried fewer corset lines. Their seven point plan for improvements in retail profit-making also included the admonition to "educate your salesgirls that they can ably assist the customer in her selection. It is the worst possible mistake to sell a woman a corset that is not designed for her figure." [37]

Corset schools primarily served to educate retailers and saleswomen on the finer points of selling their particular brand. With the proliferation of types and styles of corsets by the early 1920s, many major companies produced several lines of corsets for some variation of "stout," "average," and "slender" figure types. [38] These figure types might be further complicated by additional styles for bodies heavier on the top or the bottom, for those long-or short-waisted, or by maternity and post-surgical styles. Companies also had different style lines based on price. As Good Housekeeping noted, "Nowadays a single corset company will have almost one hundred models, each one made up in a variety of sizes." Retail buyers and saleswomen thus needed to know quite a bit about how each company's products were organized in order to determine which corset would best fit each customer. Companies were dependent upon saleswomen's successful mastering of this information to sell their products. Warner Brothers, for exampl e, sent out pamphlets in 1921 to corset departments throughout the United States to explain their figure type classifications and the corsets designed for each type, with the expectation that having an illustrated guide on hand would direct saleswomen to show and to sell Warner's corsets. Corsets & Lingerie also endorsed collaboration between manufacturers and retailers in a 1925 editorial, stating that "the lines which were going best were the lines in which the manufacturer cooperated with the store in teaching the girls how to sell corsets." [39]

Corset companies' creation of figure types classification schemes also bolstered their claims to scientific validation of their products, and to the need for professional fitters. Each company's classification scheme corresponded to the corsets which they produced to fit each type. Selling retail buyers on a figure classification scheme was thus a means of selling retailers on their line of corsets as well. Thus, these different schemes did not usually concur on the "scientific" classifications of women's bodies. Gossard's early twentieth-century chart defined nine figure types, Warner's 1921 classification had eight, and Berlei's 1926 study of Australian women found five. [40]

Figure typing schemes allowed corset companies to standardize product lines and formed an organizing principle for merchandising. In 1929, the Bon Ton company explained that its chart of nine figure types, entitled "What Figure Type Are You?", forms "the basis of our entire merchandising plan ... and makes possible for the first time real scientific control of fit, balanced model stocks, smaller inventories, fast turnover and more sustained profits." Yet an unstated but critical element of this plan was persuading women to identify with the figure types presented. Once a woman identified herself in terms of "her" type, she would be more easily sold on the corset deemed appropriate, if not necessary, for her body. [41]

Commercial classification of figure types intensified both the notion of the "problem figure," and the identification of "figure faults." Previously, corsets constructed the hour glass figure of the late nineteenth century by remolding women's bodies into a general curved shape with a nipped-in waistline. Dress design and strap-on garments like bustles provided additional shaping. Twentieth-century outerwear was less elaborate, and constructed by fewer layers of clothing. Foundation garments assumed the entire burden of molding the body into the fashionable silhouette. The identification of figure faults thus came about as women's bodies became more publicly visible.

The greater public presence and freedom in body display and movement achieved by women in the 1920s were attenuated by this reformulated and internalized emphasis on female imperfection. Marketing corsets on their ability to solve "figure faults" meant that the identification of faults assumed greater importance as a persuasive means of guiding women into corsets which resolved their defects. Corset saleswomen, for example, were instructed to first identify a customer's figure type, and then her particular figure problems. However, it was not necessarily considered good form to point out figure flaws to customers. One saleswoman's guide suggested that "the salesgirls should be cautioned never to point out figure faults to a customer. If she had a roll at the waistline and a long girdle is selected to minimize this, the salesgirl should not say, 'That terrible roll will not look as bad with this corset.' Instead she should remark, 'What a lovely, smooth waistline this girdle gives you. Your silhouette looks s o well in it.'" Another guide admonished, "Never tell the stout customer she is stout. Emphasize the fact that she has good proportions.... Remember you are selling the joy of possession as well as comfort and fit." [42]

Figure classification schemes and the identification of figure faults objectified and commodified women's bodies in new ways. Manufacturers and retailers colluded in subjecting women's bodies to the scrutiny and discipline of scientific rationalization. Corset saleswomen were on the front lines of enacting the regulation of women's bodies through corsetry, and implemented corset discourses to sell corsets. Ethel Allen, Supervisor of Instruction at the Kabo School of Corsetry, acknowledged this function, stating that "with every sale by an expert corsetiere goes the all-important and invaluable message to her customer of the proper selection of a model and the proper method of adjustment. They get the many 'dos and don'ts' of our profession, and the assurance that a properly fitted corset can be a thing of beauty, of comfort and of great self-respect." [43]

The relationship between corset saleswomen and customers both worked against and assisted the rationalization process. Exposing intimate figure problems to a corsetiere, and granting her the probing access to the body required for measurement created a special relationship between customer and corsetiere. As Women's Wear Daily noted, "A corset fitter gets much closer to her customers than the average salesperson can. Customers talk much more freely to their corset fitters than they do the girl who sells gloves, and they are willing to confide, in a manner of speaking, to the fitter, because usually the corset fitter has her own clientele, who insist on coming to that particular fitter each time they purchase a new corset." Charlotte Drebing, a corset buyer for the Crosby Brothers Mercantile Company of Kansas, agreed. "Corset customers ... are the most appreciative people in the world. Because a good foundation garment can do such a vital job for a woman, she is eternally grateful to anyone who helps her find one--and that's why any service you can give her is worth while." [44]

A corsetiere especially benefitted from customers with identifiable figure faults, as women's desires for rectification promoted dependence upon the corset fitter's expertise. Ethel Allen, referring to the problematic full-proportioned figure type, knew "no other class of customers who are more appreciative and loyal," while the top-heavy figure type "is willing to pay almost any price for a garment which will give her comfort and at the same time give her the easy graceful figure she so much desires." The top-heavy figure "will not only give to the corseriere her patronage but will become a loyal booster among all her friends and acquaintances." Another sales manual noted that "the larger woman knows she is difficult to fit, and is willing to pay more than the slender woman. Juniors and slender women can buy garments any place at any price, but the larger woman, when correctly fitted, is everlastingly grateful and becomes a loyal repeat customer." Large women customers also augmented job prospects for large women as corsetieres, as "Mrs. Larger Woman feels more comfortable when a larger woman fits her." This customer also provided a source of job satisfaction. "Larger women are important to your business because properly corseted she looks 'smart' and gives you the feeling of having accomplished something." [45]

The relationship between corsetiere and customer was not without tension. One guide for saleswomen noted that "the worst faux pas of all is to say: 'I wear this girdle myself for my own roll.' No woman wants to be identified in any way with the salesgirl." [46] However, Ethel Allen avoided the potential for a subservient relationship to customers inherent in the shopping encounter by positing an alternative metaphor.

As corsetieres we must never lose sight of the fact that we stand in the relation of a hostess to our guest, the customer, while she is in our shop or department. Were we serving afternoon coffee and one of our guests refused coffee we would immediately say, 'Let me make you a cup of tea.' Even so with our business guests. If they are prejudiced against either front-laced or back-laced corsets, show them first what you consider correct. Call their attention to the corrective points of the garment for their particular needs. Then if you cannot convince them that your judgement is correct, without argument simply give them what they want and give with it a sweet smile and willing service. [47]

The professionalization of corset fitting through specialized training, and assumption of the title "corsetiere" also bolstered these saleswomen's status with both customers and department store managers. Corset schools thus served to enhance manufacturer's promotional needs, retailer's profit margins, and corset saleswomen's power as workers, while also heightening the presence of "scientific" epistemologies and the processes of specialization in women's daily lives. Corset fitting manuals, usually written by experienced corsetieres employed as teachers in corset schools, consistently stressed the professional aspects of this work. Positioning the corsetiere as "physician to her customer's body," a role fostered by instruction in anatomy and the work of fitting maternity and post-operative corsets, encouraged the construction of the corsetiere as professional. Jean Gordon, author of "The Good Corsetiere," published by the Strouse, Adler Company explained, "When one is ill, the patient wants the family docto r who comes to the bedside with a friendly, gracious attitude.... When a customer enters the corset department with a sick figure, she too, wants kindness." [48]

Another strategy for professionalization characterized corset fitting as an art. "A new salesgirl must be taught to consider her job as one of beautifying women. Instead of working with cosmetics she works with garments. Instead of beautifying the face and head she must improve the entire body of her customer. It is in some cases a tall order. She may be called upon to achieve the impossible. But whatever she can accomplish helps to increase beauty and in this respect is a work of art." Ethel Allen noted that women seek "the services of a thoroughly competent and trained professional corsetiere, one who understands all the alluring intricacies of the human form divine." [49]

Figure type classification included the bodies of girls and younger women in the category of problem figures. However, their figures were actually more of a problem for manufacturers because the "young girl figure," described as slim and "undeveloped," did not conform to usual descriptions of figure types which required corseting. The 1920s corset panic heightened manufacturers' attention to the young girl figure not only because younger women were most likely to achieve the corsetless look without a corset, but also because the fashionable 1920s silhouette was based on the young girl figure. By targeting the young girl figure and convincing women that this figure required a corset, manufacturers thereby convinced all women concerned with fashionability that corsets remained a necessity. [50]

The special corsets developed for the young girl figure were part of the growing specialization for the youthful market (termed "junior" by the late 1920s) taking place in the garment industry generally to increase sales. Corset manufacturers were especially interested in exploiting the growing distinction between clothing for younger and older women because "the junior customer has no set habits or buying tendencies which must be overcome" and thus seemed "to be a new hope for the corset industry." Lucien T. Warner noted "the necessity of courting this trade, for upon the younger generation of women the future of the corset industry depends...." [51]

Manufacturers still maintained concerns that younger women in the 1920s might never wear corsets if they did not undergo the initiation into corset wearing that women had in previous generations. They looked closely at the circumstances of a young girl's first corset fitting in order to find ways of luring young women to a corsetiere. Once at a corset fitting, a young woman, and perhaps her mother, could also be drawn into corset discourses which worked to convince her of a life-long need of corsetry. "Even the young girls who have never before ventured into a corset department find a new delight in looking at the attractive garments, and convincing sales talk ... soon brings them into the fitting rooms." Concerns regarding the initiation into corsetry persisted into the 1940s, when Corsets & Brassiere advised, "It may take urging to get her into her first girdle, but your efforts will be rewarded as she blossoms into a model customer.... It's up to you to win her confidence and build her into a life-long cu stomer." [52]

Since the early twentieth century, the "college girl" had been identified as a customer with special needs based on age and lifestyle rather than on figure type per se. The college girl category also included the white collar worker, or "business girl," whose corset needs presumably differed from older women who did not work outside the home. A 1910 advertisement for H. & W. Sheathlyne Corset Waists aimed toward college girls noted that "by encouraging deep breathing, it quickly develops the chest and bust." In 1915 Wanamakers, a large department store, created the first special corset fitting room for young women who wear "misses" sizes. The Women's and infants Furnisher felt that this innovation was "one of the most striking that has come out in some time," especially because of the "undeveloped possibilities" of "catering particularly to young girls."

One of the principal reasons that very few retail stores have the business that should come to them in misses' corsets is the failure of stores to take into consideration the natural reticence of girls to enter into any discussion of the individual corset problems with matrons and dowagers about. By providing a special demonstration and fitting room for misses, it is safe to say that any store so doing will reap the benefit of an immediate appreciation of this delicacy. And, since appreciation expresses itself in terms of dollars and cents, it can hardly be other than a profitable investment. [53]

Manufacturers did indeed develop this profitable concept, and by 1929 Corsets & Brassieres included a monthly "Junior Department" in each issue. Juniors were girls between 12 and 18 years of age, and the column often dealt with the special care required for their commercial rite of passage. "Each child is fitted as her individual need requires and for this work there are special fitters trained to care for the children.. ... The younger girls do not like being disrobed and fitted, but now that the new silhouette is so apparent even the 12-year-olds are offering much less resistance." [54]

Miss Mildred Tucker, head of a corset department in Denver, discussed the importance of "tactfulness" in dealing with the "little girls and even college girls [who] are not quite used to the return of youth to corsets, which the new Princess line in dress styles has necessitated." She explained that "tact ... usually consists of compliments and direct conversation to the child." Another column noted, "Buyers who are wise will put their best foot forward to encourage and capture this class of customers." By March 1930 Lucien T. Warner reported that "a large number of smaller sizes are being called for by the younger girl." [55]

In July 1930 the Corset and Brassiere Manufacturers Association laid plans for the first National Junior Corset Week to take place the following September. [56] This was a specialized version of the previously held National Corset Week, a coordinated national advertising campaign by merchants, retailers and trade journals to boost corset sales. The need for a such a cooperative effort was explained by Corsets & Lingerie in a 1924 editorial.

Why A Week?.... most people found our they could do a lot in a week if they all started to talk at once and talked long enough and loud enough.... If the corset industry wants to put corsets on every woman and keep them there; all they've got to do is talk a language that most American women understand--English. Talk to each age-group of women about their particular corset problems and if the industry is smart, and economical as well, they'll also get about 10,000 merchants to do a lot of talking for them.... "[57]

The editorial also encouraged manufacturers to imitate other branches of the garment industry in their use of "the principle" of style. Style played an especially important role in the younger market, as the editorial noted, "If corsets were as crazy as some of the shoes we see, the flapper would buy a pair of corsets with every new dress." [58]

The National Junior Corset Week's purpose was clear. "Insistent propaganda has really aroused an interest on the part of the young girl, and buyers realizing that they have succeeded in luring the girl into the department are tireless in these efforts to keep her interest." Lauding the junior department at Gimbel's Department Store in New York City, Corsets & Brassieres reported that "every possible kind of restraining garment that is manufactured for the young figure is found here ... made to appeal to the eye of the discriminating youngster.... There are many girls, not only the debutantes and society girls but even working girls who are willing to pay for better class merchandise, just as these girls have always been fastidious in the matter of their lingerie." The month following the Junior Week, Corsets & Brassieres reported "increased sales among the younger women in all the larger retail centers. Girls who never before wore a foundation garment came in to buy some type of fashion-forming garment and c ollege girls stocked up generously for the season's needs." Three years later, the trade journal stated that "nearly all the stores now have special sections in their corset departments devoted to garments for the young figure." [59]

Making lighter and more flexible girdles in junior sizes was one means of keeping young women in foundation garments. These were available in increasing numbers as the means of producing elastic stretch fabrics improved. In the 1910s elastic insets in corsets provided an early form of augmenting flexibility. The number of elastic and rubber sections utilized in corsets increased into the 1920s. However, the primarily elastic girdles available in 1921 were still considered a novelty item. Several years later, when the youth appeal of elastic girdles was more apparent, manufacturers' and retailers' resistance to them ended. By 1924 elastic step-in girdles were sold in corset departments nationwide. [60]

As use of elastic girdles spread, novelty status transferred to rubber reducing corsets, an extremely popular phenomenon for several years. One of the most well-known brands sold nationally was the Madame X. These controversial all-rubber corsets were marketed on their ability to not only slim the wearer's appearance, but also to achieve actual weight loss. Manufacturers and retail buyers debated the staying power of rubber girdles on the market, but acknowledged that their presence raised the price of foundations generally. The ability to sell great quantities of the more expensive rubber corsets let manufacturers and retailers know that women were willing to pay more for corsets. [61]

The decline of the "boyshform" silhouette in the late 1920s, and the return to the "womanly" figure in the 1930s meant a strong market for corsetry, even during the worst years of the Depression. The industry had responded on many fronts to the 1920s threat of the corsetless look. Profitability continued as the foundation market broadened to include young girls, juniors and college co-eds, as well as the numerous figure types of older women. Identifying a variety of types allowed manufacturers to produce, and retailers to market, corsets aimed at particular groups of women. This strategy of segmentation also produced and marketed new understandings of the female body, which personalized and intensified the presence of scientific discourse in women's intimate everyday life.

The new perceptions about the female body which the industry deployed also encouraged most women to accept identification in terms of flaws and faults and to thus construct their subjectivity in terms of self-negation. However, the industry was unable to completely dismiss women's desires for greater comfort and freedom of movement. While the corsetless fad did not free women from the obligation to be corsetted, some women were able to at least wear the more flexible and lightweight stretch girdles. Yet the popularity of even the light pantie girdle worn extensively in the 1930s did not mitigate continuing widespread use of more binding foundations. "All-in-one" garments, for example, which first appeared in the 1920s, firmly shaped and controlled the entire torso from bust to hips.

The well-organized corset industry continued to benefit from their persistent interventions in fashion changes and the construction of women's desires for ideal figures." They reaped the results when the waistline was once again accentuated in the 1930s, but at this point were too close to the corset panic years to rest on their laurels. Their ongoing machinations received even greater rewards after the end of World War II when fashionable corsetry returned with pinching vengeance and fetishized glory in new structured forms such as waist cinchers or "waspies" which supported the popular, and contested, New Look of 1947. [62]

Corsets' fading fashionability and their replacement by the new restrictive girdles in this period occurred within a process of contestation and negotiation among women who purchased and wore these garments, manufacturers and retailers who produced and sold them, and fashion experts like department store saleswomen and fashion writers. As moral imperatives which controlled women's fashions declined, women sought, and in some measure achieved, greater freedom of choice and mobility in dress. However, fashion industrialists worked hard to maintain control over the shape of women's bodies and over women s fashion choices. Drawing on modernist ideologies, they countered claims about the damaging health effects of corset use by repositioning corsets within contemporary scientific discourses, and refuted young women's rejection of corsets as old-fashioned by designing lighter and more flexible foundation garments and marketing them as contemporary girdles. Making use of existing fashion institutions, including pop ular magazines, trade journals, and department stores, and creating new ones, such as corset-fitting schools, corset manufacturers and retailers actively interceded in influencing fashion change. Women's demands for more comfortable attire, and their demonstrated willingness to defy conventional notions of feminine propriety, prompted manufacturers' organized opposition to the "corsetless fad," and the subsequent development of policing strategies aimed at women of all ages. Their efforts sustained the importance of figure shaping garments as essential elements in women's wardrobes. While wearing these garments would no longer be a measure of a woman's moral propriety, they could attest to her knowledge of modern techniques of constructing a fashionable body, and the importance she gave to maintaining an up-to-date appearance. Women's "spontaneous consent" to wearing these garments was an ongoing and contested process which served fashion industry needs for continual purchase. Innovations in dress which suppo rted women's desires for comfort would continue because industrialists sought not to end women's desires for fashion change, but to contain them.

Throughout the early twentieth-century and in succeeding decades, the high profit margins of departments selling corsets, girdles and other foundation garments in stores nationwide provide one measure of the success of marketing strategies mounted by manufacturers and retailers. American women's continuing preoccupation with conforming to particular notions of beauty in regard to body size and shape serves as another. The late twentieth-century interest in diet drugs and programs, willingness to undergo liposuction surgery to reduce and reshape the female abdomen and hips, and the strong sales of "body shapers," the current term for flexible foundation garments, all demonstrate that women's struggles getting in and out of corsets have not entirely ended. For, the meaning of these various methods of reshaping female bodies is not restricted to their immediate physical effect. As Michel Foucault notes, "the endlessly repeated play of dominations ... is fixed, throughout its history, in rituals, in meticulous p rocedures that impose rights and obligations. It establishes marks of its power and engraves memories on things and even within bodies." [63] Imbuing 1920s corsetry with essentialist notions about flawed female bodies, racial hierarchies, nationalist imperatives, dubious sexual identities, and suspect political standpoints inscribed dominant ideologies upon women's bodies. Persuasive because of their power in other spheres, these particular mediations of women's relationship with their own bodies long outlasted the corsets and girdles worn in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Department of History

Fresno, CA 93740-8019


I wish to thank scholars Lois Banner, Adrienne Hood, Ruth Linden, Tania Modleski, Steve Ross, Peter Stearns, and the anonymous reader of the JSH for their thoughtful comments and helpful suggestions on earlier versions of this essay. I also would like to acknowledge the support I received for my research on this topic from the Veronika Gervers Research Fellowship in Textile and Costume History at the Royal Ontario Museum, and the Stella Blum Research Grant awarded by the Costume Society of America.

(1.) G.B. Pulfer, "Fighting the Corsetless Evil," Corsets & Lingerie, November 1921, p. 30.

(2.) Examples of trade journal articles sparked by panic regarding corsetlessness include "The Evils of the No-Corset Fad," Corsets & Lingerie, November 1921, pp. 24-25; "Flappers Are Responsible for The Corsetless Craze," Corsets & Lingerie, November 1922, p. 33; "Eminent Surgeons Endorse the Corset," Corsets & Lingerie, December 1921, pp. 32-35.

(3.) Helene E. Roberts, "The Exquisite Slave: The Role of Clothes in the Making of the Victorian Woman," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society (Spring 1977): 564-569; David Kunzle, "Dress Reform as Antifeminism: A Response to Helen E. Roberts's 'The Exquisite Slave: The Role of Clothes in the Making of the Victorian Woman,'" Signs (Spring 1977): 570-579; Helen Roberts, "Reply to David Kunzle's 'Dress Reform as Antifeminism: A Response to Helen E. Roberts's 'The Exquisite Slave,'" Signs (Winter 1977): 518-519; Joanna Russ, "Comment on Helen Roberts 'The Exquisite Slave: The Role of Clothes in the Making of the Victorian Woman,' and David Kunzle's 'Dress Reform as Antifeminism,'" Signs (Winter 1997): 520-521; David Kunzle, Fashion and Fetishism: A Social History of the Corset, Tight-Lacing and Other Forms of Body-Sculpture in the West (New Jersey, 1982); Lois Banner, American Beauty (Chicago, 1983); Valerie Steele, Fashion and Eroticism: Ideals of Feminine Beauty from the Victorian Era to the Jazz Age (New York, 1985).

(4.) The concept of cultural hegemony is integral to analysis of culture as contested terrain. As the meaning of hegemony is also contested, please see Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York, 1971), especially p. 12, and Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford, 1977), p. 110 for interpretations which inform the analysis presented here. See also more recent debates among cultural historians such as T. Jackson Lears, "The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities," The American Historical Review (June 1985): 567-593, and George Lipsitz, "The Struggle for Hegemony," The Journal of American History (June 1988): 146-150. In regard to culture and clothing, costume historians generally, and feminist critics particularly, have long understood the power of fashion to regulate and signify. However, the sensibility expressed here regarding fashion as a regulatory practice draws upon Michel Foucault, The History of Sex uality, Volume 1: An Introduction, translated by Robert Hurley (New York), 1978 and also upon Judith Butler's analysis of Foucault in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of identity (New York, 1990). This article is in some sense a response to Butler's call for a "critical inquiry that traces the regulatory practices within which bodily contours are constructed [that] constitutes precisely the genealogy of 'the body' in its discreteness that might further radicalize Foucault's theory," p.

133. For semiotic analysis of fashion as a system of signification see Roland Barthes, The Fashion System, translated by Matthew Ward and Richard Howard (New York, 1983). For an excellent discussion of many of the major twentieth-century works of fashion history and theory see Fred Davis, Fashion, Culture and Identity (Chicago, 1992).

(5.) Elizabeth Ewing, Dress and Undress: A History of Women's Underwear (New York, 1978), pp. 110-113.

(6.) Havelock Ellis, "An Anatomical Vindication of the Straight Front Corset," Current Literature, February 1910, pp. 172-174.

(7.) "How Prehistoric Woman Solved the Problem Of Her Waist Line," Current Opinion, March, 1914, pp. 201-202.

(8.) Paul Poiret, My First 50 Years, pp. 72-73.

(9.) Ewing, pp. 89-91, 93, 108-110; C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington, The History of Underclothes (London, 1981,1951), pp. 87,114, 125-6; Norah Waugh, Corsets and Crinolines (London, 1954), p.87. See Peter Wollen, "Our of the Past: Fashion/Orientalism/The Body," in his Raiding the icebox: Reflections on Twentieth-Century Culture (Bloomington, 1993), pp. 1-34 regarding the influence of both the Russian Ballet and the rational dress movement upon Poiret's designs. Fashion layouts and advertisements, such as "New Low Bust Flexible Model" and "New Supple Figure Corsets," Women's and Infants' Furnisher, January 1914, pp. 42-43 and "The Athletic Girl's Experience," Bon Ton Corset advertisement, Vogue, May 1914, p. 93, displayed the more flexible and sports corsets.

(10.) Ewing, p. 120; Mitchel Gray and Mary Kennedy, The Lingerie Book (New York), 1980, p. 15. "A Graceful Dancing Corset," Women's and infants' Furnisher, February 1914, p.31. Banner, p. 176 offers evidence regarding the emergence of the flapper in the mid-1910s; "Where Efficiency and Economy Meet," Vogue, April 1914, pp. 54-55. "Corseting the Corsetless Figure," Vogue, January 1914, p. 58.

(11.) "Woman Decides to Support Herself," Vogue, August 1917, pp. 67, 80.

(12.) See Eleanor Flexner, Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States (Cambridge, 1959, 1975) and Linda Gordon, Woman's Body, Woman's Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America (New York, 1977) regarding the suffrage and birth control movements respectively. The New York Times reported extensively on the fashion debates. For example, see August 30, 1922, p. 17 regarding the skirt length controversy; see January 17, 1919, p. 5; February 16, 1921, p. 15; February 17, 1921, p. 6; May 22, 1919, p. 9; May 23, 1921, p. 15; June 15, 1921, p. 7 and June 21, 1921, p. 19 regarding modesty and morality; and February 26, 1922, p. 12 regarding college dress codes.

(13.) Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States (New York, 1980), pp. 366-372.

(14.) My grandmother, Mildred Rosensrein Schwartz (1902-1998), on many occasions provided me with historical data drawn from her life experience; "The Renaissance of the C-rs-t", The Independent, July 25, 1925, p. 88.

(15.) Corsets & Lingerie first identified corsetlessness as dangerous in "Buyers Against Corsetless Fad: New York Department Store Buyers All Against Fad and Say It Is On the Wane," Corsets & Lingerie, September 1921, p. 27, 29. The first assertion that it was also evil can be found in "The Evils of the No-Corset Fad," Corsets & Lingerie, November 1921, pp. 24-25. Corsets & Lingerie, January 1924, p.31 and Women's Wear Daily, September 24, 1924, p. 28 identify the fad's beginning date. Nicole Thornton, Poiret (New York, 1979), p. 1; Poiret, My First Fifty Years, pp., 72-73); Julian Robinson, Body Packaging: A Guide to Human Sexual Display (Los Angeles), 1988, p. 78. "Corseting the Corsetless Figure," p. 58; "Tango Popularizes Corserless Figure," The Women's and Infants' Furnisher, January, 1914, p. 68; Anderman Form Company advertisement, Women's and Infants' Furnisher, February, 1915, p. 20. The Women's and Infants' Furnisher, first published in 1895, changed its name to Corsets & Lingerie in July, 1921, and then again to Corsets & Brassieres in March, 1926. Its publication continues today under the name Intimate Fashion News.

(16.) Pulfer, "Fighting the Corsetless Evil," p. 30.

(17.) "The Evils of the No-Corset Fad," November 1921, pp. 24-25; "Flappers Are Responsible for The Corsetless Craze," November 1922, p. 33; "Eminent Surgeons Endorse the Corset," Corsets & Lingerie, December 1921, pp. 32-35.

(18.) "Woman's Friend, The Corset," Literary Digest, November 5,1921, p. 20.

(19.) "The Depression of 1920-1922 in the Women's Clothing Industry," Research Department, International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). Report included with letter from Mitchell to Dubinsky, May 11, 1945. ILGWU Collection, Labor-Management Documentation Center, Cornell University, David Dubinsky Box 160, Folder 2B. "Table 1--Corsets and Allied Garments--Summary for the United States: 1899-1929," 1930 Census of Manufacturers, M1930.2, p. 385; Profits of Underwear Manufacturers, 1918-1942: A Survey Made for Underwear Institute, Research & Statistical Division (New York, 1943); Joseph Swanson and Samuel Williamson, "Estimates of National Product and Income for the United States Economy, 1919-1941," Explorations in Economic History (Fall 1972): 53-74. I am grateful to Kathleen Barrett for providing the latter citation and sharing her expertise in business history with me.

(20.) 1930 Census of Manufacturers, p. 385; "The Corset," Fortune, March 1938, pp. 95-9+.

(21.) "Corsets Still in Vogue," Corsets & Lingerie, July 1921, pp. 37,52. "New Novelties for Fall," Corsets & Lingerie, p. 32. "Elastic Girdles and Novelties," first appeared as a "new department" in Corsets & Lingerie, June 1922, p. 43. Corsets & Lingerie, October 1922, p. 4. A discussion of the girdle as merely a new name for the corset appears in Corsets & Lingerie, April 1924, p. 32. Corset and Underwear Review, December 1924, p. 89 blames the older corset for figure problems.

(22.) "Parisian Women Wear Corsets," Corsets & Lingerie, August 1921, p. 31; "Paris on the Corset Question," Corsets & Lingerie, December, 1921 pp. 25-26.

(23.) Gertrude L. Nickerson, "The American Woman and Her Corset," Corset and Underwear Review, November 1924, pp. 83-84.

(24.) "The Evils of the No-Corset Fad," November 1921, pp. 24-25.

(25.) "Eminent Surgeons Endorse the Corset," December 1921, pp. 32-35.

(26.) ibid.

(27.) ibid. See Steven J. Ross, "Struggles For the Screen: Workers, Radicals and the Political Uses of Silent Film," American Historical Review 96 (April 1991): 333-368, for more on the mocking of radical women as failed men in a variety of popular media.

(28.) Royal Worcester Corset Company advertisement, Corsets & Lingerie, November 1922, p. 7; 1930 Manufacturers Census, p. 385; Helen Walser, "The Renaissance of the Corset," Corsets & Brassieres, February 1930, P. 55; "Corset Show Big Help," Corsets & Brassieres, December 1930, p. 33; "Joel Alexander Looks at 1935," Corsets & Brassieres, January 1935, p. 45.

(29.) Ethel Allen, "Corset Fitting the Young Girl Figure," Women's and Infants' Furnisher, April 1921, p. 28; Ethel Allen, "Corset Fitting the Top-Heavy Figure," Women's and Infants' Furnisher, May 1921, p. 28; Ethel Allen, "Corset Fitting the Curved Back Figure," Women's and Infants' Furnisher, June 1921, p. 32; Ethel Allen, "Corset Fitting the Full Proportioned Figure," Corsets & Lingerie, p. 34; Ethel Allen, "Corset Fitting the Thigh Figure," Corsets & Lingerie, August 1921, p. 3O; Ethel Allen, "Corset Fitting the Maternity Figure," Corsets & Lingerie, September 1921, p. 34. In 1921, Ethel Allen was the Supervisor of Instruction at the Kabo School of Corsetry.

(30.) Corsets & Lingerie, January 1921, p. 64.

(31.) Women's & Infants' Furnisher, January 1921, p. 44; "Corsets of Distinct Types," Women's & Infants' Furnisher, September 1906, p. 35.

(32.) For other sources on the movement of scientific rationalization into the domestic sphere see Dolores Hayden, The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities (Cambridge, MA, 1981), and Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (London, 1989).

(33.) Corsets & Lingerie, July 1921, p. 15; January 1925, p. 23; The Principles of Scientific Corset Fitting (New York, 1925); Women's & infants' Furnisher, March 1921, p. 49; Corsets & Brassieres, July 1928, p. 41.

(34.) Corsets & Lingerie, January 1925, p. 23.

(35.) The Principles of Scientific Corset Fitting p. 12; "Woman's Friend, The Corset," p. 20; Modart's employment of ptosis to sell corsets was similar to other discoveries of medicalized conditions for advertising purposes in the 1920s, such as Listerine's promotion of halitosis. See Stephen Fox, The Mirror Makers: A History of American Advertising and its Creators (New York, 1984), pp. 97-8, and Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920 to 1940 (Berkeley, 1985), pp. 18-20, 218-19.

(36.) "The corset stock is one of the safest of all the stocks in the dry goods store." Women's & Infants' Furnisher, 1896 quoted in their 25th anniversary issue, January 1921, p. 61; "Corset Departments Lead in Store Profits!," Warner Brothers ad, Corsets & Brassieres, January 1933, p.3; Corsets & Brassieres, February 1938, p.25; Corset Preview: The Bulletin of the National Retail Dry Goods Association, July 1941, p. 13; Corset & Underwear Review Sales Training Manual Issue, August 1942, p. 122; "Corset Selling Is An Art," Corsets & Brassieres, February 1946, p. 34.

(37.) Women's & infants' Furnisher, April1921, p.2. Gossard also encouraged the reduction in the number of lines each department carried. Their 1921 analysis of the current economic depression suggested that the problem of "stock liquidation" could be resolved by carrying complete lines by fewer companies. The point of view expressed by Warner's and Gossard obviously favored larger companies that widely advertised their products. Women's and Infant's Furnisher, January 1921, p. 3.

(38.) These are the category names used by Modart Corset Company in The Principles of Scientific Corset Fitting.

(39.) "How to Choose the Right Corset," Good Housekeeping, September 1921, pp. 52- 53; "Modern Styles Do Not Cater to One Type of Silhouette But to Several," Corsets & Brassieres, May 1933, pp. 26-7; Corsets & Lingerie, January 1921 p. 43; "A Matter of Opinion," Corsets & Lingerie, February 1925, p. 35.

(40.) Ewing, p. 136; Corsets & Lingerie, July 1921, p. 43; Ewing, p. 137.

(41.) "A Significant New Development in Modern Merchandising," Bon Ton Corsets advertisement, Corsets & Brassieres, 1929, p. 14.

(42.) "Curriculum For the Corset Salesgirl," Corsets & Brassieres, July 1941, pp. 34-5; Corset & Underwear Review, Sales Training Manual, August 1942, pp. 26-27.

(43.) Allen, "Corseting the Curved Back Figure," Corsets & Lingerie, June 1921, p. 32.

(44.) Women's Wear Daily, May 19, 1917, p. 15; November 14,1940, p. 31.

(45.) Allen, "Corset-Fitting the Full Proportioned Figure," p. 30; Allen, "Corset-Fitting the Top-Heavy Figure," p. 28; Corset & Underwear Review, Sales Training Manual, August 1942; ibid.

(46.) "Curriculum For the Corset Salesgirl," Corsets & Brassieres, July 1941, pp. 34-5. For a fuller discussion on the tensions between department store saleswomen, customers and managers see Susan Porter Benson, Counter Cultures: Saleswomen, Managers and Customers in American Department Stores, 1890-1940 (Chicago, 1986).

(47.) Allen, "Corseting the Curved Back Figure," p. 32.

(48.) Women's & Infants' Furnisher, April 1918, P. 38; Gordon, p. 9.

(49.) "Training the New Salesgirl," Corsets & Brassieres, September 1946, p. 48-9; Allen, Women's & Infants' Furnisher, June 1921, p. 32. Regarding corset selling as an art see Women's & Infants' Furnisher, May 1925, p. 27 and "Corset Selling Is An Art," Corsets & Brassieres, February 1946, p. 34.

(50.) Allen, "Corset Fitting the Young Girl Figure," p. 28; Corsets & Brassieres, January 1933, p. 35.

(51.) "New Interest in Junior Garments," Corsets & Brassieres, January 1929, p. 28; "Warner Opening Well Attended," Corsets & Brassieres, March 1930, p. 41.

(52.) The retailer B. Altman & Company, for example, focused on this commercial rite of passage in their advertisements which announced "that a young girls' first corset is an important event." Women's Wear Daily, April 2,1931; Women's Wear Daily, April 30, 1931, Sec. 2, p. 4; Corsets & Brassieres, August, 1946, p. 16.

(53.) Women's & Infants' Furnisher, February 1915, p. 49.

(54.) "The Junior Department," Corsets & Brassieres, April 1930, pp. 34-5.

(55.) "The Junior Corset Department," Corsets & Brassieres, January 1930, p. 41; "A Prosperous Outlook--Corset Buyers and Manufacturers Are All Very Optimistic," Corsets & Brassieres, February 1930, p. 25; Corsets & Brassieres, March 1930, p. 41.

(56.) Corsets & Brassieres, July 1930, p. 43; October 1930, p. 27.

(57.) Corsets & Lingerie, January 1924, pp. 31-32.

(58.) This point is also made in Corsets & Brassieres, January 1933, p. 35.

(59.) "Junior Week Arouses Interest," Corsets & Brassieres, July 1930, p. 43; "Junior Corset Week A Success," Corsets & Brassieres, C&B, October 1930, p. 27; Corsets & Brassieres, January 1933, p. 35.

(60.) Corsets & Lingerie, September 1921, n.p.; October 1922, p. 34; July 1921, p. 37; June 1922 p. 43; Women's & Infants' Furnisher, January 1914, p. 39; Corsets & Lingerie, April 1924, p. 29; Women's Wear Daily, September 3, 1924, p. 32.

(61.) Corsets & Lingerie, June 1924, p. 49; Women's Wear Daily, September 3, 1924, p. 32; September 24, 1924, p. 28; Corsets & Lingerie, February 1925, p. 9; "What Others Say About Rubber Goods," Corsets & Lingerie, February 1925, pp. 40-1; "Do Corsets Further Femininity?" Corsets & Lingerie, April 1925, p. 29.

(62.) For more on the New Look from 1947 to 1952, see "Return of the Repressed (Waist) chapter 7 of Jill Fields, "The Production of Glamour: A Social History of Intimate Apparel, 1909-1952" (forthcoming, University of California Press).

(63.) Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, edited by Donald F. Bouchard (Ithaca, 1977), p. 150.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Journal of Social History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Fields, Jill
Publication:Journal of Social History
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 1999

Related Articles
Tie me up tie me down.
"The American century: art & culture 1900-2000.".
From Mobilization to Civil War: The Politics of Polarization in the Spanish City of Gijon, 1900-1937.
Creating the modern man: American magazines and consumer culture 1900-1950. (Reviews).
The Changing Landscape of Mexico's Population Geography 1900-2000. (Geography Section).
Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian Corset. .

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters