Tuesday, March 15, 2011

pregnant women must be skinny too?!

So I have a new image at the top... but I am still not sure if I like it enough for it to remain.  Ashlee thought the previous The Lady of Shalott image was too busy, and I had a similar vibe, so I went with something without color.  So far this is my favorite corset image, but I'd rather have one that's truly "unlaced."  I guess it's too much to expect Victorians to have images of unlaced corsets on women- that might be just too vulgar for their sense of morality.

But encouraging pregnant women to wear corsets is, apparently, not at all vulgar or immoral to Victorians.

According to the University of Virginia's "Reflections on Health in Society & Culture" page on the maternity corset:
Women who had worn corsets since childhood or adolescence probably had weaker abdominal muscles and might have benefited from proper support, but maternity corsets were not specially designed for support. Instead, the corsets were designed to mask, even minimize, the size of the pregnant body.
image source: Past Perfect Vintage
Sanitation and good birthing practice issues aside, is it any wonder that so many women and children died during childbirth?  The woman probably had no muscle strength with which to push the kid out of her- she probably died from exhaustion, and the child probably suffocated.

I wonder if infant deformations resulted from corset wear during pregnancy as well.  It's too disturbing to think about. 

Yet why do I have the sudden urge to pursue the topic further (i.e. research and write a paper about it?)


  1. "I wonder if infant deformations resulted from corset wear during pregnancy as well."

    I asked me the same !
    It must be horrable to wear this, while pregnancy @:

  2. I think this is a bit more of an extreme case. I have a nice, thick book in Swedish on the history of underpinnings, and it seems like a corset during pregnancy was used also for support. The lacing on the bottom could be loosened as the "condition" progressed. There was also a tradition of going for looser maternity wear, and then hiding from the public during the last month(s) of the pregnancy, partially, because for long, it was expected of ladies of society. Of course, in eras where the bump meant there would be an heir on his way, this could have been a status symbol as well. :)

    There are also different kinds of waistcoats and outright flaring jackets that were worn through different eras. These would have been convenient for hiding the baby bump.

    Peasants and working class women couldn't of course afford to not work and tend to household chores, and there are anecdotal stories of women in Finland going from the field to the sauna (the only place up until some decades ago in rural areas with access to ample water) with a midwife, and when the baby was born, they were taken to the field with the mom in a basket or small cradle and work resumed.

    Traditional folk dress especially in Northern Europe does not contain an actual corset. There have been corsets made of what material was available for the fashionable young ladies and used by middle class women, but peasants often wore a slightly stiffened vest on top of a skirt with a shirt under, and an apron on top, and in most cases also a jacket for finer events, and married women's hair was almost without exception covered by a bonnet or cap.

    Think of the Austrian Dirndl. The full length images seen on more mature women are very close to what Central Europeans wore up until very recently.

    There is also some written evidence from an 18th century merchant in Sweden in the form of letters, where a Swedish husband mentioned that he can't wait until his wife gives birth to the next child, so that he can see his wife back into her corset. This suggests that although women might have worn a corset through part of their pregnancy, most women opted to loosen it and in time, remove it wholly to accomodate a baby.

    My costume history library is currently across an ocean and two continents, but it has a nice chapter about the historical traditions in part of the back then Swedish geographical area's maternity wear history. :)

  3. Wow. I had no idea. Definitely bringing this up in class at the first chance I get!

  4. Penny- Wow. What an informative response. I learned so much from your above comment that I did not know before about Northern Europe and birthing practices. I have heard that it was proper for women to go into "confinement," either weeks or even months before her child was born, which may indicate that corsets were worn at the beginning to middle of the pregnancy but probably not later on, when no one could see them.

    I want to get my hands on this book! Are there any English or French translations that you know of? Unfortunately I don't know Swedish. :(

    You may be right- the maternity corset may have been a more extreme case. Since this post I have been looking for advertisements of such corsets for women to try to support any theory in my mind that they were a popular item in Victorian England or America, at least. I've only found one ad, and that dates well after the Victorian period by 15 years.

    What sort of support do you think that corsets provided? In holding up the belly, keeping the back straight so the woman could remain well-balanced? Anything I am not thinking of? I would love to pursue this topic of inquiry further. :)

  5. There is one brief summary chapter in English in the book I have. And it is, as all of my costume history books, in Seattle at my future husband's place, as they were among the first ones to be moved to the Americas... I can try find the ISBN number for you.

    (Or even scan some images from the book into my blog and try to compile a brief article on the subject of maternity wear in the old days... That'd be in June at earliest. I'll be honeymooning before I get the chance...)

    I would dare guess that the reason women wore the "maternity corset" in Victorian times was more for support to the belly that was growing heavier (My mother gained 24lbs of weight during all her four pregnancies, and she tended to choose clothes that supported the belly, too. It's quite a burden to lug about without back pain...) hence the lacing down the sides, to provide more space for the child as it grew. These days people just buy a "Belly Bra" or similar that provides a modern day, bone-less version of similar support.

    Loosely fitting clothes have a much more important role than people think. Almost all eras have had both a corsetted fashion, as well as a more demure, more covering form of fashion. Until the emergence of photography for anything but the most formal portraits, even if a woman was pregnant during the painting of a portrait, you'd be hard pressed to find an image with a lady being pregnant, as artists were masters of artistic flattery (hence the discrepancy between 12" waists in paintings from the 18th century and actual corsets being usually at 16-17" at their absolutely tightest, and even then, more commonly closer to 20").

    I've been thinking of trying to design a pregnancy corset with my corsettier, who also makes supportive corsets and vests for people with back problems. The strain on the back muscles from carrying a baby are going to wreak havoc on my own back, so I might end up testing the whole theory on myself with a replica corset some day. If it indeed supports the belly without causing harmful pressure against the baby, its use really isn't as extravagant as might be assumed. :)

    (I'm mad, I know!)

  6. It's nothing to do with being skinny. If you think thats what corsets are for you need to do a bit more research.
    Corsets were worn for support, not to be "skinnier" - pregnant women were not laced in tightly and they were not doing damage to their children or we wouldn't be around now, would we?
    If you are still in doubt think about how many place today sell maternity bras - its the same thing.

    1. Thanks so much, Daria!
      I'm very interested in corseting and corsetry in general, so the idea of a maternity corset to me makes a great deal of sense - it would support the growing belly. As apparently one of the most common complaints among pregnant women is that of lower back pain due to the weight of the belly, it seems a matter of course that a pregnant woman would wear something to support the area. As a matter of fact, there are devices for a similar purpose now, except they are like very ugly belts (I know, my Sunday school teacher when I was fourteen wore one in the last months of her pregnancy). I would much rather wear a maternity corset than one of those.