Tight Corsets *

 

What is it about the term ‘tight corsets’? In Herman Wouk’s book ‘Marjorie Morningstar’, the heroine is cautioned about “those divorcees in their tight corsets”. In another book, the main character falls into a loveless marriage “..mistaking her tight corsets for voluptuous promise”. My aunt was fond of saying “you need tight corsets to catch your man, and tight corsets to hold onto your figure”! In contrast, my Mother, in an uncharacteristically catty moment, referred to an acquaintance, who I thought was rather glamorous, as “Hah! But she wears tight corsets,” as though it were some underhand deception. She regaled me with warnings that tight corsets would give the wearer varicose veins and liver disease. I suspected that the latter was not a direct consequence of the corset, but rather of the social habits that such a wearer would adopt!

Mae West (left) was a classic wearer of corsets and faithfully used Spirella to attain the shape at first demanded by her fans, and latterly demanded by her own memories.

* The Queens of Tight-Lacing are undoubtedly Ethel Granger and Cathie Jung who have both graced the Guinness Book of World Records, however, such attenuation goes beyond the subject matter here.

Tight Lacing is a subject that was prevalent in Victorian through to Edwardian times to an extent that became extinct after the World War I. Vestiges of tight lacing continued on stage, in some elderly women and in the darker areas of corsetry, however, never again would it be a mainstream fashion. The remarkable 14 inch waists of late 20th century Ethel Granger, and early 21st century Cathie Jung, are expressions of personal taste and form. Having said this, there are many women who tight-lace today, and perhaps the new century will see this niche-interest develop. Only time will tell.

What we are referring to in this page is the use of the girdle and corset to shape a torso, ever so slightly beyond the comfort zone for those quintessentially feminine traits of allure and vanity. Cautionary Tales of Vanity and Tight-lacing are covered in the Corsetiere's pages, and some beautiful examples from Gilo49, Trishypoo and Cherry-Tomatoe are shown in these pictures.

The corsets shown here form a very distinct set. Consider Spirella's efforts to support and control, we are looking at a different device here. Control is most certainly afforded by these garments, however, their primary function is to nip in the waist, and lead the eye downwards to a perfectly molded derriere. They all have the hallmarks of the very high, shaped back, and the full length skirt that would allow for immaculate draping of a pencil skirt or close-fitting gown.

Of course, tight girdles attempt to perform the same task, however, nothing could ever be quite so successful as these corsets.

If the corset (above left) appears slightly odd, or askew, it is because the lacing is offset to the wearer's left. It is the only example of this that I have seen. Side-lacing, or well-offset lacing is not uncommon, particularly in Latin America and Spain, but this is something different, and I have no explanation for it.

Spencer (above) and Gossard (right) show their versatility here by making corsets blatantly designed to minimise the waist. Spirella, on the other hand, put the emphasis strongly on support without constriction, and 95% of their corsets echoed this philosophy. Spencer and Gossard could do likewise, but also made corsets for the ultimate in tight-lacing. Spencer even specialised in fiendishly complex surgical devices that would force the wearer into the shape of a women, despite the afflictions of poor posture, lordosis and even pregnancy.

 

Note the similarity in the two brands of the offset busk.

 

Getting in and out of these garments could be quite a trial, especially, the corset described in Cautionary Tales of Vanity and Tight-lacing (below) where there is no fastening other than the laces which must be loosened sufficiently for the garment to pass the wearer's hips before being tightened again. The splitting of this garment is testimony to how tight the wearer was prepared to lace it ! The white corset makes everything easy for the wearer. The zip can be completely unfastened allowing easy entry, and the elastic lower laces allow for greater freedom when sitting and answering the calls of nature, not always easy, or even possible, in more restrictive foundations.

           

Whilst talking about restrictive foundations, yet again Gilo49 has procured another excellent example (right). This Modart confection, designed for a sufferer of back problems, combines the two facets of tight-lacing in one garment. That is, we have a very pretty and fashionable corset that would shape the most recalcitrant of torsos, whilst maintaining its eminently 'surgical' function of supporting the back.

Such a corset just had to be owned by an older, fashionable woman. It has the classic six suspenders, full length hooks-and-eyes, and three powerful straps to ensure that the twin rigid back steels and the spine would not part company. Such a corset would be donned by the lady as her second act of the morning. The first would be to put on her stockings, for such an activity would be impossible once ensconced in the corset. The owner would only disembark from its rigid embrace just before retiring to bed.

Footnote:

It was during an inventory check that we came across a piece of quite extraordinary corsetry. We acquired this piece in London from a vendor in Covent Garden. She claimed that her husband originally purchased the garment from Axfords in 1971 when they had their shop near Victoria Station. Ostensibly a present for herself, she was moved to declare that the only person that derived any pleasure from it was her husband. (Isn’t that so often the case in lingerie purchases?) One could, however, hardly describe this piece as lingerie. A huge 28” long, with full length boning and laced front below the busk, and full-length at the back, there is no earthly way for the wearer to sit or even walk properly.  The woman hated the corset but only sold it after her husband passed away. She felt that it was humiliating.

We have two in the collection. The other is in black satin (shown left and right), but is a later model from the 1980’s. The boning is not full-length and it could almost (these days) be worn as a dress.

Such a corset would never be worn for real. It is a toy and no more than that although exceptionally confining. Indeed, this corset is one of those garments beloved of fantasy creators, it is the famous “discipline corset.” This never made it to any girls' boarding school and should perhaps reside elsewhere.