Curious History : Extreme Corsetry

tumblr_m4lyk0xiMS1qb5uepo1_500Of the so many curious things about human nature that I find so very fascinating is mankind’s love of appealing physical beauty.  There are instances of elongated necks, tiny feet binding and even body art.  In of all the times in history the one that seems to be the best festering breeding ground for the odd, the bizarre and the frightfully curious is the 19th century!

The Victorians never did anything halfway!  Absolutely not!  They were the biggest empire in the world with empirical cites on every continent and they had to show the world that they lead the way for everything from food to manners to literature…to fashion!  Now, the corset has been a staple to women (and even men) of this earth for quite some time.  Yet it wasn’t until the 19th century that we see an emergence of…well, I suppose you would call it a fetish.  Corsets were practical and absolutely necessary for a woman.  Yet fashion decree and a little showmanship placed the corset in the middle of a bit of modern controversy!

The saying went that a females waist should be the same number in inches around as she was in years by the time she married.  If she was 18 when she married then her waist was 18 inches.  Of course this is not the metric system a Victorian would use but I’m simplifying this as best I can.  So the smaller the waist was happened to be a very important factor in corset lacing.  So then, the game was stepped up a bit.

The proper term for extreme corset lacing is “tightlacing”.  It was a slow training progression from the natural waistline to a very thin waistline through months or I daresay years of slowly lacing the corset tighter and tighter.  Now modern scholars differ as to many aspects of tightlacing.  First that it was common place.  Truly extreme lacing was not that common though women did try to get their waists as tiny as possible (as many still do today). It was just so curiously extreme that when one saw a tightlacer you remembered.

Another modern controversy is that tightlacing was extremely detrimental to ones health.  This could be true in some cases seeing as how the bones and organs do shift about but in actuality most women feel only slight discomfort (or so they say) since the shifting is slow going.

History has had some rather famous tightlacers who flaunted about their tiny figures with pride and poise.  Let us start with some actresses.

Camille Clifford

For me, not quite tightlacing but more so than the average lady.  Such a lovely figure!  She was Belgian born and was used as the model for the famous Gibson Girl and was more famous for her beauty then her acting abilities.  She is however the quintessential Edwardian beauty.

Lina Cavalieri

Known as a diseuse (a storyteller in an opera) Lina was dubbed as one of the greatest beauties at the turn of the 19th century.  Blessed with an optimal singing voice and wonderful acting skills she was by far one of the most successor tightlacer actress to date.

Anna Held

I could not talk about turn of the century actresses without mentioning this lady.  Anna was the common-law wife of the infamous Ziegfeld.  She helped him establish the Follies and became very famous for her self planted PR tricks (such as having ribs removed for tightlacing).  She even became a war heroine for her efforts in the front lines during WWI.


The world record holder at an astonishing 14 inches!  A controversial actress who made it a point to advertise herself falsely to get attention.  She was even a model for Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Her appearance was so jaw dropping that one writer commented:

Polaire! The agitating and agitated Polaire! The tiny slip of a woman that you know, with the waist slender to the point of pain, of screaming out loud, of breaking in two, in a spasmically tight bodice, the prettiest slimness …

So on to some other faces faces in the tightlacing world.  This trend was so very popular that even royalty got in on the action!  One of the most recognizable ones was Sissi better known as Empress Elisabeth.  Her cousin was Ludwig II and we all know his sad story.  She was obsessed by her looks and suffered for her art.

It was everywhere!  Dancers, singers, writers and painters!  To list a few: Julie Manet (I’m not even going to insult your curious intelligence and tell you who she’s related to!), Eva Tanguay, Maud D’Orby, La Slyphe (the “S” figure contortionist), Theodora de Gillert, Jennie Churchill (yes, indeed!  Dear Winston’s mother!).

Oh there are more!  Ethel Granger at 13 inches! Tiphaine, Elizabeth Firth and Marguerite!  Even today we have Dita Von Teese who is braving conventional standards to bring the art of tightlacing to light.  Either way it seems a curious act to me indeed!  Woman of this curious world of ours have certainly put themselves through so much for the art of fashion that I wonder what curious future awaits us.


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