The Victorian age saw the last great heyday of the corset, when the tinier
the female waist, the more attractive a figure was considered. A girl's
ambition was to be married before 21, with a waist measurement less than
the years of her age.
In pursuit of this ideal, corsets
were laced so tightly that numbness in the lower body and legs and even
fainting were frequent occurrences, reinforcing the popular image of the
female as a fragile, helpless creature. In reality, women had to be true
stoics, enduring severe discomfort while remaining outwardly serene; it
was considered disgraceful to show any distress, especially in front of
the maid pulling on the laces, or in company. Even when sleeping, they did
not escape, as a night-time model would often be worn, in order to
maintain the waist reduction achieved during the day.
For the Victorians, with their
repressed sensuality bubbling under the surface, there was more to all
this masochism than the mere pursuit of fashion; in 1870, a reader of
"The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine" naively wrote that
"tight lacing produces delicious sensations, half pleasure, half
pain". In an age of heightened prudery, the corset was in fact a
socially acceptable method of self titillation!
It was also an acceptable method
of torture; many of the trappings of this obsession with waist reduction
would not be out of place in a modern dungeon; the unfortunate young girl
being "figure trained" hung onto an overhead bar while mother
and maid hauled on the laces; an extra long and tight corset was a
favourite method of disciplining recalcitrant girls, sometimes with metal
screws to tighten more than was possible with laces; a stocking needle
might be placed in a schoolgirl's busk to improve posture - any drooping
of the head would result in a sharp prick to the chin!