Not the Dreaded Corset!
Updated: May 4, 2022
Corsets top Emily Stanton’s lists of avoidable undergarments in Dear Maude, For the Love of Maude, and Forever Maude, the books of The Dear Maude Trilogy. But what’s all the fuss?
After all, in modern times, corsets have become considered sexy, sultry, and/or flat-out naughty. They come in many different styles and fabrics and also can add style to an outfit when worn above clothing, such as in a steampunk costume like this:
But just beneath the corset’s modern adaptations lies centuries of function vs. aesthetic. The corset’s history began as early as 2000 BC and evolved, along with fashion, from sixteenth-century Europe to the early twentieth century. Constructed of cloth or leather, stiffened with whalebone or a similar material, corsets were laced, usually in the back, as tight as necessary to produce the desired effect. Both men and women wore corsets to produce a certain silhouette that corresponded with the clothing of the day. Some also wore them for medical reasons, to support the back in cases of scoliosis, for example.
In The Dear Maude Trilogy, Emily wears a corset periodically throughout her adventures in time. In fact, she considers it a “dreaded undergarment,” and seldom views it with anything but disdain. But was it that bad?
For those who’d rather go au natural or even those who aren’t used to wearing one, a corset can be constricting. And if laced too tight, as Emily’s was the day of her Coming Out Ball, a corset also can be quite painful.
Since most non-time travelers can neither confirm nor deny the comfort of a corset in everyday use, I have to imagine that the corset had its place in history and was simply accepted (by most—except for Emily, of course) as another part of the wardrobe.
Accepted or not, the corset was not alone and was accompanied by several other articles of underclothing that women had to endure in past eras. Unlike today, a woman couldn’t simply jump out of bed and throw on something; no, she had to plan her escape from the bedroom.
Here’s an example from Dear Maude of Emily’s experience on June 12, 1908:
A coal-burning fire kept the chill from the air as Goodwin helped me don my outfit. Within minutes, I was wearing white stockings and a union suit that looked like a tank top attached to knee-length drawers, with ruffles at the shoulders and hems. Then I stood and tried not to pass out, as Goodwin worked behind me, lacing my white cotton, boned corset. She attached the stockings to garters on the front of the corset and buttoned a pair of black Oxfords on my feet. The next layer was a fitted top, sleeveless and trimmed in lace, which covered the corset, and an attached petticoat that went to the floor. Then, she covered it all with a floor-length skirt and separate top made of white silk, lace, and enough buttons to render its removal impossible without assistance.
Fortunately, makeup wasn’t popular during this timeframe, or the morning routine would have gone to an even higher level of complication. Regardless, the corset, its accompanying undergarments, and all the bother were things Emily would have avoided if she wasn’t stuck in time. And she might not have accepted that full-ride college scholarship so eagerly had she known the true cost.
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Sources: Although this post is based on my opinion and/or experience, I consulted this article for some historical dates and details.
Further reading: This is a terrific book I often consult on fashion.
Next time, I’ll explore riding sidesaddle.