From the “
Independent” July 18th 1896:
SMALL WAISTS AND EDUCATION.
Nowadays, when almost every pastime is being annexed to the use of girls and women, and when, if we fully believe the more advanced ones of the sex we are within a reasonable distance of the day when the petticoat and skirt will be abolished in favour of the knickerbocker, at least when taking exercise, the manner in which girls were trained for their after positions in life at fashionable finishing schools forty years, or rather less, ago, will, says “Hearth and Home,” surely prove interesting reading, though, perhaps, almost incredible.
Not long ago, among a number of old books, the writer came across a diary of school-girl life from which extracts have been made showing how the girls are turned out in one (the conventional) mould without regard for differences of either disposition or temperament. Nothing could be plainer than the entries of the diary itself; and in the light of modern feminine development it becomes a valuable, if a frivolous, “human document.” Let it speak for itself.
August 15, 1858. — I am fifteen years
of age to-day, and I haven't a lover. Margery has two, she tells me, but then
she has such a very, very tiny waist— l can easily span it— and Mary tells me,
when I say my new stays pinch me, that young ladies ought not to mind how much
they are pinched in, because if they intend to make a good marriage they must
have a jimp, small waist. Perhaps it is Margery's waist has got her a lover,
for she is not sixteen quite.”
“September 27 (same year)— At last I am at school. I have been here three days; how long they have seemed away from little Bob, mother, and Kathleen. What a wasp-waisted lot we are, all except myself and the one or two other new girls; but we have all been measured, and when Mrs. B— sends out her stays from Brighton I suppose we shall be pulled in like the rest, and be laced up till we can scarcely breathe. What the girls hate (and what I shall hate, too) is never being allowed to loosen, except for the bath on Saturdays. And then, I have never worn stays at night.
Last night I could hear Madge T— groaning in her sleep; she said she hardly slept at all, her new stays cut her so horribly. She has been here more than two years, and Mrs. M— says she has a lovely little waist— it is only 15 inches — and that though Madge could scarcely walk or breathe sometimes, she will have a perfect figure when she leaves at Christmas. Madge told me all about poor Sarah W—, who used to faint, and whose mother fetched her away. But Mrs. M— doesn't allow it to be talked about.”
“September 30. — Margery is in disgrace. Mlle. V— found a note she had dropped from Harry. Madame M— is very angry at the very idea of a lover, although, after all, she is always telling us girls, if we complain of our stays pinching us, or that Marie or Mademoiselle hurt us when they rub our chests to make us develop, on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, that we must have good figures and small waists, so that we can make good marriages. Madge tells me that Violet S— and some of the other girls in her room— the bigger ones, of course — wear poultices very often at night to make them plump.”
“November 7. — This morning was ‘corset parade,’ as we girls call it. Madame, before we put on skirt and bodice, came round with the measurement book in her hand accompanied by Mademoiselle, tape in hand. Martha W— got into rare trouble; she had been faint in the night and obliged to loosen. She did not lace up again quite as small as she should have, hence Madame's anger. Amy T— was much commended, though she was white as death till she put on rouge, because she was only fifteen inches. How she panted and gasped while Margery and I laced her in.
I am always a good girl, Madame says, though I don't pull myself in till I'm almost strangled, but content myself with seventeen inches — which, alas, Madame says must be sixteen by Christmas. I often laugh and say we girls are entered up like pieces of furniture, or something of that sort. Madame always reads out each entry from the book as each of us are ‘paraded.’ Mine was ‘Figure satisfactory, waist ditto; to be reduced to sixteen by December 18th; bust improved, but to be frictioned three times a week with linseed oil. Two pairs of new stays to be ordered from Madame B made extra stiff.’ Heigh-ho wee me, and I suppose I shall be a little more uncomfortable than before.”
Then a year after comes the following entry: — “How delightful to be home for good. Nurse is charmed with my figure, and says she is sure Captain W— admires it. He was watching me all across the lawn to-day while they were playing croquet. I can scarcely eat anything when laced in like I am, but she says girls don't want to eat much, and mother [says] that many women ruin their figures by eating.”