Friday, April 19, 2019

The twelve-inch waist and other curiosities

"Here is a 'reader's letter' from New Orleans Times-Democrat, 22 March, 1896
 (though from the reference to India I suspect it may have been reproduced from a British source):

A correspondent writes from Jhalra, Central India:

“I wish more girls would write their figure-training experiences to your paper. I have just left the finishing school where I was for two years, and have come out to my father in India. I may say, without conceit, that I have a good figure and small waist, which are entirely due to the careful system of figure-training enforced at the school I had the good fortune to be sent to. I wish first to protest against the common belief that a small waist and tight-lacing are synonymous terms, that a small waist can only be the outward and visible sign of a tightly-laced corset, whereas it is much more usually the result of years of careful training while the figure is growing and supple and can be molded. 

When I went to the Paris school, at the age of sixteen, my waist measure was twenty-one inches, and I had never worn any but ready-made stays. On reaching my new school my figure was very carefully measured round chest, waist, and hips, my height and weight were taken, and all details entered in a book. After a few days I was fitted with a pair of long, fully-boned corsets with shoulder straps, the waist measure being twenty inches. I was laced into these without much difficulty, and at night I had to wear similar sized, though less stiffly boned, corsets. I at first felt very uncomfortable, but I was old enough to admire and envy the beautiful figures and tiny waists of the elder girls.

“The system enforced was that our waists should be reduced a quarter of an inch every month until the Superior considered that the utmost limit of tenuity, consistent with good health, bad been reached. Great attention was paid to our food and exercise, and drill, and corsets formed the medium through which we received our rewards and punishments. There was considerable rivalry between the girls, and rewards consisted in being allowed to lace our waists in as small as our vanity, or spirit of rivalry, desired on Sundays, and after 5 o'clock In the afternoon on week days. Punishments consisted of what was called ‘backboard drill’ and punishment corsets; the latter were very long, and as stiff as steel bones could make them, and were certainly instruments of torture. When I left school my waist measure was fourteen inches, and I can honestly say that I enjoyed good health and suffered no more than slight temporary inconvenience, and that, with one or two exceptions, the Superior and her staff had to exercise more vigilance to see that we did not lace in our waists smaller than the decreed size, than to see that the decreed size was not exceeded.

“During our free time in the evenings we used to see how small we could make our waists; and I dare say that many will disbelieve me when 1 tell you that many of us often succeeded in getting the tape to meet at twelve inches. I do not mean to say that I could have exhibited my waist laced in to twelve inches; on the contrary, we often were so tightly laced that we could scarcely breathe, and sometimes fainted before we were released. Since I have been “out” I have not been allowed to show my waist smaller than fifteen inches in public, Father says “people stare so at you,” but my night corsets are still always laced in till my waist measures only fourteen inches.

“Everyone here seems to think that I must be fearfully tight-laced. and must be suffering agonies, but it is just as easy and comfortable for me to wear a fifteen Inch waist as it is for untrained figures to wear a twenty or twenty-five inch waist, and I am able to take as much exercise walking, ruling, dancing, tennis. badminton, etc. as my larger-waisted girl friends. I am thankful to say that father likes to see my waist small, and when we dine at home alone I never show larger than fourteen inches, and in one pair of corsets with a lovely frock I exhibit a thirteen and a half inch waist: to make sure of this I am wearing that frock to-night, and father has just measured my waist, and says he certifies it is just over thirteen and a half over dress measurement.

“I am afraid you will think my letter very long, but I must add one word more. The superior's rule was that as long as a girl could wear her corset day and night for a month without such pain as to necessitate relaxing the lace, she should have the usual quarter-inch further reduction on the 1st of next month, and that a corset which could be worn from month's end to month's end, without release was not tightly laced.

“Tight-lacing only began when the corset was so tightly laced that it could not be worn all day and night without such pain as to necessitate relaxing the lace, and that there was hardly any limit to the tenuity to which a girl might reduce her waist provided that she always relaxed the lace when she found she was suffering from being too long in confinement at the extra small size; and she used to warn us never to allow our vanity to risk exhibiting in public a smaller waist than we had proved by private practice we were able to bear.”