Charlottes Brontes corset .

I was very pleased to see so many Bronte items yesterday and be given so much access . The library staff were extremely helpful ,one of the most interesting items was Charlotte’s corset.

I have long wanted to examine the corset and add the findings to my Brontes clothing posts .I did consider that years from now I might not be too thrilled at some stranger examining and photographing my undies  then publishing the photos all over the internet ,but on reflection it occurred to me that as long as I was dead I really wouldn’t care .

I wanted to examine the corset because it is a well documented Bronte artifact,Elllen Nussey is known to have been outraged to see it on display labeled as Charlottes and shes likely to have been one of the few people to see Charlotte in it so it is  known to have definitely belonged to Charlotte and therfore the measurements of the corset will be Charlotte’s at least at some point in her life. It will  therefore help not just to work out her  build but also to  clarify which gowns in the Parsonage collection are Charlotte’s and which can be reliably used to work out Charlotte’s fashion tastes.I realise it might be suggested that Length could determine who dresses belonged to but it is much less reliable than bodice shape as gowns can be lengthened or shortend fairly easily and Anne was only a few inches taller than Charlotte an height difference that can be easily hidden when the hemlines of gowns were changing from ankle length to floor length .Knowing which gowns are charlottes will clarify which views in  the  surviving letters are in fact accurate reflections of Charlotte’s own views and  more particulary what comments in the novels refelct Charlottes views ,such views are often used to illustrate her character but are often I think merely a refelction of the “correct ” view point for her characters .

While these were my initial aims my closer examination of the corset has raised much wider issues concerning Charlotte’s ,health and overall  well-being. It also shows that Charlotte must have had her movements more restricted than I expected.

I am mindful the photos in this post are rather small and I am sorry but I agreed to post only small images online .

The corset

Its quite long early Victorian style with a number of quite sturdy bones,,which may be whalebone or possibly steel and whalebone mix as one protruding bone looked like steel.I had wondered if the bones had been added later to a corset that had originally been corded as I know many early corsets were corded rather than boned  and this looked very much like the corded style of corset. I thought perhaps a later owner might have updated it but the bones are obviously integral to the corset and there are more than I expected .

I didnt want to be the person who ruined the Bronte corset so I didnt try to see what the “give” on the corset was,Most boned  corsets in the eras preceding the 1850s  do have some flexibility from their construction and fabric though not much and most steel boned modern corsets are decidedly inflexible (though this was lighter than modern ones)The corset also has a very wide but removable front busk which when worn  would severely limit any  bending or leaning forward movements  and ensure and extremely upright posture though it also has rather alarming health implications.I dont have images of the Bronte corset on a mannequin but it would look  similare  the one below when worn

Its not a corset you could wear for most forms of housework unless you removed the front busk and even then it would be restrictive .Its possible to adjust how you move in stays or corsets  to accommodate restrictions but some chores would be extremely awkward for example though I have not actually tried the task I would very much doubt you could clean out a fire grate. Rib deformation caused by corset wearing is sometimes used as a class marker when examining skeletons  ,,working class women would rarely have worn corsets all the time and  not laced restrictivly so female skeletons with normal ribcages can usualy be  considered as low staus individuals  .

Its very likely  that the Brontes had informal wear for their household work as this was a common solution .I had wanted to look at the Pink gown which I have shown a few images of in the previous post as I think it may possibly be a “wrapper gown”a non bronte version can be seen below and is very similare to the pink gown at the Parsonage .

these were loose  slip on dresses worn in the morning without corsets or petticoats so that you could do any manual work needed or so you could spend at least part of your day corset free(The  upper class version was the morning gown followed in the late victorian era by tea gowns)

Either the wrappper or the morning gown had to be removed and replaced with a more tailored  day gown or afternoon gown well before any guests might be expected.The rest of  a ladys day had to be spent in the restrictive corset and petticoats.

A close examination of the corset also shows it  has steel edged lacing holes so it is very possible it could be used for tight lacing as Mrs Gaskel had claimed . Tight lacing as a fashion aid  was becoming increasingly common as the dress waistlines returned to their natural level after the high waisted regency and romantic era styles .The dress below from the 1830s would have had a corset but its likely to have been high waisted or if longer corded or lightly boned.The corsets purpose was not to drasticaly reduce your waist just trim up your figure and support the bust ,while in children and young ladies corsets helped improve posture and stop unladylike slouching,it would be laced to be snug but not uncomfortable or restrictive.

However the waistline began to return to lower waist level  in the late 1830s and  during the 1840s .At the same time  the very wide  Gigot sleeves began to be replaced with narrower sleeves  and an overall more restrictive tailored look.

Most women not gifted with  willow like figures must have viewed the descending waistline with a sense of dismay ,previously the combination of high-waisted dresses and big wide sleeves  gave the impression of a trim figure to most women.Once waistlines returned to their lower natural level  ladies with pear-shaped figures or those ladies with a less than  flat tummy would begin to realise that the new styles made them look less than trim unless they had some hidden help. Shorter early corsets would create bulges at lower waist level and lightly corded ones would not create a smooth enough line keep the fabric from creasing under the bust or at the waist. The corsets lengthened and became more likely to be  heavily boned and it became more common for women to lace them more tightly than comfort allows.Unfortuantly corsets had not been designed for this ,the front busk which was a feature of corsets or stays throughout  the centuries had been designed mostly for shaping or holding structural layers such as farthingales in place .Most recently for the Brontes in regency times the busk was used  to create a clear “divorce ” between the breasts ,,much like the cross your heart bra and flatten the tummy slightly.Unfortuantly when this style of corset was tight laced the busk didnt just flatten the stomach it compressed it  and surronding organs with unpleasant results.

9Image is taken from the following source and other examples can been seen in the paper cited elsewhere in this post)

This skeleton is by no means unusual many Skeletons at Cross bones and Greyfriars buriel sites had such deformations and in other sites even some male skeltons show the effects of tight lacing.

The effect on the organs was usualy considered to be that shown below

.Mrs Gaskel had  felt tight lacing had helped shorten Charlotte’s life .I didnt agree mostly because  I didnt think Charlotte be unwise enough to sacrifice her health to look fashionably skinny when the  detrimental effect of tight lacing were very well-known and frequently mentioned in periodicals.

Heres a later quote from Goodys but the same views were prevalent for decades prior to the 1860s

You are aware young ladies that by means of tight lacing, the waist of the female figure may be made to vie with that of the wasp, and to resemble the form of an hour glass or the letter X, thus very much approving its appearance. The rose however, is never without the thorn; the most agreeable evening party has its drawbacks. And so there are, unhappily, some unpleasant results consequent on compression, at the expense of which a slender waist is purchased.

The circulating fluid, from a disagreeable law of nature, is forced up into the head. The color of the fluid is rosy, as you know. The delicate health attendant on tight lacing forbids it to adorn the cheek, and accordingly it is transferred to the nose, which its tint does not adorn by any means. Within the circle of the waist are comprised certain plaguy vessels, whose freedom from pressure is unfortunately required. When they are subject to obstruction, as they are by close lacing, there is a vexatious tendency in the ankles to swell, and the worst is, that a tight shoe only renders the disfigurement the more conspicuous.

Comfort must also be sacrificed to elegance, and the reduction of the waist occasions giddiness and headache. This perhaps alone would be a trifle, but lacing involves short life, and, as the contracted figure suggests a resemblance to the hour-glass, the hourglass suggests a warning to the contracted figure.” From Godey’s – March 1869 – On Tight Lacing

I  also  didnt belive Charlotte could have tight-laced with the Parsonage corset as  I assumed the corset at the Parsonage being so early would have sewn lacing holes and sewn lacing holes tear if you tried to lace them too tightly.I will now have a re think  especially  as many of the effects described in Goodys and elsewhere tally with Charlotte’s health issues for example she regularly had very bad headaches ,Possibly the bouts of ill health sometimes unkindly considered to be hypochondria or nerves were the results of having to wear an over tight corset .Charlottes ill health was not the result of being unfit  as she was not always confined in the house and there are several reports of locals who confirm she  often seen on the moor or  walking in the area and we know she often mentions rambles taken during visits  so  the sporadic ill health was not the result of lack of excerise or poor food  or  dieting as Charlotte obviously enjoyed food and one of the things she comments on as being unplesant  in London is  the lack of regular meals or the missing of meals due to visits etc .It has been suggested that the headaches were migranes which makes sense but doesnt explain other symptoms and Charlttoe herself links headaches to her stomach

I am grievously afflicted with headache, which I trust to change of air for relieving; but meantime, as it proceeds from the stomach, it makes me very thin and grey;

It has been suggested probably correctly that modern “novice ” corset wears suffer because they are not used to corsets ,,however Charlotte like all her generation of young ladies would also not have been used to wearing restrictive corsets.the Regency and romantic era was the only time in hundereds of years of fashion when the body was allowed freedom to be its correct shape .A typical Regency pair of stays or corset was very short so as children  and young girls the Brontes would not have worn the long restrictive childrens stays of the later victorian age.

As young women they would have worn the now  longer but still quite comfortable  romantic era stays  such as these made  and worn by the talented costumer Nicole.All these gave the body fredom and comfort.

I am not sure that had Charlotte tight laced she  continued the habit as later gowns have 24 in waists however she may have continued to try to look trim for her london  trips or more likely had to lace more tightly  than she would have liked to fit into the smart clothes she already owned but which had been made during her period of weight loss during the sad times of mourning her sisters.

Mrs Gaskels  comment on the corset helping shorten Charlotte’s life may have been a veiled reference to the widely debated view that Corseting  adversely affected the uterus and caused complications during pregnancy  and there is evidence to support this,I have found a  recent study by Klingerman which can be found here invaluable.

It has been  discovered that in archeological examination of females at a gravesites ,Rib deformation was fairly common and that in general the skeletons of  women with possible tightlacing linked deformations where younger than those of other non deformed skeletons. The study deals extensively with the possible effects on womens ability to  have a healthy sex life,conceive and  have  healthy succesful  pregnancies and  also examines the link between tightlacing and miscarriage or neonatal death and while there’s no extensive evidence of deformation of the pelvis the effects on soft tissues are of course impossible to know for certain

In addition to the health hazards theres another moral  element of tight lacing that may be relevant ,,A well corseted female was considered by many to be more chaste ,,partly because of the unspoken assumption that it was nigh on impossible to have sex in an early Victorian corset worn with a chemise  but also because it was felt there was a link between being “pure-minded and chaste” and being tight laced,we still use the phrase Straight laced which comes from Strait laced ,an old phrase meaning  prudish or strict , which predates the Victorian era but does show the common link between being corseted and being respectable . Men in the Victorian age not infrequently wore corsets and there seems to be a link between military careers  and corset wearing ,,for a man the upright posture and pulled in shape given by corset wearing conformed not just to fashionable ideals but also suggested an “upright character  “and disciplined ,a self controlled personality. Perhaps tragically Charlotte tighlaced during her London and other trips after becoming  famous not from vanity but from a desire  to appear more demure and counter attacks on her ” feminine delicacy”.I am however inclined to feel that it was primarily fashion considerations or the desire to look attractive, I also discovered some little added bust booster pads on the inside of the corset.

,which have been made by a non professional and  been sewn in after the corset was bought or made.

These created a little wonderbra effect which when added to by upward tight lacing would have increased the bust by around 2 ins.That these were added by Charlotte herself to “improve” her figure ,rather than by later owners to make the corset look better on display is almost certain .I was puzzled by discrepancy of bust measurements in known gowns of Charlotte’s  and the corset when worn with the booster pads would account for this.The modification makes excellent sense as the new 1840s gowns with narrower sleeves would highlight the bust and waist and do not look  their best unless there is some form of curve over the bust level ,they are not flattering style on the flat chested

Sadly it also makes the possibility of tight lacing more likely,I had assumed based on the dress measurements that Charlotte  was not overly concerned with altering her shape  and may have been naturally curvy rather than the beanpole it’s usually assumed she was,however the corset measurements seem to suggest a pear shaped figure as the hips are fairly wide by comparison to the waist  29 ins compared to a waist of  19ins (max) so its unlikely Charlotte’s tiny waist was  always normal.Corsets can easily remove 2 inches when worn normally  laced as they tend to redistribute  any fat  so Charlotte will have been at least as 22 ins waist probably 23  .The hips are more or less inflexible ,,you cant squash the pelvis as its mostly shaped by bone so its likely that 29/30  is  Charlottes actual hip measurement,,there would be a chemise under the corset but that wouldn’t add significantly to the bulk over the hips and would be squashed flat against the skin once the corset was laced up.The actual  bust measurement  is impossible to accurately judge as there are the little cups added .Charlotte described herself as underdeveloped and those who met her tended to agree so this is probably a veiled reference not just to her height ,(which was not unduly uncommon Queen Victoria was shorter)but also to her figure and bust.Just like  modern women Charlotte wanted to boost her shape.

Above shows the waist measured fairly loosely as I am uncertain how much “give the corset might have.I had  also thought Charlotte might possibly have left her corset loosely laced with a gap at the back as I and many re enenactors commonly do this if I need a bit more flexibility  or had gained a bit of weight after holidays or christmas ,but the little bust pads wouldn’t work properly unless the corset was worn  more or less completely closed to

I also suspect that if Charlotte had taken to wearing a longer more restrictive style of corset at the same time as she wore more petticoats and updated her style during the Brussels trip it may well be the new style corset rather than the just petticoats which Emily is referring to when she says she wished to be “as God made her”

To move on

The straps are wide but also removable so they wouldn’t  show on the wide necked gowns but also possibly so they could be adjusted so I couldnt unfortunately use these as I had hoped to gain shoulder measurements .I had hoped that measuring the corset from the top of its strap to the base of the busk would give me a body length from which to accurately gain a total height .I also measured sleeves on the gowns to attempt this  but unfortunately its very hard on 1830s and 40s gowns to figure out where the long bones  of the arm would have started and finished and as the formula is designed for use on skeletons a reasonable degree of accuracy is needed

The corset though it goes over the hips and to lower tummy level at the front is quite short  which tends to suggest Charlotte was generally very well proportioned and petite despite what she may have felt about herself.Length along the back lacing hole is 14.5 ins and marginally longer 15 ins at the front


About hathawaysofhaworth

I am a Historian and author living in the north
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6 Responses to Charlottes Brontes corset .

  1. Hello

    Thank you for a most informative and well researched article. It must have been wonderful to work with a garment with so much well documented history. Did you “feel” the history”?

    A few comments – you talk about corsets and housework. Surely at this time no respectable middle class lady did housework as routine? That’s why they had servants. My limited research shows that it was acceptable for the lady of the house to work in the kitchen at peak workload times, for example jam making, but not otherwise.

    However, I agree with you that a long rigid busk does make many movements difficult or impossible. Of course, lady like movements are much easier – that is why the corset was a sign of affluence and class.

    Almost certainly CB would have been wearing stays from an early age, so a corset was perfectly “natural” for her. She would probably have had dancing and deportment lessons when young, so the corset helped her to stand and sit in the proper way.


    • Hello
      Is an example of the two worlds of Victorian life,,the actual and the presented
      Theorticaly “Ladies” wouldnt do housework and certainly thats the impression most families would want to give ,however in reality this was not the case ,a number of middleclass women would have done some housework unless they were “comfortably off” usually they would only do light work but if they didnt have a live in maid of all work and at least one another servant ,if one of the servants were ill they would need to cover until they found a fill in or the servant was better .The Brontes had sometimes an extra help who did laundry or filled in when a servant was ill and they had a couple oflong term servants but one was very old and infirm so they did a lot of her work , sometimes Charlotte but more especially Emily did a great deal including cleaning grates ,setting the fires occasionaly laundry ,scrubbing and baking bread and other cooking .Charlotte tells her friend from time to time about housework shes been doing and one Bronte anecdote tell of how Emily would knead bread with a German book propped up infront of the bowl so she could study while she worked ,servants of the family remember Emily being very happy laughing and talking while working in the kitchen with them .
      Mrs Gaskell writes about the young daughter of an ex minister Margret Hale doing housework and laundry because they have fallen on hard times ,but they need to present the impression of being ladies of leisure still and while shes entertaining she gives the impression of being rude because shes tired from all the housework but of course the guest doesnt know that and just thinks shes doesnt think them worth making an effort for .

      I dont think theres any record of the Brontes having deportment classes or dancing and it seems unlikely as the Parsonage was too small and if they had significant dance training they would have included them in their advertistments for workthe children seem to have spent a lot of time doing faily tomobyish things ,wandering on the moors climbing trees etc .All children were taught to stand up straight though and the corset would certainly help there ,

  2. Diana says:

    Just now I’ve read your article it’s brilliant. Where did you find that Gaskell said that tight lacing shortened C.B life? I’m researcging mrs. G just now and I’m not sure of I like her or not. I’ve already read her opinion that C was shy in company, because she thought she doesn’t have pleasing appearence, but that’s all.

    • Hi sorry for this late reply I havent had internet for a very long time ,I think its in her life somewhere but I will check and let you know

      • Diana says:

        Ok, thanks. It’s just that I’ve read somewhere that she used to describe the small waist of Mary Barton or some other heroine as a sign of her purity and I haven’t read anywhere that she was against corsets, but that could very well be.

  3. Hi ,i didn’t know that, its very interesting ,I think its hard to tell what peoples attitudes were ,not wearing one would certainly be severely frowned on,probably considered a sigh of low morals ,wearing one too loose would be probably thought slatternly ,but then there serms to have been a long term outcry about wearing them too tight,women couldnt lace corsets too tightly till metal rings started to be put on lacing holes and later the steel busk compressed the stomach etc, so I am not sure where the line between too tight ,verses looking prim and pure lay

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