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 .
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 http://ornamentedbeing.tumblr.com/post/18604919467 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