“From the earliest periods of the world’s history down to the present day it has been found necessary to employ systems of restraint and correction calculated to adapt the unformed and unfashioned figure”.
Figure training or art the handmaid of nature by EDM was published in 1870, partly as a vindication of altering the human shape and partly as a guide on how to achieve successful remodelling.
In the first chapter, the forgiving Empire line dresses of the early 1800’s are dismissed completely “A loose band secured immediately below the armpits only served to more fully display the utter inelegance of the costume”
So, what did a lady need to do to be fashionable and acceptable?
First of all there was the corset, available in one, two or three pieces, laced at either the back, front, sides or all three. No woman should be without one, in fact, it turns out that even poor Venus de Milo would have needed a corset in order to meet the “laws of modern refinement and fashion”. “Artistes” from Maison Jay of Regent Street did their best but were unequal to the challenge of dressing her, “the thick, broad, flat, natural waist of the statue is just as ill-fitted for association with modern and fashionable raiment as the untrained form of the dairymaid”
In the International Exhibition of 1862 a portrait of Empress Elizabeth of Austria drew much attention, not because of any artistic merit but because it showed off her sixteen inch waist.
If daytime confinement was not sufficient, then a night corset could be worn, some schools fitted their pupils with these fastened at the back, so that “any attempt to unlace them during the night would be immediately detected at the morning’s inspection”
Of course, a small waist did not necessarily guarantee upright posture, another essential attribute, so it was ‘desirable to employ the backboard as well as the corset”. This was a contraption made of wood or steel with leather shoulder straps and adjustable buckles to ensure tautness.
So, perhaps having achieved a tiny waist and an upright carriage a person could relax? Not so, there was still the question of unsightly feet. Luckily these could be put right with a “system of correctional training”, wooden stocks which kept the feet straight and narrow at home and Flexura boots which kept them in check outside.
Surely having achieved so much, a lady look forward to a little indulgence? Alas no, a “plain diet and regular hours” were the only sure way of maintaining standards.
Still, it must all be better than the terrible fate of being a “strong-minded women, who would make us all thick-waisted and flat footed with frightful turned-up toes”
Diane Spaul. Figure Training by EDM NAL 38041701035693 ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London