Figure Training

January 6, 2015

 “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”.

Cover  ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Cover ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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”


Venus de Milo dressed by Messers Jay of Regent Street  ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Venus de Milo dressed by Messers Jay of Regent Street ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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.


Backboard and Corset  ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Backboard and Corset ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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.

Young Lady of Fashion, 1871
Young Lady of Fashion, 1871

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

4 comments so far, view or add yours


Let’s hear it for the strong-minded women! Being thick-waisted and flat-footed doesn’t seem so bad compared to the corset and foot-stocks…

Thank you, Diane, for a fascinating post.

I believe this book to be 100% fetish.  Today we have high heel, short skirts and bra fetish people!  The Victorians were very keen on form, rules of etiquette and deportment.  The corset gave not only a small waist, but a straight back too.

Victorian girls were brought up in a rigid and confined environment.  A girl from a good family was corsetted from young, and certainly stocks and backboards corrected any natural movement that was thought unladylike.  Doctors were criticising these instruments during the 19 th century.


Some years ago a teacher colleague of mine had her students make a backboard, like the one above, in a history project class. The comments from students were that it was very uncomfortable but effective in straightening spines and violently pulling shoulders back in a way unknown today. The comments from the boys were “awful”, the comments from the girls were “awful, but it improves posture and makes the breasts more prominent” – a bit like implants today?

I think that we don’t realise how ornamental women were in the 19 century. No lady worked, so finding a suitable husband was the objective of every girl and her parents. How to have success on the Victorian marriage market? One important aspect was to have a better figure and straighter posture than the others. Corsets, wasp waists and backboards were the means to achieve this.


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