Printed here for review purposes only. All copyrights honored and attributed to author

LISA feels that much in the way of primary (first hand) information is missing from the Corset Community, and that some many of us would be interested in the perspectives of those who actually wore them, all the way back to the Victorian era. We find that, in many cases, history is more amazing than fiction.

So, with that in mind, this area is devoted to actual experiences from the people who wore our favorite garment. 
These range from the results of interviews, to antique letters, to actual writings from those ghosts of the past.


Lady Broome, Colonial Memories, 1904 [though as she was born in 1831 this must refer to the 1820s.]         Source

I am thankful to say that the day of tight lacing and small appetites was over before I became aware of the dangers I had escaped, but I remember the pity with which I listened to my poor young mother's stories of how she was required to hold on to the bedpost while her maid laced her stays, and how she often fainted after she was dressed.

James Silk Buckingham (1786- 1855), 1855 (Volume two)     Full text 

Two or three incidents connected with our sojourn at Bournabat and Smyrna, during this period, may be selected from a number perhaps equally deserving of record. The first was Mrs. Buckingham's visit to the harem of the Governor of Smyrna. Some of the Levantine ladies who had access to the Governor's family, had mentioned my wife and daughter in such glowing terms, that the chief lady of the harem expressed a desire to see them; and a day was appointed for the visit, accompanied by ladies of their acquaintance, who spoke Turkish, and could therefore act as interpreters… When conversation began, the first observation of the Turkish lady was an exclamation of surprise at the slender waist of my wife, and still more when informed that she was the mother of the child who accompanied her. She could not comprehend how the human figure could  be compressed into such a compass, and asked to be permitted to examine the dress, which was accordingly granted. On arriving, however, at the stays, and seeing the manner in which it was tightly laced, her wonder was at the climax; nor could she be made to comprehend how a person could breathe freely or enjoy any movements of the body, "cased up and imprisoned," as she called it, "in such a tight sack as this." Still greater was her surprise to learn that a slender figure was regarded as a feminine trait of beauty esteemed by men, and therefore sought to
be attained by women even where Nature had denied it. In short, the horror with which we look upon the cramped feet of the women of China could not be greater than that in which this English custom was viewed by the Turks.


Note: The incident described here appears to have occurred in about 1812, when the high-waisted 'Empire' or 'Regency' style was in fashion and corsets did not usually compress the waist to any great extent. Buckingham's wife was born in 1785 so would have grown up during this fashion era. However, from the description given in this account it seems more likely that she wore the same sort of long, stiff, tight-waisted stays that her mother would have.

Lady Frances Power Cobbe (1822-1904), 1894 

A beam across the ceiling [of the family home] still bore, in my time, a large iron staple firmly fixed in the centre from whence had dangled a hand-swing. On this swing my great-aunts were wont to hang by their arms, to enable their maids to lace their stays to greater advantage.

Rebecca Felton (1835-1930), "Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth"

The author presumably about the middle 1840s - before the age of Scarlett O'Hara. Nonetheless, fashionable women were firmly corseted:

Home-made sun bonnets were always in evidence. A pretty white complexion was the call of that period. The young women were emphatic on this line. They were constantly busy, often with cloth making work, but they were scrupulous in care of the skin. They wore gloves for washing dishes or when washing clothes. 'Tomboy' girls were sometimes encountered, but the belles of Georgia enjoyed beautiful complexions. They also laced very tight, and it was fashionable to faint on occasions. (page 32)

When I had reached the age of ten the fashionables wore voluminous skirts and many of them. The underskirts were starched as stiff as possible, and I remember hearing a friend of my mother say she had on at that time eight petticoats beside the outside frock made of 'balzarine.' Something like the voile of modern dress goods. As she came down the street she was like a ship in full sail. Her dress skirt was as wide as the sidewalk. The body to the dress was tight as beeswax and she was laced until her beaux could nearly span her waist with both hands.
(page 64)

Countess Marie Larisch, (1858-1940) Niece to the famously tightly-laced Empress Elizabeth [from My Past - The story itself is not at the link, but at the site where the story appears the person who posted it insists nobody must link to that site directly, so we have given you the page that links to the page where the book is reproduced!]

[Page 39 - Marie has been installed as a member of the Empress Elizabeth's household]
I walked with my aunt to her private apartments, where her hairdresser and maids were awaiting her. Elizabeth turned
to one of them, and said, "Bring plenty of gowns and lingerie, for my niece must be supplied with a complete outfit at once." She then went to her dressing-room to have her hair dressed, and the maids came in and out with piles of lovely gowns, delicate underlinen, dainty corsets, and delightful shoes. I had never before seen such luxury; it almost took my breath away. I revelled in the cambric and lace which soon replaced my plainly trimmed undergarments: the satin corsets suited my straight young figure, and my feet now presented an appearance of which I need not be ashamed. Of course, the gowns required various alterations, but the Empress selected those most suitable to my age, and lavished her lovely clothes upon me with prodigal generosity.
[Page 99-100 - describing "The Empress's toilet"]
She often slept with wet towels round her waist in order to keep its proportions slender, and drank a horrible decoction composed of the whites of five or six eggs mixed with salt for the same purpose.

Once a month Elizabeth's heavy chestnut tresses were washed with raw egg and brandy, and afterwards rinsed with some "disinfectant," as she termed it.

When the actual washing was over, the Empress press put on a long waterproof silk wrapper and walked up and down until her hair was dry. The woman who acted as her coiffeuse was hardly ever seen without gloves, which she even wore during the night; her nails were cut close; rings were forbidden her; the sleeves of her white gown were quite short; and it may be almost truthfully asserted that the hairs of Aunt Cissi's head were all numbered.

The Empress affected little tight-fitting chemises, and her nether garments were silk tricot in summer and leather in winter. Her many-coloured satin and moiré corsets were made in Paris, and she only wore them for a few weeks. They had no front fastenings, and Elizabeth was always laced into her corsets, a proceeding which sometimes took quite an hour. Her silk stockings came from the London firm of Swears and Wells, and in those pre-suspender days, the Empress attached them by ribbons to her corset.
[Page 117 - dealing with Marie's wedding day]
Almost mechanically I allowed myself to be dressed in my bridal robe of white silk covered with orange blossoms, which were arranged coronet-wise on my hair. My lace veil was fastened with diamond pins, and outwardly I seemed a happy young bride.

The ceremony was performed by a Hungarian bishop in the private Chapel at Gödöllõ, and afterwards a very elaborate dinner was served, to which Uncle Nando did ample justice. My gown was so tight that I dared not eat, and I was very glad to discard it for a more comfortable travelling dress.

[Page 146-7 - concerning the marriage of the Crown Prince of the Belgians]
The Belgian Princess looked her worst in her bridal attire; her arms were red, and her dull yellow hair was most unbecomingly dressed. Stéphanie was very tall, and her figure in those days was most deplorable, but since then constant care and a clever corsetière have remedied the defect. She had no eyebrows or eyelashes, and her one beauty was her exquisite biscuit-china complexion.


Hermynia Zur Mühlen, The Runaway Countess

Stephen K.: "This book was published in 1930 (originally published in German) and is available at the University of Pennsylvania's Digital Library site here. The author seems to have been an Austrian aristocrat, born in 1883, later a strong anti-Nazi. The part relevant to LISA begins on page 33:"

The woman of 1900 was a martyr who with heroic smiles endured and concealed her torture. In those days one had to have, above all — a waist. The ideal waist was one which could be surrounded by two normal outstretched hands. It was developed in the following manner: a corset was put on unlaced, then one pressed one's arms close to the sides, held one's breath, and the maid pulled with all her might at the corset laces. Then came a pause, one took breath again, and the maid gathered new strength. Then the procedure was repeated, and afterwards the dress, plentifully equipped with whale-bones, was put on. At the waist there was a strong band with hooks and eyes. Most of the time the band would not come together, and another tug must be given to the corset, until at last the dress could be fastened. It took about two hours of time to do one's hair. Countless small and large hairpins held together real and false switches and curls. Then the enormous hat was set in place and hatpins stuck in. Frequently the hat was trimmed with birds and flowers only on one side, so that all the weight pulled at one spot. After ten minutes one had a headache; with the corset it was impossible to breathe; the collar stays bored into the neck, and the monstrous balloon sleeves hindered all free movement. So, heroically
smiling, the women went out to promenade holding up their skirts with soon-wearied hands.

Baroness Orczy

Gwen Raverat

From "Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood" (Published in 1952, recounting her childhood in the 1890s)  Available from Amazon

The thought of the discomfort, restraint and pain, which we had to endure from our clothes, makes me even angrier now than it did then, for in those days nearly everyone accepted their inconveniences as inevitable.  Except for the most small-waisted, naturally dumb-bell shaped females, the ladies never seemed at ease, or even quite if they were wearing their own clothes.  For their dresses were always made too tight, and the bodices wrinkled laterally from the strain; and the stays showed in a sharp ledge
 across the middles of their backs. And in spite of whalebone, they were apt to bulge below the waist in front, for, poor dears, they were but human after all, and they had to expand somewhere.  How my heart went out to a fat French lady we met once in a train, who said she was going into the country for a holiday 'pour prendre mes aises sans corset'...  We did rebel against stays. Margaret says that the first time she was put into them - when she was about thirteen - she ran round and round the nursery,
screaming with rage. I did not do that. I simply went and took them off; endured sullenly the row which ensued.  When my soft-shelled condition was discovered, l was
forcibly re-corseted; and, as soon as possible, went away and took them off again... I had a bad figure, and to me they were real instruments of torture; they prevented me from  breathing, and dug deep holes into my softer parts on every side, I am sure no hair-shirt could have been worse to me...

Once I asked Aunt Etty what it had been like to wear a crinoline.  "Oh, it was delightful!" she said. "I've never been so comfortable since they went out. It kept your
petticoats away from your legs and made walking so light and easy."

Josephine DeMott Robinson, The Circus Lady (1926)     Source

Extract from the autobiography of a circus horseback-riding star. She recalls first becoming acquainted with corsets in the middle 1890s, how she achieved an eighteen-inch waist, and her pride in it; the passé here takes place in the mid-1890s.

I was visiting a woman one day and was ushered to her boudoir, where I found her working on a piece of embroidery. After a while she dropped her thimble, pushed a bell, and when Jane came in, she asked her to find her thimble and give it to her. Perhaps my surprise was a little too open-mouthed, for she explained that she disliked to bend. It made her short of breath, and besides it broke the bones in her corset, and the new one was such a beauty and cost so much, she never stooped in it.

Another new act for me to perform: not to bend. Down I went to the shop—McAlpin’s it was—recommended to me as handling the kind of corset guaranteed not to let the body bend, or at least, that promised to hold it beautifully straight. I was fitted, and told to draw in my breath, and they laced me into the garment.

I took it home and practised with it. The only way I could bring it in to the necessary eighteen inches which the fitter had told me was just right for me, was to throw the laces over the bed post and lean against the thing with all my might. Presto, the trick was accomplished.

Well, the rest of them could stand it, and so could I. Besides this corset did away with a lot of that excess activity which I had such trouble controlling. I had to use the stepping block now to get into the carriage, and I could no longer indulge my lamentable sport of running for street cars. It was a model corset, and I was very proud to be able to tell my friends how to get a smaller waist.

“Good strong laces and a bed post. Hold in your breath.” And I paraded my wasp waist proudly before them.

George Sand, Story of my life: The Autobiography of George Sand

Mme. de Bérenger did not exhibit her arms, but she still had extraordinary pretensions regarding her figure. Her corset was so tight that two chambermaids were required to lace it while holding their knees in the small of her back. (page 513)

She [Mme. de Bérenger] was laced into her corsets so tightly that by evening she was as red as a beet, and her eyes were popping out of her head. (page 566)

The nearly complete text is available translated on Google Books, and the relevant context can be had from this link.


Madame Johanna Schopenhauer (1766-1838), Dutch-German writer, contemporary of Goethe, and mother of Arthur Schopenhauer

[Note: an 'ell' was a traditional North European unit of length that was longer than a foot but less than a yard - its actual length varied from region to region]

A DANTZIC BALL DRESS, FORTY YEARS SINCE.- At least an ell was added to my stature by a monstrous tower of hair, which was built upon a wire and horsehair frame, and which was crowned with flowers, feathers, and ribbons. The white heels of my ball shoes, which were adorned with golden ties, contributed to counterbalance the disproportion in my little person at its other extremity; though they fell far short of the preposterous height of my head dress, yet they raised my heels so far from the ground as to pitch me on the tips of my toes. A pair of stays, with the whalebones close together, of a thickness sufficient to turn a musket ball, forced back the arms and shoulders, and threw the chest forward; down towards the hips it was laced so tightly as to make one’s figure resemble that of a wasp. The most sensible part of the corset, which restricted all freedom and motion, was a pretty stout iron, which kept its pressure off the breast. And now the hooped petticoat! over which was worn a silk dress, with flounces and all kinds of indescribable trimmings up to the knee, and over all a robe of the same material, with a long train. In front, this last mentioned garment was far from meeting, and on each side it was ornamented in the same style as the gown; the neck and bosom were allowed to be more exposed than is now thought becoming; the whole was completed with an immense bouquet of artificial flowers. The sleeves only reached to the elbows, and were richly trimmed with blond lace and ribbons to the shoulders. This was, however, the dress only of the young ladies; our mammas wore splendid ruffles of blond or expensive point lace, such as may be seen in portraits of that time. Long sleeves were not worn at all even for everyday dress; hardened by habit, we did not suffer more from cold than we do now.

Miss Marie Tempest, one of the great actresses of the early nineteen hundreds, begins her life story with painful recollections of the days of tight-lacing and bustles. Her fascinating reminiscences are exclusive to The Courier-Mail in Queensland.

Maria Stella Petronilla Chiappini Ungern-Sternber -The Memoirs of Maria Stella (Lady Newborough)  (originally published in French - this English translation published 1914):

Nature had given me a good figure; nevertheless, my father maintained that I stooped, that one of my shoulders was higher than the other, and that my feet grew large too quickly.  To remedy these imaginary defects he made me wear an iron collar, which was taken off only at meal-time, a steel corset that increased the torture and really made me deformed, and shoes so narrow and short that I could hardly walk.  When I begged him to take off this painful apparatus, a box

on the ear was his usual answer.     [Source]

Frederica Sophia Wilhelmina (1709-1758), princess royal of Prussia (from her memoirs).

This entry relates to the year 1723, when she was aged 13-14. Madame de Sonsfeld was her governess.

To heighten my misfortune, the queen insisted upon making me more slender than I was. She ordered my stays to be laced so tight, that I became black, and was almost deprived of respiration. The attention of madame de Sonsfeld had restored my complexion: it was now tolerably fair, but the queen spoiled it by keeping me so tightly laced. 

Nigel Woodyatt (1861-1936), "Under the Ten Viceroys", 1922, Herbert Jenkins Ltd. (London)

The autobiography of Major-General Nigel Woodyatt, an English soldier who served in India. He has a little reminiscence of Empress Sissi with her minute waist and extraordinarily tight riding-habit. (The Viceroy - literally 'vice-king' - was the chief Imperial servant during the British occupation of India.):

A great flutter was caused in the Tarporley Hunt by the attendance two seasons of the late Empress of Austria, piloted first by Bay Middleton and then Rivers Bulkely. She was a fine horsewoman, splendidly mounted and rode quite hard. Two other things about her I can recollect as striking me :

(a) Her marvellously fitting habit. (b) The extraordinary slimness of her waist. Mentioning these to a boy friend, he told me his eldest sister assured him she had worn tight stays since her cradle, and that her habit had to be done up with a button-hook after mounting.


Helen Marie Bates
, actress and theatrical costumer.  Lotta's Last Season includes an account of her role in costuming an 1881 theatrical production by the all-male students Harvard University.  Below is an extract:

Those who played feminine roles were prepared with undies and corsets by our male attendants, then turned over to our girls to complete their toilettes. It was the days of wasp waists and voluptuousness in women. To transform men into modish women was no small task. There were hip pads, bosoms and bustles to be adjusted, before they began to look feminine. Billows of petticoats lent a swirl to the hem lines. When getting into corsets the boys would squirm and squeal, beg for mercy and declare we weretrying to force their hearts into their mouths. We were merciless; girls had to have figures whatever the discomfort.
She makes particular reference to one student called Clinton J. Edgerly:

Clinton J. Edgerly took the part of a certain Lady Agatha; but perhaps she was uncertain—one never knows. Edgerly was good looking, had a gorgeous complexion, but was rather too heavy for playing romantic heroines. I recall that his costume was made of old gold satin, black brocade and ornamental jet passementerie. When it came time to make Edgerly's rotund figure conform to the shape of a woman in the eighties, it was necessary to put one's knee in the small of his back whilst pulling on the corset laces.  At each new haul he was commanded to make a deep intake of breath, and hold it—while we pulled in the slack. While this was going on, his fellow students who were more fortunate in being cast for male roles stood about and jeered him, all the while ragging other boys who were undergoing the same mistreatment.

Edgerley became a successful lawyer, and in 1885, he married a famous actress called Rose Coghlan, though they were divorced in 1890.  Rose herself had quite an impressive figure, as this Wikipedia entry shows.

Elizabeth Beresford (1868-1944) - From 'King Lehr' and the Gilded Age (1935. Here she is describing New York ladies as they appeared during her childhood:  Source

How well I remember the mornings on the sun-bathed piazza of The United States Hotel watching the fashion parade. The women in their latest dresses imported from Paris, skin-tight bodices, skirts of yards and yards of shining silk looped over enormous bustles that swayed as they walked slowly up and down, their waists squeezed into twenty-inch stays, their feet encased in boots at least a size too small for them, their hands buttoned into hot kid gloves.
[Elizabeth had a fine figure herself as an adult, judging by this picture of her taken in 1899]

Fredrika Bremer of Sweden, London, 1853 - The Homes of the New World; impressions of America (volume 2)  Source

There was in company a lady, not yet forty, handsome, tight laced, and well dressed, with light curls, and thoughts evidently directed to the world and its pleasures. This lady is, nevertheless, a widow after her third marriage, and the mother of twelve children, nine of whom are dead, and two married, and the grandmother of three grandchildren.

George B Burgin, (1856–1944)  Memoirs of a Clubman     Source

The W s were ceaselessly kind to me and gave me the run of their house. Once only did I see Mrs. W angry, and that was when a nephew of hers took me to a “silver hell” [second-rate casino] at the Concordia music-hall. We arrived behind the scenes, and I was awestruck but delighted. There were several ladies
there ; at least, I thought they were ladies, although I was rather shocked when one fainted with rage at losing her money and another lady cut her laces with a champagne opener. She was so tightly laced that the report sounded like a pistol shot.

[The above story cannot be dated exactly, but Burgin was at the time working for Valentine Baker, known as “Baker Pasha;” since Baker died in 1887, it must have been before that. More specifically, it seems to have occurred during the Russo-Turkish war, in other words during 1877–8.]

Mitchell Carroll, Woman In All Ages And In All Countries, vol. VIII, 1907    Source

In every time and clime, belles have danced and flirted and laughed and chatted and been happy. Madame Johanna Schopenhauer, the famous mother of her more famous philosopher son, Arthur, has left a pleasing description of fashion's whimseys in the eighteenth century:

“We had no thin ball dresses, for the simple reason that thin varieties of woven material had not then been invented. And yet we danced in our cumbrous company gowns made of heavy silk - we were passionately fond of dancing. We were courted, admired, nay, even as much admired as our granddaughters are now in their cloudlike, treacherously diaphanous garments. How it happened, in our hideous disguises, I cannot, at this distance of time, pretend to explain. How well I remember my first ball!

“At least an ell was added to my stature by a monstrous tower of hair which was built up on a wire and horsehair frame, and which was crowned with flowers, feathers, and ribbons. The high heels of my white ball slippers, which were adorned with golden ties, contributed to counterbalance the disproportion in my little person at the other extremity. Though my shoes fell far short of the preposterous height of my hair, they raised my heels so far from the ground as to pitch me on the tips of my toes. A pair of stays with whalebones close together, of a thickness sufficient to turn a musket ball, forced back the arms and shoulders and threw the chest forward. Down toward the hips the corset was laced so tightly as to make one’s figure resemble that of a wasp. These stays restricted all freedom of motion. They had only one sensible thing about them, and that was a rather stout iron which kept them from pressing on the breast.

“And now, the hooped petticoat over which was worn a silk skirt with flounces and all kinds of indescribable trimmings up to the knees. Over this was worn a robe of the same material, with a long train. In front this robe was open, sloping on each side from the waist. The sides of the robe were ornamented with the same kind of trimming as adorned the skirt. The neck and bosom were considerably exposed. The whole was completed with an immense bouquet of artificial flowers. The sleeves reached only to the elbows, and were richly trimmed with blond lace and ribbons to the shoulders.”

John Willis Clark, registrary of the University of Cambridge and sometime fellow of Trinity College
J: A memoir of John Willis Clark,
by A. E. (Arthur Everett) Shipley      Source

[A letter to John Willis Clark while at school, from his mother]

And on 20th February 1850 :— "The new housemaid arrived on Thursday. She is short, and so tight-laced that scrubbing seems to take away her breath. She appeared in a very pretty, gay- looking gown, a very long waist, with an absurdly long peak, a little mousselline de laine apron, very  full, a scarlet neck riband with long ends, and a very smart cap. Of course I read a long lecture on dress and had the neck-tie removed. She told Higgs she had always been accustomed to wear one of an afternoon, and a velvet in the morning — a genteel undress ! ! "

Recollections of Leonard, Hairdresser to Queen Marie-Antoinette, 1912      Excerpts     Source  

Augustine Soubeiran  (1858-1933)   Excerpt

Fanny Bixby Spencer

"The following extract comes from the biography 'Fanny Bixby Spencer: Long Beach’s Inspirational Firebrand' by Marcia Lee Harris. Spencer (1879-1930) kept a journal of her early life, on which this biography is based. She was sent to a boarding school 'for the newly rich' (this must have been during the early 1890s) and recorded details of some of the other students:"


One student was of interest to Fanny; her father was a French restaurateur, and her mother was an American actress off on some theatrical tour or pleasure jaunt. This young lady was always having “fainting fits” because she tied her corset too tight. Her waist was nineteen and a quarter inches. She would fall without warning in the schoolroom. Fanny could not understand how one could suffer for the sake of fashion and style.

Jeanette Walls - "Half Broke Horses" - A memoir about life in the Texas Panhandle at the turn of the century.

Even though we lived four miles from Toyah and days would go by without seeing anyone outside the family, Mom worked very hard at being a lady. She was dainty, only four and a half feet tall, and her feet were so small she had to wear button-up boots made for girls. To keep her hands elegantly white, she rubbed them with pastes made from honey, lemon juice and borax.
She wore tight corsets to give her a teeny waist - I helped her lace them up - but they had the effect of causing her to faint. Mom called it the vapors and said it was a sign of her high breeding and delicate nature. I thought it was a sign that the corset made it hard to breathe. Whenever she'd keel over, I'd have to revive here with smelling salts, which she kept in a crystal bottle tied around her neck with a pink ribbon.     Purchase the book


An authentic letter from a dying aunt to her niece   Links in the Chain of Life: The Autobiography of Baroness Orczy (Author of The Scarlet Pimpernel)
The Autobiography of Agatha Christie   Memoir by Winifred Eaton
Child of the Tropics by Yseult Bridges, edited and completed by Nicholas Guppy.   Published by Collins Harvill. (1980)   Memoirs of a Young Observer
Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau   Excerpts from the book, Period Piece -  A Cambridge Childhood, by Gwen Raverat
Extract from Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth ,     by Rebecca Felton   Sea-Dog's Memoirs
Gardama's Story   Augustine Soubeiran  (1858-1933) (third-person biography)
Keith's Memories -- personal recollections of being subjected to corseting as a male child    


From The Century Magazine, December 1871, page 234. The article is called "An Elopement in Moscow:"

The poor bride all this time looked distressed, and could not be cheered up. Not even the wine seemed to warm her, and our gayety was restrained and quieted down by her sadness. While we gentlemen were sipping our coffee, the secret was revealed. Her dress was much too tight, and it became necessary for Madame to retire with her to
the adjoining room, unlace her, and rub her vigorously to keep her from fainting away.


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