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Corsets: The Binding Nature of Women's Advertisements

Published onDec 01, 2022
Corsets: The Binding Nature of Women's Advertisements
4 women wearing different types of corsets to help promote a corset education event called Nemo Week.

This corset education week advertisement shows off various corset styles while also giving out information about corsets in general | Image Source: New York Times. “Nemo Week.” May 2nd, 1909.

Corsets and Advertising

This advertisement promotes many different corset types, like the self-reducing, military belt, and back-resting corset. These corsets highlight points touched upon by Jean Kilbourne in Killing Us Softly. Women targeted advertisements often call upon women to minimize themselves in some way to be desirable. This idea is best illustrated by the self-reducing corset whose name also describes what the goal of most female beauty/fashion products is. This type of advertisements’ beauty standard always includes an unachievable depiction of women. Though Kilbourne was referring to twentieth and twenty first century photoshopped ads, it also applies to this corset ad. None of the women drawn in this picture have achievable or realistic proportions, but it is still clear what body type they want you to attempt to strive for. 1

The advertisement is also meant to help educate women on corsets, so they are not discouraged from buying them. It says it will help teach women to wear corsets without “transgressing the laws of health.” There was lots of anti-corset sentiments and criticism of said sentiments around this time. Ideas involving corsetless fashion had been around since the nineteenth century and most people who practiced corsetlessness were young and skinny women. These anti-corset movements were regarded as “radical feminist and utopian movements.” Anti-corset ideas were also described as a “dangerous evil” and a “threatening menace.” One way the threat of corsetlessness was combatted by corset companies was with corset schools. The main goal of these schools was to educate retailers on how to sell products from a corset brand. Saleswoman needed to be able to classify costumer’s body types and be able to know which corset would fit them best in order to fix their “problem.” They also needed to be able point out the costumers’ faults in a way that that didn’t offend the costumer2.

Pro-Corset Ideas and Their Consequences

Though corsets themselves aren’t always inherently dangerous, in many ways, pro-corset ideas could be very harmful. They pushed the belief that women needed to wear corsets and that any opposition to this fashion product would have terrible effects on society. Lots of anti-corsetless sentiment was also rooted in white supremacy. Dr Jan Schoemaker said that corsetlessness would “[promote] dangerous transformations in male as well as female character and anatomy with disastrous consequences for the white American "race" and its global prospects in the political and economic realignments of the post-war era” (Fields). He and many others believed corsetlessness would have a negative effect on white women and therefore affect the white race. This fear of the white race being threatened or becoming impure is a fear held my many white supremacist who view the white race as something that needs to be “protected” and “preserved.”

Dr Schoemaker also believed that corsetlessness caused women to “Fall into one class or the other. The moment you begin to get too much of the Amazon variation, you begin to get fuzzy upper-lips with them, and a frothy type of male, a sort of listless love-bird, sufficiently spineless to be able to mate and marry the domineering female of the Amazon type.” He claimed that without corsets, women would need to exercise to maintain muscular strength, which would make them hyper-masculine and dominant in their relationships with men (Fields). This is something he deems undesirable. There are many anti-corsetlessness ideas as bizarre and dangerous as these, which contribute to the negative effects corsets and corset advertisements can have.

Shifts in Body Ideals

What’s even more interesting about the push for corsets is that the styles change as beauty standards begin to shift. New styles get advertised in different ages.

A woman with an hourglass figure standing on the beach.

This photo highlights the body ideal of the early 1900s and late 1800s that was meant to be achieved through the use of corsets | Image Source: "Picturesque America Anywhere Along the Coast," 1901, by C. D. Gibson (picture collection, New York Public Library), via JSTOR.

The Gibson girl (pictured above) emerged in 1890 and she had a slim waist, big hips, and a big bust. She was a combination of traits of “the fragile lady and the voluptuous woman” (Mazur). Similarly, the S-shaped corset of the 1900s created a monobosom and was meant to achieve the new body ideal of the time: the S-shape.3 As women started working more, there were some design changes made to corsets. The new Gossard corsets of the 1910s were less constricting on the stomach but reached down to the knees and made sitting down difficult. The new look was an “up-and-down” and close to natural figure. Even with the shift in design however, it was still clear that a chubby stomach was not the desired look. The goal of this new design was to diminish curves and slim down the hips.4

The S-shaped corset wanted women to have an hourglass figure while the Gossard corset provided a more “naturally” occurring figure. Both were still constricting in their own ways, but their opposing body shapes highlight another issue in women’s fashion and advertising. Beauty standards for women shift often, and this change is best highlighted through change in fashion. In this case, different corsets help to mark these shifts. As the “goal post” for women’s bodies moves farther and farther away, the messages in the advertisements stay the same: Change your body. In the end, it’s not the fashion items that become trends, it’s women’s bodies themselves. Corsets are by no means the only fashion item that highlights the messaging and effects of female advertisements, but they are a great way to analyze them.

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