Earlier this year I visited the vintage foundations exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, which you can read about here. One of the garments that stood out to me was the children’s girdle, and that triggered my desire to find out more about foundations for children – At what age did children start wearing foundations during the various eras? Did they really need them? Was it fair to restrict a child’s body in that way? Did it affect the growth of their body in any way? I had so many questions.
It seems that towards the end of the nineteenth century, the Good Sense Corset Waists by the Ferris brothers were very fashionable for children and young ladies. It was part of the mother’s duty to ensure that her daughter was wearing a corset, at an age that she thought was appropriate.
It was extremely fashionable during this era to tight lace, creating the smallest waist possible. 16, 17 and 18 inch waists were not uncommon amongst women. Some mothers, and even headmistresses of boarding schools were of the opinion that young ladies would be able to achieve a much more beautiful waist if they started wearing corsets at a very young age, therefore constricting the body as it grew. Many children were fitted with corsets or stays as young as six or seven, although they rarely contained boning at this age. These corsets allowed the young children to move, and they were secured with shoulder straps to prevent them from sliding around the little bodies. As the child grew, bones were gradually added and the corset was expanded at the hips and bust but the waist stayed at the same measurement. This ‘waist training plan’ continued until the young woman stopped growing and was fitted with a standard corset for adults.
Mothers felt that this was a reasonable practise, as it gave their daughters the greatest chance of finding a suitable husband in the future. At a time where women were expected to aspire to marriage, there was a lot of pressure to conform to the fashions of the time, and unfortunately this meant having the smallest waist possible.
These girls were not permitted to express their opinions, as they were not yet adults, so how did the young women who had to endure corset training, feel about the process? One young woman wrote the following in a letter (Lord, William Berry, The Corset and The Crinoline, Ward, Lock and Tyler, London, 1868, p 172-177)
- I quite admit that slender waists are beautiful – in fact, my own waist is much admired, and that I sometimes forget the pain I underwent in attaining it. I am also quite ready to confess that I am not in ill health, though I often feel languid and disinclined for walking out, nor do I think a girl whose constitution is sound would suffered any injury to her health from moderate lacing; but I must beg that you will allow me to declare that when stays are not worn till fourteen years of age, very tight lacing causes absolute torture for the first few months, and it was principally to deter ladies from subjecting their daughters to this pain, in similar cases, that mamma wrote to you.
- I am sure any young lady who has (like myself) begun tight-lacing rather late, will corroborate what I have said, and I hope some will come foreword and do so, now you kindly give the opportunity.
It seemed that they were grateful to their mothers for gradually training their waists in such a way, rather than subjecting them to tight-lacing once their bodies had developed and their waists had expanded past the expected measurements.
However, I would like to look into the more recent past and understand when young girls started wearing foundations such as girdles, rather than heavy-duty corsets. It was recognised that putting young girls into the aforementioned corsets was not particularly healthy and children were allowed to grow without constrictions to their bodies. The importance of maintaining one’s silhouette was still there, however the more modern foundations (I’m referring to the 1930s onwards) were also designed to hold up the all-important stockings. Young girls from the age of 13 are known to have worn foundations, most probably encouraged by their mothers. I guess some things will never change!
Similarly to the schools of the late nineteenth century, it was often mandatory for young girls to wear foundations:
For myself I was fitted for my first girdle at age 13, not that I needed one, but that was just what happened back then when girls reached that ‘certain’ age. I was told that corsets were a compulsory article of clothing at some schools right up to the late 1930’s and maybe beyond, and corsetieres would often be asked to attend at a school for the purpose of measuring and fitting pupils. For myself I went to a girl’s boarding school in Scotland in the 50’s where girdles were obligatory for all pupils over the age of 13. I don’t doubt that in previous times corsets would have been similarly mandated. Anyway, girdles with stockings were part of the senior school uniform, so even if you didn’t want to wear one, not that I personally can recollect anyone who didn’t, you had little choice in the matter.
– Ivy Leaf, Corsetiere.net
Spirella was a prominent brand during the golden girdle age, and they of course wanted to sell as many foundations as possible. They had their main customer base, which early on ranged from young to older women, however as the popularity of the girdle started to dwindle in the 1960s, Spirella was desperate to sell to anyone, including young teenagers. Part of their marketing strategy was to encourage mothers of young girls to hammer in the importance of wearing good foundations, mothers were usually all too happy to inform their daughters of the importance of a good old-fashioned girdle that they themselves so proudly wore. The Spirella magazines also featured letters from young corset wearers, such as this one from 1961 (extract taken from corsetiere.net):
Penny wears her 246 girdle high above the waist and says she just loves the feeling of support it gives her. Now she won’t do without it. Many friends have remarked lately on her grace, poise and good carriage, and she knows that it’s thanks to her Spirella made-to-measure girdle, which not only gives her support and comfort, but has given her confidence .. surely the most treasured accomplishment for a 16-year old girl learning to grow up.
Did these young ladies really need such foundations? No, probably not. However as the foundations market started to shrink, brands would do anything to make a sale.
The foundations of the 20th century as certainly not as extreme as the ones of the previous century, and the fact that they appeared to start wearing them when they hit puberty doesn’t surprise me at all. What I find slightly more concerning though, is the waist training of such young children in the late 1800s. I cannot help but associate it with the practise of foot binding in china, mothers were in effect deforming their children’s’ bodies in order to conform to the fashions and beauty ideals of the time. That is not something that I am at all comfortable with. I am personally of the opinion that children and young girls should be allowed to run around un restricted by corsets, and their bodies should be permitted to grow as nature intended. I am however writing from a modern perspective where marriage is not seen as a pre-requisite for a happy and respectful life.
Do I think that many women would benefit in many different ways from wearing corsets and foundations? Yes I do. Do I think that those same women should be forced into such underwear? Certainly not. In 2015 we have the choice to wear or not wear whatever we like, and I’m very grateful for that.