“Let us remember that we are not our own.”

And now, the last of the “Dress and Its Relation to Health” chapter from the Ladies’ Handbook of Home Treatment, 1905. The previous parts of this chapter are here, here, and here.

In which we consider women’s pro-corset angst and the appropriate rebuttals thereof, why women put up with clothing pain that men would never tolerate, the bacteriology of long skirts, and all about combinations.

Don’t miss the last section. The heavy, uncomfortable, complex systems of dress described are the “simplified” version! I hadn’t quite contemplated before just how large a role dress has had to play in the oppression of women. The time spent each day dealing with all these clothes, the physical discomfort, the insufferable heat in the Australian summer, the expense, the lack of freedom of movement, it all adds up. Add housework and childcare onto that, and it’s amazing that women ever got anything done at all.



The woman who has always worn the conventional dress will probably not be eager to make any alterations in her style of clothing unless convinced of the necessity of doing so.

It is strange how complacently we transgress the laws of health, never giving a thought to reform until we are severely chastened for our wrong-doing. There are hundreds of women who would not for a moment consider any departure from the old paths until dangerous illness or a serious surgical operation stares them in the face. Then, but not till then, are they willing to relinquish their time-honoured customs.

But these things ought not so to be. As women who have a work to do in the world, we should be ever searching for truth, truth which when accepted and acted upon will help us to fulfil our duty more efficiently.

Let us remember that we are not our own. If we continue practices that injure our health, we wrong not only ourselves, but those also with whom we have to do.

With a purpose of helping those who cannot see the necessity of altering their style of dress, let us consider briefly some of the most common objections to the healthful mode of dress.

1. “How ever will I look without my corsets?”

You would look just as the Creator intended you to look. Venus de Milo wore no corset, and her figure is universally admired. The most perfect women whom the world has ever seen, lived and ruled before the corset was invented. They were robed in loose, flowing garments, which added grace to their perfect figures. There can be no true beauty apart from health, and corset-wearing is anything but conducive to health.

2. “I could not hold myself up if I discarded my corsets.”

What an acknowledgement! A woman who possesses a host of muscles, the sole duty of which is to keep her body erect, is unable to “hold herself up” without the aid of corsets! And why? — Simply because she has so long leaned upon this external support that her muscles have become weak and useless. For the same reason a man would lose the use of his limbs were he to walk on crutches for a long period of time. The cure consists not in continuing to use the crutches, but in discarding them, and in educating the weak members to again perform their duty. The woman who discards her corset will no doubt feel limp and weak for a time, but if she gives due attention to a few simple exercises, her trunk muscles will soon regain their strength, and will well perform their part.

Exercises for strengthening the abdominal muscles are described and illustrated on pages 102, 103. [Pages 102 & 103 is the section on exercises for the expectant mother, complete with stern admonitions that a physician may have to deliver her baby with instruments should she not pay the proper attention to exercising her abdominal muscles in pregnancy.]

3. “Would I not be likely to take cold if I left off my corsets?”

Certainly, unless care were taken to wear in its place some other garment which was equally warm. Although the central part of the body is frequently clothed more heavily than is necessary for health, it is not safe, especially during colder weather, to remove a warm garment without replacing it with another. By taking care, the clothing can be gradually lessened until a proper amount is worn.

4. “Ought not the young girl’s figure to be formed?”

The girl’s figure will be properly formed if it be allowed to develop in the natural way. Any departure from the natural is, truly speaking, only a deformity. Until the little girl reaches the age of fourteen or fifteen she is allowed to gambol about as free as a lamb at play. Then why just as she reaches the trying age of puberty is she restricted in her freedom? Now, if ever, each bodily organ requires the greatest liberty that its full development and future health may be insured. All young animals are permitted to develop naturally and symmetrically. Why should not the young girl be allowed the same privilege? Is there any good reason why a certain portion of the girl’s body should be limited in its development? The average girl of fourteen has a waist measuring from twenty-five to twenty-six (or more) inches. Now why should the young woman of eighteen or twenty have a smaller waist than the fourteen-year-old girl? Is it natural and right that at puberty the girl should increase in every dimension but one, and that this one dimension should diminish? — Certainly it is not right! This limitation in the development of the most vital portion of the body is largely accountable for the many weaknesses and illnesses of young women.

But apart from health, a small, round waist possesses neither grace nor beauty. The natural waist if viewed in cross section appears very much like the outline in Figure 107, while the corsetted waist forms almost a circle.

Cross section of natural and deformed waist

To those who retain the true standard of beauty, the corset-formed waist possesses a stiff, wooden, ungraceful appearance which is wholly lacking in the natural figure. Those who particularly admire a small waist should remember that the waist measurement of Venus de Milo is 47.6 per cent of her height. (See Fig. 108.)

Venus de Milo

Assuming sixty-three inches to be the average height of European women, their waist measurement would require to be twenty-nine inches to conform to the relative proportions of Venus de Milo.

5. “Is is not necessary for a woman to wear a corset during pregnancy?”

Let us answer this question by asking another. Why should it be necessary for a woman to wear a corset during pregnancy? If there is ever a time when constriction of the waist injures a woman’s health, it is during pregnancy. Nor is she the only sufferer, for anything that harms the prospective mother harms the developing child as well.

From the third month of pregnancy on to the close of the ninth lunar month there should be a gradual but steady enlargement of the abdomen, the womb rising high and higher until at the beginning of the tenth month it reaches the end of the sternum, or breastbone. The wearing of a corset and tight skirt-bands during pregnancy may disturb the normal course of events in one or more ways:–

1. The ovum may be expelled prematurely, or, in other words, a miscarriage may occur.

2. The child if carried to full term may be sickly and poorly developed.

3. The child may be led to assume an abnormal position in the womb, an occurrence which results in a dangerous and difficult labour.

4. The labour, if normal, is likely to be rendered tedious and unnecessarily painful.

5. The abdominal muscles may become so weak as a result of disuse and long-continued pressure, as to be practically useless in the time of labour. An instrumental delivery of the child would then be unavoidable.

The ill effects of wearing tight clothing during pregnancy are not by any means confined to the time of labour. Throughout the period of pregnancy, the woman’s health is more or less disturbed. Various forms of indigestion, obstinate constipation, piles, backache, faintness, shortness of breath, and general weakness, may all be laid to the charge of corset-wearing during pregnancy.

Most woman who continue to wear their stays during pregnancy, do so with the hope of concealing their condition from their acquaintances as long as possible. Were we to regard maternity as the crowning glory of womanhood, we should not be so anxious to conceal from our friends the fact of approaching motherhood.

Those women who tight-lace during pregnancy in the hope of improving their appearance usually fail in their attempt. The wearing of tight garments, by preventing the normal ascent of the womb, causes the abdomen to protrude below the waist in a most unnatural and ungainly fashion. The result is that in many cases the woman betrays her condition long before it is really necessary for her to do so. On the other hand if the woman wears clothing which is loose, comfortable, and becoming, the abdomen enlarges to symmetrically that its increase in size is scarcely noticed until the latter weeks of pregnancy.

6. “I am so stout, I must wear stays to keep my stomach down.

Unfortunately, that is precisely what occurs as a result of corset-wearing, though in a different sense from that intended by the woman herself. Corset-wearing does force the stomach down, but, more than this, keeps it down, dilatation of the stomach, chronic gastritis, and other digestive disorders resulting. But so long as her waist measurements can be diminished a few inches, the average stout woman is willing to undergo a little discomfort. If only she could be permitted to see herself as others see her, she would realise how utterly she fails of improving her figure. The abnormal protruberance of the abdomen, which nearly always results from corset-wearing in stout women, is certainly not conducive to good looks.

There is also another side to this question of corset-wearing for stout women. Beyond doubt the wearing of a corset tends to increase the development of fatty tissue in the central portion of the body. Adipose, or fatty tissue, is not nearly to highly vitalised as muscle tissue. Consequently, in persons who have a strong tendency to obesity, fat may develop in the region of the waist where there is too much pressure exerted by the corset to make muscular development possible. A large number of stout women could materially reduce their weight and improve their appearance by discarding the corset and giving due attention to physical exercise. Those exercises which strengthen the abdominal muscles should be taken regularly until the fatty tissue diminishes and the trunk muscles become firm and strong. This development of the abdominal muscles will not only result in a reduction of the waist measurement, but it will give to the woman a new grace and suppleness.

7. “I never wear my corset tight.”

And it is doubtful if ever a woman wore her corset “tight”. The most confirmed tight-lacer will prove to her own satisfaction (if not to others) that her clothing is loose by forcibly drawing in her abdomen and slipping her whole hand, and perhaps two, underneath her corsets. But does this prove the garment loose? — Certainly not! If, in the fastening of any garment, the wearer has to hold herself in, be it ever so slightly, that garment is too tight. Every article of clothing which is worn about the central portion of the body, should be so loose that it just comfortably meets after the chest has been fully expanded in a long, deep breath.

The fact of the case is that the average woman has no conception of the true meaning of tightness as applied to clothing. She has so accustomed herself to wearing uncomfortable clothing that her nerves have almost ceased to carry the sensations of pain and discomfort. Safe it is to say that the great majority of women endure, perhaps unconsciously, for sixteen hours a day such bodily discomfort as their husbands or brothers would not tolerate for sixteen minutes.

A woman who has for some time worn healthful clothing becomes painfully conscious of any tightness in bodice or skirt-band, thus showing that the nerves, if afforded an opportunity, would regain in time their power to carry sensations of pain or discomfort. And thus it should be, for it is the duty of the nerves to protect the interests of the body by giving prompt notice of any injury done to any of its parts.

The majority of women evidently believe that healthful clothing must necessarily be slovenly and unbecoming. But this is far from the truth. It is quite possible for a woman to clothe herself in a perfectly healthful manner without sacrificing either neatness of beauty of clothing.

8. “It is so much trouble to alter all of my clothing.”

True, but illness often entails much trouble, and also great expense, and the woman who dresses improperly is certain, sooner or later, to fall prey to disease. She who makes up her mind to dress healthfully will find that if she apply herself earnestly to the task she can soon have her wardrobe in perfect order.

9. “I fear I should be unable to get my clothes made properly.”

Herein lies a real difficulty. The average dressmaker is either unwilling to depart from her usual methods, or else, being willing, she is wholly ignorant of the principles of healthful dress. It remains for the customer to act accordingly. In the case of an unwilling dressmaker, the woman must gently, but firmly, insist upon having her clothing healthfully made. This course usually results satisfactorily, but if not, recourse must be made to another dressmaker. In case of a willing, but ignorant, dressmaker, the customer must be prepared to give detailed instructions as to the making of the desired garments. Fortunate is the woman who possesses both time and skill sufficient to enable her to make her own clothing.


We are now prepared to consider the essential features of an ideal wardrobe:–

1. Every garment should be loose and comfortable. Not loose enough to appear untidy, but sufficiently loose to allow every part of the body to perform its tasks unhindered.

2. All skirts and similar garments should be so supported that their weight is sustained by the shoulders, and not by the waist. The shoulders are well-adapted to burden-bearing, but the waist is not. In fact, the dragging of heavy skirts is almost as great a factor as tight-lacing in displacing the abdominal and pelvic organs.

3. The clothing should be so arranged as to maintain an equal temperature in all parts of the body. Special care should be given to the clothing of the extremities in cold weather, as these parts are more easily chilled than the trunk.

4. No unnecessary garments should be worn. It is a mistake to wear a great number of bodices and petticoats when two or three garments would meet every requirement. The wearing of unnecessary garments not only burdens the body, but greatly increases the expense and the labour of making and keeping up the wardrobe.

5. The clothing should be as light as is consistent with warmth. The wearing of heavy garments is fatiguing to the body. So far as warmth is concerned, it is generally recognised that two light garments afford greater warmth to the body than one heavy garment. When two garments are worn, the intervening layer of air, being a poor conductor of heat, prevents the escape of the body heat.

6. The skirts should not be so long as to touch the ground. Dragging skirts gather dampness, and as a result the feet and ankles may be seriously chilled. It will be understood from an explanation previously made that the chilling of the lower extremities is likely to cause congestion of the womb and ovaries.

Not only do trailing skirts gather moisture, but they collect much dust and street filth. That this involves great danger to the woman herself and her friends has been proven by scientific bacteriological investigation. A small quantity of dust taken from the bottom of a lady’s skirt was found to contain an enormous number of bacteria, among these being the germs of consumption, typhoid fever, abscesses, and other infectious diseases.

It is no light matter that these various disease germs should be scattered profusely about our homes, for as they are readily carried by the air they may easily gain access to the members of the family, either in the air breathed or in the food and drink.


We may now consider in detail the various garments comprising an ideal wardrobe for women.

COMBINATIONS. — The “combination” is by far the most satisfactory under-garment for women. It possesses the advantage of clothing the trunk equally and of requiring no band around the waist. We may speak of two classes of combinations, the woven, or knitted ones, and those which are made of cloth. (See Figs. 109, 110.)

Woven Combinations

In hot weather the lightest possible combination should be worn, the material being either linen, cotton, silk, or a mixture of these materials. Generally speaking, the woven, or knitted, garments are best for hot weather. If cloth combinations are worn next to the skin, a garment made of the so-called cellular cloth should be chosen. The combinations worn in hot weather may have short sleeves, or none at all, and the legs need not reach beyond the knee. In cold weather it is still best to wear either linen, cotton, or silk next to the skin, as these materials absorb the perspiration readily and dry quickly. It is generally recognised by the medical profession to-day that woollen clothing ought not to be worn next to the skin at any season of the year. Wool garments have but little power of absorbing, yet when once wet they part with their moisture slowly. As a result, the skin is kept in an unnaturally moist condition- a condition which is very conducive to cold catching.

Cloth Combinations

As linen possesses the greatest absorptive power, it is perhaps the best material to wear next to the skin. Winter combinations should have long sleeves and legs reaching to the ankle. In very cold weather it is often necessary to wear a woollen combination over the linen or cotton one. By so doing the woman may avail herself of the warmth of the wool without suffering any ill consequences. In case it is impossible to procure combinations with long legs, an extra pair of stockings, or a pair of equestrian tights may be worn, so ensuring warmth of the lower extremities.

In the summer, fine cotton stockings may be worn, but in the winter, warm woollen ones should be worn over the cotton ones. The woman who wears only fine cotton stockings in the winter, does so at the peril of her health, if not her life.

The stockings must be supported not by garters, but by suspenders attached to the corset-substitute, or to shoulder straps. The “Good Health Bodice” is the name given to an excellent garment which has been designed to take the place in the woman’s wardrobe so long held by the corset.

Good Health Bodice

The gathered bust portion gives desirable fulness to those who are flat-chested, while it well supports the bosom of the stout woman. (See Figs. 111, 112.) The Good Health Bodice, if well fitted and made of jean or other firm material, serves as an admirable substitute for the corset. It can be decorated with insertion and edging, or, if desired, a pretty slip-bodice may be worn over it.

Good Health Bodice 2

It is not desirable that the woman should wear more than two or three petticoats. A good way is to have one underskirt made of washing material. It may be made with a yoke so as to fit snugly around the hips in which case it should be fastened to a row of buttons below the waistline of the bodice. Then over this may be worn a heavier petticoat of moirette or silk, which should be attached to buttons on the waist-line of the bodice. If the latter is made with a deep flounce, a third petticoat is seldom required.

Some women prefer to wear the princess petticoat (see Fig 113), in which case the Good Health Bodice could be dispensed with. The princess petticoat is certain an ideal garment to wear under a wrapper or empire gown.

Princess petticoat

We are now ready to consider the frock. (See Figs. 114-117.) This may be made according to the taste of the wearer, only it is necessary that certain points be borne in mind if the garment is to be entirely healthful. While the frock should be tidy and well-fitting, it must not constrict in the slightest degree any portion of the body. If consisting of a separate bodice and skirt, the two garments must be united at the waist by means of buttons or hooks and eyes. It is only by giving attention to this matter that the gown can be truly comfortable and healthful.



The skirt should well clear the floor all around, and for street wear there should be several inches between the bottom of the skirt and the ground.

Let it be said in closing that this system of healthful dress has all in its favour. It is healthful; it is comfortable; it is simple; it is inexpensive; it is convenient; it is graceful; it is susceptible of the most artistic effects. It does away with many unnecessary garments; it does away with tapes and strings and safety pins; and, what is best of all, it does away with many aches and pains.

One lady, when first set free from the bondage of tight bands and heavy, dragging skirts, exclaimed: “Why I feel as though a weight of years had been lifted from me; I am like a bird escaped from a cage.” And this will be the experience of every woman who intelligently reforms her dress.


Categories: education, gender & feminism, health, history

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4 replies

  1. There are some really scary resonances between this excerpt and this thread on Spanx at Shapely Prose.

  2. Yes, I saw that thread and thought the same, Lauredhel.

  3. We’ve come a long way. And then sometimes we turn around and run back.

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