Sunday, June 19, 2011

Silhouettes -- From Corseted to Carefree

Hendrina and Elizabeth Daams 1905

Elizabeth (r.) and her sister Hendrina (l.) hold themselves erect in this photograph taken in Hilversum in 1905. Their stiff poses were undoubtedly helped by "stays" or corsets made of whalebone or steel.

According to A History of Costume by Carl Kohler, the female corset was of Spanish origin, dating back to the first half of the 16th century. It was designed to compress and constrict the waist, and was made of a number of whalebone (or baleen) rods placed close together, covered on both sides by material, and sewn in.

The design of the corset varied from century to century, sometimes being laced up in back, sometimes in front, sometimes longer, sometimes shorter.

This photo was taken in 1905, at the midpoint of the Edwardian Era (1901 to 1910), when Elizabeth was about twenty years old and her sister eighteen. During this era, which was probably the last time that women wore corsets regularly in everyday life, a young woman would probably have begun to wear a corset midway through her teens. The undergarment may have looked something like this version patented in 1890.

It was probably a high, straight-front corset, tightly laced in back, making the waist as small as possible, "a tortuous framework," according to R. Turner Wilcox in Five Centuries of American Costume.

The girls' attire reflects the practical dress of the working class in small-town Netherlands during the first decade of the 20th century. Meanwhile, in the centers of fashion of Paris, London, and New York, upper-class women followed the fashion trends depicted by Charles Dana Gibson, among others  --  remember the Gibson Girl with her tiny waist, high pompadour hairdo and low decolletage?

A generation later and a continent away, we see a very different female silhouette:

Aunt Marg 1931

This is Margaret, the eldest daughter of my other grandmother, Grandma Minnie; it shows the "Sweet Girl Graduate" upon her graduation from Fort Plain High School in 1931. Marg would attend the New York State College for Teachers the following fall. Her billowing skirt and loosely tied belt are evidence that she is not wearing a corset. What happened in the intervening years?

First of all, the development of rubberized elastic material, which picked up where the whaling industry left off. More importantly, during World War I, it was suggested that women stop buying corsets that utilized steel stays, as the war industry needed the metal for building warships.

World War I brought other changes in society, in particular for young women, who were more likely to seek an education rather than marry in their late teens. American women also got the vote in these years, after a long and arduous struggle; although Congress passed the 19th amendment in 1918, it wasn't ratified by a sufficient number of states until 1920. This broadening of women's roles in society was reflected in less constrictive clothing.

And at the same time, hemlines for everyday attire began rising, never to fall again, except for elegant evening wear. We see the higher hem and straighter silhouette of the mid 1930's in this next photograph of Marg's younger sister Glenadore, as she proudly prepares to go off to secretarial school in New York State's capital city:

Aunt Glenadore 1935

I feel as though Glenadore's smile is evidence not only of her pride upon graduating from high school and going off to begin the next stage in her life, but also her comfortable attire and sensible shoes!

We end with a recipe from Grandma Elizabeth's cookbook that will help us all keep our youthful figures:

Cucumber Salad

- 1/2 large or 1 small cucumber
- 2 eggs, hard-cooked
- 1/2 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- salt, parsley

Make the sauce by adding the salt, oil, lemon juice and snipped parsley to one finely chopped egg.

Peel the cucumber and slice into thin rounds.

Mix the sauce and cucumber.

Garnish with the remaining egg, sliced.

This makes a nice summer salad to serve alongside potato or macaroni salad and grilled chicken:

Cucumber and Egg Salad

Enjoy your meal; no need for a corset as long as you eat sensibly!

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