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The S-Bend in Context

The S-bend style corsetThe S-Bend (or straight-front corset) is probably the most misunderstood and unstudied corset fashion in the historical spectrum of corsetry. The style is hardly covered in the standard corset book repetoire, such as Valerie Steel's The Corset and Jill Salen's Corsets: Historical Patterns & Techniques.  Corsets and Crinolines has one pattern for this style, and short commentary. When the style is discussed online, you'll hear statements like "I know that they are said to be the most dangerous style to wear." "Can't you lace down even smaller with that style?" and "Aren't they supposed to be bad for you...?"

We'll examine these statements against the evidence and let you be the judge.

 

 

Historical Context

The "S-bend" or "S-curve" was in fashion from 1901-1910, with the most extreme fashions appearing 1904-1905.  It could also be called the "Gibson Girl" look, and the figures of Camille Clifford and the other "Gibson Girls" were idolized.  The "pouter pigeon" front and a skirt smoothly fitted over the hips gave a woman's figure the sillouhette of the letter S.

In consequence of the general adoption of the straight front corset the outline of the figure has changed materially, presenting an aspect quite different from that of several years ago. At present there is no curving in or tapering at the waist-line in front and curving out again over the abdomen. The correct form, not only to be up to date but also to be hygienic, should have a straight line from the bust to the abdomen. Above the waist-line the body must be in no way constricted; this not only gives more room for the digestive organs, but the breathing apparatus is freer and permits the lungs to be inflated properly. From this greater freedom in breathing the chest is involuntarily thrown forward, this movement unconsciously straightening the shoulders.
The Busk Effect, and the New Waist-line, Delineator, September 1902

 

The Delineator August 1901, p165 Eatons,  Spring & Summer, 1905 American Beauties, Harrison Fisher, 1907

The Delineator August 1901

Eatons,  Spring & Summer, 1905

American Beauties, Harrison Fisher, 1907

 

The S-Bend Posture: Illustrations versus Reality

Valerie Steele, in her book "The Corset", declares that straight front corset, when laced even moderately tightly, pushed the abdomen back, threw the breasts forward and arched the back (p.84).   This certainly appears to be the case in fashion illustrations like those below, but does it show in photographs of real women? It's certainly possible to hold a slanted, sway back posture for a few moments, but did real women actually stand and walk this way, forced into this posture by the corset?

Corset La Samothrace, 1905

Dessous Elegants 1905

Le Neos, 1909

Corset La Samothrace, 1905

Dessous Elegants 1905

Le Neos, 1909

 

To answer this  question, I turned to a variety of sources for photographs of women from this era, specifically looking for profile photographs where the line of the head, shoulders and hips were not obscured, making it easy to see their actual posture and poise.  Below are a selection of formal portraits, street photography and group photos. 

 

Formal portraits

Edith Kermit Roosevelt with Quentin, 1902

Alice Roosevelt Longworth, 1903

Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, 1904

Edith Kermit Roosevelt with Quentin, 1902

Alice Roosevelt Longworth,1903

Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, 1904

Cast photo from "The Prince of Pilsen", Play Pictoral 1904

Lina Cavalieri publicity photo,The Bystander, April 26 1905

The Empire line Fashion, Femina, 1905

Cast photo from "The Prince of Pilsen",

Play Pictoral 1904

Lina Cavalieri publicity photo

The Bystander, April 26 1905

The Empire line Fashion, Femina, 1905

Annette Kellerman, 1907

Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1908

Geraldine Farrar on board ship 1908

Annette Kellerman, 1907 Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1908 Geraldine Farrar on board ship 1908

Informal Photographs

5th Avenue, New York, Easter Morning, 1903   LoC 4a10757 Bathing-hour Atlantic City, 1905  LoC 4a17334 Atlantic City Boardwalk, 1905  LoC 4a12627
Detail from 5th Avenue, New York, Easter Morning, 1903  LoC 4a10757 Detail from The Bathing Hour, Atlantic City, 1905  LoC 4a17334 Detail from Atlantic City Boardwalk, 1905 LoC 4a12627

 

Group Photographs

Silhouette 1903 yearbook for Agnes Scott College, p136

Silhouette 1903 yearbook for Agnes Scott College, p136
Milady in Brown, 1906 yearbook for Belmont College, Field Hockey team
Milady in Brown, 1906 yearbook for Belmont College, Field Hockey team

Actresses from "King of Cadonia", 1909 LoC 16389

Actresses from "King of Cadonia", 1909 LoC 16389

In analyzing the ladies in these photos, especially the group photographs, the fashionable posture becomes obvious. The shoulders are pulled back, causing the chest to raise and thrust out. The chin is lifted up and the head aligned with the shoulders.  The lower abs are tightened and the hips are curled forward, bringing them into line under the shoulders.  This erect posture, when combined with clothing cut to emphasize the curve of the bust and hips,  creates the s-bend look. The leaning sway back seen in fashion illustrations does not appear in photographs. 

 

Lina Cavalieri, in her 1914 book “My Secrets of Beauty”, describes the perfect posture

The correct position, one in which the balance of all parts of the body is perfectly preserved, is almost, but not quite, erect. It should incline very slightly forward, above the hips. The weight of the body should rest firmly upon the balls of the feet. The heels should be close together. The knees should also be close neighbors. The arms in standing should hang naturally at the sides with the elbows close to the sides.Lina Cavalieri, 1910

One position only is proper for the chin. It should be well up. Notice any woman whose chin is lowered. Shadows fall about the hollows of the face, or create an illusion of hollows there. Every woman looks five years older with her chin lowered. Also such a pose of the head will make wrinkles in the fairest and plumpest neck. Nature designed woman to hold her head as proudly as that of a mettlesome horse. The chest should be held up and out.

Observe how a well-trained soldier stands on parade. That is an excellent model. He appears to have no abdomen, so well is it held in. His shoulder blades are flat as a knife.

Practice the proper posture in standing before the mirror. Study not only the front, but the profile view of your figure. If the chest sags, thrust it forward. If the abdomen protrudes, determinedly shift your weight so that it recedes. The prominent abdomen in half the cases I know is simply the result of bad habits of standing. If the shoulders curve forward, draw yourself erect until they are flat.

If you find your weight resting upon the heels, your figure will look awkward and countrified. If you rest upon the toes, it will look mincing and affected. Nature has indicated that to keep the balance of the body the weight must fall upon the balls of the feet. Try all these postures and notice how much better your figure looks when you stand correctly. It will be an object lesson you cannot forget.

In standing, don't throw the hips far back. They should be straight, in easy line with the body. In walking, do not swing the arms. In sitting, keep the crown of the head up and back. To test your carriage, pass the hand across the back. If the ends of the shoulder blades can be felt at a light touch of the fingers, the carriage is incorrect. The shoulders must be drawn farther back.

 

A Measured Analysis

Did the straight front corset actually decrease the waist size more than the curved busk corsets worn in the 1880’s and 1890’s? One place to look for this information is in historical pattern drafting books, which often have tables of proportional measures that give the bust,waist and other measurements for a certain height.

For this study I chose a bust measure of 36” as a constant, and recorded the waist measurement associated with it from a variety of pattern books and clothing catalogs. When there was more than one source for a particular year, I chose the one with the most complete data. My aim was to see if the waist measures related with a particular bust size actually did decrease during the straight front corset era, or did they increase?

As you can see from the graph below, waist sizes were smaller in 1898 (the height of the tightlacing era) and increased  in size during the straightfront corset era.  The waist measurement then decreased again during the post-Edwardian long-line corset era. 

Waist measurements from 1884-1917

 

 

Sources of the Data

Year

Bust

Waist

Hips

Handbook on Dress and Cloak Cutting

1884

36

25

 

Superlative System of Cutting Ladies clothes

1898

36

24

 

Weinberg's Cloak, Suit and Cape Cutter

1900

36

25

42.5

The Delineator, September 1902

1902

36

26

42.5

Carlstrom's proportions of the human form

1905

36

25

41

Eaton's Spring-Summer 1905 catalog

1905

36

25

 

Standard Work on Cutting

1908

36

25

41

Eatons Fall-Winter Catalog 1909/10

1909

36

25

 

Glicksteins System, 1910, p52

1910

36

25

43

PracticalDesigner, 1911

1911

36

23.5

41

American Garment Cutter

1913

36

25

42

Eatons Spring & Summer Catalog, Regular sizes

1917

36

26

39

Commentary on Cut and Fit

So, what was so special about this corset anyway? Why was it heralded as a great change from the previous "curved bust" corset? I'll finish with two analyses of the time, that will also give clues as to proper fit and cut of this style of corset.

Therapeutic gazette, Volume 17, 1901  THE CORSET AS A THERAPEUTIC AGENCY.

The radical change is that, instead of taking the waist line for the point of departure, it takes the anterior line of the trunk; this you will hear spoken of as the 'straight front' corset. The anterior line of the trunk is not absolutely straight, but it is a great advance to have it assumed to be straight instead of constricted like an hourglass. Again, the abdominal flare has been differentiated in three directions; the front has been made flat; a gore has been put in the side to allow for the prominence of the hip; and another gore has been put in the back to allow for the prominence of the sacrum. Again, the construction of the front of the corset has been changed, so that, instead of being made in one piece, it is made of a series of narrow, bias pieces that run obliquely from the front of the abdomen upward and backward toward the spine. It reminds me a little of the external oblique muscle of the abdomen. This change of construction does two things—it prevents the stretching of the anterior part, consequently there is not the tendency for the abdomen to lift up the front of the corset as it does in the older styles; and, second, the tension of the corset is in the direction of these bias pieces, making the lower part of the front, not the whole of the front, the special point of departure for support.

Put this corset on a patient, placing the bottom of the front just above the symphysis, and from below draw up the lacings in the back till the lower third of the corset fits the patient snugly, and watch the result. The first thing you will do is support the abdominal wall and hold up the viscera; next, you will notice that you have increased the obliquity of the pelvis; instead of the symphysis riding upward and the sacrum downward, you have the sacrum thrown upward and the symphysis downward. Then you will see you have thrown the center of gravity forward so that now it is easy for the patient to rest her standing weight forward on the arch of the foot instead of backward on the heels. Look again, and you will see the lumbar spine resume its supporting power, and the patient can now throw back her shoulders, expand her upper ribs, and carry her chest erect. It is an easy matter now with a separate lacing to adjust the upper third of the corset to fit the new carriage of the chest. Then, with a third lacing simply hold the waist as it falls into place, with the abdomen and chest fitted. There is the same old possibility of evil if the waist line is constricted. I have heard of one case causing ecchymosis of the abdominal wall in this way.

 

Personal hygiene and physical training for women Anna Mary Galbraith , 1911

The Curved Front CorsetThe Curved Front Corset, direction of the pressures exerted on the bodyThe Curved Front Corset, direction of the pressures exerted on the body from Le Corset (1908)

The corset is applied to the trunk of the body, consisting of the thoracic cavity, a distensible cage containing and filled by the heart and lungs; second, the abdominal cavity, whose walls are almost wholly composed of muscles, and containing the fiver and the entire digestive apparatus; and third, the pelvic cavity, whose walls are partly bony and partly muscular.

When the anterior wall of the body is forced to take the shape of this curved corset, it is pressed back toward the vertebral column, and even when the corset is not laced tightly, there is always more or less constriction of the base of the thorax, so that a serious deformity of the lower part of the thorax and abdomen is produced; instead of the normal outward curve of the anterior surface of the body, with its most prominent part in the region of the umbilicus, there results a broken fine at the waist, and an obtuse angle is formed here, pointing outward. This causes a marked incurvation of the lower part of the chest and its approach toward the spinal column, with a corresponding flatness of the chest and lessening of the respiratory capacity of the lungs, and the action of the heart is seriously interfered with.

The chest or thorax is forced into the shape of a cone, the lower opening is narrowed, and its walls are brought too near together. The lower ribs become too short, and, if the corset is worn early in life, the upper ribs become too long; and the thorax as a whole is too long.

Just how seriously the curved corsets interfered with the expansion of the lungs was shown in a paper published by Dr. Sargent in 1889. He found that the average lung capacity when corsets were worn was one hundred and thirty-four cubic inches; when corsets were removed, the lungs showed a capacity of one hundred and sixtyseven cubic inches—a gain of thirty-three cubic inches; that is, corsets crippled the lungs to the extent of one fifth of their entire capacity.

By the constriction of the waist, the liver and all the abdominal contents are pushed downward below their normal position, and their functions are greatly interfered with. The effects of this pressure upon the stomach are most disastrous, and cause a host of digestive and nervous troubles. There is very frequently a prolapsus of the kidneys; the right one is more frequently prolapsed than the left, owing to the relation of the right kidney to the liver.

 

The Straight Front CorsetThe straight-front, direction of the pressures exerted on the bodyThe straight-front, direction of the pressures exerted on the body, from Le Corset(1908)

This corset, when worn loose, is a great improvement on the curved-front corset. When properly fitted, all the compression comes at the hips and across the lower part of the abdomen, which is lifted up, and the waist-line is increased in size. This corset has for its base of support the bony pelvis, and there should be sufficient space to easily introduce the hand between the lower part of the thorax and the corset. In this case there is great freedom of movement of the entire chest cavity, so that respiration is not nearly so much interfered with as in the curved-front corset, and if the corset is properly fitted, the lower part of the abdomen is raised together with the contained viscera, and, indeed, this style corset is prescribed in cases of prolapsus of the kidneys.

By having the base of support from the bony pelvis, the chest is left free, and a good chest expansion and its throwing forward is favored, and at the same time an erect carriage is secured.

The waist-line runs below the short ribs, which lengthens the waist, producing graceful lines without compression.

But not all straight front corsets fill these conditions. Unless sufficiently long and well fitted about the hips, they may fail to raise and support the abdomen, and when too tightly worn may press too strongly upon the abdomen in the pretext of obliterating it, with the result that it is placed in a vice from before back. Pressed down, the intestines find a means of escape at the lower border of the corset.

The front of the corset is frequently carried too high up, and does not leave the epigastric region sufficiently free. The corset must absolutely not be thoracic, and must definitely renounce the support of the breasts, which should be accomplished when necessary by an extra bust supporter. The long straight corset immobilizes the trunk in the same manner as the curved front corset.

 

Conclusion

Hopefully this article has helped dispel some of the myths and confusion surrounding the straight-front corset.  Now that you've seen the evidence, what's your verdict?


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charlybu 08.02.2011 23:36  
Yes No   Thank you for the great article. I love all the pictures you included and I even read a bit of Lina Cavalieri's book "My Secrets of Beauty". Simply fascinating!  
 
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corsetmaker 09.02.2011 03:22  
Yes No   The article is wonderful. marion is great thanks. .. now read this article and especially looking at the pictures. I have drawn a conclusion that I is logical. and is as follows. My mother has a protruding abdomen. although not as much but it is prominent and the abdomen out more when it is made corset Corset like The Curved Front. and choose to make a curve recently "s" to the conclusion that serve is at the bottom or hem as it is called here in Colombia is that the wheel is straight and the only thing out are the links that hold the skirt. .. I think today I'll be picking up and digital photos on my computer to be able to explain better. and believe me I worked. the abdomen of my mother's best accommodation. and the remaining previously excelled. spreads on her hips and makes the figure look more natural. are more comfortable although no denying that oppression still exists but is not so old. and feel fabulous. and makes you look more upright figure. I think The Straight Front Corset corset are magical and comfortable. thanks for this article is well shredded for those who want to make your corset The Straight Front Corset.  
 
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jerwin 09.02.2011 19:18  
Yes No   The Standard work on cutting (1901), by SS Gordon has
bust 36, waist 25, hip 42

Coupe de Lingerie, by Lorentz and Lacroix (1911) has
Tableau des Measures pour les Corsages
demi tour de Poitrine-- 44 (34.5 inches) 47 (37 inches)
demi tour du Taille--28 (22 inches) 30 (23.5 inches)
demi tour des Hanches-- (34.5 inches) 47 (37 inches)
 
 
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jobridges 11.02.2011 14:52  
Yes No   Very interesting! My verdict is I can't wait to make a straight front corset for myself.  
 
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eggiebert 25.02.2011 21:23  
Yes No   My verdict: no they would not allow for tighter lacing of the waist. It's focus was to bring the hips into more prominence and minimize abdominal curvature from the ribcage to the pubic bone. How odd that it would be associated with a tighter waist, when your evidence suggests exactly the opposite? It seems more like a bait and switch, making the rear and hips more prominent tighter lacing isn't required.

The problems I would see wearing a corset of this style is that distribution of weight is too far forward on the feet as compared to an unconstrained figure. This could be helpful in heeled shoes, but with flats it would be awkward. An important point, because the full context of it's wear is the point of your very compelling article!

For that cut there is also a distinct lack of bust support... Are there some other articles of clothing providing this? The last group photo, there are more full busted figures who seem adequately supported, but how?

Earlier style corsets really anchor on the waist when wearing. Since these don't tighten as much as previous and post corset styles, does this mean they are 'drifty' during wear? Looking at the foundations articles elswhere, they seem to be quite comfortable to wear.

I wonder why they fell out of fashion. They don't cinch the waist as much, are comfortable to wear, and render an apparently much more curvy back figure. Different strokes I suppose. :D

Also, this is a lovely survey, thank you!
 
 
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emma 01.03.2011 00:44  
Yes No   I would want more information before coming to a decision but for now my verdict would have to stay with Vallerie Steele's explanation. Thanks for the article.  
 
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angualupin 09.03.2011 03:59  
Yes No   I've had ongoing confusion regarding this and the other corset styles that were essentially underbusts but were used prior to the invention of brassieres -- how was the bust supported? As someone who is busty enough that bras (which put all the weight of the bust on the shoulders) are uncomfortable, I've never really seen the point of underbusts. The idea of no bust support at all, which underbust corset + no bra seems to suggest, makes my poor abused back muscles scream in sympathy. Was it that the bodice itself was tight enough that it functioned as a bra does, or was there a bra-like foundation item that simply doesn't get talked about in the discussion of the clothing of this period?  
 
Liz 04.08.2013 21:48  
Yes No   During the Edwardian era when the s-bend was worn, ladies wore "brassieres" made of cotton. Ladies with larger breasts had access to lightly boned brassieres (like this one from 1910: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_0_rhhjjxUX0/TFK0sVr5PzI/AAAAAAAABDY/fX5LaJTRDak/s1600/AuBonMarcheCorsetsPage5.jpg).

A well-fitted underbust shouldn't interfere with the breasts at all. I'm very short-waisted with large breasts and most off the rack underbust corsets create a very unattractive "boob shelf" effect because they come up too high. Pairing a modern bra with it just makes the effect worse.

An S-bend Edwardian corset would sit just below the breasts and the cotton brassiere would keep the girls in check without hoisting them up to unnatural positions.
 
 
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Peter Ole Kvint 18.06.2014 13:06  
Yes No   The old bras were often stiffened and went down to the waist, and rested on the corset.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:History_of_brassieres
 
 
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maycoello 24.06.2011 23:59  
Yes No   I made several S-curve corsets and I find them perfect for mum-tum kind of torsos. If boning cases follow the s-darts you'll get something like an egg bum in the belly area perfect to hold your tummy if you'd like to give a more flat look to this area just put some more vertical boning cases following the ribb and hips bones and you'll get a great look without loosing confort on the mum-tum area.
It made sense to me when I was looking at my toil and realized the s-curve pieces resemble the muscles and follow the ribbs curve from the back to the front.
Never till today could find information about why it was not so popular as other corset patterns and now I know why, thanks for this brilliant post.
 
 
 
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