European Practices of Yesteryear

By John Francis Trelawny


In practically every century, other than our present one, women have been subjected to bondage ranging from the mildest
to the most severe of restraints, all under the guise of training and discipline.

The common denominator of it all was the practice of tight-lacing. It was customary, regarded as vitally necessary, for girls
to be indoctrinated to the most severe and restrictive of corsets, which they referred to as stays. As a corollary to complete
figure-training, the girls were forced to accept and undergo virtually all types of personal restraints, bound arms,
shoulder-braces, stocks for sleeping, masks that muted them, deafened them, and even blinded them. Backboards to hold
them rigidly erect, and collars to hold their heads up high and to anchor the backboards, also tether them.

The system was self-perpetuating because the women came to accept all the restraints as necessary to achieve status,
consequently to be imposed on their own daughters. Moreover, there was the prevalent notion that the more restraint, the
more ladylike status resulted, and the girls were subjected to a systematic and progressive bondage that, in some cases,
reached extremes that today are hard to believe.


Since almost the earliest times, whenever there was leisure and wealth to be enjoyed, the women displayed their leisured
status by rendering themselves obviously incapable of physical work. In Europe, this took the form of mutilating the body by
means of corsets or stays. The common women, who had to work for a living, couldn’t possibly lace tightly enough to be
confused with the ladies. They were laced so tightly that their bodies were actually distorted to the point where they couldn’t
work. A lady wore tight stays. Common women did not. It was as simple as that, and the result was that every woman
sought to lace her body to a greater extreme, thus demonstrating her status.

Stays were made far differently than today’s corsets and girdles. We hear of whalebone in old novels, but before that, there
were bars of iron and steel, hardened leather known as bend, which was one-fourth of an inch thick and hard as wood.

Periodically, there would be a revolutionary edict, against stays or short-term fashion for loose waists, but these never
lasted long. Probably, because the corsets were so restrictive that once worn tightly, they served to weaken the muscles to
such a point that the wearer virtually had to continue lacing tightly purely for comfort. With each loose-waisted period thus
doomed, the corset-enthusiasts managed to influence fashion so that after a few years, the styles once more called for tiny
waists; frequently to a new standard waist measurement.

Acceptable waistlines, thus varied from era to era—occasionally going to such extremes as thirteen inches during Elizabeth
I’s reign relaxing to eighteen to twenty inches, then returning to fourteen inches.

Catherine de Medici of France established a standard at her court of fourteen inches. Ladies with waists larger than that
size were not welcome. Even during the Empire and the Regency periods, the staymakers urged mothers to lace their
daughters properly, which meant with full rigor, and have their stays filled with bone and equipped with shoulderstraps. Most
certainly, the girls should all be made to sleep in their stays, without having the laces loosened. Why let the body swell
during the eight or nine hours of sleep and then have to regain all the lost ground? They reminded all the mothers, that the
traditional waist-standard was this span—a girl should be able to clasp her hands about her own waist.


The ladies might have suffered horribly from stays while they were girls but once they were grown up, they had it made and
from then one was easier. They forgot how hard it was when it came time to lace their daughters. In many cases, they
magnified the rigor of their own upbringing and minimized the discomfort they remembered, so that it was easy for them to
make even more severe demands on their daughters.

The girls were put into stays around the age of nine—sometimes before—and existing fashions were not regarded as
important in training the girls, for the more rigorous styles were bound to follow. Consequently, the corset were fantastic
instruments of torture for the girls—forty-pound panoplies of steel and leather and wood that squeezed them from armpits
to hips, to such a degree that a full breath was impossible and any physical exertion confined to only a few moments.

Wearing such corsets, the girls had to act like ladies—move slowly and sedately, stand stiffly erect like a soldier at attention,
and eat like a bird. It was impossible to east much, just as it was impossible to run and jump or to slump in a chair.

Corsets made then were termed "full-boned" if the boning was placed a as closely together as possible. If the width of a
bone was allowed between adjacent bones, the corset was called "half-bones." It was unthinkable for a girl to be
permitted to have anything other than full-boned corsets and many mothers insisted on "double-boned" stays for their girls.

Shoulderstraps were attached at the top of the back, went over the tops of the shoulders, down, and were pulled back
under the arms to buckle together tightly in back, holding the shoulders back and down in an extreme braced position.
Staymakers advocated them for all growing girls to avoid slumping and slouched.

There was another purpose too, these shoulderstraps would be unfastened when the girl’s laces were tightened. With the
girl holding a bedpost, or with her wrists strapped to the bedpost as many staymakers recommended, the mother would
brace a knee against the girl’s back and tighten her laces as much as she was able. She would work the slack lace to the
top, knot it tightly and then trim off the excess lace right at the knot. Some mothers would seal the knot with wax and their
ring. Then they would fasten the shoulderstraps once more—and the girl would nearly die.

While being laced, with the shoulderstraps undone, the girl would be able to life her shoulders in a shrug, giving extra lung
space for each breath. However this extra breath was denied her when her shoulderstraps were fastened because now she
was unable to lift her shoulders at all. Thus, she was unable to breath enough to stay alive unless she deliberately forced
her ribs out against the confining corset with all her strength. This bent her ribs to a tighter radius, of course, and hurt. The
pain has been likened to a red-hot knife in the ribs on each side. A stabbing pain with each breath. But the alternative was
not to breath and that was impossible. Many girls fainted and some mothers loosened the stays but staymakers
recommended that the stays be left tight and the ribs be pushed in further by hand—artificial respiration—with smelling salts
at the girl’s nostrils helped to bring her around.

Thus, shoulderstraps helped form the waist more, quickly and so staymakers recommended them even where there was no
real posture problem.

The girl would seek to stay alive with the shallowest of breathing and thus, she would conform to the accepted standard of
behavior. Any physical exertion would call for more breath and cause that red-hot stabbing knife with each intake.

Of course the girl would take off her corset or loosen it if she could, but she was unable to. In nearly all cases, stays for girls
had no front clasps—or any other front opening. The only way to remover them was by the lacing in the back, and with the
shoulders buckled so firmly down and back, it was impossible to reach the hard knot—sealed or unsealed—at the top of the
back, let alone undo it.

The recommended practice was to leave the lace knotted tightly until the next time the lace was tightened. In most cases,
this meant the girl had to sleep in her tight stays and when her mother tightened her lace the next day she would simply cut
off yesterday’s knot and re-knot and re-trim the lace to its new position. Thus the corset was never loosened or removed,
but tightened more and more. As the body accommodated itself more and more to the shape of the corset, easing the girl’s
distress, the mother would tighten it still more.

Staymakers advised tightening a girl’s laces every morning and, if possible to get enough slack, in the late afternoon before
dinner. It is certainly understandable why ladies displayed birdlike appetites.


It is quite understandable for the girls to use every possible means of reliving their distress. Staymakers warned the mothers
to take steps to prevent them from loosening or removing their stays.

There was relatively little likelihood of it during the day because girls then wore many clothes over their corsets—summer or
winter—and most of these fastened tightly up the back. The shoulder straps themselves prevented them, in most cases
from even reaching their hooks and buttons on the back. For the most determined and ingenious ones who might use
scissors or a knife to cut themselves loose, mothers, governesses, and schoolmistresses would restrain the girl’s arms,
sometimes sewing the end of her sleeves together in the front and others merely strapping her wrists together behind her

This was termed "preventative discipline" and the term was popularly used for anything from mild to the most severe
personal restraint.


Of course the girl’s best opportunity to ease her stays was at night in bed, unless she was restrained at night as in most
cases she was. Many and varied were the ways in which the girls were fastened when they went to bed.

On the continent, it was quite common to make the girls sleep with both legs in a single stocking which bound their legs
together tightly. In England and Spain it was commoner to make the girls sleep in stock, their ankles locked securely under
the covers or by a notched board fastened down over her bedclothes.

Of course it was more important to restrain her hands at night and make it impossible for her to loosen her stays. Girls had
their wrists bound down to the sides of the bed at night. Other girls wore special long-sleeved gowns without openings for
the hands, the sleeves being sewed together each hand on the other sleeve. These were put on the girls to hold their arms
across their front, the gowns fastening in the back. In other cases, long tapes would be sewen to each sleeve so that
the arms could be folded across the back and the tapes tied together at the front. The simplest was to strap the girl’s wrists
together behind her back and have her sleep like that.

Lady Ardmore’s memoirs, A SLAVE TO FASHION, tell how she was made to sleep with her arms bound behind her back
and her legs bound at knee and ankle from the age of nine, when she began to wear stays. Her cousin and her elder sister
were all made to sleep completely bound in this manner, and her stepmother punished all complaints by making the girls
having their arms bound behind their back for all the next day. Lady Ardmore’s arms were bound every day for over a year
because of the great number of complaints and then she was fitted with a discipline mask.


Many girls were made to wear masks during their figure-training. These were made usually of soft leather, fitted over the
whole head as well as the face, lacing down the back and fitting snugly under the chin and around the neck so that it was
impossible for the girl to remove it.

There were a variety of masks used in figure-training. Many girls’ schools on the continent required each girl to wear a mask
when leaving the school, grounds for any reason. These mask had eye and mouth holes and were more to preserve the
girl’s anonymity in the town rather than to punish them at all. A few schools required the girls to wear masks like these all
the time to limit grimaces, exaggerated expressions, and communication by non-verbal means.

Far commoner were the muting masks that had no mouth openings and were used for punishment when a girl had too
many complaints. Lady Ardmore was made to wear one of these masks for years, having it removed only when in her room
for meals.

Still harsher were blind-mute masks having neither eye or mouth holes. Some of these had padding at the ears also to
deafen the wearer to some degree and these would be put on girls who were truly rebellious. Spending hours blinds, muted,
and bound served quite well to subdue the rebels. Some schools had masks of this type made for all the girls and insisted
on them sleeping in them so that they could not communicate with each other at night in bed. Generally, these schools also
required the girls to sleep bound and also chained down.


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