My Dear Dolly
I must recount the lengths that some young girls of today will strive (or more accurately t what lengths their mothers pressure them to strive) to attain what they consider is the height of fashion. As you know I am no aesthete and I always aspire to be tidily dressed, but I scarce believe what some of these girls wear in the name of ‘beau fashion’.
On my walking tour of Germany last summer, I first came across Miss B____ in a cobblers in Baden Baden, I had gone there to get my walking boots repaired and on entering the shop I found the young Miss and her companion struggling to make themselves understood as their German was no better than a 10 year old schoolboys. Realising from their accent that they were English, I offered my assistance. The young Miss B____ who was only 18 was so grateful and she explained her requirements in that she was trying to ask if the cobbler could resole the boots she was wearing and have them back at the hotel for tomorrow morning. It seemed that she had stumbled on the cobbles and ripped the sole of one of them and she wished to get them fixed as soon as possible so that her mother did not find out, as she would be admonished for being clumsy. I passed on the details and the cobbler directed Miss B___ to sit down.
Now miss B____ was dressed in what I now know to be the height of fashion, a blue and white silk dress with flowered detailing, with an enormous tiered bustle and a tied back skirt, and I must say a very ornate outfit for a little shopping. The most striking though was the size of her waist and her neck, her waist was minute, a twig between her well formed bosom and the spreading bustle, it cannot have been bigger than my thigh and as I was later to find out that on this day it was only was 17″ round. But Dolly it looked even smaller from ahead, as it was longer from front to back than from side to side. Also her neck or rather her collar was astonishing as well, the collar stood a full 4″ high and was scarce as wide as my upper arm.
While I was taking this all in, the cobbler directed Miss B_____ to a low stool at the back of the shop and she started to show some frustration as she maneuvered towards the stool and even with the support of her companion could not lower herself down onto it. I then realised her problem, her outfit was so restrictive that she could not even manage to sit on a stool, her collar was so high and tight that she could not bend her neck, her corsets were so stiff that she could not bend at the waist and for some reason she did not seem able to bend very far at the knees. The cobbler soon realised the problem and rushed into the back of the shop and soon returned with a high chair (probably from his dining table) and Miss B______ looked towards him gratefully and sat down in what seemed a very tentative manner, her back and neck held perfectly straight. I was in rapt attention that anybody would wear such an outfit and survive, but my attention was then diverted by her companion, who grasped me by the arm and led me towards the shop door, thanking me for my assistance. I could see that I was no longer needed and returned to the hotel.
I thought that was the last of it, but the next morning I took a carriage up the valley to the Gaggenau Falls, and who should be in the carriage but Miss B______. She was in much better spirits and eager to thank me for my assistance. I noticed that her dress was much less formal than the previous day and her waist noticeably expanded allowing her to sit back in the carriage and her collar was lower, which allowed her to turn her head. She described her travels so far in detail and I mine, but later when I asked about the cobblers, her companion nudged her and Miss B______ changed the subject.
We arrived late at the village below the falls and repaired to local inn to sleep before visiting the falls the next morning.
The next morning a group of us gathered outside the inn to be led up to the falls by a guide. As we started walking up the easy path, which was only a matter of four hundred yards to the lower falls, I looked back as a small narrow trap drew up to the inn and Miss B_____ came out, yet again in full regalia and was helped into the cart. We still reached the falls before Miss B_____ and I stood back as she was helped down from the trap and watched her totter on the only slightly uneven ground to the viewing point. Her outfit was the equal of two days before in its severity, her waist as small and her collar as high and tight, so tight, that to scan the falls she had to turn her whole body and to look up she had to lean backwards using her companions arm as support. While the rest of us continued up a steeper path to the upper falls, Miss B_____ returned to her trap and went back down to the inn
We returned to the inn and I washed and then an hour later went down to the dining room for lunch. I took my seat and as I perused the room, Miss B______ enter, wearing yet another change of outfit, this time a day dress, and amazingly it was even more rigorous than her two previous outfits and if anything to my eye more strict, in that her waist was even more pinched and the collar even higher. I wondered at the time how anybody could survive under such constriction. She moved very slowly across the dining room and sat down extremely stiffly and I could see that she was just perched on the edge of the seat, even though her large bustle was compressed against the seat back.
I was not at all surprised that she only picked at most of her lunch, as her pinched waist and her trammeled neck must have made eating a severe trial. But I then was most surprised when a large bowl of the inn’s specialty, cassis glace was placed in front of her, I at first thought it a waste as I was sure she would only pick at it, I sat and watched in astonishment as she finished it complete. At that they both rose but, I noticed that Miss B_____ was rubbing here waist as if she was feeling some discomfort, although she had little chance of any effect through her fortress stays.
Thinking no more of it, I retired to my room to update my diary and ten minutes later there was a knock on the door, it was Miss B_____ exclaiming that she had eaten to much glace at lunch and had severe stomach pains. She went on to explain that her companion had returned to the falls to sketch and would not return for some hours and that the inn servant did not understand her. She then with much embarrassment asked if I could help her disrobe.
Dolly I must admit that at first I intended to reply that I was no ladies maid and that if she was in the habit of wearing outfits that she could not get out of without assistance that was entirely her own affair. But I took in the look of distress on her face and in truth I was curious to learn how she coped with the obvious strictures of her wardrobe.
I asked her in, but she demurred saying that it would be better in her room as all the equipment was there, I assented wondering what equipment was required to help her undress. I followed her slowly (as she walked with tiny steps) to her room, (which was the best in the inn) and when the door was closed, moved in front of her to start releasing the tightly spaced buttons down the front of the bodice. Miss B_____ then informed me that I first must release the lacing at the back of the collar. I moved around and leaning high up over the huge bustle and found a buttoned down flap at the back of the collar, I undid the flap and was truly astounded to find a line of taut lacing that held the collar closed. The lace were fully tightened and as I struggled with the knot, I could see that Miss B_____’s neck was held in a rigid cylindrical tube, fully 5″ high. I loosed the knot and the collar flew open under the pressure and Miss B ____ ‘s head sagged and she took some rapid breaths. She then said that she knew that tight collars were the fashion, but they were such an ordeal to wear.
I loosed the rest of the lacing and felt the construction of the collar and Dolly it was fully stiffened with spring steel. The poor girl was being strangled by a 5″ steel collar, when it was released the gap was altogether 3″. I then moved back to the front and tried to release the buttons but they were so tight, and Miss B____ then told me that I should use the button hook on the table. I struggled with each button and there were fully twenty of them from collar to waist. When they were undone I had to reach in and release the six hooks that held the bodice to the skirt. But Dolly the bodice would still not come off until I used the buttonhook again to release the six buttons on each stiffened sleeve to allow Miss B____ to withdraw her arms. I carried the bodice over to the bed and as I put it down I felt its construction, it was extremely thin at the waist but above it was padded at nearly every point, with the thickest under the arms in an attempt to make poor Miss B______’s crushed waist seem even smaller.
Miss B____ now stood in her white under bodice, and without her padded bodice, looked small and fragile above her huge skirt and bustle. I then released the tape that held her skirt at the waist and with some trouble, as it was a heavy mass of material helped her raise it over her head. I was slightly mithered at this point as Miss B_____ was not much help, as she could not seem to raise her arms even up to her shoulders. Next came one heavy taffeta and two thick starched cotton petticoats and I could see the first of her encumbrances, which was a tight kidskin petticoat that narrowed from her hips to her ankles, leaving at her at most about a 12″ stride, it did not fasten at the waist but at the hips so as not (Miss B____ informed me) to add even a ¼” to her waist, her tornure was attached in the same fashion and was not a simple device like yours or mine, but a much heavier construction that protruded out a full two feet behind her derriere.
When I had removed the tornure, I could then unhook the kidskin petticoat and pass it down her legs and into view came the next of her entrapments, a short leather strap about 6″ long, between two leather garters at her knees, I continued down and the kidskin petticoat becoming stiffer the lower I went, I had to flatten it to within about 3″ from the floor as poor Miss B____ could not raise her feet very far due to the knee gaiter and the next impediment that came into view which was an ankle chain about 8″ long . At the time as you can imagine I was amazed and wanted to question her about these convoluted trappings. But Miss B_____ was starting to look very ill and so I hurried on. I then unbuttoned her high necked shift and uncovered the her next torment device which was a severe shoulder brace, which forced her shoulder blades to meet and pinioned her upper arms to her body. I quickly unlaced it and Miss B____ slumped forward in relief.
Now I could see the full extent of her formidable corsets, and Dolly be assured that you have never seen or imagined the like. It ran from under her youthful bosom, which was forced high and out by two rows of stiff ruffles, down to mid thigh and although it was faced in a beautiful white shantung silk, this only covered a monument to the extremes of the corsets makers art, at the waist, the bones were so closely spaced, that I could not of passed the tip of my little finger between them. The busks were fully two inches wide and ran from her bosom to her thighs. No wonder the poor girl could only perch on the edge of the highest chairs. I now of course came to realise why the low stool at the cobblers caused such problems. I pulled the mass of excess lace from a pocket attached to her behind and released the knot, and the laces flew out through the eyelets, as the enormous pressure was unbounded. Miss B______ sighed with relief, even though by my eye, her waist had only expanded to a miserly nineteen inches. I pulled the laces free and went to her front and unclasped the fourteen busk clips. But Dolly still the corsets would not slip down, I had to fully unlace the lower skirt lacing to free her trapped thighs, once released, the corsets fell to ground, but Miss B_____ was still entangled as she could not lift her foot high enough to step over the lip of the corset skirt and out between the busks.
After a few seconds, I brought a chair and Miss B____ collapsed into the chair, engulfed by the corsets and she managed to raise both legs and struggle out of the rigid garments grasp. While Miss B____ shuffled quickly over to a curtained nook. I picked up the corsets and was staggered by their weight, they must have been at least 8lbs and were so stiff, that even unclasped they held their shape, holding the busk together, I noted how the bones at the side of the waist were thicker and realised that was how Miss B____’s waist was elongated to look even smaller when viewed from the front. Dolly I must tell you that the object was positively a thing of medieval torture. Along with that I examined the kidskin tube; it also was stiffened with resined rope seams and a thick hem of leather to stop any chance of tearing. As Miss B_____ returned from her ablutions, I had a chance to examine her walk, the ankle chain and knee gaiters reduced her steps to that round kneed shackled gait that we have both witnessed on our prison visits and with the addition of her preposterously high heeled boots (they must have been at least 4″) I declare she could not have managed a 100 yard dash in under five minutes. I had thought to leave at that time, but Miss B____ became agitated and begged me to help her get dressed again, it seemed that her companion would report her to her mother, who insisted that she be correctly dressed at all times, and finding out the cause would not allow Miss B_____ to eat glace ever again. I relented and began the arduous and lengthy task of restoring her outfit.
As I helped her back into the monstrous corset and fastened her busk hooks I started to glean her story. Miss B_____ was the only daughter of a wealthy Tyneside industrialist and her obviously ambitious mother. They moved in upper class circles and under the patronage of Lady Patricia Scruttle-Quise, Miss B____ was being prepared for her debut this coming season. Her mother listened to Lady Patricia in all things and as she had decreed that to make a good catch during the season, a small waist, long neck and a delicate gait were imperative, Miss B_____’s underpinnings had been crafted to achieve those requirements and more. Miss B ____ said that Lady Patricia had stated several times that Miss B_____ ‘s figure was the most accomplished of any of her protégés.
On hearing this Miss B____ had asked her mother to let go her measurements a little, as she had always found the tight collars and the pinched waist a stern trial, but her mother would permit no back sliding as she thought it might seem to Lady Patricia that they were not up to the job. She went onto say that two years previously she had been an active girl, walking, playing tennis and riding and now to prepare for her debut the fashions forced upon her had reduced her to near to the status of an elaborate ornament, she was so restricted by the tight kid skirt, the knee gaiters and the ankle chain that she could only walk at the speed of an old man and only for a short distance, as after a few paces she was searching for breath due to her stays and tight collars and then she could only manage on smooth ground due to her high spindly heels. She told me had used to enjoy riding, but as her new riding costume trammeled her near as much as her walking outfits, she could only now manage a slow trot on an a quiet old mare. She could not even manage any quieter pursuits, such as needlepoint or painting as the tight padded sleeves of her outfits and the restrictive posture brace made any position but lowered arms a severe trial. Even reading was not an easy task as her high collars up to five inches high would not let her look up and down and the only way she could manage was to have the books supported on a lectern at eye level, whilst sitting and to stand up for to turn each page as her restrictive apparel would not allow her to reach up from a sitting position.
Well Dolly, you can imagine my distaste of this situation, in that young girls, who for whatever reason become mere slaves to ‘belle fashion’ and will become mere decorative accessories at their husbands side, good for nothing more than securing a suitable mate during the annual cattle market that our so called ‘high society’, calls the season. As you know, I always declare that I am no aesthete, blue stocking or have any interest in women’s suffrage, but no women should have to submit to this encumbered fashion for any period and certainly not as Miss B____ foresees for the rest of her married life. She has been assured by Lady Patricia that the sort of gentlemen who would be attracted by her restrictive clothes and wasp waist would expect to her to ‘keep the goods in the same condition as they were purchased’. It seems that Lady Patricia was responsible for the last quote and Miss B____ assures me that Lady Patricia though married for ten years, has a waist her equal, wears as restrictive skirts and much higher heels, but carries the whole ensemble with never an outward show of inconvenience.
When I had finished clipping the numerous busk clips and Miss B____ had finished recounting the above information, she turned and tottered away towards the curtained area, and just before the curtain, she reached up and unhooked a bar from the wall, which hung from a rope that went over a hefty looking pulley sunk into a beam. Miss B_____ grasped the bar and asked me to hoist her up. It was Dolly, a lacing bar, I have only read about these devices in those fanciful letters in the Womans English Domestic Magazine and did not dream they really existed. I queried if it was really necessary, but Miss B ____ was adamant in that we would never be able to get her waist down to the necessary seventeen inches required for the red and white outfit. She said that she must be stretched or the lacing was to … uncomfortable, I am sure she meant to say painful, but would not admit to it.
I hoisted her up feeling a little like a Jolly Jack tar, until she was on tip toes, and began the lacing, Dolly what a performance it was not like you or I, one swift pull and tie off, job done, it seemed never ending, because the corsets were near three times as long as yours or mine the length of lace is stupendous, and each bar of lacing had to be pulled through separately a number of times while heaving on the pullers with the other hand.
And every two minutes Miss B_____ would have to be let down as her arms would be tired and I would have to tie off and then lower the bar. Well after 3 goes we got the final tightening, but what an effort, I had to heave so hard that I became red in the face and began to perspire, at each heave Miss B___ would give little squeak or a moan and I was a feared to carry on in case I hurt the poor girl, but she insisted that the gap must be closed to about an inch for this dress. Well Dolly it was nearly beyond me, can you believe that they were so tight that my strength was nearly not enough, but with one last very unfeminine heave the gap closed and I tied off. I bundled the laces and placed them in the pocket on her behind. I then lowered her down and Miss B _____ was once again in the state I had previously seen her, rigid from bust to thigh and short of breath.
Miss B_____ tottered rigidly back to the pile of garments and I then put on the corset cover and with some distaste plucked up the shoulder brace, Miss B ____ squeezed her arms through the tight armholes and I hooked it at the back and laced it as tight as I thought right. Miss B____ asked for it to be tighter, she informed me that it must be pulled tight until her shoulder blades met. I know I should have refused as it was nought but a torture device, but her pleading was so compelling that I did as she asked. Then with some difficulty, I assisted her into the kidskin skirt and when it was fully attached Miss B was left with only her arms and neck untrammeled, I attached the tournure, petticoats and the heavy skirt and then padded bodice which was fitted so tight that I had to again use the button hook to force the buttons across so that they would meet at the holes, even on the sleeves and at last she dressed save for the collar, I hooked it at the front and moved to the back. Dolly I was shocked when I examined her neck closer, it was no swan like affair, that you see on some professional beauties, but as thick as yours or mine and only slightly longer. Her collar mind, before it was laced, sat as high as Miss B_____’s level chin, she had to raise her chin to a high angle to get her chin above the collars lip, before she could ask me to start lacing. As I pulled her head was forced high and her neck reduced to nought, I stopped when the laces would be covered by the tab, but Miss B____ urged me on, “the gap must be closed, else it will be noticed”. I hated myself as I tugged the last inch and closed the gap, Miss B____ gurgled as though (and she was) being strangled and tried to raise her head away from tight collar, but to no avail she was tight held as if in some medieval stocks, although I am sure they would have been looser.