The wages of fashion was death. This was a truism in antebellum America, but one which apparently had no effect upon behavior.
Corsets were instruments of deceit. Further, as "Hard Times" implied, they were self-inflicted instruments of torture. This their makers denied along with allegations that they caused physical debility, but only in the case of their own product. Mrs. Sherman's "Excelsior" corsets would supposedly enable the wearer to be comfortable in every position. A song advertising its many advantages indicates that corset makers worried that the alarms raised by Beecher, Thornwell, and others might cut into sales. Mrs. Sherman's corsets, the song assured, "cramp no action of the lungs or heart." Nor did they "mar the flexure of the natural waist." They helped form "the figures of the young" by "aiding and not repressing every charm." Yet, they also hid "irregularities of shape" so that no "slight defects" would be "spied." Even a figure considered "bad, may by their help seem good." Comfort, health, deceit. What woman could ask for more?
If one object of the corset was to hide "slight defects," another, as the name Excelsior -- Ever upward, in Latin -- made clear, was to accentuate and expose. The simple fact is that the fashions of the 1850s and 1860s, the heyday of Victorianism, were as revealing as those of today or any other era. Necklines plunged; skirts rose in the back, exposing calves, and in the front; and feet were everywhere in sight.8
Mid-century fashion certainly thematized woman's restricted sphere -- what is a hoop but a restricted sphere? -- and it thematized her role, in the phrase of woman's rights advocate Ernestine Rose, as a "puppet in the parlor." Fashion put the woman on display. The man's part was to pay attention. Much has been written about the "masculinist" gaze, whether it be the "fellow" in Dinah Crow's song looking to see how a "gal" ties her garter or brother George staring with an interest "beyond description" at the undergarments of his sisters' acquaintances. The phrase simultaneously grasps and misses the point.
It grasps who was in charge. For all of their complaints about the spendthrift practices of wives and daughters, captured in the popular song, "Father Will Settle The Bill," shown at left, men controlled the purse strings.9 They held a monopoly over the law. Custom supported their control as did religion. Yet men did not control fashion. Women chose to wear hoops and corsets. In the case of the former, they chose them despite the almost universal howl of disapproval of husbands and fathers.10 Why? It was not, despite the protestations of Mrs. John Smith, that hoops were more comfortable than the layers of petticoats they replaced. Nor was it to please each other, although women were proverbially each other's harshest critics. It was to attract that self-same "masculinist gaze." This was an era in which a woman's career, her life's hope and work, was marriage. Yet she was not to pursue that career directly. Instead she had to attract admirers. This, as an 1835 comic poem in Godey's Lady's Book noted, could be frustrating indeed:
Why don't the men propose, mamma?
Why don't the men propose?
Each seems coming to a point, and then away he goes!
. . . .
I'm sure I've done my best, mamma,
To make a proper match;
For coronets and eldest sons
I'm ever on the watch;
I've hopes when some distinguished beau
A glance upon me throws:
And though he'll dance, and smile, and flirt,
Alas! he won't propose!
This frustrated Miss had first tried books and then ignorance. She had smiled and simpered and looked coy. Nothing had worked. The next thing to try was "tilting." The exhibitionism of the hoop skirt seemed inadvertent, unintended. The wearer did nothing out of the way. She merely climbed up her own front steps or sat down after a "panting waltz." Her admirer, for his part, also stayed within the most conventional bounds. He walked along Broadway or sat opposite his partner after that waltz. Both pretended that they were observing the strictest decorum. The hoop itself heightened the illusion of propriety. Here poor Mr. Jones wishes only to shake Miss Philips' hand. Despite his most determined efforts, he fails.
Young men and women, however, would find a way, as the following two-part cartoon illustrated:
The corset suited the era's particular style of exhibitionism and voyeurism equally well. Corsets pushed up breasts which the bare-shouldered gowns exposed. Next add that "panting waltz." Initially considered improper because of the way couples clutched each other as they twirled rapidly, the waltz was intrinsically erotic. "Tight lacing," Emily Thornwell had noted disapprovingly, "causes an extreme heaving of the bosom" even without the exertion of the waltz. The woman's breasts as they circled the floor were not quite as bare as "a cabbage stump in December," but her partner would see more than propriety dictated that he should. Yet, neither had done anything improper.
What is most surprising is not that, in an era when fashion first came into its own in America, that exhibitionism and voyeurism became key elements in courting rituals. Fashion is about exhibitionism. And exhibitionism requires voyeurism. What is surprising is the degree of candor and the playfulness with which middle-class Americans dealt with these "spectator sports." Where are the euphemisms we associate with Victorianism? Where is the seriousness we assume marked their lives? Where is the reticience? Where are the voices of morality? These last were, to be sure, raised. But, often enough, they were hooted down. This certainly was the fate of the Rev. Mr. Smythe, here pilloried in Harper's Weekly, who sought to lead a crusade against the scanty costumes of ballet dancers.
Poor Smythe. He sought to protect the public morals only to find himself accused of hypocrisy. This is our view of the Victorians. It is, it turns out, a view we borrowed from the Victorians.