Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Nineteenth-Century Silhouette and Support

As Richard Martin and Harold Koda noted in Waist Not, “[s]eldom does fashion confirm the natural waist.” This was never more true than at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when women’s dress emulated the Neoclassical line, which placed the waistline just below the breasts. The columnar silhouette was first rendered in sheer cottons and linens, which revealed a woman’s unencumbered body below the “waist” and drew up and supported the breasts above. By the 1810s, the same silhouette hardened through the use of heavier silks and stays underneath. Unlike the conical stays of the eighteenth century, early nineteenth-century stays were long and compressed the hips in furtherance of the columnar line, and they introduced gussets underneath the breasts in order to support them above the high waistline.

From the late 1810s through the 1820s, the waistline slipped downward by degrees until it was just above natural position in the 1830s. By the 1830s, the ideal silhouette was a wide open triangle atop generous bell-shaped gored skirts short enough to reveal the ankles. The breadth of a woman’s upper torso was achieved through a combination of underpinnings. Stays were boned, which provided pressure on the waist, and had bust gussets, which pushed the volume of the bosom upward, and featured shoulder straps, which held the shoulders down and away from the neck. Sleeve supports, made of down or of cotton shaped with whalebone, filled enormous leg o’mutton sleeves, which further widened the upper torso. The skirts were supported by corded or stiffened petticoats.

In the 1840s, the defining elements of the silhouette slipped downward on the body until the ballooning sleeves disappeared altogether. By the 1850s, the open triangle created by sloped shoulders was still a key element of the silhouette and the expanding skirts were often boxed pleated or gauged, rather than gathered, at the waist and reached the floor. This new, broad-based silhouette made the waist appear even smaller. That effect increased with the transition from multiple layers of petticoats to the cage crinoline. With its introduction around 1856, as Richard Martin and Harold Koda note in Bare Witness, “lateral expansion achieved its zenith; crinolines afforded light support for massive skirts and for the wide expanse of upper chest visible above the bust, a breadth which now extended even off the shoulders.” Made of hoops of whalebone, cane, or steel held together with cloth tapes or encased in fabric, the light, effective support of the cage crinoline allowed dresses to achieve an expanse as great or greater than that provided by eighteenth-century panniers.

By the 1870s, the expansive base of the cage crinoline had fallen out of fashion but women were loath to discard the voluminous dresses that had covered them; fashion evolved into the bustled silhouette that replaced the belle of the 1860s. Fabric which had previously spread over the cage was pulled to the back of the dress, creating a silhouette that was, from the side, almost a right triangle supported by back-heavy petticoats or new hooped crinolines modified for the new silhouette. From the front, the silhouette reflects increasing control being brought to bear on the waistline by corsets shaped to an hourglass silhouette.

The bustle silhouette slipped downward and almost off the dress until the early 1880s, when it reappeared projecting off the back of the dress at a near right angle. This form of bustle was compared to an ottoman, and it tended to be upholstered similarly, which further increased its mass. It was supported underneath by a variety of structures, many advertised as healthy alternatives to the horsehair structure that had supported some 1870s bustles.

The torso atop the bustle also reflected increasing technological innovation in the construction of foundation garments. With the increased reliance on steel boning and ever more complex pieced construction, the corset became capable of delivering an armored underpinning to conform the body to an hourglass silhouette. The innovations in corset construction also allowed for more pressure to be placed on the waistline than had been possible in the eighteenth century. This would place the objet de luxe which the corset had become at the center of increasing controversy over health issues attributed to the wearing of corsets, but not before the hourglass silhouette it offered had become iconic to the whole of the nineteenth century.