So, five minutes ago, I discovered that s-bend (also known as swan bill) corsets were a thing. Apparently, they were invented in the 1890s by Inès Gaches-Sarraute (a medical doctor) as a healthier alternative to regular v-shaped corsets (that is, corsets designed to give women the desirable v shape at the waist), the idea being that it didn’t put so much pressure on the abdomen. They were all the rage from about 1900 and into the early 1910s.
As for what the the corsets looked like…
Below, you can see the finished effect and how the s-bend got its name.
The straight busque forces the pelvis backwards and the bust forwards. Despite the good doctor/corsetiere’s intentions, the health benefits were minimal, given the extreme strain placed on the back.
And, just like the old-style corset, high fashion often dictated ridiculously tight lacing:
Fortunately, in the 1910s, waist lines rose to pretty much regency height (think Rose in Titanic) and women’s backs and waists were safe for a while. I’d laugh except that, more than a hundred years later, we still torture ourselves for fashion. Stilettos, anyone?
If you write historical romance of the non-closed door variety, sooner or later you’re going to find yourself researching undergarments. I’m sure there are lots of places on the internet where you can find all the information in one place, but one more won’t hurt. My books are set in the 1880s-90s, so that’s the period I’ll cover in this post.
I can’t remember who called the appearance of Victorian women in photographs ‘well-upholstered’ but the description is spot-on. Unsurprising too, once you realize how many layers they had to put on every morning to be considered ‘decent’.
First your well-bred lady (probably with the help of her maid) would put on a chemise:
Then the drawers:
The chemise would be worn tucked into the drawers. Or you could opt for a combination, which was basically the two garments stitched together without all the excess fabric. Then you’d add a corset which would be attached to your stockings with a suspender belt.
Then a petticoat:
Then a corset cover:
Then, if it’s still the 1880s, a bustle:
Or, if it was the part of the 1890s when massive sleeves were in, you need wire sleeve supports:
Give or take the odd sleeve support and varying the size of the bustle, you’d end up looking something like:
There. Now she’s ready to put her dress on. Assuming she still has the energy.
Just when I thought I knew where I was with this topic, I find this article by Dr. Kate Lister. In a nutshell, while there is next to no evidence for Victorian doctors using the vibrator to stimulate women’s clitorises as a cure for hysteria, there is actually quite a bit suggesting they used manual stimulation of the vulva or pelvic massage.
According to my understanding of the article (and, truth be told, I am beginning to doubt my ability to understand anything about this subject), the point of the treatment was not to induce orgasm (though people at the time worried this would be an unfortunate (?) side-effect), but to treat a miscellany of conditions including “prolapses and protrusion of the uterus; prolapse of the vagina; hypertrophy and induration of the uterus; ulcerations; abnormal haemorrhage, depending on relaxation of the uterus; tendency to miscarriage; slight hypertrophy of the ovaries.”
So, no vibrators, but apparently fingering was fine and dandy. And recommended by The Lancet.
I’ve always been fascinated by Victorian sexuality, probably because it diverges so widely from the stereotype promulgated by nineteenth century novels. The idea that Victorian doctors used clitoral stimulation to treat female hysterics has long been accepted as fact. There’s even a book about it written by an actual scholar and published by John Hopkins University Press. So it must be true, right?
There’s even a (very fun) film about the invention of the vibrator. Here’s the trailer in case you’re interested. Which you should be because Rupert Everett is in it.
When I started writing The Madness of Miss Grey, I certainly believed Maines’s research to be solid. There was never a draft of my story where this particular treatment was practiced; I was writing historical romance, not historical fiction, and I decided including scenes (in which inmates of a lunatic asylum are masturbated to orgasm to relieve hysteria) presented too much of an ethical minefield.
How could such a thing have been true given what we know (or think we know) about Victorian society? According to Maines, the medical profession didn’t view clitoral stimulation as sexual because they had a woefully penis-centric attitude to intercourse. This didn’t jibe well with what some primary sources had to say regarding the Victorian belief that female orgasm was necessary for procreation, but I reasoned that, then as now, different doctors held differing opinions. I wonder if, on some level, I wanted to believe it because it’s so titillating (see the trailer above) and because the artwork is seductive:
I came across opposing opinions, particularly Dr. Fern Riddell and Oneill Therese, but it wasn’t until I read this article that I realized I was going to have to reassess my beliefs. Maines responds to criticism of her book by declaring her ideas only an “hypothesis,” adding :
“I never claimed to have evidence that this was really the case.”
As the article states, “she was a little surprised it took so long for other scholars to question her argument, given how admittedly “slender” the evidence she gave in The Technology of Orgasm was. “I thought people were going to attack it right away. But it’s taken 20 years for people to even—people didn’t want to question it. They liked it so much they didn’t want to attack it.””
As someone who has read The Technology of Orgasm, this may be true, but her tone was certainly authoritative.
So, can we definitively say that Victorian doctors didn’t use clitoral stimulation to treat hysterics? Well… not really. As with so much of history, we can’t be absolutely sure. Maines includes a lot of very suggestive stuff. But if we can’t be 100% certain, it’s still fair to say there’s little to no evidence.
Fortunately, it wasn’t hard to remove and adapt the few references in The Madness of Miss Grey. It just goes to show that, even when you’ve done the research, even when you think you know what the past was like, you really don’t. Whether its historical fiction, historical romance, or even non-fiction we’re writing or reading, we’re all imagining our own versions of the past.
I first came across Lady Meux when writing my first manuscript (now languishing on my hard drive). I think I was trying to gain a more accurate idea of what ladies wore in the 1880s when Harmony in Pink and Grey popped up in my Pinterest search results. I’d never seen it before and I fell in love once I learned a bit more about the subject. Valerie, Lady Meux, despite her aristocratic demeanor, was a woman with a past. She didn’t begin life as a lady and was never accepted in the highest social circles.
When she married Sir Henry Bruce Meux, 3rd Baronet, it was said she’d once been an actress, but, while she does seem to have spent a single season on the stage, it’s thought she was actually a barmaid, banjo-player, and prostitute when she met her future husband. For some reason, it’s the banjo playing that sticks with me:
Like I said, she was never fully accepted by society (or her husband’s family) but instead of sitting at home and sinking into a decline as sinful women mostly did in Victorian novels (see Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Gaskell, and about a bajillion others,) she threw lavish parties attended by the future Edward VII among others, drove around London in a high phaeton (the old timey equivalent of a sports car) drawn by zebras, and was painted by Whistler three times.
Sadly Whistler burnt the third painting (Lady Meux in Furs) after Lady Meux said something that pissed him off during a sitting.
So there you go: Lady Meux, Victorian sex-worker made good, artist’s muse, socialite, and banjo-player.