Venus "Would Have Worn Stays": Classical Imagery in Victorian Dress Reform

Lydia Haile

Moses Brown School

In the nineteenth century, traditionalists and dress reformers argued over whether or not women ought to wear corsets.  Both sides frequently invoked Venus and Classical imagery, using similar evidence to support their diametrically opposed points.  This use of imagery built on various Classical trends that were already present in both traditional and reform dress.    

The traditionalists believed that women ought to continue to wear the corsets and other trappings of fashionable wear.  They claimed that corsetry was necessary for support and beauty, and that no figure, even the most naturally beautiful one, could achieve true elegance without some kind of corset.  Reformers, in contrast, did not believe in wearing corsets, which they believed injured women medically and morally.  They wanted to replace the hourglass silhouette of the time with flowing garments inspired by fashions from earlier eras, especially the Classical and Medieval periods.  

As would be expected, the two sides used Venus and Classical imagery very differently.  Dress reformers contrasted images of the fashionable corseted female form with the torso of the Venus de Milo, claiming that corsetry caused a distortion of the natural female beauty that Venus represented.  In contrast, the traditionalists found what they claimed was evidence of corsetry in Terence and Homer and argued that, had Venus found herself in the nineteenth century, she would have worn what was fashionable, not her Classical nudity.   Where corset advertisements showed 'cupids' lacing women up or frolicking in empty corsets, reform images showed women being squeezed to death by corset snakes.   Other advertisements showed women in mock-Classical poses, wearing corsets over their clothing, or ancient statues in corsets. 

These arguments looked to the Classical world for support because the use of Classical imagery was then current in fashion, as it was in broader culture.  Both traditional and reform fashion were influenced by Classical imagery; reformers took their inspiration from freely flowing draperies, while the fashionable inclined more towards the  'Grecian Bend,' a silhouette supposedly modeled on postures found in Greek vase paintings.  The same fashion plate might show a reform dress that was 'a reproduction of the Ancient Greek dress,' easily recognizable as such to the modern eye, and a more traditional fashion that 'combined 'the classic characteristics with the requirements of modern fashion,' which, to the modern eye, despite a long description of its supposedly classical features, looks like any other fashionable dress of the era.  

Bringing in the Classical world also lent the support of scholarship and the wisdom of the ages to one's argument.  Fashion regularly compared women of the era to Classical heroines and goddesses; fashions regularly claimed to be inspired by Classical forms, new fashions were given Classical names whether or not they had any Classical connections, and beautiful women might be praised in Classical terms.  In such a climate, claiming that Venus would have dressed in a certain way could be a persuasive argument. 

Both sides claimed that Venus agreed with them and would have dressed in the way that they advocated.  Both were right; fashionable women kept their corsets until the early twentieth century.  The reformers won in the end, however; the fashionable woman and Venus eventually did discard stays. 


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