Who killed the corset?

Robe-Sylphide, 1899

Robe-Sylphide, 1899

This interesting article brings a new contender forward as a possible leader for the abolishment of corsetry in the early 1900s – Mme Margaine-Lacroix. As early as 1899 she was producing what she called the ‘robe-sylphide’. Advertised as being “ sans corset” (without corset) or “supprimant le corset” (abolishing the corset), her silk jersey gowns were noted for their ability to slim the figure while dispensing with the need for under-garments. Corsetless gowns had become more popular by this time as a rational dress reform movement grew. Emilie Floge and Liberty of London were both creating artistic gowns for women committed to freedom of movement at home, even Sears catalogues were selling wrappers – corset-less day dresses suitable for at-home wear.

Margaine-Lacroix produced her robes-sylphide from knitted silk, aka jersey. She also made corset-sylphide – a corset of silk jersey with minimal boning to idealize the figure. In an interview in 1908 she explained her design philosophy: “I have been patiently at work for years, educating the public to what women’s dresses really should be …only two garments cover the body – there is first a tight elastic silk jersey ….the outer garment is made to serve as its own corset, the bodice being strengthened with a little whalebone, not enough however to destroy its suppleness.”

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Silk jersey without a corset

French Actress Marcelle Yrven caused a sensation in the summer of 1908 when she appeared on stage in a Margaine-Lacroix robe-sylphide. It was reported that “the dress seemed glued to her body, and all Parisiennes worthy of the name wished to see it.” except that admirers were  banned from entering her dressing room, as “the charming artiste had decided to wear her dress without any underwear.”

Co-inciding with the robe-sylphide was the Directoire revival – a high-waisted fashion that focussed less on a small waist and more on the overall slender curves of the torso topped by enormous hairstyles and hats. This became a silhouette championed by designers like Vionnet and Lucile. Soon thereafter, an exotic Oriental influence promoted by Paul Poiret’s costuming for the Ballets Russes brought stronger colours and an even more slender silhouette to fashion. Did anyone single-handely abolish the corset? I don’t think so — it was a case of ‘Air du Temps’ — time for a change.

There are several great articles and books that outline many of the players in the death of the corset. This one by Randy Bigham Young brings up the many characters involved in the death of the corset. Daniel Milford-Cottam also looks at people like Margaine-Lacroix in his book Edwardian Fashion, who were pushing for new ways of defining the female form at the turn of the century. It’s never a simple story of one person changing the world…

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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