Loose ladies and lascivious boys

This is the first of three posts on loose women and corsetry.

An article on BroadBlogs yesterday (Loose Women Don’t Wear Corsets) suggested that the phrase ‘loose women’ originated from prostitutes not wearing tight corsets. This assertion bothered me enough that I was soon reaching for the Oxford English Dictionary to look up ‘loose women’ – and it wasn’t there. A determined search for ‘loose woman’ uncovered this irrelevant quote:

1982 in G. M. Story et al. Dict. Newfoundland Eng. 314/2 [She] was complimented on her agility by an elderly gentleman who said to her, ‘My, miss, you’m a loose woman.’

Elsewhere in the OED’s entry on ‘loose’ is:

A.7. Of persons, their habits, writings, etc.: Free from moral restraint; lax in principle, conduct, or speech; chiefly in narrower sense, unchaste, wanton, dissolute, immoral.

with several instances from the 16th Century, although none apparently in connection to women, and:

B.1a. on (or upon) the loose: (a) (behaving) in an unrestrained or dissolute fashion; ‘on the spree’; (b) of women: living by prostitution; (c) gen. not tied down; not answerable to anyone.

the earliest instance of which is from 1749. During this period, women were expected to belong to a household: their father’s, their guardian’s, or their husband’s; or they were in service, belonging to some master. Otherwise they would be condemned, assumed to be prostitutes, perhaps even rounded up and sent to Bridewell to beat hemp.

Hogarth Harlots Progress 4 Bridewell

Hogarth: A Harlot’s Progress. Moll beating hemp in Bridewell Prison

In both cases, ‘loose’ has the sense of being apart from normal society, and consequently immoral. Clearly ‘loose women’ could be a phrase in use as far back as the 16th Century to descibe women of low morals – and certainly ‘loose women’ in that sense was common parlance by 1825, judging by its use in Robert Nares’ Glossary.

The closest I have found is this extract from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, published 1590:

Book II, Canto V, Stanza XXVIII

There Atin found Cymochles sojourning,

To serve his Lemans love: for he by kind,
Was given all to lust and loose living,
Whenever his fierce hands he free mote find:
And now he has pour’d out his idle mind
In dainty delices, and lavish joys,
Having his warlike weapons cast behind,
And flow[er]s in pleasures, and vain pleasing toys.

Mingled amongst loose Ladies and lascivious boys.

Or, as Bethany Myers summarises:

In the meantime, Atin has run to find Pyrochles’ brother Cymochles. Cymochles is in the Bower of Bliss, enchanted by the sorceress Acrasia. We get our first descriptions of this evil place, designed to be a garden of earthly delights that will trap unwary warriors. It looks good, smells good, has lots of naked girls (and guys), and Cymochles spends his time gazing at the ladies while pretending to sleep.

Later on, Hellenore is left to wander loose in the forest by herself without, oh dear, a man to protect her. In consequence, she is taken home to be housewife to a number of Satyrs. She doesn’t seem too unhappy with that outcome.

Book III, Canto X, Stanza XXXVI

The gentle Lady, loose at random left,

The green-wood long did walk, and wander wide
At wild adventure, like a forlorn weft.
Till on a day the Satyrs her espide
Straying alone without en groom or guide:
Her up they took, and with them home her led,
With them as housewife ever to abide,
To milk their Goats, and make them cheese and bread,

And every one as common good her handeled.

Coda

There is one mention of ‘loose women’ in The Diary of Samuel Pepys from 21st March 1665:

Up; and my Taylor coming to me, did consult all my wardrobe, how to order my clothes against next summer. Then to the office, where busy all the morning. At noon to the Change and brought home Mr. Andrews; and there with Mr Sheply dined, and very merry and a good dinner. Thence to Mr. Povys to discourse about settling our business of Treasurer; and I think all things will go very fayre between us, and to my content. But the more I see, the more silly the man seems to me. Thence by coach to the Mewes, but Creed was not there. In our way the coach drove through a lane by Drury-lane, where abundance of loose women stood at the doors, which, God forgive me, did put evil thoughts in me but proceeded no further, blessed be God. So home and late at my office; then home, and there find a couple of state-cups, very large, coming I suppose each to about 6l apiece – from Burrows the Slopseller.

About Frank

A Sci-Fi & Fantasy author and lyrical poet with a mild obsession for vampires, succubi, goddesses and Supergirl.
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