This is the second of three posts on loose women and corsetry.
I made great efforts yesterday (Loose ladies and lascivious boys, in response to the BroadBlogs article, Loose Women Don’t Wear Corsets) to show that the origin of the phrase ‘loose women’ has nothing to do with corsets, but there is a connection.
I suspect any connection with prostitutes’ attire is a red herring, but it can be no coincidence that critics of ‘Rational Dress’ from the 1880s onwards used the phrase ‘loose women’, with its overtones of immorality, to describe women who discarded their corsets and skirts for more practical clothing.
There is a wonderful article by Ste Ríkharðsson (The Bicycle: Part 2 – Chains that Set Women Free) about ‘the history of women’s rights movements and how the bicycle became a symbol of women’s emancipation especially during the 1890s.’ I particularly like this quote from an 1896 newspaper:
… these loose women are pedalling along the path of destruction […] Doctors warned that the unusual physical exertion, combined with the perilous lack of corsetry, would damage the feminine organs of matrimonial necessity and shake them loose…
(This pair of quotes is noted also in Ladies’ Frames – elegant solution to a problem or blot on the progress of equality for women? and The Bicycle – History & Facts: A Pictorial History of the Evolution of the Bicycle – The wonder years.)
Coda: Britain vs America
Did prostitutes wear corsets? Well, such questions about clothing will depend on when and where we are talking about. For example, according to Victoria Steele’s The Corset: A Cultural History (cross-referencing Michael Mason’s The Making of Victorian Sexuality): “By 1824, apparently even the poorest street-walkers in London wore corsets.”
The fashions of prostitutes vary as much as – and often follow – the fashions of polite society. In Fashion and fallen women: the apparel industry, the retail trade, fashion, and prostitution in late 19th century St Louis, Jennifer Marie Schulle argues that there was little to tell prostitutes apart, and negative descriptions of prostitutes’ clothing were more likely from people who already knew the women to be prostitutes.
A British Library article on Prostitution in the 19th Century, by Judith Flanders, notes a similar difficulty in distinguishing prostitutes from society ladies:
Dress played a great part in recognizing street-walkers, for otherwise it was hard to tell. ‘Walter’, the pseudonymous author of an 11-volume erotic memoir, wrote of a women holding up their skirts, ‘the common habit of even respectable women’. The only difference was prostitutes ‘hold them up just a little higher’. But how high was ‘a little higher’? To be sure, Walter had to approach, asking ‘Will you come with me?’ Only when she agreed, could he be certain.
Evidence for ‘loose women’ in American history: Most, if not all, of the sources I have been looking at these past few days have been very British, so I was starting to wonder whether ‘loose woman’ really did have a separate etymology in America…
In 1793, a yellow fever epidemic struck Philadelphia. John Adams, Founding Father and later the second president of the United States, returned to Philadelphia on November 30th, and the following day he wrote to his wife Abigail:
The greatest Mortality appears to have been in bad Houses and among loose Women and their gallants among the Sailors and low foreigners.
Here is yet a postscript
For centuries the English had associated loose clothing with loose morals. By the Victorian era, few men still wore corsetry (corsets being seen increasingly as tools to shape women’s bodies to be more feminine) and the word ‘loose’ had strong shaming power through the common usage of ‘loose women’ to describe prostitutes.
After the industrial revolution made cheap (and typically very ill-fitting) corsets readily available to all, corset makers and sellers were not above shaming women into wearing corsets, implying or stating outright that women who did not wear corsets were not merely loosely clothed but loose-moralled. (I have seen this stated by others, but I have yet to find any supporting references – see my next post.)
By the time women started rebelling against the corset during the era of Rational Dress from the 1880s on, even the press was quick to label them as ‘loose women’. This wasn’t clever word play. It was a vile attack.