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.
I’m not going to go on and on with several comments on this topic. I will only say this:
An academic source that I discovered by way of a Smithsonian Institution exhibit says that the modern American usage of the word “loose woman” to describe women who had sex with many men came in response to the fact that prostitutes did not wear corsets. The corset created a “respectable sexuality” by accentuating bodily parts deemed sexual, but at the same time, women were all penned in — symbolic of being sexually restricted, or “respectable.”
Prostitutes already stood outside respectable society, so why torture yourself when no one respects you, anyway?
You can find the book over on this post:
You keep beating me over the head with your source – and maybe it’s a good one but I don’t have enough information. The book you keep referring to is, as far as I can tell, a reproduction of the information plates at the exhibition. Are any sources given in the book that help to understand this conclusion about the origin of the phrase? Is there any statement of when exactly the term originated?
Assuming the modern American usage originates in the Victorian era, can you really argue that this is distinct, given that the phrase existed prior to this time with the same meaning?
The England vs America issue does create some differences in custom, of course. Victoria Steele’s The Corset: A Cultural History (cross-referencing Michael Mason’s The Making of Victorian Sexuality) notes:
“By 1824, apparently even the poorest street-walkers in London wore corsets.”
Which would go some way to explaining this quote (repeated here for completeness):
“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.”
And yet, the connection between loose clothing and immorality is undeniable. Here’s another quote from Victoria Steele:
“The English apparently believed that loose dress signified loose morals. Stays were the visible sign of strict morality, whereas cosmetics were an artifice that signified immorality. When the heroine of Richardson’s Clarissa Harlowe (1748) visits a brothel, she sees the whores ‘all in shocking dishabille and without stays’.”
The specific phrase ‘loose women’ to refer to prostitutes was commonly used in the 19th Century, and can be found in The Diary of Samuel Pepys from 1665. But the key issue, the point I have been trying to make from the start, is that prior to the 19th Century, ‘loose’ applied equally to men and women and not necessarily to imply prostitution.
My guess is that, back when the monarch was absolute, men also were subject to the strict hierarchy of society. Everyone apart from the king (or queen, in the absence of a king) had a lord and master – or, if not, they were considered ‘loose’, outside of society, and generally dangerous and immoral…
And that’s why “loose” – unrestrained, freer, unfettered – comes with a negative connotation.
Thanks for the mention 🙂
You’re very welcome. I learned a lot from it.