This is the third of three posts on loose women and corsetry.
This obsession of mine has been at once deeply frustrating and very educational – like a lot of research.
For one thing, I see a lot of people saying that ‘loose women’ originated from women who didn’t wear corsets, but usually without any kind of reference. For example, Colleen Ruby Gau’s Historic medical perspectives of corseting and two physiologic studies with reenactors states:
The phrase ‘loose woman’ found its origins in reference to the prostitutes of the early nineteenth century who wore their undergarments loose or open to accommodate their customers’ time constraints.
Reference is given by Gau to the 1961 edition of Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, which I don’t have but the 1984 edition has, I think, the same entry:
loose. (Of time) not strictly observed: coll.: late C.19–early 20. ‘Breakfast is not on the table till a loose ten’ (Sir H. Maxwell, 1892: OED).—2. On the loose, earning money by prostitution: low coll.: from ca. 1860. B. & L.—3. On the loose, out of prison: proletarian. mid-C. 19–20. Ibid.—4. Hence, loose, absent without leave: NZ army: 1915–18. P.B.: and prob. other English-speaking armies over a wider time-span.—5. On the loose, on a drinking bout: Aus.: C.20. (B., 1942.) Hence, by diminution, merely ‘on a quite innocent spree’: coll.: C.20.—6. In let loose, to express one’s anger or other emotion freely, to ‘let fly’: coll.:—1939. Dal Stivens, The Courtship of Uncle Henry, 1946.—7. In run loose, (of a horse) to race unbacked: the turf: 1884 (Hawley Smart).—8. In turned loose, (of a horse) handicapped at a very low rate: the turf: late C.19–early 20.—9. See fast and loose; screw loose.
Partidge makes no specific mention of the phrase ‘loose women’; the B. & L. is presumably a cross-reference to A. Barrère & C. G. Leland’s 1889 Dictionary of Slang, Jargon and Cant. In 1859/1860 John Camden Hotten, a London antiquary, published History of Cant and Vulgar Language in which ‘loose’ redirects to ‘on the loose’, defined:
ON THE LOOSE, obtaining a living by prostitution, in reality, on the streets. The term is applied to females only, excepting in the case of sprees, when men carousing are sometimes said to be on the loose.
a spree later being defined as ‘a boisterous piece of merriment’. This ties in nicely with James Maitland’s definition of ‘loose’ in his 1891 The American Slang Dictionary:
Loose, “on the”, on the spree.
If ‘loose women’ is at all associated with women not wearing corsets, there’s little to no evidence of it. A search of online archives of 19th Century newspapers yields articles about current fashions in which aspects of dress are sometimes described as ‘loose’, but not in a pejorative way; along with adverts for new corset designs, which are unfailingly positive in tone; and articles about health impact of corsets, such as an 1889 article in The New York Times by Dr D. A. Sargent in which he reports that women’s hearts after a short run were beating at 168 if wearing corsets versus 152 without corsets.
The 1896 newspaper quote that I gave in my last post that does clearly link the phrase ‘loose women’ with corsetry, is much quoted by others, but I don’t know what newspaper that is. (The quote may even be two unconnected quotes – see, e.g., Ladies’ Frames – elegant solution to a problem or blot on the progress of equality for women? or The Bicycle – History & Facts – in which case the link between ‘loose women’ and ‘corsetry’ is no longer so explicit.) Assuming that it is a real quote, and I believe it is, it may be a rare example of word play – albeit one with a vicious sting in the tail.
Perhaps I’m wrong – after all, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence – but I have to conclude that the origin of ‘loose women’ in the undergarments of 19th Century prostitutes is a false etymology.
The phrase ‘organs of matrimonial necessity’ – used in the 1896 newspaper quote – is quoted in many places, occasionally attributed to a French expert. From Lisa Larrabee’s article in the 1991 edition of Frances E. Willard’s 1895 How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle:
Arguing against bicycling for women, one Parisian claimed that bicycling “ruined the feminine organs of matrimonial necessity,” thus bringing about the end of womanhood. It was also claimed that bicycling would destroy “feminine symmetry and poise,” as women would develop muscular legs, which would be an unsightly contrast to …
Larrabee’s sources are often not clearly stated, but the first quote is possibly from James McGurn’s 1987 On Your Bicycle: An Illustrated History of Cycling (alternatively, see Page 141 here):
The danger to health argument was more usually propagated by male doctors. It was claimed in Paris that “the bicycle signifies the end of womanhood since its use causes serious damage to the feminine organs of matrimonial necessity.”
McGurn’s reference is “Quoted without source, de Fiets, Fuchs and Simon, p. 41,” which looks like a Dutch book on the history of cycling.
Probably the phrase originates with the French doctor Dr Philippe Tissié, who wrote L’Hygiène du vélocipédiste (1888) and a revised second edition Guide du vélocipédiste pour l’entraînement, la course et le tourisme… (1893). From Hugh Dauncey’s French Cycling: A Social and Cultural History (2012):
In L’Hygiène du vélocipédiste (1888) he was disapproving of women’s cycling, mainly since the design of the machines (hard saddles, solid tyres, frames ill-adapted to female anatomy) would prove injurious to women’s health through the strains they place on reproductive organs.
Dauncey goes on to discuss Tissié’s confused change of heart; in the 1893 edition, Tissié reminds readers:
… that a woman’s abdomen is made for carrying the fruit of conception and that women are ‘wombs with other organs surrounding them’.
The phrase ‘feminine symmetry and poise’ is also quoted often. Robert A. Smith’s 1972 A Social History of the Bicycle gives the origin:
In March, 1896, Miss Marguerite Lindley told a Brooklyn audience that riding a bicycle was destructive of “feminine symmetry and poise, a disturber of internal organs and an irritant of external tissues.” What she meant was that cycling had a tendency to develop some parts of the body at the expense of others, notably the legs against the trunk and arms.
Miss E. Marguerite Lindley was lecturer on health-culture in New York and author of the 1896 Health in the Home, which has a chapter on bicycling. An article in The New York Times from 19th May, 1897, descibes a speech given in Brooklyn by her, titled, How to Choose a Wheel; Advice to Women Who Want to Ride Bicycles:
Don’t think that riding makes a graceful and symmetrical figure. It does not. … Bicycling develops only the legs, and the upper part of the body must have other exercise to equalize the effects.
Also, on 8th March, 1896, The New York Times noted:
Miss Marguerite Lindley, who is a great believer in the bicycle for women, is credited with the following: “Show me the well-poised, symmetrical body, and you also show one that needs no apology for health. Careless posture and gait give rise sooner or later to weak conditions of some of the internal organs.”