Revisited Myth # 59: Women had very tiny waists during the “olden days.”


What makes waists appear smaller in paintings and photos is the illusion created by the dress styles, which in the 17th-18th centuries involved farthingales or panniers (above), in the 19th century involved wide crinolines or bustles (below), and in the 1940s involved padded shoulders (below).Unknown


Long gowns with wide panniers or full skirts make the waist seem smaller in comparison, as does the triangular stomacher that narrows to a point just below the waist, like this one:


Studies of costumes at the Smithsonian, Colonial Williamsburg, and other museums provide the evidence. Curator Linda Baumgarten’s measurements of 18th-century stays and gowns show waist sizes ranging from about twenty-one to thirty-six inches. Author Juanita Leisch’s personal collection of garments from the Civil War era shows a median waist of around 23-25 inches. Scarlett O’Hara and her 18” waist aside, few women except teenagers (like Scarlett, who is 16 when the novel opens) had unusually small waist measurements.



3 Responses to Revisited Myth # 59: Women had very tiny waists during the “olden days.”

  1. Janice says:

    So. Very interesting. Were women shorter?

    • WriterMelle says:

      Women of age 20 had an average waist size of 25 in 1950….compared to today when the average 29 year old has a waist size of 32…I think your argument is flawed. In addition during the corset days, women frequently had to be revived with smelling salts due to fainting which was, at least in part, due to an inability to breathe from corset cinching…they also removed lower ribs to make waists smaller…and in Victorian days, women were thinner and and smaller due to poor nutrition….making the waist 22 or even 16 inches. Oddly, women were not much shorter but feet were much smaller. Over last 100 years, our feet have grown from average female US size 6 to US size 8 1/2…largely, all of it is nutrition (and obesity) and a refusal to squeeze into clothes which make it impossible to breathe.

      • Liza at BDV says:

        No one ever had a rib removed to whittle the waist. Surgery was a risky, anesthesia-free event even when it was a life-saving necessity. It was not and could not be used for a highly-invasive, trendy cosmetic procedure. That was not a medical possibility. The “bones” and “ribs” you may read about breaking and/or removing were those of the corset, not of the wearer.

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