S-curves are on the brain. They come in lots of colors and sizes. They are marvelous things and here is why.
The birth of novelties is a chicken or the egg affair. They come from advances in technology which comes from desire which is a result of advances in technology and so on.
Let us take Patchouli for an example. Women of Europe would have tea and spices shipped from India arrive in patchouli leaves. Since these leaves were used as packing materials they were cheap and readily available. Rapidly, they became a cologne, proto-perfume component. Whether they associated the smell of patchouli with the smell of excitement and therefore decided to wear it, or whether patchouli smelled appealing in the first place is hard to know. But raw patchouli doesn’t really smell that good (in Hungary, for example, patchouli has evolved to means old, smelly perfume, not simply patchouli oil). Now, patchouli paired with other oils can be quite marvelous in a fresh, dirty sort of way, but perfumers didn’t start doing that until the 20th century. So why people used it so heavily in the 19th is a mystery.
Novelties are like that. They take off from some unknown, unlikely source, become fascinations and obsessions, and are eventually institutionalized, until they become vestigial and are cast off. The S-curve on the left beautifully demonstrates this phenomenon
Think of the bustle, or panniers. They travelled down the S-curve. Both came from advances in research, greater availability in certain resources, and from some oddly creative, bored, mind with some connections. At first they were weird, then hot, then normal, then institutional and vestigial. Long after the floaty empire gowns were the norm, court apparel was still panniers. And the 2nd birth of the bustle in it’s hard form is an example of how they just couldn’t kick it long after people were thinking otherwise.
Thankfully for progress and survival, there is usually something to take the place of the last, something starting it’s own path down the S-curve. The curve below shows two s-curves, with the second being an ‘improvement’ on the first. How we measure ‘improvement’ is again an abstract and relative scale, but that’s too much to cover here.
So, the S-curve can be an abstract thing, representing a motion, relationships, and ratios. Our lovely Edwardian S-curve, though not entirely, can be understood on a more physical level.
It is the S-curve (or S-bend) that makes the Edwardian silhouette both wonderful and weird, elegant, yet awkward… like patchouli. It stands out amongst all the others in history for its oddness. And here is where it came from:
Women wanted smaller waists, but the old, conventional hour glass corsets couldn’t do the job. They put a lot of strain on the hips, ribs, and so forth, and caused problems with breathing. They had to wrestle with the curves of the female figure, while leaving room for the cinched in body to go away from the waist. It was a hard think to do, to be sure.
What the ‘modern’ Edwardian corset did was flatten the bottom half of the torso against a flat busks. The pelvic portion of the torso has no where to go but back, and the breast portion of the torso, goes forward, both to balance and out of necessity. The lower spine was in a constant bend, resulting in thicker thighs, and wider derrieres. Waists could be cinched in further, though at the expense of an erect spine, and overdevelopment of the butt and thighs. But, for women of the time, that was a God-send.
Imagine Gertrude seeing another Lillian, fresh from Paris with her new Modern corset, her tiny waist cinched in, her clothes new and novel, her billowy ivory lace complimenting her skin tone, and her breathy movements and flushed cheeks personifying elegance. Lillian is beautiful, travels to Paris, had good clothes, looks good. She would want some of that, whatever small portion she could feasibly gain.
Saying that women were forced by men into an S-corset is the same as saying that all of those women who smoked in the 1950s were forced to do it to catch husbands and conform to social standards, or that all of the women who go to night clubs in 2009 wear scanty clothes because otherwise men would not look at them. Maybe partially, but come on. That’s not only overly simplistic, it’s also narrow minded.
Making an S-curve corset is one of those things you long for, yet fear. It’s a challenge, not just as far as sewing goes, but also psyhologically. One can recall our feminist women’s rights trailblazers lambasting the corset for its oppression, making it seem like a sin. They were doing what any good leader would do: pick a few specific enemies or rallying points, and attack them vigorously. This sets an example for the others, and boosts morale when a victory is achieved. One can’t blame them for that, or certainly for getting women the vote. But the truth is, the corset, in general had run its course.
Fortunately, for myself, my last project kind of covered what came before the S-curve. And most people know what came after. Corsets became lighter and lighter and eventually disappeared. Women wore no bra, both skirts and hair became short, smoking became rampant, busts nonexistent, and waists thick. Loved-ones exposed to the machine gun declared mechanization the victor. The fashionable woman was wasteful, childlike, fearless, frantic, fun-loving, spunky, providing a source of escape and distraction for men dealing with strong cultural and economic alteration. The economy soared, as men saw opportunity in the tear down that resulted from war in Europe and the income tax. Middle classes bought mass-produced items on credit, cottages on the shore, and cars in the midst of their short-skirted, consumeristic exuberance.
The S-curve corset, the last in a long-line of Queens, had no place in that world. It had reached the point of diminishing returns just in time for introduction of the income tax, in 1913.