The Perfect Body and the Perfect Bodice.

Have you ever looked at old Victorian photographs, particularly of female subjects, and noticed how perfect the sitter looks? How their skin is perfectly creamy, their hair perfectly coiffed, and (most strikingly) their bodice completely smooth over their torso, not a wrinkle or crease to be seen.

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Just look at that skin and that shape! (and yes, it is Lillie Langtry)

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The bodice is perfection – too bad about that chin.
I think this perfection is partly due to 19th century photography, and the tendency of (popular and successful) portrait artists, whether in paint or photo, to make their subjects look as attractive as possible. It was quite common for Victorian photographers to draw in details of photographs that blurred in the original image.

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I really hope my poor great-something grandfathers didn’t look quite this…umm…crisp…in real life.

19th century photography techniques would also have made the smoothing out of unsightly details, such as spots and frizz and wrinkles, a fairly easy matter, and photographers were even known to shave a few (or more!) inches off their sitter’s waists, perpetuating the myth of the 16 inch waist of the 1860s belle.

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That waist is impressive, but almost certainly not real – check out the odd shadowing under her arm.

The thing to remember with all of this is that photographers and painters will only alter and improve what society and fashion already demands to be smoother or thinner or fuller or sleeker or rosier or paler or curlier or straighter as the fad may be, so, even without the photographers help, Victorian ideals must have called for perfectly smooth figures, with no creases and wrinkles in the torso. What was the fashion conscious woman to do?

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So close to perfection, just the tiniest pull from her watch.

First off, wear a corset. Corsets are fantastic for providing a smooth, hard base to keep bodices wrinkle free. Also, a properly fitted garment will be much better at staying in place and smooth (which will be partly why women in expensive dresses are less likely to be wrinkled).  In addition the weight of the skirts must have helped to pull the bodices down and keep them smooth. Finally, bodices were often boned and held in place with hidden waistbands, which would have kept them upright and in place.

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I love that this photo was take in Sandwich, Ill, because it looks like Sandwich Isles.
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This is my great-something grandmother.  And in addition to being gorgeous, she clearly knew how to dress, and how to keep those troublesome 1860s bodices in place.

Whilst all of these do help, I still find that some of my Victorian bodices wrinkle and pull, or (worse yet), show clear lines where my bosom (or lack thereof) meets the top of my corset.

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This is how I want my bodice to look.
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This is not how I want my bodice to look.

I’d worried and worked on this problem for a while, but couldn’t think of a way to completely fix it, until last week when I examined a garment (one of the fantastic wedding dresses) which may be the key to the ideal Victorian figure.

The bodice, circa 1874, was lightly padded between the outer layers and the lining in the bust area. This meant that no matter how obvious the lines of the undergarments, the padding would smooth them out and provide the desired wrinkle-free and flawlessly round shape.
The padding was not so much a case of supplementing what was lacking (as a false bosom would) as ensuring the correct line. In a modern sense I thought of it as the difference between wearing a seamless undershirt and seam free bra to ensure that no lines show through your blouse, and wearing a padded bra to supplement your bust.
I’m definitely going to be trying this technique with my 1850s muslin bodices.

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Lovely round shape.
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Look at that figure!  And it looks like she wasn’t that well endowed – you can almost see a corset line at the bodice, but it is just smoothed over.  There is hope for me after all!
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