Story type: Essay
Only those who have worked in the offices of an important newspaper, know that the Power Behind the Throne–which is the Editorial Chair–is rarely the Church, scarcely ever the State, infrequently the Capitalist, and never Labour,–but simply the Advertisement Department.
I was sitting the other afternoon–dreaming, as is my wont; and smoking cigarettes, which is one of my bad habits,–when the head-representative of this unseen Power rushed into my sanctum.
“Will you do something for me?” he demanded, with that beneficent smile on his face which, through experience, I have discovered to be the prelude of most disagreeable demands.
“Certainly,” I answered, inwardly collecting my scattered brains preparatory to a brilliant defence. “What is it?”
Without more ado he, as it were, threw his bomb.
“Will you write me an Essay on Corsets?”
“On what?” I asked incredulously–knowing that he had been a distinguished soldier, and suspecting that he had suddenly developed what the soldiers describe as “a touch of the doolally.”
“But I don’t know anything about them,” I protested, “except that I should not like to wear them!”
“That doesn’t matter,” he answered reassuringly. “All we want is a page of ‘matter.’”
Then he proceeded to explain that he had secured several highly-paid advertisements from the leading corsetieres, and that his “bright idea” was to connect them together by an essay illustrated by their wares, in order that those who read might be attracted to buy.
Then he left me.
“Just write a history of corsets,” he cried out laughing. Then, by way of decorating the “bitter pill” with jam, he added: “I’m sure you’ll do it splendidly!”
“Splendidly” I know I could not do it, but to do it–rather amused me.
After all, there is one benefit in writing of something you know nothing about (and you are certain that ninety-nine per cent. of your readers will not be able to enlighten you) the necessity for accuracy does not arise. And so, I settled myself down to invent “history,” and, if my historical narrative is all invention, I can defend myself by saying that if it isn’t true–it might be. And many historical romances cannot boast even that defence.
Most people who write about the early history of the world have to guess a good deal; so I don’t see why I shouldn’t state emphatically that, after years and years and years of profound research, the first corset “happened” when Eve suddenly discovered that she was showing signs of middle-age in the middle. So she plaited some reeds together, tied them tightly round her waist-line, and, sure enough, Adam had to put off making that joke about “Once round Eve’s waist, twice round the Garden of Eden” for many moons. But Eve, I suppose, discovered later on, as many a woman has also discovered since her day, that, though a tight belt maketh the waistline small, the body bulgeth above and below eventually. So Eve began making a still wider plait–chasing, as it were, the “bulge” all over her body. In this manner she at last became encased in a belt wide enough to imprison her torso quite uncomfortably, but “she kept her figure”–or thought she did–and thus easily passed for one hundred and fifty years old when, in reality, she was over six hundred.
And every woman who is an “Eve” at heart has followed in her time the example of the mother of all of ’em. As they begin to fatten, so they begin to tighten, and the inevitable and consequential “bulge” is imprisoned as it “bulgeth” until no corsetiere can do more for them than hint that men like their divinities a trifle plump in places. But to arrive at this–the last and only consolation–a woman has to become rigidly encased from her thighs almost to her neck. She can scarcely walk and she can hardly breathe, and the fat which must go somewhere has usually gone to her neck, but–thank Heaven!–“she has kept her figure” (or she likes to think she has), and many a woman would sooner lose her character than lose her “line.”
You may think that this only applies to frivolous and silly women, but you are wrong. It applied even to goddesses! Historians inform us that the haughty Juno, discovering that her husband, Jupiter, was going the way of all flesh and nearly every husband, borrowed her girdle from Venus, with the result that when Jupiter returned home that evening from business, he stayed with his wife–the club calling him in vain. Thus was Juno justified of her “tightness.”
But then, many a wife has cause to look upon a well-cut corset as her best friend. And many a husband, too, has every reason to be grateful to that article of his wife’s apparel which the vulgar will call “stays.” In earlier days a husband used to lock his wife in a pair of iron-bound corsets when he went away from home, keeping the key in his pocket, and thus not caring a tinker’s cuss if his home were simply overflowing with handsome gentleman lodgers! The poor wife couldn’t retaliate by locking her husband in such a virtuous prison, because men never wore such things–which, perhaps, was one or the reasons why they didn’t, who knows?
Also, the corset–or rather, the “bulge” of middle-age, which was the real cause of their ever being worn–has always strongly influenced the fashions. I don’t know it as a positive fact, though I suspect it to be true nevertheless, that the woman of fashion who first discovered that no amount of iron bars could keep her from bulging in the right place, but to the wrong extent, suddenly, thought of the pannier and the crinoline and–well, that’s where she found that she was laughing. For almost any woman can make her waist-line small: her trouble only really comes when she has to tackle other parts of her anatomy which begin to show the thickening of Anno Domini. Panniers and the crinoline save her an enormous amount of mental agony. On the principle of “What the eye doesn’t see, to the imagination looks beautiful”–the early Victorian lady was wise in her generation, and her modern sister, who shows the world most things without considering whether what she exhibits is worth looking at, is an extremely foolish person. One thing, however, which women have never been able to fix definitely, is exactly where her waist should be. Men know where it is, and they put their arms round it instinctively whenever they get the chance. But women change their mind about it every few years. Sometimes it is down-down-down, and sometimes it is under their armpits. A few years ago a woman who had what is known as a “short waist” was referred to by other women as a “Poor Thing.” Then the short-waisted woman came into fashion–or rather, fashions fashioned themselves for her benefit–and her long-waisted sister had to struggle to make her waist look to be where really her ribs were. Only a few weeks back a woman’s waist and bust and hips had all to be definitely defined. Nowadays they bundle them all, as it were, into clothes cut in a sack-line, and are the very last letter of the very latest word in fashion. I can well imagine that a few years hence women will be as severely corseted as they were a short time ago.
I can well remember the time when a woman who held “views” and discarded her stays sent a shudder through the man who was forced to dance with her–though whether they were pleasurable shudders or merely shuddery shudders I do not know. Nowadays, the woman who wears an out-and-out corset, tightly laced, is either a publican’s wife or is just bursting with middle age. The corset of to-day is little more than the original plaited grass originated by Mother Eve–in width, that is; in texture it is of a luxury unimaginable in the Garden of Eden.
Women are not so concerned nowadays that their waist should be the eighteen inches of 1890 beauty as that their figure elsewhere should not presume their condition to be at once national and domestic. The modern corset starts soon and finishes quite early. Thus the cycle from Mother Eve is now complete. “As we were” has once more repeated itself.
The only novelty which belongs to to-day is that men are wearing corsets more than ever. A well-known corsetiere has opened a special branch for her male customers alone. Their corsets, too, are of a most beautiful and elaborate description–ranging from the plain belt of the famous athlete to the brocade, rosebud-embroidered “confection” of a well-known general. Perhaps–say fifty years hence–my grandson will be writing of male lingerie, and men will rather lose their reputations than lose their figure. Well, well! if we live in a topsy-turvy world–as they say we do–let’s all be topsy-turvy!