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"That Waist!" - Photo Editing at the Turn of the Century

corsets Edwardian Foundations Revealed historical costuming history informational research s-bends Victorian Worth gown

Corseting and tiny waists have been back in discussion lately, primarily due to Cathy Hay's excellent post about the importance of viewing the past and present objectively, particularly when it comes to corsetry and fashion. Here is another great write-up about corsetry myths. If you haven't read these articles, stop, go do that, then come back here.

We tend to look at photos from the 1860's-1910's and think, "wow, women had such small waists back then!" This look is especially extreme right around the turn of the century, when the "S-Bend" shape became the silhouette of choice. But these women were not all that different from you and me. My great great grandmother wore corsets. Four generations is really not much in the context of human evolution. So--how did they do it? They wore corsets from a young age, yes. They sometimes employed bust and hip padding. A few did tightlace to extremes. However, the story does not always end there.

It is well documented--but perhaps not as well known--that photo editing was extremely common in this period. Technique manuals and guides were published for portrait studio artists. Editing involved scraping, drawing, and painting directly on the negative. Common edits included smoothing of skin, softening angles of collarbones, shoulders, and faces, and removing blemishes. What, you didn't really think your great great uncle George had perfect skin, did you?

Retouching did not stop there--by strategically placing their subjects in front of plain, darker backgrounds, it was quite simple for a skilled photographer to change the very shape of the body.

Once we know what to look for, retouching becomes quite obvious. It is there in the smooth cheeks of Edwardian women, in the impossibly sloped shoulders of debutantes, in the famous waist of Polaire. She is often used as an example of the "horrible" torture that women supposedly endured.

Out of pure curiosity, I decided to employ some old fashioned retouching techniques to one of my Worth Gown photos. The results are fascinating.

This photo was taken in 2017. I am wearing an S-Bend corset with a 4" waist reduction, about twelve (!) shoulder pads pinned to my hips for padding, and a bust improver.  This gives me a difference of almost 20" between waist and hips--which is pretty extreme already. I am "lucky" to currently have a figure that is similar to the Edwardian ideal, and I acknowledge that it does help with this illusion. In full disclosure, I have a 22.5" corseted waist in this photo. That is measured over the corset, but not over the gown. If I took a measurement over all layers, it would probably be closer to 24", a far cry from the legendary 18" waist.

Left photo: Color, lighting, and contrast have been edited. My figure is unedited.
Center: Showing where the waist would likely be carved in by a turn of the century retouch artist
Right: Full set of edits meant to mimic Edwardian beauty retouching

I was really surprised to see how "right" the last photo looked, even though it is clearly a fantasy. If I waist trained regularly I might be able to get down to that size, but it is unlikely. Polaire did waist train, and most of her photos were still retouched.

My takeaway from this little exercise is that we should be kinder to ourselves about our figures in general, and especially when it comes to wearing historical costuming. The camera has been lying since the advent of photography. Now, we use filters, photoshop and facetune to correct perceived flaws. We're not all that different from our ancestors after all, are we?

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  • Rosie on

    The other technique I heard about—rather pricey “back then” because it required a total of three photos to be taken, but large fashion houses may have deemed it “worth it”—is to first photograph the model in front of the background, then photograph the background without the model. Once both photos were printed or otherwise applied to paper, the model’s picture would be snipped carefully to produce the desired proportions, then laid on top of the blank background picture so that it lined up. Then, the photographer would take a picture of these layered photographs, and the result is a picture of the model with waist “reduced”. This method still works today with digital photos…and costs a lot less than the Photoshop software, especially if you have a printer at home. Hmm…wonder what I’d look like with bangs?

  • Redthreaded on

    Hi Callie,

    If you can’t go in, you can go “out.” Padding is historically accurate for most periods (not everybody did it, but think of it like push up bras today) and can help create the illusion of a smaller waist. We often employ padding in theatre to help give more shape without requiring significant reductions.

  • Callie J on

    Any advice for those of us with very very “modern” figures for wearing corsets? I have an extremely square, immovable rib cage and a very muscular core, and it makes corsetry unpleasant.

    I love corsets, and I wear them for all my costuming, but I have yet to find (or make) one that does not pinch my ribs and I have completely given up on getting any actual waist reduction. I was forced to stop exercising for two years recently due to medical problems and I thought I might actually be able to cinch, but no, my mesomorph frame refuses to give up muscle mass. Anyone have any ideas?

  • Jacquelyne Coupland on

    Great read! I always thought that those waistlines were impossible. And that dress you are wearing is amazing. Is it possible to get one made exactly like that? Or is it one of a kind? Please let me know thank you

  • Karen on

    I remember working in a photographic archive for my internship and learning all the tricks the photographer did to glass plate negatives. I love it when people say there was no Photoshop back then because I get to laugh!

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