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Corsetry - The Lady And The Blacksmith

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Marjorie is now observed in Venice. It is the dawn of the Renaissance. Venice at this time is the principal maritime state of Christendom. She trades with the entire civilized world. We find ourselves in a city of merchant princes who dwell in magnificent palaces and are great patrons of painters and sculptors. The important thing to Marjorie is that Venice is the center of Fashion.

Corsetry here has recently taken a very firm step forward. The blacksmith, an artist in shaping metal, not long ago became the corsetier, and the corset assumed again the distinction of a prime fashion item.

Well, quite a while ago the corset had achieved that very distinction. Long before, indeed, there was any such word at all. The curious course of corsetry is exceedingly difficult to trace, mainly because there is no kind of agreement among its historians, past and present. When, in the latter half of the thirteenth century, the word itself had actually come in, corset apparently soon meant quite different things.

The earliest corsets, so called, seem to have been, as we'd say, "stuffed shirts." But six centuries or so before the word was the thing. Then it was that the stiff, tight corsage known as the cotte hardie came into fashion. The Professor renders it freely as daring coat. To show that it was a new and daring fashion he points to modern French dictionaries, defining hardie as "bold, daring hardy, fearless, undaunted, dauntless, firm, intrepid, venturesome, rash."

Further, there is graphic evidence of corsetry from the hand of a fashion artist who dated his illuminated manuscripts 1043. He was a monk evidently in a somewhat vitriolic state of mind concerning the fashions during the reign of Edward the Confessor. His savage design, entitled The Fiend of Fashion, depicts a figure partly woman but with a bird's head and claws. This monster is encased in what we should certainly call a corset, tightly laced and stiffened by two busks—strips of wood or steel placed down each side of the lacing. It is to be presumed, however, that the fashion depicted here did not widely or continuously prevail, as some learned authorities aver that it was not until the twelfth century that Marjorie's outer tunic became fitted and lacing was introduced.

We have already noted the cotte and surcot of these times. The surcot, worn outside, became stiffened, laced, and richly ornamented—in effect, a corset. The first actual mention of the word corset (written "corsetto," the Italian of it) discoverable by the Professor appears in 1265, as an item in the household accounts of Eleanor, Countess of Leicester; but from the context it has been deduced that this was a masculine garment, belonging to Richard, Earl of Cornwall and King of the Romans, or to his son, Edmund.

The word seems to have applied to a close-fitting body-garment having skirts and sleeves, but the term may have been used for the upper part—what might be called the bodice. It applied also to a similar article stuffed and quilted to form a "garment of fence."

The word is Old French. According to the Professor, it derives from corps, in early times frequently written cors, meaning body. Dictionaries give the word bodice a similar origin. One deduction is that the term corset was evolved from a combination of cors and the verb server, to tighten. That oldtimer, Strutt, says that the corset, from cors, was so called because it covered the greater part of the body. The term stay originally meant one of the stiffening pieces of a corset.

Certain manuscripts of the thirteenth century indicate the corset underneath the dress or drapery. Lacing became tighter and tighter during the next century or so. Then along came the hardware corset. An infallible support, it was constructed throughout of wrought iron. It was richly fashioned and highly decorative. Beginning well. up toward Marjorie's shoulders and cut to fit her armpits and curve just below her breasts, it descended in a noble grillwork effect to her rigidly compressed waist, with several graceful solid-iron projections extending some inches below.

At the beginning of the fifteenth century such noble families as the Medici, Este, and Visconti established fashions for themselves, and each house vied with the other in the splendor of their apparel. And what has been termed the most sinister phenomenon in Marjorie's career, the corset of modern history, now came into full bloom.

To Catharine de' Medici has been attributed the "crime" —with so many lesser ones, as a caustic lady remarks—of establishing this instrument in its complete form. She abhorred her large waist, legend says, and indisputably contrived a strait-jacket to confine it. It extended from throat to waist, coming to a long, hard point in front. Thus she succeeded in reducing her waist to thirteen inches. And this remained the standard for a long time.

Catharine's court physician was one Ambrose Pare, a man of science not without enduring fame as a surgeon. It is said that inspecting the results of the Medicean corset on the dissecting table, he remarked dryly, "Their ribs ride horseback, one upon the other."

Just now, however, Marjorie is not corseted. Aside from a large straw hat, she is wearing nothing but, as we'd say, her bathrobe—a voluminous sleeveless mantelet. It is the day of the week when she washes and gilds her hair. The wash for this purpose is made from a variety of interesting ingredients, which includes the droppings of swallows, burnt bear-claws, lizard-tallow, saffron, ox-gall, and the juice of hickory roots gathered in May.

She is sitting drying her hair on what we should probably call a roof garden—in this case a platform atop her immense suburban villa. Here, on a tripod by her side, simmers a mixture of rose-water and sweet smelling herbs. Her gold-stained hair, drawn through a slit in her hat, is spread out over the wide brim. A Circassian slave moistens it now and then with a sponge, and a Tartar serving-woman combs it with an ivory comb. A little blackamoor holds up a mirror, backed with mother-of-pearl and set with pearls. A lap dog dozes on Marjorie's knees. In a corner, against a railing, squats a monkey.

The heat is baking. Marjorie's hair is dry, and she descends to the dressing room. Here a tirewoman opens a richly ornamented chest and takes out a fresh shift of fine cambric linen, interlaid with sprigs of lavender and silken sachets of Levant irises and Damascus roses. Marjorie casts off her mantelet and inserts her lovely arms in the sleeves of the shift, fashioned in small fancy pleats. She draws on her stockings of saffron-hued cloth and her long pointed shoes of soft gilded kid. She braids her hair and catches it in a net of gold mesh.

It is Marjorie's custom to spend endless time at her toilette. In one of several huge closets is a vast stock of cosmetics, perfumes, and dentifrices. With a pair of special steel tweezers Marjorie plucks her eyebrows until they are barely defined—as, indeed, she had done in the England of Chaucer's time.

With the help of her tirewoman, Marjorie adjusts her new steel corset which has just come into vogue. Actually, it might be called a corset-cover, as she is already laced beneath. It is of thin steel plate cut in an ornamental lace work pattern, opening on hinges and fastening with a hasp and pin. The prime purpose of this structure of refined engineering skill is to ensure the smooth, perfect fit of the dress which goes over it.

One of the enormous closets is hung to fullness with dresses. Here are dresses of such solidity, owing to their encrustation of gold and precious stones, that they could stand without support upright on the floor. They are designed with deep incisions which expose, enticingly, Marjorie's shoulders and bosom. Others are as light as cobwebs. Yes, and as diaphanous ! Marjorie sheaths herself in a gown of purple velvet embroidered with gold moths. Through the modish French slits of the sleeves, finestrelli or windows, is glimpsed the snowy white linen of her shift.

During this time Marjorie has been conversing with a sempstress, who has been communicating to her the latest talk of the town. The young wife of one of the leading sea princes, it appears, the captivating Madonna Costanza, is making a cuckold of her husband and has taken as a lover a newly arrived Spanish don. "I should think," says Marjorie, "that he would put a padlock on her." She has reference to "certain tools," as Brant6me says, "for bridling women's affairs."

At this instant arrives Marjorie's cousin, the Countess, from her estate near Padua. What is this about padlocks? she wants to know. Upon listening to the story, "I don't believe there are any such things!" she exclaims.

"Why, they are even told of by authors!" cries Marjorie.

"By the French authors," retorts the Countess, "but our Italian romancers, so fertile withal in love stories and the vengeances of jealous husbands, never allude to them—and the thing is said to have been invented in Italy!"



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