The Liberty Bodice

Lise Mayer

When I was seven I went on my own to stay with my grandmother. In the mornings I would watch with fascination as she arose from her bed resembling some creature from a blasted heath and gradually transformed herself into an elegant, well groomed lady.  She wore an array of bewildering undergarments, one of which she called her “Liberty Bodice”, and it made me snigger because it was a thick, fleecy, shapeless garment with cloth straps and lots of little rubber buttons with which you fastened on other types of underwear like stockings and knickers. At the time this unappealing and restrictive garment seemed to me the absolute opposite of everything that the word Liberty implied.

But Time moves forwards, not backwards. My grandmother’s mother and all the women of her generation wore baleen (whale boned) corsets which were laced tightly to give them tiny wasp waists. Only very poor or slovenly Victorian ladies would venture out in public without a corset, even when pregnant, or they would risk being social outcasts.  Women would even carry smelling salts to revive themselves when they fainted as a result of having their guts squeezed into a very small space and heavy skirts and petticoats hung from their waists. In the 19th Century the belief that corsetry and morality went hand in hand was so entrenched that even ‘Pit Brow Lasses’, the female miners, who worked dangerous shifts on open coal faces, were only allowed to wear trousers if they still wore their cumbersome, heavy skirts on top of them, hitched up round their waists.

 

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The Victorian Dress Reform movement and the Rational Dress movements both started in the 19th century and argued that women should be able to wear more practical and sensible clothes, especially for sporting activities like cycling. A divided skirt, which was gathered round the ankles to give greater ease of movement whilst still protecting modesty, was invented in 1851 by an activist in the American Temperance movement called Elizabeth Smith Miller and was soon adopted and popularised by one Amelia Bloomer, whose name then and forever became associated with voluminous underpants.

Amelia, who suffered great ridicule from both men and women for her chosen garb, gave up wearing ‘The Bloomer Garment’ in 1859 . In the end the reformers had their greatest successes in the world of underclothes, since the wearer could still appear in public without incurring social opprobrium.  The Liberty Bodice and its American cousin The Emancipation Waist, which were invented at the end of the 19th century and manufactured into the second half of the 20th, replaced the boned ribs of the Victorian corset with cloth strapping and the body compressing laces with buttons, and did indeed provide much greater freedom of movement for the women and young girls who wore them.

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These days we wear what we like. Baggy track suits, light breathable fabrics, stretchy jeans. Women can choose to wear garments that are comfortable, practical and suitable for whatever activity they are engaged in. Underwear is optional and can be as skimpy as we choose. We congratulate ourselves on how far we have come from our great grandmothers. We pity women in countries where they have to cover their bodies.  

But for us it’s the bodies underneath the underwear which have now become our corsets. As hemlines rose and necklines fell, the exposed parts of the body were expected to be both svelte and hairless. With the comfortable lycra leotards of the 1980s came Body Con and a huge increase in eating disorders. Women were now expected to look both slim and athletic, with muscles tightened and toned like the exoskeleton of a large arthropod . Fat became a blemish, to be dieted and exercised away or in extreme cases, sucked out in surgical procedures. If our figures don’t conform to what is considered socially desirable we are, if not morally suspect, at least lazy and undisciplined. Psychologists have even coined the term ‘normative discontent’, meaning that for a woman to be dissatisfied with her body shape is now the statistical norm. And in 2014 it’s not just the tiny waist of the Victorian era that is considered desirable, but a physique which only exists in an airbrushed, retouched photograph of a 22 year old underwear model.

Maybe we should bring back the Liberty bodice.

 

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Born in Chicago, comedy writer Lise Mayer moved to England from the USA at the age of 9. She co- wrote and created ground -breaking sitcom 'The Young Ones' and has gone on to write TV shows, stand -up, books and screenplays. 

 

First picture:

http://alteringthoughts.blogspot.co.uk/2008/02/so-much-going-on.html

the blog says it comes from the V&A museum of childhood's collection, but i can't find it on their website (haven't searched very hard though)

Second pic:

decription from museum of london website http://www.museumoflondonprints.com/image/139414/the-medical-battery-co-limited-advertisement-for-harness-electric-corsets-19th-century

Third pic:

wikipedia commons (copyright free):

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Wigan_pit_brow_lass.jpg

Fourth pic:

Getty Images seem to be licensing it, but it's almost certainly out of copyright, so I'm not sure what right they have to charge for it. Nonetheless here's the link :

 http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/amelia-bloomer-champion-of-womens-rights-and-dress-reform-news-photo/3067208

Fifth pic:

Daily mail :

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2181576/Is-perfect-bikini-body-How-Cheryl-Coles-arms-Jessica-Enniss-abs-Kate-Middletons-legs-make-ultimate-beach-babe.html

 

While government watches you, who watches the government?