Corsets, Whalebones and Waist-whittlers

‘A Corset is of sterling worth in aiding and beautifying the figure.’ 

Have you ever considered a corset as a status symbol; a means of class distinction? Surprising as it may seem the corset once ranked high among the status symbols of our forefathers, or mothers, as the case may be. The woman who could not stoop to retrieve her fallen fan, could exert herself sufficiently to tinkle a handbell for her maidservant who, uncorseted, or at least should be if she wanted to keep her position, could retrieve it for her.

The corset has of course other functions. Its main one being to support and mould the figure into the shape dictated by the fashion of the day. It has always had its erotic associations, making the wearer feel attractive and feminine and no doubt decidedly uncomfortable.

We first hear of the corset in early Mediaeval England, when the Monks wrote of the evils of tight lacing and bustling, saying that it caused deformity. They failed to stamp out this pernicious habit for by the sixteenth century the corset was an accepted part of a lady’s wardrobe. It was made of stiff leather, wood or even iron supports, with large semi-circular side pieces laced on. The stomacher, a flat placard, was fastened to the front and pulled tightly in at the waist, leaving the hips free. Elizabeth I pioneered the use of whalebones in corsets, but as ever, this wily Queen was motivated mainly by economic reasons.

By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, corsets were even worn in the nursery. A lady of quality along with her young daughters, wore a ‘pair of bodies’ stiffened with busks of wood or whalebone with back lacing, the lower part open to ride over the hips.

During the Regency period when clinging, neo-Grecian lines were the mode, the corset fell from favour. Undeterred, the corset makers turned their attention to the male of the species who was at that time preening himself unashamedly. The ‘dandies’ took to the ‘Cumberland Corset’ or the ‘Brummell Bodice’. Even the Prince Regent laced himself into stays and the less kind among his contemporaries considered him to be in need of such support.

It was the Victorian era, however, which saw the corset fashion at its height. The waist reverted to its normal position and tight lacing was once more evident. There is no doubt that much of the ill health and fainting fits of the time were attributed to this. Young girls considered it desirable to marry with age and waist measurements the same - preferably less than twenty-one. A lady of fashion would on no account be seen without her corset, even in bed.

Metal eye-holes and india-rubber came to be used during the Industrial Revolution and in 1860, elastic panels were introduced. As skirts tightened in the 1870’s so the corset lengthened and here we see the birth of the suspender. The naughty 1990’s saw a devastating array of frills, laces, bows and paint box colours, the most popular being cardinal red and canary yellow, hidden beneath a starched Victorian facade. There were dual purpose corsets with chemise tops which could be used for day and evening wear, in black, white or cardinal silk coutille.

At the turn of the century came the so-called health corset which flattened the stomach, thrusting the bosom forward and the hips back thus creating the mature, solid S-shape. Advertisements emphasised the beneficial effects of these corsets in relieving the hips of the weight of the skirt and preventing stooping. Shoulder braces were also available for wearing over the corset. Well encased, the Victorian mama and her daughter would be quite incapable of stooping.

There were corsets for every occasion. Cycling was becoming fashionable and a special cyclist’s corset with elastic sides was produced. A writer commenting in a shopping guide of a woman’s magazine of 1894 shows the attitude of the day on the wearing of corsets when she says ‘I wish fat people could be persuaded to wear them for tennis.’

In 1902 came the unbreakable corsets with triple steel busks, and in 1903 the featherbone which was composed of quill fibre and claimed to replace old-fashioned whalebone. The ‘solo’ corset of 1905 introduced invisible lacing which could be adjusted by the wearer at the pull of a string. At this time too appeared the reducing corset with an elastic abdominal belt.

After the great war things were never the same again. The boy look of the 1920s brought in the use of ‘flatteneds’, a sheath-like garment which fitted from armpits to thighs and dispelled any shape whatsoever.

In the 1930s came the ‘two-way stretch’ reminding women once more of the comfort and grace of being natural. In the summer of 1939 the corset almost made a comeback, for waists were nipped in and advertisers promised laced up corsets made from the newest materials. The second world war ended this fashion abruptly; women had to work and working women have no time for the restrictions of tight lacing.

Since the war the move has been towards an even greater freedom. The use of nylon and Lycra and the fashion for young, natural lines have released women from a bondage most of us have no wish to see return.


How to create suspense

At its most basic, suspense is the art of the reader knowing more than the main character does. 
E.g the famous shower scene in Psycho. Sometimes the reverse is true and withholding information can also be effective. A character may receive a letter or phone call, giving vital information to the protagonist but not the reader. Choosing the right moment to give in to the reader’s need-to-know is a skill you develop with practise. Too soon and the reader is disappointed, too late and she grows bored and irritated. It’s a useful ploy to have presented a second problem before resolving the first.

Here are some other techniques you can use to add suspense in all types of fiction.

Cutting to another character or situation. This keeps the reader guessing and hopefully breathless with anticipation as they are taken to another part of the story. From time to time you can remind them of what they are still waiting to learn, or take them back and give them a snippet more to wet their appetite. Increase the suspense before you deliver. Milk a scene without slowing the story down.

Fear of the unknown:
Uncertainty of outcome helps to create tension and fear. In THE QUEEN AND THE COURTESAN Henriette d’Entragues was terrified when Henry IV had her arrested. Would she be tortured, or even lose her head? In THE FAVOURITE CHILD, Isabella Ashton became nervous when she suspected Billy Quinn was following her. Did he mean to hurt her or was he simply fascinated by her?

Forewarning and pointers:
These can appear at different points in the book like a promise or threat of dangers which might (or might not) happen. But don’t make these too blatant, or you’ll fall into the trap of the ‘dear reader’ style. Keep the reader guessing. I find that if a twist in the plot occurs to me as I am writing, I often have to go back and put these in.

Red herrings: 
These are pointers which deliberately lead nowhere. They too can create real suspense and fear. Common in detective fiction, even in general fiction they can be used to good effect. But don’t lead the reader down too many false trails or the story will lose credibility.

The worsening scenario: 

Start with a feeling of unease, a hint that something isn’t quite right, or a person not as pleasant or innocent as they at first appeared. Gradually the menace builds and increases to develop a sense of dread, finally panic or terror. I used this to great effect in TRAPPED, where the wife is subject to a bullying and controlling husband. False hope: The character believes all is well. The reader thinks otherwise. Who is right?

Mental ordeal: 
An overwrought imagination can make a nightmare out of a crisis. The viewpoint character’s turmoil and emotion can add atmosphere to a story through their mental anguish. This may cause her to imagine things that aren’t actually happening to her. She might think she is being followed, or see someone she thought was dead. It might be real, it might not. Her fears may erupt into dreams, delusions or hallucinations.

Failed communication and unexplained happenings:
A letter not delivered. Secrets withheld. THE PROMISE is based on a family secret. Chrissie wants to know why her mother’s name was changed? Why she never met her grandmother. There must be a strong motivation why a secret is withheld and not just to keep the reader reading. Deliberate lies are also a good plot device, again with proper motivation. Is her boy friend telling the truth about where he was last night? Can she trust him? Who-how-why was her kitchen ransacked when she’s certain she bolted every door and window? No one will believe there’s anything wrong because the body has vanished.

She is being pursued and there must be a real danger of her getting caught. Does she know who by? Establish the motivation of why she is being pursued, how she is trying to escape, and what stakes are involved besides her own safety. Whether or not she will succeed must always be in doubt until the conclusion.

Give her only a limited time in which to achieve her goal. This is a device usually piled on top of the original quest, and makes for an even more compulsive story.

Surprise and shock: 
Surprise is a very effective weapon. Sometimes it is useful to practise a little sleight of hand, leading the reader along one path and then hitting them from another direction. It must be logical though, even if it is not what they expected to hear. Perhaps they didn’t notice an earlier clue you carefully disguised as a red herring. Twists and turns of the plot keep the reader guessing. Don’t fully explain something, disguise or withhold the whole truth, but don’t overdo this or you might irritate and confuse. Agatha Christie was a master at this device.

This can be useful in all types of fiction, including romantic. I’ve written some pretty gruesome scenes in some of my own sagas, including the opening scene in HOUSE OF ANGELS when Livia is being beaten by her father. Judge the degree of horror that is right for the story, according to the genre you are writing. Make sure it is essential and not gratuitous. It should have a genuine purpose in the plot, and be properly woven into the story or the reader might skip it.

Gothic type atmospherics are not so popular these days and don’t usually work as well in print as in film, but you should and must appeal to the senses. The weather, the place, the time of day or night, smells, textures, sounds can all evoke a sense of doom or fear. Try to appeal to the reader’s imagination but don’t overdo it or you might tip it into farce. Remember the atmosphere can serve as a contrast to the protagonist’s mood or emotion.

New out this month:
ISBN 9780749008291
Allison & Busby
26 September
Hardback 19.99

Chrissie Kemp visits her grandmother and discovers a shocking family secret. Georgia Briscoe is in love with British sailor Ellis Cowper but unwillingly betrothed to Drew Kemp, a businessman mired in the San Francisco underworld. Georgia plans escape to be with the man she loves, but then comes the earthquake…

For more details click here:

ISBN 978-0727880925
Severn House
29 September
Hardback 19.99

Henry IV marries Marie de Medici to provide riches for France. But Henriette d’Entragues has a written promise of marriage and intends to declare the royal marriage illegal. All she has to do is give Henry a son, and by means of intrigue and conspiracy, set him on the throne.

For more details click here: