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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.

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Thursday, 6 February 2014

Little-ease and the Secrets of Beauty


Stays, if rightly used and shaped, undoubtedly do good, it is only misuse and faulty design that is injurious. I hold that most of the corsets at present on the market are quite wrong in design, and do not allow the free expansion of the lungs, nor do they do much to improve the graceful contour of the figure. They are, in fact, instruments of torture, not aids to beauty. But is it fair to condemn altogether the use of this article of attire because some patterns are badly designed? Is it right that we should forego the advantages of binding because some stays press on the wrong place?

The Secrets of Beauty, 1914, Cora Brown Potter

Ms Potter goes on to say


As to the aesthetic effect of the corsets such as I advocate, all I have to say is that I have always worn them. I have lived in the public eye for many years, I have visited every nation,and dwelt under every sky, so in your hands, gentle sisters, do I leave the verdict.

In the seventeenth century people were well aware of the pain a corset could cause. John Bulwer, in Man transform’d: or the artificial changeling (1653) wrote:

Another foolish affectation there is in young virgins, though grown big enough to be wiser, but that they are led blindfold by custom to a fashion pernicious beyond imagination; who thinking a slender waist a great beauty, strive all that they possibly can by straight-lacing themselves to attain unto a wand-like smallness of waist, never thinking themselves fine enough until they can span their waist. By which deadly artifice they reduce their breasts into such straights that they soon purchase stinking breath; and while they ignorantly affect an angust or narrow breast, and to that end by strong compulsion shut up their waists in a whale-bone prison, or little-ease; they open a door to consumptions, and a withering rottenness.


John Bulwer was a pioneering student of the nature of human gesture and of the potential for communication by deaf people. His study of the processes of artifical modification of the human body uses examples from all over the known world, and ultimately criticises British fashions for using the same restricting actions applied by less developed cultures. A ‘whale-bone prison, or little-ease’ was a corset, made from the baleen plates from whales’ mouths. 

'Little-ease' was the name of prison cell in London's Guildhall in which unruly apprentices were in effect tortured; the space was too restricted to allow an individual to stand, sit or lie comfortably. Curiously, the first citation for it in the OED runs: 

a1529   J. Skelton Colyn Cloute (?1545)   
Lodge hym in Lytell Ease 
Fede hym with beanes and pease!  

And feeding someone of beans and peas (interesting etymology on that word too) would over time make him or her fatter, and thus more discomforted.

The Illustrated Police News 25 June 1870 carried the story of a woman who ‘died from the effects of tight lacing which impeded the action of her heart’.

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