Monday, December 5, 2011

Ever Wonder...

Why Victorian Ladies Swooned
By Larriane Wills

Those of you who are antique collectors or historical readers have no doubt heard of a swooning or fainting couch, sometimes called a hussy or Turkish couch. A piece of furniture, you say, designed for the express purpose of providing a ‘ladylike’ appliance to stretch out on when feeling faint? I’m not sure they called them that then, though that is what I’ve heard them referred to now, no doubt because of the frequent fainting. Considering the times when a woman was deemed empty headed, weak and dependent and fainting to avoid any unpleasant matter was the expected, ladylike thing to do. The mere thought of certain subjects was sufficient to cause a ‘swoon.’ 

Aside from behavioral reasons, there was always the corset. For myself, even today, wearing a bra is often torture. A favorite quote of mine came from a cousin. “God may have invented boobs, but some man invented a bra.” Instead of the single resisting strap around your chest, imagine one from breasts to below the waist with whalebone or steel stays guaranteed to keep you standing straight and prohibiting any bending from the waist. Now add to that the weight of the clothes. Say you have a woman of 110 pounds. The corset along weighed an average of 20 pounds. Then you had a corset cover, 4 pounds with a chemise under it, 2 pounds. A wire bustle added another 6 pounds. Four petticoats—never the movement of legs beneath was to be seen, 20 pounds. Let’s not forget the flannel drawers, 2 pounds. Drawers for summer a little less. Legs had to be covered with hose, 2 pounds. Boots came in around 8 pounds. Over all of that the shirtwaist, 22 pounds, and taffeta skirt, 35 pounds. Add a braided velvet coat, 15 pounds. Talk about a layered look. The hat alone would be enough to do me in, 10 pounds. And no proper lady was seen out without a parasol, 4 pounds. Your 110 woman now weighs 260 pounds. Is it any wonder they fainted? Breathing restricted and carrying that much weight even if it wasn’t during the heat of summer, how many of us wouldn’t ‘swoon’ and head for the couch, fanning ourselves with dainty lace hankerchiefs and sniffing from our little vials of smelling salts? Believe me, those cute little teddies with a bit of whalebone don’t compare. Try strapping on some of those exercise weights around your ankles, wrists and waist while strapping yourself into a piece of form fitting cardboard. 

You’re saying not all were ladies of society and wouldn’t have been that foolish, bound by expected and fashionable? Nay, nay, I say. For those who didn’t have the money to deck themselves out in satin and velvet to take a stroll, patterns were available, though they arrived on the common market a bit later. And if they didn’t want to sew the creations—with patterns so complicated many today can’t be deciphered—there was in the late 1800s, Sears, Roebuck and Co. Here’s some examples from a 1900 catologue. Excuse me, Consumer’s guide. 

Corsets for as little as 50 cents, but add 15 cents if ordering by mail. Underskirts or petticoats, two of the latest Paris fashion for $5.65 or one for $2.96, with 16 cents extra each for postage. Another was advertised as 3 yards wide. I could go on, hats, gloves, skirts, even suits, but you’ve gotten the idea.  You could even order your own couch for as little as $6.00.

As much as I like hats I have to say, I would have passed on those.  One of my ancestors, however, didn’t. See if the irony of this picture strikes you the same as it did me. I started to crop it to show just the lady on the right, but the paradox of the surroundings and her Paris fashion hat, that thing that looks like she has a bird sitting on her head, would have been missed.

Others may well have ordered from these pages of the Sears, Rosbuck and Co. Consumers Guide.

Do some of them remind you of those seen on the guests at the royal wedding?  I’ll pass on those too, thank you.

If you crave more from Larriane/Larion Wills, here's some places she can be found...not swooning, of course.  


  1. Loved this article! I may have to go somewhere and

  2. Fun post. All those layers of clothes must have been hot at times. Added with the corset, I want to swoon just thinking about it!

  3. I was going to say it was the corset that did it.
    But a woman is said to have invented the bra, by discarding her corset and wrapping cloth around her bosom for a night out.

  4. What an interesting article. I immediately thought bra too, but never even considered all the extra poundage from other clothing. Glad I'm a 21st Century gal.

  5. Great article Ginger. Weighted down with all that heavy clothing, I doubt if I would be able to stand up, let alone move around.As for the hat. Well, what can I say.



  6. Bette Midler has a rather interesting take on the subject of the ubiquious bra ...
    (lets see if that embeds - sometimes blogger lets it and sometimes it doesn't)
    Just in case, here's the YouTube link:

  7. do you think we can still tell the difference today between a 'lady' and a tramp? we most definitely gone from one extreme to the other. lol.

  8. Ya know are simply adorable! Can you imagine the actresses who play these parts in movies? At least ten more pounds, right? Lol. I'd so be padding my paycheck if I was one.

    Love you my sweet and informative friend.

  9. those facts came from a cigarette company, telling us how much better we have it today. of course they were also telling us a liberated woman smoked. if i weren't a smoker already when i read it, maybe i could sue them for their advertising. lol. that was back in the 80s though before anyone admitted how dangerous it was and the tobacco companies started putting more 'stuff' in them to make them more addictive.

  10. isn't karen just the sweetest person every?


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