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Thoughts on Victorian Restriction

18 February 2014

Author : julia-silverman

This post began with some initial thoughts about the Panopticon; I was curious about prison architecture, but also of the architecture of 19th century insane asylums, the ways in which these commanding structures revealed the philosophies of use and treatment that dictated their form. After looking at images of straitjackets and leather laced “mitts,” my thoughts quickly turned questions of restrictive apparel, both within the Victorian asylum and outside of it. We often associate the Victorian period with repression: sexual repression, physical restriction, and a severe code of conduct. Of course, the Victorian period was also a heyday of psychological research, when lunatic women first began emerging in pop culture (like the crazy attic-bound wife in Jane Eyre).


So, this post began with a dual-question: what role did physical restraints play in “normalizing” women, and what kinds of invisible systems of control did tangible restrictive garments enact. One interesting (and somewhat obvious) example of bodily control was the Victorian corset, which, in favor of an “attractive” silhouette, warped the body’s structure and severely limited the types of movements its wearer could make. After a brief period in the late 1700s when freer empire waists were in fashion, the Victorian era saw a return to the tightly-laced corset, stiffened with boning and extending down to a woman’s hips. Of course, corsets did not originate in the Victorian period, but due to new technologies and styles – like steel frames, the emphasis on the “hourglass” shape, tightlacing – Victorian corsets were especially restrictive. Although I cannot articulate a direct connection, I found this intersection of norms, “style,” femininity, and physical constraint especially pertinent when viewed in light of the rise of insane asylums in Europe and America and especially in the rise in “moral healthcare.”

Both the asylum and fashion articulate systems of control, especially on the bodies of women, who were often committed by fathers and husbands for nebulous illnesses like “hysteria” (which sometimes amounted to radical religious views or breaks from traditional gender roles, see Elizabeth Ware Packard); the asylum served as one particular system of control at which female patients served as objects of study and control by male doctors. Often, their constraints were physical: cages or binding clothing that were meant to either sedate or protect a patient from harm. Although asylums often strove for “humanity” in their treatments, their pre-pharmaceutical treatments and restraints often seem torturous to a modern eye. Strait-jackets, invented in France in 1790, were thought to be a humane alternative to shackles, restricting the body’s ability for self harm. The Utica crib (below), a cage-like structure that rocked a prisoner to sleep is especially haunting.


By the late 1700s, the alternative “moral treatment” was spreading throughout asylums in Western Europe. Quaker asylum director William Tuke is well-known for implementing “moral treatment” in his center York Retreat in Northern England. Rather than using restraints and shackles, “moral treatment” advocated polite conversation, well-mannered dining, and the completion of chores like gardening. Combining a system of pre-established “norms” with intense surveillance and a rewards and punishments system, “moral treatment” expected committed women to self-govern (though successful self-government, in reality, required a complicity with dominant gender stereotypes and roles). “Later in the 1900s, historians argued moral treatment replaced the actual chains of early asylums with invisible chains, making them even harder to escape from. [1]” Yet, even those systems of treatment that eschewed traditional forms of constraint and valued “manners” employed fashion as part of “proper” conduct. Both straitjackets and corsets physically molded the body and ultimately tried to mold behaviors. Physical freedom from asylum restraints was conditional of mental compliance.


The irony of corsetry (and this whole issue of clothing, asylums, and control) is that by end of the 1800s, scientists were asserting that corsets were to blame for a whole host of illnesses, even the “womanly” illnesses like hysteria that were used to commit them to asylums in the first place. After a new crop of “health corsets,” began emerging in the 1880s, allowing for a greater range of motion, scientific journals began condemning those women who continued tight-lacing as vain and frivolous, having risked their health for fashion, and the very object used to restrict and control became a tool to denounce its wearers with labels associated with tropes of “feminine” stupidity.


Lastly, I don’t mean to present this as a coherent essay; obviously, height of the tight-laced corset in the 1850s occurs long after the emergence of “moral treatment” in the 1790s. But I do think it’s worth a thought about the ways in which overt and tacit systems of normalizing and enforcing norms, from psychology to “style” and fashion, interact, even if just at one particular moment. And furthermore, how do the restraints of BDSM-inspired fashions, corsetry in Burlesque costumes and the use of corsetry by designers like Gaultier play into “style” as a means of control (or invert those messages)?

Images: Danvers State Mental Hospital (1893); french corset from the 1860s in the Met collection; photo of Eliza Josolyne, a mental patient suffering from “insanity from overwork”; the Utica crib, a device for restraining patients; four men demonstrating different types of restraints; an illustration of Philippe Pinel’s moral treatment asylum from 1793; a photo from the 1930s displaying obsolete restraints; ad for Dr. Jaeger’s wool health corset.

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