In 1913, the Sheffield Evening Telegraph was frank about the importance of corsets to women. It noted that when a woman lost her waistline, she lost her self-respect; and that, therefore, if she gave up wearing a corset, she couldn’t be ‘good’.
In all fairness, the Sheffield paper was merely reporting the views of a Mrs Jones, who had just given a lecture to the Illinois Women’s Reformatory League.
The lecture had been reported in the Daily Express, courtesy of its New York correspondent, and the provincial press were – as they often did – merely copying stories from the nationals rather than trying to spark a debate amongst the good women of Yorkshire as to whether they should drop their corsets or not.
But Mrs Jones’ comments were actually part of a wider discussion about female prisoners in the US, and whether prison life and incarceration destroyed their self-respect and therefore made it more likely that they would recommit after their release.
The Illinois Women’s Reformatory League discussed how the routine of Illinois‘ prison life failed female inmates by not providing corsets or ‘fine’ clothes, leaving them in ill-fitting, loose garb. As Mrs Jones commented:
“Self-respect is the first element toward the reclaiming of a woman’s soul. No woman can maintain her self-respect unless she wears a corset. Dress our women prisoners well and they will be reformed.”
Although one might raise an eyebrow at her conclusion – “Corsets would make good women out of many who are now delinquents” – the League’s comments were more valid than they might first appear. By giving female inmates a sense of pride in their appearance, they might feel valued, worth something; take the fundamentals away, and they would sag both physically and mentally, be devalued, feel like ‘just’ a prisoner.
By commending corsets, women such as Mrs Jones were not putting trying to undo the work of the suffragists; they were, instead, recognising that women inmates were just that – not just inmates, but women too, and that to get them to value themselves might lessen the chance of them reoffending once they left prison.
Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 1 April 1913