People in eighteenth-century portraits hold their bodies as if they were dancers. Even a squirmy toddler tenuously balanced on his mother’s knee has beautiful posture. Were those gracefully lifted torsos just an improvement of the painter, trying to please clients? Or should the subjects’ stays, the quilted corsets stiffened with whalebone that laced tight up the back, take some of the credit?
Stays weren’t just for for grown women. Babies were put in unconstructed ones made of coarse fabric very young. Providing support for their weak little spines may have been less important than accustoming them to wearing a garment that would become increasingly confining as they grew. Little girls soon graduated to smaller versions of the form-molding garments and were expected to wear them practically all the time because being laced up was supposed to convey a sense of modesty. At least that was the advice of male authors of well-known guides to female behavior. Because the stays held up the rib cage, the wearer’s ability to change the position of the torso was quite difficult. In this illustration of a girl reading, she is so engrossed in a book that she forgets to maintain a good seated posture. But she isn’t slumping. Her torso is tilted over her lap and her shoulders are rounded, but her back looks straight, because the abdominal muscles cannot sag or collapse. Wearing stays was only one aspect of a demanding “curriculum” to manage the body. This aspect of eighteenth-century education, which combined best medical practice, contemporary notions of beauty, and social aspiration to participate in fashionable society, finds expression in a book famous in the history of medicine, Nicolas Andry de Bois-Regard’s Orthopedia or the Art of Correcting and Preventing Deformities in Children (1741). d’Andry, who was the dean of the faculty of medicine in Paris, argued that a normal healthy body can develops deformities when its natural symmetry is compromised by civilized life. (The previous illustration and all that follow are from Cotsen’s copy of the first edition of the English translation of 1744).
He pointed out things that sparked the process of bodily deterioration in infancy. An ignorant nurse might lift a toddler up by the leading strings attached to the shoulders of its bodice, which allowed its heavy head to sag, strain the neck, and pull the shoulders out of alignment. Children’s bodies could incur permanent damage when carelessly handled by adults playing infant amusements with them. One of the most dangerous was one called “going to visit grandfather” in which the adult would lift the child by its neck and swung it around, putting the spine at risk of dislocation.Furniture could be responsible for deforming children’s bodies. The school boy below is writing on a surface that is too low, so he hunches over his work. The other boy to his right is eating at a table that is too high, so he scrunches up his shoulders.When d’Andry talks about deformations of girls’ bodies, it is more difficult to determine i the relative importance of legitimate medical concerns, contemporary standards of beauty, and fashion, which strives to display the female body’s perfections. The chest is the most beautiful part of the body, according to d’Andry, so he placed considerable emphasis on the proper training of the thorax, or middle back, the arms, and clavicles. One reason for this was to keep the chest open and promote healthy lung breathing. He recommends various manipulations and exercises, including walking with a little box balanced on the top of the head.When the desired results could not be obtained through exercise, d’Andry did not hesitate to recommend that parents require their daughters to wear the contraption below in addition to stays.Was d’Andry aware that his program of physical discipline dovetailed with the dictates of fashion, where the bodice was the focal point of a dress because of the way it set off a girl’s head, shoulders and breast? Possibly not, because the idea of posture in the Western world has never made clear and distinct demarcations between health and beauty with respect to the body.