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Waist away;The big picture

(Photograph) - Ladies did not go to the gym in the 1840s, but they suffered more refined forms of torture in the cause of acquiring the perfect shape. The Victorians weren't bothered about taut abdominals, firm upper arms, cellulite control or a healthy heart rate. As long as the waist fitted into a gentleman's handspan, a multitude of sins could be kept under wraps in the crinoline age, and indeed had to be. It was some decades before any self-respecting female dared to flash a well-turned ankle.

This cartoon by an anonymous "Esq" - captioned "A correct view of the new machine for winding up the ladies"- gives the personal trainer's role to the corseti re, who resorts to a Heath Robinson contraption to stop Madam's silhouette busting out all over.

Fashion victims continued to rely on a combination of whalebone and brute force well into this century. David Hillman and David Gibbs' recent catalogue of the 20th-century inventions that have most changed everyday life ("Century Makers", Cassell pound;16.99) notes the arrival of the bra in 1909 (employed in the Twenties as a restraining device to achieve the desirable flat-chested flapper look) and the zip in 1914 (not used in women's clothing until 1930). But we had to wait until 1959 for Lycra (silicone implants arrived a few years later).

Now, as in the 1840s, the key is control: both the use of technology to control nature and defy the effects of age and gravity, and self-control in pursuing the disciplined lifestyle that produces the body beautiful. The woman who shows off a tiny waist and concave stomach (perhaps adding a jewelled navel ring) is also telling the world that she has found the right diet and exercise regime.

Pursuit of the elusive ideal figure continues to propel women to desperate measures. Do the middle-class Victorians in the picture deserve any more derision or pity than the soap star who recently had a pair of ribs removed? (She wanted a skinny waist, too.) Geraldine Brennan


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