Sep 26, 2013
11:02 AM
Style & Shopping

The 'Revealing' Story of Corsets in Connecticut, a New HavenTale

The 'Revealing' Story of Corsets in Connecticut, a New HavenTale

Chemise, corset and hoop, circa 1870-80 from the Connecticut Historical Society collection.

Madonna made corsets sexy, provocative and even a manifestation of female power. The narrative arc between the pop superstar’s iconic on-stage outfits and the rise of the corset as a body-shaping device in 16th-century Europe—with its aesthetics-enhancing squeeze being the rage in the Victorian era—makes an important stop in Connecticut, and specifically the storied Wooster Square neighborhood of New Haven.

It was home to the first corset manufacturer in the U.S., the Strouse, Adler Company, the exclusive maker of “Dr. Scott's Electric Corsets,” which promised to cure nervousness, according to the New Haven Museum. The company made corsets—and later, girdles—from the late 1800s until the company ceased operations in 1999.

“Corsets now are relegated to costume dramas, a few high-fashion designers (although they do not use true corsets), and the half-hidden world of enthusiasts and sexual fetishists,” says an entry about corsets on the page of the Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library at the University of Virginia.

Whatever you think of that judgment, the New Haven Museum finds corsets fascinating, and tonight (Sept. 26), in fact, the museum will host a 6 p.m. presentation that promises to be “revealing” as it illuminates its subject, Corsets in Connecticut: Underwear as Industry in Wooster Square.

In the free lecture, being held in conjunction with the “Beyond the New Township: Wooster Square” exhibition, which runs through February 28, 2014, historian Jenny Steadman, Ph.D., “will illustrate how New Haven and Wooster Square literally shaped the nation, or at least its shapewear,” the museum says in a release.

“Steadman maintains that corsets, and the layers of clothes worn over and under them, were a marker of class status in the mid-19th century, but that fashion also came under fire as a source of women’s oppression in the rhetoric of early feminists and dress reformers,” the release says. “With the increasing efficiency and mechanization of factories like Strouse, Adler, corsets went from homemade to mass produced and became available to working-class women. Steadman offers an enlightening discussion of corsets, the women who wore them (and those who protested against them), and the factory that produced them for more than a century.”

Steadman’s Ph.D. comes from Emory University’s Institute for Women’s Studies, and she is the author of Traveling Economies: American Women’s Travel Writing, 1820-1860 (Ohio State University Press, 2007). One of the authors profiled in the book is Julia Archibald Holmes, the first woman to climb Pike’s Peak, who summited wearing bloomers and later published an account of her adventures in the dress-reform newspaper, “The Sibyl,” according to the release.

“In researching the dress-reform arguments Holmes makes, Steadman became increasingly interested in the rhetoric and images that were used to portray women's bodies in 19th-century America,” the museum says in the release. “She taught courses on ‘female bodies in the cultural imagination’ at Trinity College and Emory University, and, as adult programs manager for the Connecticut Historical Society, she recently led a special behind-the-scenes tour on women's underwear and women's rights for Women's History Month.”

Also being held in conjunction with the exhibit is a Victorian fashion and fun event this Saturday (Sept. 28), from noon to 5 p.m., entitled "Dressing, and Undressing, Like a Victorian."


Children will be invited to dress like a Victorian—trying on a reproduction corset (children and men wore them, too), decorating their own paper fans, and making their own neckties—and at 2 p.m. performance artist Kandie Carle will present “The Victorian Lady: Dressing from Corset to Gloves.”

Both activities are offered free of charge as part of Smithsonian Magazine Museum Day Live!, an annual event promoting visitation to the nation’s museums. For free tickets visit the website

Carle will demystify Victorian fashion, including the corset, the museum says: “Appearing in ladies’ undergarments of the 1890s, Carle will add layer upon layer of the clothing, explaining how it was worn, and when and where it was appropriate. Throughout the presentation she will share insights into the fashion, lifestyle, manners, and etiquette of Victorian men, women and children, interacting with the all-ages audience, adding interesting anecdotes and dispelling myths along the way.”

 Carle created “The Victorian Lady” as a one-woman show in 1996. Dressing in costumes from a range of periods—1860s/Civil War, 1890s/Gilded Age and early1900s/Edwardian—she has shared her passion for history with audiences at venues including Victoria Mansion, Portland, Maine; Mark Twain House and Museum, Hartford Connecticut; the Cosmopolitan Club, New York City; the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn NY, and numerous public and private organizations. She has worked as an actress, dancer, singer and director in the U.S. and abroad since 1980, with performances ranging from Shakespeare to musical comedy. She teaches first-person historic interpretation and all manner of theater arts. She is also artistic director of the East Haddam Stage Company, and an accomplished vintage dancer.

Beyond corsets and Victorian fashion, “Beyond the New Township: Wooster Square” provides an in-depth and often personal view of the neighborhood's 18th-century beginnings, the evolution of industry and the arrival of immigrants, the effect of urban renewal, and the impact of historic preservation, according to the museum. The assemblage incorporates more than 200 objects from the Museum’s photo, manuscript, and fine and decorative arts collections, multimedia presentations, products manufactured in New Haven, and family treasures contributed by neighborhood residents and local historical societies.

“Beyond the New Township: Wooster Square” is made possible with lead support from Connecticut Humanities. Additional support has been provided by C. Cowles & Company, The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, NewAlliance Foundation, The Richard L. English Fund, The Woman’s Seamen’s Friend Society of Connecticut, Inc., and various individuals, businesses, and organizations.  

The New Haven Museum is open Tuesday through Friday, from 10 am to 5 pm, and Saturday, from 12 noon to 5 pm., and is open to the public every first Sunday of the month, free of charge. For more information visit, or


The 'Revealing' Story of Corsets in Connecticut, a New HavenTale

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