Monday, June 16, 2014

What's in a name? Or an investigation into "Swiss Waists".

The Swiss bodices (not pretty for grown people) are charming for little girls. They consist of a stiff bodice, covered with silk, and made without sleeves; a chemisette and full puffed sleeves are put on, and over this the Swiss bodice, which is sometimes tied with a bow and ends of a ribbon – Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine Vol 5 Issue 25 – Vol 6 Issue 36 pg 141

The Swiss Bodice and various cinctures, of which we have often spoken, are also much worn by little girls over white dresses, with large bows and flowing ends at the back. – Peterson’s Magazine V45-46 (April 1864)

These were two of the many quotes I found when I first started to look into Swiss Waists.  The first thing I discovered was that, in period, there were Swiss Bodices but no Swiss Waists.  However, Swiss Bodices were for children...despite seeing what we call Swiss Waists as part of fashion plates on grown ups right next to Swiss Bodices are for kids!  So, I decided to do research.

We get a clue as to what these children's Swiss Bodice looked like from a satire magazine from 1860:

This is what they say about the 15th Century dress in the picture:
The form that was most fashionable was to have the front left open from the neck down to the waist, with a turnover roll collar, made of a dark colour bordering the aperture. A stomacher of cloth or linen covered the breast beneath, and occasionally the gown was laced together over it in the mode of the Swiss Bodice.

First, it makes me giggle to no end that the mid 19th Century equivalent to the Onion is trying to describe a Burgundian gown and failing miserably. Does that make it a double fail or a win since it's a satire? I have no idea.

Anyway, it does give us a big clue as to what a Swiss Bodice really is - it's what unfortunately every single lazy e-bay seller calls a corset today; something that has lacing across the front of it. It doesn't matter if it's actually a corset or not, it has criss cross lacing on it! Apparently, sadly, this is not a new thing but rather been renamed.

However, when I went to test this theory that all things with laces on children's dresses are Swiss failed.

Fig 2 – Child’s dress. The skirt is of mauve polin-ette, with three flounces.  The waist is white muslin tucked, made square, and trimmed with Valenciennes lace.  The sleeves are one puff.  Over this is worn a little green silk corsage, which consists of side bodies only, the front and back being merely straps of the silk. Godey's 1862

Alright, so maybe it's just because it's a jumper dress and not a bodice/waist?   Despite this, I did find some crediance to my theory of "any laced up the front is Swiss!"

Their pleasing appearance is much heightened by their graceful dress.  Over their white linen chemisettes, made with full short sleeves, they wear bodices laced up in the front like the Swiss, and frequently ornamented with gold brocade; The Ladies' Companion, and Monthly Magazine

From the NY Public Library

So what is the black thing around the middle ladies waist called then if not a Swiss waist? Here's the description of the middle dress from Godey's:

Fig. 3. — Lavender poplin dress, with black velvet
corsage. The skirt is trimmed with black velvet in
hands, lozenges, and bows, the same as on the body and
Mauves of the dress. Small lace collar, with black

So here it is called a "corsage" but is that what everyone called it?  Apparently not.

In Peterson's from March 1864, it's referred to as a waist.

This is one of the very few times it is referred to as a Swiss bodice (not waist) from Godey's 1862.

From Godey's Magazine 1865:
Fig 3 – Skirt of a delicate shade of mauve goat’s hair cloth, ornamented by two bands richly embroidered in chain-stich.  Fancy corsage of purple silk, trimmed with guipure lace and jet buttons.  Guimpe and sleeves of French muslin, tucked and trimmed with embroidery.  Leghorn hat, trimmed with one purple and black feather.  The hair is rolled from the face and galls in curls at the back. 

Again, it's referred to as a corsage. Doing a quick search through books from 1855-1865, it looks like corsage was the most common term for what we today call a Swiss Waist.

I have no idea how the term evolved from corsage to Swiss Waist over the past 150 years. However, I originally looked into the term thinking there must be something going on with the Swiss at that point to get the term. Although all things Swiss was was mostly because of the fan following of the Swiss Family Robinson. Sort of like every single young adult and adult book series in the past 15 years.....(OMG! It has a Twilight/Harry Potter/Hunger Games/Game of Thrones reference!!!! MUST HAVE!!!!)


  1. I was wondering, when finding fashion plates online, how do you find the original magazine it was in? Is there an database for all the Godey's or Petersons somewhere?

    1. If you click on the links, you'll see that there is a wide range of sources that I've used. Although Google Books has a few of the Victorian magazines up, it's really a matter of using your head and thinking up the keywords you'd most likely see associated with the images. I know, probably not the answer you want, but it's really just good detective work. ;-)