Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 5, No. 1, 1991
Edited by Alec McHoul

Foundations of femininity:
Berlei corsets and the (un)making
of the modern body

Sue Best

In dreams, a writing tablet signifies a woman, since it receives the imprint of all kinds of letters - Artemidorus [1]


Many contemporary feminist writers are examining 'the body'. But what exactly does 'the body' mean? 2 Where does 'the body' begin and end? Is 'the body' that is being addressed in these writings assumed to be undressed? Does the body stop at the skin? Are clothes a supplement to the body but not actually part of the body? What about less removable supplements or additions to the body: hair dyes, silicone implants, are they part of the body? What if the supplement, in this case the corset in the 1920s, is claimed to be a necessary addition to the body. It adds what is needed and subtracts what is superfluous. What sort of confusion about the borders of 'the body' does this produce?

This paper is about this border dispute, the confusion about what the body is or should be, which was generated by Berlei advertisements for corsets in the 1920s. 3 Berlei produced this confusion by mobilising conflicting models or images of the body which needed a corset, models which I will argue worked to keep women in their so called appropriate feminine place.

Berlei represented the body's 'need' for the corset, and hence the relationship of the corset to the body, in multiple and contradictory ways The corset was adding health, purity and beauty to the body, adding to make up for a lack, subtracting unnecessary flesh, subtracting the deleterious effects of age, subtracting unwanted sexuality and adding morality. Berlei was adding and subtracting but never balancing the body. Berlei presented a number of different images of the body which could not be resolved or would not cohere together to produce a clear image of the body. If as Artemidorus profoundly remarked, woman's body is like a writing surface, then even the notion of a palimpsest cannot capture this kind of writing over/over-writing of the female body.


The strategy I have adopted to interrogate Berlei's multiple images is to attempt to replace them in their historical context and thereby identify some of the forces which possibly generated these different images. To this end I isolated three models of the female body produced by different discourses/forces writing about the female body which these advertisements could be seen as drawing upon and drawing together.

The first is the modern glamorous body promoted by Hollywood films, popular fiction, fashion and mass produced beauty products. The second is the modern degenerating body promoted by the medical profession and innumerable popular medicines. The third is the pure, healthy body promoted by the physical culture movement and eugenics. These models will be discussed in the third section of this paper: 'The corset for moral support'.

These discourses, while having 'discrete' bases, foundations or perhaps points of production, were set in an intertextual field hence, in practice, they became curiously entangled. For example, glamorous make-up towards the end of the 1920s became equated with health and morality.

In addition to these 'borrowings', in 1927 Berlei's research team, with some support from medical science, produced their own model of the ideal female body and its nemesis, the blighted body. This will be examined in the fourth section of the paper: 'The blighted body'.

The way in which Berlei utilises these models highlights the tensions or conflicts between them. The models could be said to provide very different reasons for wearing corsets; these models turn upon a very different notion of the corset as a 'supplement' to the body. Supplement is a Derridean hinge word which has two contradictory meanings, one being to supplement, add something to make up for a lack; the supplement completes the thing, makes it whole. 4 The other meaning is to add something extra, something excessive, not integral to the whole. Prompted by Berlei, I have added a third meaning to this notion of the supplement - the laxative supplement - adding, supplementing in order to subtract what is excessive.

In the glamorous body model, corsets enhance the body. Hence they add something extra to the body. However, they fix up the body thus they subtract 'flaws' that should not be there. As corsets are claimed to be 'essential' for proper femininity, they become 'naturalised' supplements - integral to the female body. Thereby, the body without this addition, it is implied, is lacking. This produces a situation whereby, as the MacCannells suggest, the 'natural' female body does not exist; the female body must be made up to exist and be recognised as such. 5 The male body is real, masculinity natural, while the female body is manufactured, femininity a fabrication.

In the second medical model, the body is unambiguously lacking and the addition of the corset makes the body whole or complete. The supplement enables the body to function as it should 'normally' and 'naturally'.

In the previous two models, Berlei, as it were, 'quotes' fashion-make-up discourses and the medical profession to support arguments for corset wearing. In the third model, Berlei uses homologous arguments which parallel and gain support from eugenics and physical culture rather than directly referring to them. For example, the physical culture movement, amongst other discourses, promoted the idea of becoming healthier, through dance exercise, without necessarily relying upon an a priori lack to be compensated. Dance exercise added health to the body, improved the body. In parallel, Berlei promoted the corset as improving health, though it is not clear if this means simply bringing the degenerating body up to scratch (making up for a lack) or suggesting the corset can develop and add something extra to the body.

Similarly eugenics aimed to expunge 'unnatural' practices and physical culture to release/get rid of pent up emotions and energies. Berlei's corset figures in the context of these discourses as a supplement to enable the control/removal of unwanted behaviour/impurities.

In Berlei's blighted body model, bodies are deficient because of an excess of flesh in particular areas. Hence subtraction dominates, blights or figure faults are 'removed'. The laxative supplement is added in order to subtract what should not be there.

If women's bodies are constructed or made-up, as the MacCannells suggest, then the construction is extremely unstable. Women's bodies are indefinite, in a constant state of flux, an ongoing/never ending process of addition and subtraction.

The multiple powers acting upon the body, producing knowledge of the body, produce an incoherent body - illustrating Foucault's argument that power is not unified or coherent; that is, a single sovereign power does not dominate or control all knowledge produced. 6 In this instance the incoherent body matches the incoherent operation of powers upon it. However, the 'resulting' body is useful both to patriarchy and the then emerging capitalist consumer ethic. A body unsure of what it is or should be is open and vulnerable to suggestion and consumption. In the glamour model, this unsureness is cleverly masked by an emphasis on becoming rather than being. The process of becoming, ma(s)king the body, is presented as pleasurable, an active form of self expression, the key to happiness and well-being. This overlays and attempts to allay the anxiety of never feeling sure, never arriving.

Emphasising female self-expression, female pleasure and female becoming as primarily corporeal, serves patriarchy. Women's activities/pleasures can be safely contained in a separate sphere leaving men free to get on with the real stuff of living. This is an example of 'placing' through productive power. 7 Women are encouraged to devote an inordinate amount of time and money to developing their bodies rather than being outrightly banned from spending time developing their minds.

The return of the compressed

The 20s is a crucial period to investigate the female body as 'new' 'modern' female bodies and 'new' 'modern' advertising emerged following the First World War. Things we now take for granted such as short hair, light weight short dresses, plucked eyebrows lipstick, high heel shoes, were in the 20s exciting, daring signs of the boyish-but-never-mannish new 'New Woman'. If one endorsed origin arguments this body could be said to represent the beginning of our contemporary commodified body. Berlei advertising however had a rather peculiar relationship with this emerging consumer ethic.

In the 1920s, for the first time in over a century, corsets were not considered an automatic or indispensable part of fashionable woman's dress. This is acknowledged in an article in Berlei Review (a magazine produced by Berlei for employees and retailers) of 1924, which claimed in the early twenties, 80 per cent of the female population were getting about uncorseted. 8 Ironically the introduction of mass production in the early 1920s which enabled Berlei to consider, not just the elite fashionable few, but the entire female population as their potential market, coincided with mass produced fashion that did not presuppose or necessarily require a corset below.

It is in this context that Berlei advertising had to not only sell their particular product but also provide 'reasons' for the continuation of corset wearing. The 'reasons' were provided by the different models of the body which needed a corset. Berlei advertising was one of the ways in which these notions about the body were communicated to the female population of Australia.

It is notoriously difficult to assess the impact advertising has upon consumption, however by 1924, a year after the beginning of Berlei's national advertising campaign, Berlei claimed the uncorseted had reduced to 40 per cent of the female population. 9 Somehow a corset recovery had been effected. By the early 1940s corsets seemed to have regained their 'essential' character again. Mr Ewington, a Berlei employee, reports Berlei stopped manufacturing corsets and bras during the war in order to make navy boxer shorts:

But the Prime Minister at the time received a massive pile of letters from women complaining they could not do the work required of them in munitions work if they didn't have more supporting corsets and brassieres... So he had an investigation and the industry was then classified A2, the second highest priority in the war. We were put back full time into brassieres and corsets. 10

This appeal to and response from the highest power in the land is a quite extraordinary example of how certain notions of the female body, promoted by Berlei, became thoroughly incorporated into people's thinking.

The corset revival and shift in consumption should not be seen as solely attributed to Berlei advertising. 11 Many articles in women's magazines were also promoting a very similar notion of the body and the need for the corset. Other products such as nerve tonics and even Ovaltine were advocating that the frazzled female body needed supplementation.

The notion of reasserting an 'old' frail body and an 'old' need for a corset sets the story of Berlei advertising as the inverse of the usual claims about the beginning of consumerism. Berlei advertisements, rather than producing new needs, new desires, new anxieties, were attempting to retain an old practice and an old anxiety. 12 Ann Stephen, in her discussion of the beginnings of advertising and mass consumption in Australia in the 1920s, notes that advertising journals saw the main problems, which inhibited consumption, as old habits and old attitudes. 13 In Berlei's case it was the new modern woman's attitude, her disregard for past habits, that impeded corset consumption.

The corset for moral support

This section deals with the image, which is not actually imaged, of the degenerating female body. It is the text of Berlei advertisements, Berlei Review articles and articles in women's magazines which informed women of their degeneration. Berlei visual images, in the early period 1923-1925 when this degeneration is most emphatically insisted upon, are indeed overwrought - they are all curls, curves and curlicues (See Figures 1 & 2) - but women's overwrought mental and physical state is not imaged. The image promises enhancement, glamour, beauty, while the text speaks of necessity and lack and, at the same time, the addition of beauty and health.

The texts around the figure of degeneration link physical degeneration with mental and moral degeneration. Physical degeneration seems to remain invisible while moral and mental degeneration can be made visible or read symptomatically not from the body itself, but from the way in which it is tended or treated. Moral degeneration can be inferred from a slack appearance - part of which is being without a corset. Similarily mental degeneration can be inferred from a lack of proper care of the appearance. Jill Julius Mathews notes women's recovery from 'madness' was read from a renewed concern about obtaining/ displaying a proper feminine appearance. 14

The notion that the female body was degenerating was not limited to the 1920s. Two medical guidebooks for women, from the second decade of this century, both lament that in modern times women are degenerating. 15 This is partly attributed to the "press and strain" 16 of modern life and lack of exercise but most importantly to women's "pernicious mode of dressing" 17 - the corset and tight lacing. Both guides recommend the complete discontinuation of corsetry, claiming the female body can support itself and recapture its health through exercise. Significantly, they claim women should be as fit as men.

Berlei claimed women needed a corset because of modern women's degeneration. Unlike American advertisements, which explicitly distanced their modern corsets from old style corsetry, Berlei advertisements did not emphasise the difference between their products and old style tight-lacing. 18 However, the cause of degeneration was significantly shifted. The degeneration, which in the medical handbooks was claimed to be caused by corsets, is now claimed to be environmental and can only be corrected by a corset. As only women were claimed to need corsets due to these new 'modern' conditions, this argument relies upon a notion of the female body as inherently weaker - she is less able to adapt or cope with modern life than man. This point is brought home all the more emphatically by locating this degeneration in non-gender specific parts of the body such as intestines and abdominal muscles. No specific reference is made to the need to support the uterus.

One unnamed doctor in Berlei Review pushes back the notion of modern degeneration to the beginning of civilisation. S/he laments

the loss of [the] figure which has been produced as one of the penalties of civilisation, for no longer does woman hunt in the forests. 19

Women's neglect of their primeval hunting habits has produced a poor trunk that can no longer support itself - "Nature's method of supporting the trunk must be aided". 20 The modern "slouching figure" 21 (is woman degenerating back to the ape?) can be restored to primeval erectness with a corset. Going forward, modernity, progress (?) for women, as the doctor remarks, involves penalties and thus they must be turned back, in this case it seems, right back to the pre-civilised forest.

The doctor also tells of another problem, another lack in women's bodies discovered by "the inquisitive investigator, the Scientist". 22 Women's intestines have dropped forward due to women's faulty abdominal muscles. But the scientifically constructed Berlei corset can magically lift them upwards and backwards to their normal position. This states the doctor, will remedy modern women's "flatulence", her "piles" and her "habitual constipation". 23 Berlei the blessing for the bowels!

These indelicate bowel problems are naturally not directly referred to in Berlei advertising. Berlei advertisements simply refer to the "necessary support to the abdominal muscles" (1924); 24 "The abdominal flesh and muscles, the vital organs, need support. Poor health is the inevitable result of a weakened system caused by sagging muscles" (1924); 25 "Berlei supports the abdomen in the only healthful effective manner - from below" (1925). 26

Considerable support for the notion that corsets are vital for health can be found in articles in women's magazines of the 1920s. An article in The Ladies Designer of 1924 welcomes the return of the corset after "the reckless abandonment of all corsets prevalent a year or so ago". 27 In this article the "nervous strain" 28 of modern life plus sedentary habits have struck down women's intestines rather than the cessation of her hunting habits. Men, "being naturally stronger physically, and leading more active lives", 29 have not been so dreadfully afflicted. It is interesting to note that it is not suggested that women should also become active and thereby become stronger. The corset 'supported' the strained, sedentary situation without substantially changing it and thereby endorsed its continuation. This enabled the distinction masculine/strong/active and feminine/sedentary/passive/weak to remain in place. The equal fitness proclaimed by the medical handbooks seems to have evaporated.

An interesting slippage occurs in this article from physical degeneration to mental degeneration. Without a corset women become both "mentally and physically run-down". 30 Woman's mind and body need the corset's support; her body is lacking and weak, so, it seems to be inferred, her mind must also be lacking and weak. This mental 'weakness' or 'mental' component of modern woman's degeneration was called nervousness. Wearing a corset, promises the article, will "relieve the nervous tension of the wearer". 31 Stephen Garton, in his study of 'madness' in New South Wales, states that women were considered more susceptible to nervous disorders, mental stress and mental illness. 32 So the weak body is clearly figured in the production of the weak mind. However, quite how the corset supporting the weak body's intestines is able to still this weak mind's nervousness is unfortunately never explained.

Women's nervousness was a popular subject in magazines and newspapers as Garton notes. 33 For example Helen's Weekly advised "nerve frazzled" 34 women to go on retreats to lull their over excited nerves with solitude and quiet. This sounds remarkably similar to the Victorian "rest cure" for severe 'nervous diseases' such as hysteria, neurasthenia and hypochondria. 35

Women were constantly being reminded - by magazine articles and advertisements for products such as nerve tonics right across to Ovaltine and Marmite - of their frailty. Fatigue, exhaustion, mental and physical collapse seemed to impend with any exertion. Sporting activities in particular had to be undertaken with extreme caution. An Australian guide to beauty of 1935 warned: "too much enthusiasm in sport will lead women to make foolish mistakes and run great risks". 36 The new breed sporty Outdoor Girl in particular was warned to "moderate her games and energies so they will not detract from her as a woman". 37

This frailty was clearly working to limit and contain women's activities. If 'activity' did not lead to actual physical or mental exhaustion, as in the case of the outdoor girl, loss of femininity could be threatened instead. Women had to be careful to steer clear of domains/activities to which they were not 'naturally' suited or which might threaten their femininity. Arthur Burley in an editorial in Berlei Review makes it quite plain that women were 'naturally' suited to but one place - the home. Basically Burley argues "emancipation" has gone too far; woman is "temporarily [wishful thinking?] seeking to invade some avenues which seem to be marked out more naturally for men" [my emphasis]. He is all for neither sex "encroaching on the domain of the other", 38 which was all very well for men who presumably were not exactly clambering at the opportunity to 'encroach' on women's domain and become mothers, housewives and helpmates.

Burley is rerunning the Nineteenth Century separate spheres argument. Woman is not the inferior of man. Oh no! She is the complement i.e. she can be what he does not want to be. Berlei complements Burley by re-running the 19th century frail body argument which helps corral women back into their appropriate place/sphere.

Modern life it seems had brought not only physical and mental degeneration but also moral degeneration. Another anonymous (but this time gendered) doctor in Berlei Review (1927) argued that wearing corsets could stem this moral decline. She claimed that corsets:

are an influence for good on the minds of young people, and the moral standard would be raised considerably by the wearing of light pliable garments which control and preserve the youthful figure without constricting the body. 39

This suggestion that women become good, virtuous and moral through controlling their bodies implies, amongst other things, that women naturally have weaker morals. Corsets are needed for "moral as well as physical support" 40 as Everywomen's Encyclopaedia put it. However, the corset cannot 'give' morals in quite the same way as it could mechanically give physical support. Rather, the corset inscribes moral weakness on the wearer while implying at least the wearer is add-dressing her deficiency.

When uncontrolled, uncorseted, is the woman then immoral? Going without a corset certainly seems to be read as a sign of moral laxity. This filters into Berlei advertisements in muted form through the language used to describe those that neglect their bodies. An advertisement in 1924 refers to the "Slack appearance of the careless dresser". 41 Those that neglect corsetry or buy ill-fitting other brands are chastised: "It is thoughtlessness, the promiscuous choosing of the corset". 42 In 1926 it is threatened that the "loveliness" of "clean, pure lines" can be lost through "lack of control". 43 In 1923 going uncorseted is described as "unguarded moments". 44 To be uncorseted then is to be slack, thoughtless, and through lack of control in unguarded moments, promiscuous. The subtext seems to be that containing, controlling the body also contains and controls women's sexuality. The corset does not add morals; it signifies an attempt to subdue or subtract 'immorality'. Women with corsets are comparatively more moral, or perhaps less likely to be immoral than those without corsets, but the corset shows she is still not in men's real moral league.

The Sydney based eugenics proponent Marion Piddington advocated sex education for the young which aimed to produce continence without repression. 45 This seems to be mapped onto the body by the unnamed lady doctor as control without constriction. Presumably appealing to boys' moral sense or reason was sufficient to make them controlled as no one suggested they should wear light pliable garments. Clearly girls must have been regarded as requiring constant corporeal reinforcement. Certainly when it came to one of the 'sins' to be eliminated, 'self-abuse' (masturbation) the medical guidebooks (referred to earlier) claimed girl's lesser moral sense meant they could not be reasoned with to stop this "vicious habit". 46 Due to this lesser moral sense, in extreme cases, extreme bodily control was suggested - clitoridectomy. 47 What is claimed to be supporting or controlling the body is always also marking the body as different and less.

Significantly, unchecked masturbation led to "nervousness" 48 and physical degeneration. Thus it can be seen that all these degenerations were inextricably and inexplicably connected.

One of the initial triggers for masturbation was constipation. 49 So it is not surprising that, like corset wearing, constipation was articulated as a moral issue. An advertisement for Kruschen salts claimed constipation was the cause of illnesses such as rheumatism, influenza and headaches. Illness (and constipation?) says the advertisement, in the language of eugenics, is a "crime against yourself, your family and your race". There would be practically no illness, the advertisement continues, "if people troubled themselves to keep themselves clean and regular inside". 50 Many other products also vehemently declared the need to remove putrefying materials in the body. Yeaston tablets removed

the poisons resulting in the system from imperfect digestion, fatigue, worry, over refined diet and faulty elimination of waste. 51

Berlei, by lifting (and separating?) the intestines, facilitated bowel movements, internal purity and hopefully, sexual purity.

This seemingly obsessive concern for the elimination of festering poisons was not only directed at women's bodies. Richard White notes the same imagery of poison and disease dominated discourses about defense, censorship, tariff protection, immigration and industrial development. 52 The Australian social body he claims, was seen as young, pure, chaste, clean, sane and wholesome but being attacked by external evils. 53 The female body has either already been invaded or has to be eternally vigilant because her weaker body, mind and moral sense is less able to resist. She must be supported, corseted in her struggle.

It is at the national level that the equally obsessive concern to build healthy Australian bodies eclipsed the image of the degenerating body. For example, popular columnists such as Sparticus Smith compared the healthy "straight and strong" 54 Australian girl with her feeble European counterparts. In this national(ist) frame, the physical culture movement answered the demand for a type of Australian feminine strength which would not transgress the gender codes. 55 Physical culture promoted the idea of women gaining added strength, health and grace. This necessary coda, 'grace', prevented exercise sliding into overexertion and thereby also insured against the concomitant loss of 'womanliness'. The improved or 'added' health promised by Berlei could be understood as, making use of or being informed by this national concern for health. Like the physical culture movement, Berlei did not advocate 'real' manly strength but rather also coupled health with grace, beauty, style etc.

There is a basic clash between this notion of building the strong Aussie body and the modern weak, lacking, degenerating body. Berlei capitalises on this confusion offering health and beauty - pleasure, hope - while also generating anxiety by suggesting some awful debilitating rot is slowly eating modern woman's body.

The promotion of purity, health and wholesomeness gave a very different Australian inflection to fashion's youth ideal and the streamlining and modernising of the body. 56 To return to the quote from the 'lady doctor', raising moral standards was connected with preserving a youthful figure. Thus using the language of health and morality was one way in which the new commodified glamourous surface beauty slipped into Australian discourses about the female body.

Preserving a youthful figure was not considered vanity or presenting a false front or appearance. Berlei, in an appropriately high moral tone, claimed:

Every woman is justified if not duty bound to do whatever possible to enhance the beauty of her figure. At all times of dressing, morning or evening, this fact should be paramount in her mind. 57

Preserving the figure was maintaining that original youthful purity and innocence, as Berlei puts it, keeping the "clean, pure lines" 58 of youth. (Does this pickling of the body commence before or after degeneration sets in? Or perhaps it preserves degeneration and hence retains the weakness and passivity of women's bodies.) Careful, thoughtful, thrifty women did not allow their original (uncertain) capital - the youthful attractive body - to sag, wither and dwindle away. Victorian ideals of durability of the product (which were still used to promote men's clothes) become displaced onto the durability of the body. (See Figure 3) Women should be thrifty with their bodies not their money. If bodily beauty is woman's duty and her major problem, investing wisely is of primary importance.

The texts of Berlei advertisements continually stress that the normal, natural body shape was that of youth - any deviation from this morally upright straight line was a sign of 'misspent' youth and continual neglect and abuse. As one advertisement warns, bodies do not "suddenly become unsightly." 59 Maintenance of the 'youthful' body can be used as an index of morality and self respect.

Advocates of cosmetics used very similar arguments. In 1927 cosmetics were not just enhancements; they were necessities. Women who used cosmetics, those "who really take care of themselves", were contrasted with non-users: "those who don't care or are too lazy or ignorant to take pains". 60 Going without cosmetics, like going without a corset, is the mark of a slovenly slobbish slattern.

The polished powdered surface as the key to well being was a popular theme in Hollywood and Australian movies. 61 Both seemed to delight in narratives in which beautiful shopgirls married millionaires. Beauty in this glamour discourse got you a man rather than self respect.

By 1930 a rather strange shift had occurred: fixing up the surface of the body was equated with attaining health. Decorating the body, says Helen's Weekly, "react[s] on the spirits and induces a sense of well-being and comfort". 62 This corresponds to Berlei's shift to the body as surface after 1927. The earlier concern for moral, pure inner and outer beauty is displaced by attention to blights. The body is to be physically corrected rather than morally supported.

The blighted body

In 1927 Berlei's medical gaze shifted from peering inside at women's problematic entrails and began to address the problems with the surface of the body. This was not entirely new. Berlei had long been concerned with good lines and contours now it would be concerned with blights. The ailing interior argument did not disappear. As late as 1939 Berlei was still talking about good intestinal care with Berlei's up and back action. The new model of the body as surface displaced the old model rather than replacing it.

Berlei set out to determine once and for all the 'true' shape of women's bodies. To this end Berlei enlisted the aid of science to discover the measurements of the archetypal female form. An anthropometric survey of white Australian women was conducted by the Berlei Research department under the direction of a scientist and a doctor from Sydney University. To give this modern day Venus the necessary "sunny" flavour, a tent was set up on the quintessential Australian beach - Bondi - in order to take the measurements of the famous Australian beach beauty. From the collected data or facts as Berlei liked to call them, they derived their desired abstract ideal and proceeded to tell women what shape they should be.

The survey not only discovered the shape women should be but also classified women's bodies into five figure types - one average and four below average. Prior to this survey Berlei's corporeal classification system was much more simple; bodies seem to have been assumed to come in three basic sizes: slight, medium and stout. From Berlei illustrations it appears that these 'sizes' corresponded to different age groups: slight women were pictured as between the ages of sixteen and twenty five; medium, between twenty five and forty; and stout, as forty onwards. Each age group had a specialised message addressed to them, in addition to the general information about their shared degeneration. The slight were instructed to think of the future of their bodies, the medium to preserve what remained of their youthful figures and the stout were comforted with a corset that could slenderise. Only the stout had to change by subtracting 'superfluous' flesh. The new classification system, which created new identities for the female body, aimed to force everyone to consider the need to change.

In Berlei Review of 1927, below the advertisement intended to introduce the five figure types to the unsuspecting female public, Berlei innocently understates the effect of this classification of women's bodies: "It will tend to make all women type conscious". 63 Berlei's campaign generated anxious self surveillance. Women had to classify themselves as one of the five figure types supposedly simply to ensure a 'correct' fit. This classification was aided by the distribution of Berlei type indicators - a manual computer - to all Berlei retailers. This scientific machine took your measurements and gave you back a complex. The types other than average were labelled in extremely pejorative terms.

The sought after ideal became in statistical language the average figure type. This figure type was described as she who "approaches nearest the ideal" (1927) 64 and the "nearest approach to the perfect figure" (1938). 65 Through this strange cocktail of Platonic forms and modern statistics, the average becomes equated with an ideal but is not ideal. The statistical method seeking the ideal could not reach the ideal but only the average. However, this impossible ideal unattainable through statistics is still claimed to be knowable. The average-ideal figure type preserves the notion of the always unattainable platonic form in mere matter. Berlei must have begun with an abstract ideal and merely measured for deviations.

The other types were characterised by their major figure fault; that is the blighted area in which they most fell short of the ideal. The four possible blight areas were back, hips, bust and abdomen. The faults in these areas were extremely specific. A back could be too curved, which made you a Sway Back type, but there is no mention of it being too straight. The bust could be too heavy - Heavy Bust type - but in this period it could not be too light or too small. The hips could be too big - Big Hips type - but not too small. The Big Abdomen type could have an abdomen that protruded too much but could not be too flat.

Hence woman becomes rather like a potato. Her blights are cut out, cut away. Her body is pared back, reduced in this classification, not added to like the corset for the lacking degenerating body. The corset cuts her back to what she should be. This streamlining with a knife, or reduction of the body, is furthered by the reduction of the body to a mathematical formula, namely, the three measurements given to the Berlei computer - the "vital statistics": bust-waist-hips. Women could be expressed conjured up by three numbers. What's she like? 36-24-36!

Berlei's market research inverts the usual formula of the time. Rather than investigating the mind or psychology of consumers, Berlei investigated their bodies. Instead of producing statistics about the market it produced the statistics of the market. They indelibly marked their market.

The marked body was average (good) or below average (bad), a tick or a cross; the good average body needed to be preserved and the bad others sliced up right away. The body was fragmented, marked out into separate areas. The new colonisation of the female body brought about by the old colonial adage - divide and conquer.

Berlei's advising medical science, Berlei's body marker, had again discovered that the female body was lacking, deficient. Quite how the female body was deficient i.e. did not measure up to the ideal, is never explained, but the four 'below average' figure types were deficient, this time, because of an excess rather than a lack. These bodies are less than perfect because they had more flesh than was required for an ideal body.

Shifting the deficiency to the surface of the body enabled the deficient body to be easily illustrated. This shift enabled the written text to relate closely to the image and thereby produced a whole new breed of ads. The emphasis in these new advertisements was upon the visible difference Berlei corsets made. For example this image (Figure 4) from 1930 is the precursor of the format: blighted before (without a corset) and miraculous transformation after (with corset) which Berlei employed more extensively in the late thirties when photographs were widely used in advertisements. This advertisement shows, rather pointedly points to, the unsightly roll at the waist a blight to be removed and then shows the same figure transformed, deblighted and delighted with a Berlei.

Even when ocular proof was not provided in this pointed fashion, it was alluded to as in Figure 5. This advertisement from 1928 claimed the Berlei reducing corset was "the surest, safest way to slenderise - thousands of lovelier women prove it". The two young women, who look like extremely unlikely candidates for reducing corsets, could be posited as successful 'afters' while the Berlei logo, below this image, with the five figure types shows the deficient 'befores'.

Berlei advertising, by promising delight and pointing out blights, very effectively persuaded women to invest in their bodies. Yet Woman is thereby asked to invest in what cannot pay long term dividends. In a culture where beauty is generally equated with youth, when a woman's body is no longer youthful she must be declining, going backwards. Time and money is invested to try to prevent the loss of youth. Fear of aging, losing the original capital, fuels the will to be beautiful.

The Berlei advertising campaign worked like a pincer movement: if the promise of becoming 'better' and 'more' beautiful did not catch customers there was always the 'scientifically' proven lacks and deficiencies to rely upon. Degeneration and body blights generated desire for a corset through the creation of deficiency or lack. Promises of health, beauty, purity, generated a desire to become 'more', 'better', 'new' and 'improved'. Woman, caught between the two, oscillates between the pleasurable possibility of becoming more and anxiously feeling less. It is highly possible, given these (op)pressing demands and the continual, seasonal forward march of fashion, the woman who wants to be 'acceptably attractive', hardly has time to consider that her body, the very foundation of her femininity, is constructed as such an uncertain quantity.


The corset, this Derridean supplement, has blurred the borders of the body. The corset, perhaps like all clothing, cosmetics etc. is not simply 'added' to an already existing body. Clothing is not something totally external or foreign to the body which cannot effect the notion of the body. The body cannot be considered as something completely independent from body supplements. Or as Derrida might put it, an original 'natural' body never existed - there has never been a body intact and untouched by clothing etc. The natural 'presence' of the body disappears. As he has argued supplements "produce the sense of the very thing that they defer: the mirage of the thing itself, of immediate presence, of originary perception". 66 If the corset, the 'addition' to the body, produces the thing it is supposed to be merely adding on to, to turn back to my original questions, What is the body? and Where does it begin and end?


1. Artemidorus, Oneirocritica quoted in Marina Warner, Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form (London: Picador, 1985), epigram.

2. My own introduction to this area was provided by the work of Elizabeth Grosz and Moira Gatens. See Grosz, "Philosophy, Subjectivity and the Body: Kristeva and Irigaray", in Carole Pateman & Elizabeth Gross eds., Feminist Challenges: Social and Political Theory (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1986), pp.125-143. "Notes Towards a Corporeal Feminism", Australian Feminist Studies, n.5 (Summer 1987), pp.1-16. Gatens,"Towards a Feminist Philosophy of the Body" in Barbara Caine, Elizabeth Grosz & Marie de Lepervanche eds., Crossing Boundaries: Feminisms and the Critique of Knowledges (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1988), pp.59-70. "A Critique of the Sex/Gender Distinction" in Judith Allen and Paul Patton eds., Beyond Marxism? Interventions after Marx (Sydney: Intervention, 1983), pp.143-162.

3. Much of the the primary material for this paper is drawn from the Berlei Archives in the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. In particular Berlei Review, a magazine produced by Berlei for employees and retailers, which reproduced many of the advertisements published in newspapers and magazines. Many thanks to Cate Spence, the archivist at the Powerhouse museum, for her generous assistance.

4. See Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1976), pp.141-164 & 269-316; Derrida, Positions, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1981), p.43; Derrida, "Differance" in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Brighton: Harvester, 1982), p.12.

5. Dean MacCannell & Juliet Flower MacCannell, "The Beauty System" in Nancy Armstrong & Leonard Tennenhouse eds., The Ideology of Conduct: Essays in Literature and the History of Sexuality (London: Methuen, 1987), pp.206-238.

6. Michel Foucault, Power, Truth, Strategy, Meaghan Morris & Paul Patton eds., (Sydney: Feral Publications, 1979), p.70.

7. See Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), for an analysis of productive versus repressive power.

8. "Why corsets are coming back", Berlei Review (May 1924) p.10.

9. Ibid.

10. Mr Ewington quoted in Jill Margo, "Berlei yearns to bring back those Hurley-Burley days", Sydney Morning Herald (16th October 1982) p.30.

11. It is interesting that while many individuals have been hailed as bringing about the demise of the old tight lacing corset, for example Paul Poiret, the French designer (Elizabeth Ewing, Dress and Undress: A History of Women's Underwear (London: Batsford, 1978), p.113.) or tennis star Suzanne Lenglen (Adrianne Blue, Grace Under Pressure: The Emergence of Women in Sport (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1987), p.10) no one has claimed to be the originator of the corset in its 'modern' more 'natural' form.

12. However, this notion of producing new needs or new consumers could have limited applicability, if it is claimed that certain sections of the female population (such as working class women, rural women) did not wear corsets before the war. It is extremely difficult to discern to what extent working class or rural women wore corsets. If working class and rural women did not wear corsets before the 1920s, advertising could be said to extend the 'privilege' of these old middle class urban needs and anxieties to a wider audience. The uncorseted early 1920s, whether a rejection of past habits for middle class women or a continuation of past habits by working class or rural women, produced a situation whereby all classes of women had to be sold or resold the idea that their bodies were deficient or lacking. bodies became levelled or democratised in their lacking - all could lack equally.

13. Ann Stephen, "Agents of Consumerism: The Organisation of the Australian Advertising Industry, 1918-1938" in Judith Allen et al. eds., Media Interventions (Sydney: Intervention, 1981), pp.78-94.

14. Jill Julius Mathews, Good and Mad Women: The Historical Construction of Femininity in Twentieth-Century Australia (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1984), p.22. Moral-mental degeneration, in some cases, seems to be virtually synonymous in this period. For example Bea Miles was committed to the Hospital for the Insane, Gladesville in 1923, by her father because of her 'immoral' sexually free behaviour. Judith Allen, "Bea Miles" in Heather Radi ed., 200 Australian Women: A Redress Anthology (Sydney: Women's Redress Press, 1980), p.218.

15. J.H. Kellogg MD, Ladies' Guide in Health and Disease: Girlhood, Maidenhood, Wifehood, Motherhood (London: Modern Medicine Publishing Company, 1910); F.C. Richards & Eulalia S. Richards, Ladies' Handbook of Home Treatment (Melbourne: Signs Publishing Company, 1912). Kellogg's book belonged to Nurse Thomson of Cessnock (New South Wales) so possibly it was also used as a nursing textbook. The date written below her name is 1917, so these ideas were still circulating during the first world war.

16. Richards, Ladies' Handbook, p.587.

17. Ibid.

18. Sears Roebuck advertisements referred to "The new freedom in corsetry". See advertisement reproduced in Martin Pumphrey, "The Flapper, the Housewife and the Making of Modernity", Cultural Studies, v.1, n.2 (May 1987) p.188. Marjorie Rosen in Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies and the American Dream (London: Peter Owen, 1973), p.74, reports that Gossards responded to the flagging sales of bras and corsets in the early 20s by promoting their new range of corsetry as "the flimsiest excuse for a girdle". From my reading it if not at all clear what distinguishes a girdle from a corset. Berlei uses the term 'girdle' in reference to a garment that looks like a large suspender belt, or for corsets for young women. Ewing (in Dress and Undress, p.127) indicates in England the term corset was dropped in favour of 'belt' or girdle which seems to suggest there was no real distinction. This gains some support from a store advertisement for Berlei in Australian Home Budget (December 1927) p.3. (Before Berlei began their own advertising in 1923, they encouraged stores to advertise for them. Evidently this practice continued although this is the only example I found). This ad refers to Berlei's wrap-on corset as a wrap-on girdle. Presumably Berlei had decided to retain the traditional term. Similarily Berlei did not widely use the collective term 'foundations' (which again Ewing suggests was the modern term for corsetry) until the 30s. Gossards promoted their corsetry in Australia as foundations from at least the mid 20s.

19. Berlei Review (October 1926) p.10.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. Berlei Review (September 1924) p.15.

25. Berlei Review (February 1924) p.16.

26. The Australian Woman's Mirror (21st July 1925) p.19.

27. The Ladies Designer (1st October 1924) p.16.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid.

32. Stephen Garton, Medicine and Madness: A Social History of Insanity in NSW 1880-1940 (Sydney: University of NSW Press, 1988), p.148.

33. Ibid.

34. Fay Gardiner, "The Gentle Art of Relaxing", Helen's Weekly (5th January 1928) p.21.

35. See Ellen L. Bassuk, "The Rest Cure: Repetition or Resolution of Victorian Women's Conflicts?" in Susan Suleiman ed., The Female Body in Western Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), pp.139-151.

36. Home Entertainment Library, How to Attain and Retain Beauty (1935), p.324.

37. Ibid.

38. Berlei Review (April 1927) p.3

39. Berlei Review (May 1927) p.13.

40. Everywoman's Encyclopaedia, Part 16 (London, after 1912), p.1830.

41. The Ladies Designer (1st October 1924) p.39.

42. Sydney Morning Herald (27th April 1923).

43. The Australian Woman's Mirror (23rd March 1926) p.28.

44. The Sydney Morning Herald (11th June 1923).

45. Marion Piddington, "Tell them", Herself in Town and Country (5th November 1930) p.30.

46. Kellogg, Ladies Guide, p.165.

47. Ibid.

48. Ibid, p.145.

49. Ibid , p.159.

50. Helen's Weekly (5th January 1928) p.47.

51. Helen's Weekly (6th October 1927) p.87.

52. Richard White, Inventing Australia: Images and Identity, 1688-1980 (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1981), p.144.

53. A good example of this external evil argument can be seen in the 1922 Senate election. The Nationalists accused Labor of bringing into Australia 'Red Communism' - "something made in another country" (The Sydney Morning Herald (13th December 1922) p.9), while the Labor Party accused the Nationalists of bringing in "coloured labour" (The Sydney Morning Herald (15th December 1922) p.6). The women, to whom the Labor Party specifically addressed their appeal, were urged to protect their country from the "curse of piebald conditions".

54. Sparticus Smith, Gay Philosophies (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1933), p.59.

55. See "Margaret Morris Movement", Herself in Town and Country (4th October 1930) p.6.

56. Martin Pumphrey in "Flapper", p.190, argues that in America consumption of beauty products and household commodities was generated by association with the "free", "self-realising" lifestyle of the flapper. This seems to only very partially match the Australian situation. Beauty was seen in a sense as self-realising, however, it was not consistently or emphatically connected with freedom but rather with proper care of the self and cautiousness with one's bodily assets. Berlei did not celebrate flapper freedom, but rather sought to return her to the fold of moral consumers by dangling dance corsets in front of her, as a cure for old age.

57. The Sydney Morning Herald (10th February 1923).

58. The Australian Woman's Mirror (23rd March 1926) p.28.

59. The Sydney Morning Herald (27th April 1923).

60. Helen's Weekly (September 1927) p.20.

61. See Marjorie Rosen, Popcorn Venus, p.78. Her synopsis of this genre is "grimy waif, transformed into cheeky beauty, wins a) rich boss or b) the poor handsome hero with a bright future". See also Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper, Australian Film 1900-1971: A Guide to Feature Film Production (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1980). Specific examples are Sunshine Sally (1922), Those who Love (1926), The Far Paradise (1928). In the Sydney Morning Herald's serialised story "The Trail of Adventure", the dancer heroine who has marriage in the offing from a millionaire is described thus: "The dance stopped suddenly and quivering and breathless radiating youth and femininity and abandon, a true Bacchante of this modern world, the artist stood, breast heaving, arms stretched forward appealingly eyes alight with witchery, her face a very embodiment of alluring invitation" (The Sydney Morning Herald (15th December 1922). This quivering, breast heaving, alluring artist is a very different body from Berlei's moral body.

62. Helen's Weekly (October 1927) p.13.

63. Berlei Review (August 1927) p.16.

64. Ibid.

65. Australian Women's Weekly 1938 copy in Berlei Archives, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney full citation is not given.

66. Derrida, Of Grammatology, p.157.

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