(Yes. Finally getting to that, only, uh, three months late? Right then.)
In the 1900s, the female silhouette looked like this:
This is known as the Edwardian era/look, the Gibson Girl look (so named for painter/illustrator/graphic artist Charles Dana Gibson, who painted a shitload of women in getups like this, and considered it his ideal), and the turn-of-the-century look, among other things. The posture was known as the "S shape", and the slant was mostly toward the super-feminine; lots of lace, silk flowers, and light, airy fabrics.
It looks super-feminine even now, and I suspect had a hand in defining what we consider feminine to this day. But that figure was accomplished by some wicked-evil corsets.
That's a corset for a grown woman. The waist is 22 inches/56 cm (everybody together now... OW). Check out the interior:
Those are steel bars in there. This was also the era when women really got a rep as being 'fragile' and 'the weaker sex'. It wasn't all romanticized nonsense to keep a good woman down; I daresay if a man had to wear one of those, he'd be fragile and the weaker sex, too. Whole books have been written about how these torture devices caused uterine prolapse, broken ribs, weakened and atrophied torso muscles, hideous pregnancy complications, and nerve damage from pressing on the spinal column.
But it sure looked good.
(Dress also has a 22 inch waist.) I daresay this wasn't the start of the 'torture for vanity', but it sure as hell didn't help.
One of the other interesting conventions of the era was the 'shirtwaist', or the separate shirt and skirt combo. This wasn't the first time they were worn, but it may be the first time they got super-fancy eveningwear treatment. This is the 'shirt' portion of an evening gown, which obviously would have been worn with an equally fancy skirt:
By our old buddy Worth, of course. This puppy laces up the back for an extra layer of corseting. Eesh.
This was also an era when women wore tea gowns; casual, loose-fitting dresses for swooning about the house. But when they went out, they had on a fanged corset and a fitted dress.
(That may also be day wear; these people didn't know how to do casual.)
And even wedding:
Everything was topped off with a glorious hat, of course.
With a hat pin to hold it on, stuck through your ten miles of hair in a fancy updo. Because the hair was part of the outfit, and the hair was almost always done in some variation of a fluffy chignon.
This look eventually lost popularity for several reasons: The sporting movement (especially bicycles) and leisure time began to really underline how awkward and ungainly this was for anything other than standing around and perhaps a slow walk. Designers themselves began coming up with things that looked flattering but didn't require the corsets (forerunners of that being Poiret and Fortuny). Women began realizing that corsets were literally killing them (often in childbirth). But the big reason? You ready for this? Most historians consider the death knell of the corset to be the rise in wages for servants; all those undergarments created a hell of a lot of laundry and no one wanted to do their own. Sad, yet it has a practical ring of truth to it.
So what's it mean to us today? Well. I'm convinced it defined femininity for a century. The boyish looks of the 1920s and the punk looks of the 1980s are considered oddities; even a century later, 'feminine' in the western world still means boobs and bust and small waist, and lace, and flowers, and silky, sheer fabrics. We still squeeze ourselves into killer undergarments (some of us more than others) to achieve the look, although thanks to modern textiles we don't have to use steel girders any more. And again due to this era, we don't shy away from them - very few of us think twice when putting on panty hose, or underwire bras, or high heels - it's just the way it is.
As for who can work this look, even now, believe it or not, just about everyone wears a variation of it sometimes. Skirt, frilly blouse, nice shoes? Don't we all do that? At least sometimes? (For dressing up in winter, this is my go-to; boots, long skirt, warm blouse. You can wear longies under it.) Depending on the shape of your face, the upswept 'do still works, too. Skip the corset, though. No one needs that torture.
Silhouette photo from "The Fashion Designer's Directory of Shape and Style" by Travers-Spencer and Zaman.
All clothing photos from Vintage Textile. (Some are still for sale.)