I originally wrote this post two years ago, but recently I had been thinking about the Hedy Lamarr and wanted to do further research into her brilliant mind and life. Coincidentally “Hollywood’s Brightest Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” was aired on the same day I had thought about Hedy (with no knowledge that the documentary was going to be on) – so I have edited this post a little to add new information learnt about Hedy! – The documentary is fabulous, I suggest you all watch it.
I have various historical interests and for my MA dissertation I decided to integrate my different interests and academic skills – focusing on the medical effects of dress reform and also putting a philosophical spin on it! The focus of my dissertation was the life and work of Madame Roxey Ann Caplin, a Canadian born writer and corset maker (or stay-maker, as Madame Caplin stated) who worked at 58 Berners Street, London throughout nearly the entire 19th Century. She was born in 1793 and died in Surrey on 2nd August 1888 – her long life was full of innovation, inspiration and individualism.
There are various claims on the internet that Madame Caplin invented the corset. The original purpose of the corset, as a stay and support of weight and to lift the body to avoid deformation harks back to Ancient Greece albeit in a basic sense, a cincture around the waist to support the back and breasts. (A topic which Caplin herself builds upon within her own writings)
Rather than Caplin inventing the corset, she reformed the 19th century ‘contemporary’ corset, which, she claimed, had lost its original purpose and became subject to tight-lacing and ill-constructions due to particular expectations of the female body. Health was compromised and women became oppressed both physically and mentally, the latter becoming internalised by women.
“The elegant form, the flexibility of motion, the gentle warmth, the cheeks crimsoned with the roses of delight, the brilliant eyes darting rays of love, or sparkling with the fire of genius, enlivened by the sallies of wit, or animated by the glow of passion, are the inheritance of those only who are in good health, and a moment is sufficient to destroy them. The whole is expressed in one word,—there is an absence of health.” – Madame Caplin, Health and Beauty, Chapter 11: Health, Dress & Its Relation to Temperaments
Madame Caplin’s Hygienic Corset (first credited to her husband, Dr Jean Francois Isidore Caplin purely for its medical acknowledgement) was fitted with elastic panels to support key organs from deformation and won the only award for corset-making at the 1851 Great Exhibition. I have been lucky enough to meet this particular corset, a beautiful blue ribbed silk corset with a cream lining. (It measures as a 20 inch waist) The particular colour of the silk corset was for display purposes only, (which provides an answer for its immaculate condition for its age) all of Madame Caplin’s corsets made to buy were either black or white. You can find images of this corset, and another of Caplin’s corsets (A pale blue Petticoat Suspender corset, through the Museum of London’s online site)
Madame Caplin’s success triggered her 24 different designs in total, covering a range of different activities and impact of a woman’s life. This includes juvenile corsets for correct and supported physical development into adulthood, spinal and scapula contractors to treat weakened muscles and bodily forms and Gestation corsets, for safe development of the body during pregnancy.
I first became mesmerised by Madame Caplin during an evening lecture within a fashion gallery at a local museum – her unique name and corsetry designs stuck and I was quick to conduct further research on this interesting historical figure. Madame Caplin was born Emily Ann Pelletier to English born parents and on her arrival to England she was first married to a man with the last name Galloway. (and on early register she had used the name Roxey Ann Galloway) She later met and worked with Dr Caplin, adopting his name and her French title probably to boost her public profile (with French fashion and corsetry dominating Europe) and marrying him at a later date.
I was also quick to access a copy of her monumental book, Health and Beauty: Or Corsets and Clothing. The text details her idea of corsetry reform, her progress and effects of her designs in an eloquent manner, as well as providing insights into her business strategies. The book had numerous editions throughout the 19th century; it was first published in 1856 and was revised over the next decade.
In my opinion, Madame Caplin was more than a 19th century corset maker and writer; she was a visionary, a social reformer, an underappreciated heroine in medicine and modern, medical research. I claimed that Madame Caplin was inspired by the American transcendental movement: she acknowledged and promoted the enlightened female body, its connections with nature and the integral relationship between the spirit of the mind and the spirit of the body. These three factors along the unlocking of new worldly truths and human empowerment were enabled and represented by the reformed corset.
“The head is the treasure-vault of all our thoughts, emotions, sensations, and passions; the thorax contains the heart and lungs; the abdomen all the digestive and secretive organs; and even the orifices are all mysteriously furnished.” Madame Roxey Ann Caplin, Health and Beauty, Chapter One: Of Health and Beauty
Previous Research surrounding Madame Caplin tends to take an exclusive reformative dress perspective, her surviving corsets which lie in the Museum of London have constant interest and examination, while there is little in-depth analysis of her literature. This realisation is somewhat ironic. To refer to the introductory paragraph, Madame Caplin is clear on her position on dress and health and her purpose of her literature – which is overlooked by modern research.
Regarding transcendentalism, I claimed that there were subtle philosophical references within the text which connects dress reform, spiritualist ideologies and medical reform – providing new insights into the three domains. Transcendentalism is an individualistic theory, inspiring each member to find their own path and original impacts within the world. Madame Caplin utilised her experience of ill-constructed corsets, her experiences and knowledge to produce her original creation – which was then projected onto others. Her female customers, newspaper reporters and medical professionals all accepted her corsetry designs and therefore, its different spiritual elements and connections.
What do does Wonder Woman, Florence Nightingale and Rachel McAdams have in common?
My visual culture module this term is super interesting; public health campaigns and medical knowledge depicted in various mediums – films, comics, even stamps. This week’s task was a 2 minute presentation on a more recent campaign or method; I chose comic books because it gave me an excuse to scroll through Pinterest for a couple of hours. Seriously, Pinterest is a great source for this module.
The first quick search I did was ‘Nurses in comics’ because I was binge watching Call the Midwife (again) at the same time and came across this amazing comic illustration of Florence Nightingale. The comic was 4 pages long and details the entire story of Nightingale’s life in an inviting and aesthetically pleasing way.
The title was “Wonder Women of History, told by Alice Marble.” Alice Marble is a famous American tennis player who on retirement became an associate editor for Sensation Comics. Inspired by the Wonder Woman comics which began in 1941 Marble ran the original comic from 1942 – 1954 and each week was dedicated to another “Wonder Woman of History.”
Marble realised the impact that comic books had on the youth, outlining in a letter to the Bureau of Internal Revenue that fifteen million comics were bought each month and that there was opportunity to develop the superhero genre into an educational benefit. During this time there was a significant divide and hesitation in mixing the mediums of education and entertainment; the glamour of Hollywood for example was prioritised over reality. Marble recognised the positive aspects of the Wonder Woman comic stating “Wonder Woman marks the first time that daring strength and imagination have been featured as those womanly qualities. This has a lasting effect upon the minds.”
While not exclusively connected to any public health campaigns or strictly based on medicine, the first three ‘Wonder Women’ were nurses, specifically nurses within wars. The first comic was Florence Nightingale, the second Clara Barton ‘The Angel of the Battlefield’ and the creator of the Red Cross and the third, Edith Cavell.
It is not confirmed, yet I have a theory that the later Marvel series of “Night Nurse” takes inspiration from the successful “Wonder Women of History” series. Beginning in the 1970s, the series depicts three nurses, Christine Palmer, Georgia Jenkins and coincidently Linda Carter. (Although the Wonder Woman series starring Lynda Carter emerged 3 years later.)
The three nurses were depicted as having superhero powers (rightly so because nurses are real life superheroes) and being the ones to tend to injured superheroes. This echoes the lives of Nightingale, Barton and Cavell who tended to war heroes.
Yet issues with “Night Nurse” are obvious. While a commendable effort in depicting nurses as Wonder Women, cultural stereotypes were still attached; the sexualised nature and ‘ditzy’ persona. There is evidence which implies this may be a reason for the series end. Young girls were more attracted to new mediums outside of comic books, such as more serious and realistic novella series such as Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames. With this in mind Marble’s original teaming of reality and the superhero genre appears to have reverted.
The characters of Night Nurse have popped up in more recent Marvel films; Rachel McAdams portraying Christine Palmer, this time as a surgeon, in Doctor Strange (2016) The occupational shift from nurse to doctor may be a topic of further research in the superhero genre – are comic books still fixed to nurse stereotypes? Yet the character development may be conceived as a step forward – or be applied to other campaigns such as the “Women in Science” – encouraging girls to enter into scientific areas and change stereotypes of what is considered ‘gendered.’ In a way this adds a new dimension to Marble’s original Wonder Women campaign, as an empowerment.