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.