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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Legislator Obsessed with Underwear

In January of 1899 a resolution was introduced in the Wisconsin Assembly to prohibit tight lacing of women's corsets. Corsets were undergarments stiffened with whalebone that could be tightened by laces to reduce the size of a woman's waist. They had been worn for decades by the time this bill was introduced, with laces adjusted and re-adjusted to conform to current fashions. Here is Caryl Fairchild, daughter of Governor Lucius Fairchild, in 1896, showing the effects (one presumes) of wearing a corset.

But Rep. Henry Daggett of Bear Creek, in rural Waupaca Co., thought many women went too far when they tightened their corsets in pursuit of a then-fashionable 18-inch waist. Critics and clothing reformers had long argued that wearing a corset too tight made women dizzy and light headed, and that many passed out from lack of oxygen.

It's unlikely, though, that women's health motivated Rep. Daggett. The Chicago Tribune reported that "Mr. Daggett says that for years he has studied the figures of the ladies of Bear Creek, with the result that in his opinion the waists of most ladies are about half the size they should be, judging from the physical proportions of their bodies above and below the region covered by the corset." Daggett may have simply found modern women's fashions uncomfortably provocative. The press implied that he acted not so much to safeguard women's health as to purify public morals.

Henry L. Daggett was a businessman and farmer who knew how to get things done. His anti-lacing resolution was carefully drafted, and promptly referred to the Committee on Public Improvements. They passed it to the Committee of Public Health and Sanitation, who handed it off like a hot potato to the Committee of Agriculture. At every step it aroused controversy.

Some commentators objected that it was frivolous for lawmakers to spend their time and taxpayers' money on women's fashion. Others simply felt that how tight one chose to wear one's underwear was none of the government's business.

Articles ridiculing Daggett's proposal appeared in the Janesville, Oshkosh, and Chicago papers. At one Madison social event, a picture was hung showing him as a medieval knight, sword in hand, ready to battle a monstrous corset. His wife refused to accompany him to Madison on business, fearing jokes and crude comments directed their way. When he shipped his trunk back to Bear Creek at the end of the session, it arrived pasted over with pictures of scantily clad, tightly corseted women, raising eyebrows at the Bear Creek train depot. Daggett and his proposal quickly retired from public view: his resolution died quietly in committee, and he did not run for office the next term.

Although corsets eventually went out of style, replaced in the 20th century by obsessive dieting to achieve the same ends, most of us still allow the dictates of fashion to determine how we look, rather than those of health or comfort.

[Sources: Side Roads, Excursions into Wisconsin Past, by Fred L. Holmes, (Madison, 1949); Chicago Tribune, March 19, 1899.]

:: Posted in Bizarre Events on March 2, 2011

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