While doing research on the history of corsets, I found out that much of what we think about corsets is a misunderstanding. Of course, the corset was not the most user friendly accessory, but was it as dreadful as history and pop culture make it out to be? The answer may surprise you.
Scarlet O’Hara, the heroine of the Civil War drama, “Gone With the Wind”, is notorious for having an 18 ½ inch waist for the first half of the movie, and then throwing a fit when she is measured at 20 inches after having a baby. There are other infamous claims of women’s waists measuring 16, 15, or even 14 inches. Was it possible? Probably not. The average waist of a woman is believed to be 27 to 29 inches. Corsets aimed to reduce the waist about 4 inches on average, which would set the corseted waist between 22 and 26 inches. The impossibly tiny waists are works of fetish fantasy and erotic fiction more so than reality. Tight- lacing aimed to achieve the fantasy but ultimately fell short of the ideal. Tight-lacing did, however, conjure up a few health concerns.
Corsets get blamed for causing all sorts of medical problems such as cancer, scoliosis, removal/deformation of ribs, internal organ displacement, birth defects, respiratory and circulatory diseases, miscarriages, to name a few. But which, if any, are true? Let’s look at the obvious falsities. Firstly, corsets did not cause cancer. Secondly, corsets did not cause scoliosis. In fact, it probably helped those with a curvature of the spine. However, wearing a corset too long can weaken the back. (The Corset: A Cultural History, Vol. 5, p. 71).
Did women actually have their lower ribs removed to achieve an umpteen waist size? Well, anesthesia was unavailable until the mid 19th century (rudimentary at best), antiseptics weren’t accepted until the 1880s, and antibiotics would not be discovered until 1928 with the discovery of penicillin. Considering all of the above, it is highly unlikely that women would put their life at risk for a smaller waist. Not only that, they’d be hard pressed to find a surgeon who would perform such a risky procedure. Besides, there is no evidence nor medical records in existence to show that it ever happened.
That’s good, but could ribs become deformed from corsets? Ribs are designed to be semi-pliable and resilient. But it is feasible that corsets, especially tight laced ones, could cause rib deformations, especially if the woman had been tightly bound as a child when the body is still forming. If worn continuously, ribs will loose their ability to reshape and expand again. That being said, rib deformations could have occured due to other reasons that were unexplored at the time, like rickets or malnourishment. On that note, you may have heard that women in the 1800s would often faint. It is true, but women didn’t spontaneously faint, nor was it a sign of their weakness. Instead, it was due to the fact that having too tight of a corset restricted oxygen to the brain, causing women to black out or nearly black out quite often. Thus, the invention of the fainting chair, or chaise.
Now, as horrible as that sounds, the real issues are the damage that corsets did to the female reproductive system. One of many affects of the corset was that it could cause a prolapsed uterus after multiple pregnancies because of the downward pressure a corset exerted onto the abdomen and uterus. If you don’t know what a prolapsed uterus is, I’ll just say that involves an attachment that resembles a plug that is inserted into the vagina to keep the uterus inside the body. Also, pregnancy corsets were worn but even if they were mildly tight, they could have contributed to miscarriages and blood clots or difficult labor. It is possible that women would deliberately tight lace in an effort to abort a fetus (The Corset: A Cultural History, Volume 5, p. 76)
After all this, why were corsets in style for over 400 years? Well, like everything things in life, there are pros and cons to corsets. The number one con of corsetry is obviously that it was harmful to a woman’s body. Physicians and doctors in the 18th and 19th century were adamant about informing women that it was harmful. Even some men protested it, claiming that it caused “hysteria” (sexist in its own way but that is neither here nor there in this discussion). Another perceivable con many people will claim is that men forced women into corsets to inflict control, restriction, submission, and oppression, literally and figuratively, in a patriarchal society. That is not necessarily true. I recommend not pointing the finger but if you must, the fashion industry had more influence on the success of corsetry than men’s desire.
Now, there are positivities to corsetry. Wearing a corset meant a woman was either elite or knew what the elite fashion was of the day, thus it was a boost in her social status. Also, corsets created an ideal to strive for, one of beauty, youth, and erotic allure (surprise! women like to look and feel good about themselves). Whether it is for a man’s approval or for her own and through what means doesn’t matter. What matters is what makes her feel good. For many centuries, corsets made women feel beautiful, despite the many costs. I would imagine that is why corsets are still seen in society today, albeit presented in different ways. I’ll leave you to decide if the positives of corsetry outweigh the negatives.
Hopefully some misconceptions about corsets have been cleared up. As someone who has worn a corset for authenticity in a historic setting, I will tell you that it’s not so bad! As long as you don’t tight-lace and don’t mind the inability to bend over, it’s only mildly uncomfortable, but so are high heels. I can say for certain that my ribs are just fine.
Steele, Valerie. The Corset: A Cultural History. 4th ed. Vol. 5. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.
Toulalan, Sarah, and Kate Fisher, eds. The Routledge History of Sex and the Body: 1500 to Present. New York: Routledge, 2013.