Everything You Know About Corsets Is False

January 17th, 2012

The corset has a bad reputation. And unfairly so, according to Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who says this undergarment of centuries past is not nearly as evil or confining as modern folks have come to believe.

With the Edwardian Balls just around the corner, we started ogling gorgeous antique corsets on the Internet, including this 1895 pink-and-black Y&N corset (right). Then, we asked Steele, the author of The Corset: A Cultural History, to set the record straight about this much-maligned piece of fashion history. Here are her top three misunderstood facts about corsets:

1. Thirteen-inch waists are a thing of myths.

Even though so-called “tight-lacing” was popular during the late 1800s, women rarely reduced their waists more than 1-2 inches. Generally, a corset with a 20-inch waist would be worn with a gap in the back, so the woman’s corseted waist measured between 22 and 26 inches. Where did these tales of ladies of the court and their obscenely tiny 13-inch waists come from? Fetish fantasy literature of the era.

“A lot of people believe in the 16-inch waist being typical when, of course, most corsets were no smaller than in the 20s,” Steele says. “Most people would reduce by a couple of inches. You can reduce it 4 inches or so, but most women were not going to be doing any more than that.”

2. Corsets did not create misshapen livers or life-threatening diseases.

A long corset made by CK in Belgium, circa 1890. From the collection of L. Hidic, corsetsandcrinolines.com, via The Antique Corset Gallery.

A long corset made by CK in Belgium, circa 1890. From the collection of L. Hidic, corsetsandcrinolines.com, via The Antique Corset Gallery.

Over the years, corsets have been credited with causing a whole litany of health problems. It’s been said that they misshape internal organs and cause cancer. Other illnesses attributed to corsets were fake, sexist conditions, like “hysteria.” There’s also no record of a woman having a rib surgically removed so she could better fit into a corset, which is a particularly absurd myth, given how deadly surgery was in the 1800s.

Of course, they weren’t exactly the healthiest things to wear every day, either. They did force organs to shift around, cause indigestion and constipation, and eventually weakened back muscles. And they didn’t leave a lot room for pregnant women’s fetus-incubating bellies. But deadly they were not. They also didn’t prevent women from doing their work—any more than, say, stiletto heels do.

“Most people today think corsets were extremely dangerous and caused all kinds of health problems, from cancer to scoliosis,” Steele says. “And that’s quite inaccurate. Most of the diseases that have been credited to corsets, in fact, had other causes. Corsets did not cause scoliosis, the crushing of the liver, cancer, or tuberculosis. It doesn’t mean that corsets were without any health problems, but it does mean that most modern people are wildly naive in believing the most absurd antiquated medical accusations about corsetry.

“For example, the idea of the misshapen liver seems to be a mistake based on the fact that there is a lot of variation in the shape of livers. When doctors did autopsies, they would see these weird-looking livers and they’d go, ‘That was caused by the corset.'”

3. Men did not force women into corsets.

Madame Lemay silk damask corset, circa 1901. From the collection of M. Talkington, laceembrace.com, via The Antique Corset Gallery.

Madame Lemay silk damask corset, circa 1901. From the collection of M. Talkington, laceembrace.com, via The Antique Corset Gallery.

Steele says women wore corsets quite on their own volition. Men, in fact, regularly protested corsets, claiming they caused hysteria and the other health problems mentioned above. Women wore the corset because it made them feel attractive and properly dressed, she says, two important indicators of status. However, they were intended to reshape the natural body to what women perceived as the most ideal figure—meaning the most youthful and sexually desirable. Men might not have oppressed women by demanding they wear corsets, but women certainly wore them to impress men and assert their rank among other women.

“The corset was associated with high status and with respectability, indicating you’re not loose,” Steele says. “Also, it enhances the sexually dimorphic curves of the female body. It acts like a proto-Wonderbra and also emphasizes the waist-hip differential, which makes you look younger, slimmer, and curvier—which is still what everybody wants. But now women get on a StairMaster or get plastic surgery instead of putting on a corset.”

A hand-made cone-shaped stay corset from circa 1786. From the collection of K. Augusta, antique-fashion.com, via The Antique Corset Gallery.

A hand-made cone-shaped stay corset from circa 1786. From the collection of K. Augusta, antique-fashion.com, via The Antique Corset Gallery.

In early 16th century Europe, corsets called “payre of bodies” pushed the breasts upward and shaped the torso into a slim cylinder, thanks to boning made of horn, buckram or whalebone, and a flat wooden “busk” running down the center. But by the 17th century, corsets took on more of a cone-like shape, often made of two separate pieces of boned fabric known as stays, held together in the front with the busk. For a brief time, from 1800 to 1830, the Napoleonic high “empire waist” look freed bellies from the confines of waist-constricting stays, as corsets became smaller and closer to modern-day bras.

The Victorian Era revived the desire for wasp waists and hourglass silhouettes, and so corsets, now extending below the waist and incorporating steel boning, created that shape. Curves were further exaggerated with big shoulders in blouses, and huge hoop skirts over layers of crinoline. Also, new manufacturing technology allowed for affordable mass-produced corsets, which had previously been custom-made to a woman’s measurements.

This illustration from an 1900 issue of Ladies Home Journal shows the change from Victorian to Edwardian silhouettes.

This illustration from a 1900 issue of Ladies Home Journal shows the change from Victorian to Edwardian silhouettes.

The Edwardian period hailed a whole new corset shape. This decade at the turn-of-the-century (1901-1910) represented a tremendous time of transition in fashion, as the elaborate getups of the Victorian Era got a bit more ridiculous, and then fell out of style all together.

A corsetier with an M.D., Inès Gaches-Sarraute, came up with the straight-front corset—also known as the “swan-bill,” “S-line,” or “S-bend” corsets—which he believed kept the pressure off a woman’s stomach. But these corsets forced women to tilt awkwardly, hips back, breasts forward, and created an exaggerated S-shape in the back. Of course, these were probably much worse for one’s health, putting all sorts of strain on the spine by forcing such an awkward posture. But if a woman were to dress as an authentic Edwardian, this is the sort of corset she’d wear.

Bianca Lyons in typical Edwardian dress, circa 1902. Image from the U.S. Library of Congress, copyright E. Chickering.

Bianca Lyons in typical Edwardian dress, circa 1902. Image from the U.S. Library of Congress, copyright E. Chickering.

Between 1908 and 1914, fashion favored a more natural shape, but corsets got even bigger and more complicated, extending down to the thigh and creating a higher waist.

An early 1910s longline corset made from bow patterned pink brocade. From the collection of L. Hidic, corsetsandcrinolines.com, via The Antique Corset Gallery.

An early 1910s longline corset made from bow patterned pink brocade. From the collection of L. Hidic, corsetsandcrinolines.com, via The Antique Corset Gallery.

“You’re getting a shift away from what high Victorian and Edwardian fashion writers described as ‘the Venus ideal’ and a movement towards ‘the Diana ideal,’ which was slimmer and more athletic,” Steele says. “So increasingly, people started to say that they didn’t need to wear a corset, that their body was already ideal. Often, when you read old interviews, actresses will say, ‘I don’t need to wear a corset,’ but you look at their photograph and you go, ‘Babe, you are so wearing a corset.'”

In the 1910s and 1920s, as women became more interested in sports and clothes that allowed for a greater freedom of movement, the socially desirable silhouette changed to a thinner, more streamlined figure. New elastics allowed for shaping undergarments that narrowed the hips without the use of steel boning.

“By the 1910s, the tango had become trendy,” Steele says. “If you had a boned corset, your movements weren’t right, so people would wear these boneless tango corsets, which are just long elasticized girdles. And there began to be a gradual movement towards dieting and exercise as the way to control the way your body looks. By the ’20s, of course, your clothes were showing more of your body. You couldn’t hide behind corsetry so much anymore.”

While these new hip-controlling girdles and breast-supporting brassieres became the order of the day, corsets made a comeback briefly in the late 1930s—after World War II interrupted fashion, they returned again for Dior’s New Look, which emphasized small waists, full busts, and big flowing skirts. They went out of fashion again when ’60s mod style brought back the short skirts and girlish figure of the ’20s and the hippie movement embraced more natural body shapes.

“When you read old interviews, actresses will say, ‘I don’t need to wear a corset,’ but you look at their photograph and you go, ‘Babe, you are so wearing a corset.'”

Up until the punk movement of the ’70s, corsets were strictly undergarments, never intended to be worn in public. In their quest to be shocking, punks started wearing old-fashioned lingerie as outerwear. Haute couture designers like Vivienne Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier quickly put this brazenly sexy look, drawn from the bondage porn of early decades, on the runway. Then, in the ’80s, mega pop stars like Cyndi Lauper and Madonna brought it to mainstream America.

Ever an object of fascination and debate, the corset will make its way out of the closet in the coming weeks, as the Edwardian Ball hits San Francisco’s Regency Ballroom on Jan. 20 and 21 and Los Angeles this spring, date and location to be announced. These events are a fantastical and Halloweeny celebration of macabre mid-century illustrator Edward Gorey, as well as of the fashions of the Edwardians.

This year, Edwardian Ball goers will surely see plenty of outerwear corsets at the events, where people let their imaginations run wild a la Burning Man and mine countercultures like goth, bondage, and steampunk for inspiration. But for ladies who value historically accuracy, the swan-bill corsets will be worn more discreetly under the layers of lace, ruffles, and ribbons of their gorgeous period-perfect gowns.

44 comments so far

  1. Charly Says:

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! It seems like every publication about corsets is so badly tainted with these false ideas about how dangerous they are that there’s hardly any real information in them. It’s so nice to see a well written article about this. I do disagree with the part about the Edwardian corsets. Edwardian corsets apply pressure to the body in a different way, but they in no way force the body into that arched back posture. Somebody did there own study about it on FoundationsRevealed.com and basically came to the conclusion (and I agree from my own studies) that while the pictures from that era show a lot of this posture, it was just the fashionable posture that was used for pictures. Nobody went about their day to day life trying to hold that absurd posture. It’s like following the fashionable facial expressions for photography, early photos are all frowns, but nowadays we smile for the camera.

    In addition to all of the myths you so wonderfully refuted, I’ve heard people claim that Edwardian corsets actually distort the figure into that extreme pigeon-chested shape! I’m guessing they came to this conclusion by looking at illustrations from the time. I did a little happy dance the first time I came across adds for Edwardian era bust enhancers, I’m sure women have been coming up with ingenious ways of padding their “bras” since they’ve had the support garments to “pad”.

    It has been my experience that no woman (laced up by me!) has ever complained about being uncomfortable. Quite the opposite! I can hardly get them to take the corset off!

    Thank you so much for this article!

  2. Peter Ole Kvint Says:

    The corset is an invention of Roxey Ann[a] Caplin. The corset was first widely used after 1851. Before 1851 woman used pair of stays, which hung down on the shoulders. Corset was a reform dress with free moveable shoulders.

    Thirteen-inch waists are not a thing of myths. A pattern of 13 inches in the waist is 33.02 cm + 10%/12% stretch + lacing (about a inches) + bones and fabric thickness (c. 0,7cm +c. 0,7cm +c. 0,7cm +c. 0,7cm)= c. 41.6 cm = about 17 inch. Corsetmaker pattern goal of the corset is not the same as the lady’s waist circumference outside of the corset.

    The corsetmakers tell as some corsets do create misshapen livers or life-threatening diseases. It requires anatomical knowledge to make tight corsets. Not everyone has this knowledge.

  3. katarena Says:

    I wear corsets to work almost every day. The only problem i have ever had with a corset is it not being big enough for my breasts, and crushing them in part while another part spills over. I actually wear the corset because of back pain that i get- conveniently i do not have back pain when i wear the corset. Hurrah!

  4. EmJade Says:

    Thank you so much! I have always loved wearing corsets and have hated the bad press. Hell, I would wear more corsets if they weren’t so expensive! They have helped my back feel better and I love they way I look in them. So thank you again for throwing light on a subject so many just don’t have all the information on.

  5. Andrew Says:

    It’s nice to see someone supporting corsets out there! We often get asked many questions about the health an safety of corsets when people come to see us in our shop. Hopefully with this you are able to spread the information more widely and people will become more acceptable to the corset again. Yeay!! I have even linked it off my website http://www.corset.ie to help. Many thanks.

  6. bian Says:

    i am male 38, i do wearing corset. actually that is girdle, but people in my country call it corset. i love being corseted because it can hold my stomach and i feel much more comfortable in my corset. i really want to have a real corset but i think i cant afford because of the price.

  7. Camille Says:

    Debunking myths about women and body image is always a pleasure to read!

  8. Mousy Says:

    Peter, you’re misrepresenting things. A pattern dimension, as you even state, is not what it would be when worn. To say that “Thirteen-inch waists are not a thing of myths” is a misnomer, as you are referring to the corset measurement itself and not a woman’s actual waist measurement when worn. As you even state. That’s the exact kind of mis-information this article is trying to eliminate. Many of those tiny corsets were actually mannequin models for shop windows (beautify made, never worn leads to easy preservation), and you know how accurate mannequins are in store windows.

    There is a huge difference the between body modification through tight lacing you mention and lacing in to take 2 inches off your waist measurement. It’s like saying because I exercise I must watch every calorie I eat and purge when I over do it. The women of their day who practiced those sorts of extreme tight lacing techniques regularly today be anorexic with stretched out tendons in her legs due to constant heel wearing, their own sort of body modification. Just because it happens doesn’t make it normal.

  9. SewFits Says:

    Just as there are many different styles of corset, there are many different shapes of bodies and different physical health requirements. Some people may be able to wear a specific style of corset all day without causing health problems. But others may not. I recommend that wearers of my corsets not constrict more than 2-3 inches at the waist, and not wear them for more than 4-5 hours without loosening stays and resting. I also mention that I have adhesions and scar tissue in my rib cage front and back from prolonged overconstriction when I was younger. It’s important to use your best judgement about your own body, and to not over generalize.

  10. Wilde Hunt Corsetry Says:

    As a modern corsetière who create custom leather corsets under the label Wilde Hunt Corsetry (www.wildehunt.com), I really appreciate your article. My clients have included mothers, artists, business owners, computer programers, Iraq war veterans to name a few. And despite the large corset-wearing community that exists, I still get a lot of questions from the general public which I think are the result of these odd myths.

    Regardless, corset wearing is becoming increasingly popular and I think a lot of people will agree that there is nothing quite as timeless and striking as a woman in an elegantly made corset.

    Thanks for the corset-positive article!
    Larissa Boiwka

  11. Cassandra Booth Says:

    Corset myths are much like any other medical myth. Such as “Women can’t drive at night because they can’t see in the dark.”I think we all know why these things are created and where they come from, mostly from an oppresive society trying to keep us in our place.
    The clergy were very opposed to ladies that were in their view “excessively corseted” I’m sure it did make a few of them rethink their vows.
    The myths are just as many for the other side too. That if a girl isn’t corseted her womb may wander causing all manner of ridiculous ailments. Laugh and learn I say, most of the elderly ladies I’ve spoken to say they loved how feminine and empowered they felt.Like “they were putting on their armor” This is what society had a problem with and I’ve got to say that’s how I feel when I wear mine.Feminine and bullet proof.

  12. jamesskaar Says:

    the whale bone… it’s baleen, is it not? the heavy hairs used by filter feeding whales as a substitute for teeth.

  13. Barbara H Says:

    It is so refreshing to have a rational and reasoned explanation for the corset fashion of the 19th and early 20th centuries. I have studied extensively in the fashion museums of Europe and have rarely come across a corset with waist less than 24 inches [60 cm.] Those which are made with smaller waists clearly have not been worn at their tightest, because of the lack of stretch and pull on the eyelets and stitching. And many letters from young women say that they wore their corsets open by an inch or two – or three.

    I have been wearing a corset 23 hours in every day since 1999. In that sense I suppose I am a tight-lacer. My corset has been pressing on my figure for nearly 13 years and my waist has reduced from my original 30 inches to my present 20 inches. It was not the plan to achieve this measurement, but as the years have gone by I bought progressively smaller-waisted corsets; made to measure and very comfortable. I experienced no pain or even discomfort at any time. Also my blood pressure, cholesterol, bone density, liver function, menstruation and hemoglobin are all perfectly normal. I am happy with this state of things and do not intend to reduce my waist any further. My husband is very happy with my figure and we take pleasure from the rituals of dressing me each morning and evening. I would never advise or recommend another woman to tight-lace as I do, because it must be her choice. But I can think of no reason to condemn it either.

    Thank you again for a very helpful article.

  14. Diane Says:

    I remember the “Merry Widow” in the fifties. I was still wearing it (only for dressy occasions) when I was a month or so pregnant, and my father said, “Don’t wear it if it’s uncomfortable.” Me: “Dad, it’s always uncomfortable!”

  15. Stacey Says:

    Thank you for an article that helps debunk many corset myths. One note of clarification…the article states…”And they didn’t leave a lot room for pregnant women’s fetus-incubating bellies.” In the mid 19th century, patterns for gestational stays (corsets) were readily available. These included laced gussets on the front abdominal sections to allow for the expanding belly as well as adjustable bust gussets to allow for expansion there. Many also included modifications to allow for easier breastfeeding making them a very functional, practical, safe garment.

  16. Deanna Dahlsad aka Pop Tart Says:

    I’ve written about this myself — though I took it much further in my 3-part series ;)




  17. John L. VanLandingham Says:

    Author Steele credibly dispels the myths surrounding corsets and health, but I would have appreciated some attribution to the doctors’ autopsy remarks about corsets and livers, particularly because it was in quotes. It sounded as if the remark was heard and repeated without confirmation thus compounding the very thing she sought to dispel, gullibility.

  18. Cecilia Says:

    What is in this article is correct. Most corsets were worn with at least a one inch gap. There was a French Corset made in the 1850’s that was light weight and had fewer stays. By the way it takes a really strong grip to construct and put together a corset.

  19. Anne Says:

    John, this article is a skim off the top of Steele’s book Corsets: A Cultural History, which delves deeper into autopsy reports and medical mosunderstanding with full bibliography. It’s also a fascinating book, I bought it thinking I’d use it now and then for costume research and read it cover to cover in two days.

    Also, to the person questioning whalebone, yes it is baleen, but the corset industry called it whalebone so we do as well.

  20. Stacy Says:

    As a bioarchaeologist, I can say that corsets cause deformation of the spine and ribs. It’s not life-threatening, but it’s certainly evident in the skeletal record.

    I’m a corset-wearer myself for historical dress, so I’m certainly not anti-corset. I feel very sexy in the one I made, which is late 18th-c. style.

  21. Grimilde Says:

    There should be a medical point of view. Though I’m not a doctor, but a physiotherapy student and a corset lover, I feel I have to add something.
    Corset causes no damage if you wear it for a few hours a week.
    If you start wearing it for a longer time, your body will change little by little, the faster the more you wear your steel boned corset.
    Waist training corsets reduce your stomach capacity (good, you won’t feel hungry), but also your lungs one. It means it’s not healthy for those with breathing problems: if you have smoked for more than 5 years, and you still smoke more than 2 cigarettes a day, you have to avoid corsets for log periods. As smoke does, many illnesses can reduce blood oxigenation by increasing lungs thickness and alveoli number.
    As second, you should avoid wearing corsets for aesthetic reasons if you have menopause or ostheoporosis. Bones grow stronger when they’re under load, and as a corset provides compression but not load, your bones can lose their mineral part becoming frail and possibly causing you a lot of back pain. In menopause, this process occurs naturally with the hormon shift, and if you wear a corset for long too…you increase the damage.
    These are problems studied in medical corset use, but since the fashion corset is tighter and many times stronger, the damage is not just the same, but it’s worse.

    I don’t want anybody to stop wearing corsets, for god’s sake, I want to make and sell some! But I thin many girls go into a waist training self made program, without knowing if they can stand it. I just wish to help people avoiding pain ^^

  22. Kirsten Houseknecht Says:

    i have laced a lot of people into corsets, and sold more than a few of them. I also wore corsets for about 3 years every waking moment… as a back brace after a car accident!

    Corsets are supposed to have about 1-3 inches “open” at the lacing as their “spring” which allows for the flex and movement. if you can close the corset completely it is either too big, or you are lacing it too tightly. Therefore a woman’s “18 inch waist” (measurements were often given as the CORSET measure) was anywhere from 19-21 inches…
    the larger you are the more space you may leave open…but you need at least a thumb width.

    if it is uncomfortable it does not fit! period. Either it is too large, too small, or the proportional length (bust to waist, or waist to hip) is incorrect.

    many people do wear ill fitting corsets, often because they have been told they are supposed to be uncomfortable…. just as many people wear poorly fitting shoes because they assume that they are “supposed to be” a certain size.

  23. Joanne Says:

    How dare you presume to know what I know or don’t know about anything. This is lazy and offensive headlining of an otherwise OK article. Everything you know about your readers is false.

  24. Dirkum Says:

    It is very clear from buying vintage clothing and shoes that people in the western world are a lot larger now than they were in the 19th and early 20th century periods. Direct comparison of clothing sizes is not really possible.

  25. Alden OBrien Says:

    Re:Stacy’s comment, I think you will find in Steele’s work further discussion of the archaeological record, the spinal and other deformities in the record can’t be generally linked with corsets. Just because there were deformities doesn’t mean corsets caused them. Most people wore corsets the way we wear bras and Spanx, as shapers and supporters, not lacing them tightly in any way that would deform or move around anything internally. We can no longer imagine wearing such structured garments over so much of our torso that would affect movement and posture that way, but unless you insist that comfort must mean absolute freedom of movement, they aren’t necessarily uncomfortable (I’ve worn repros for theater and living history events). The whole point of this post is that they weren’t instruments of torture.

  26. Alice Weir Says:

    I doubt any blanket statement on this page (and there are plenty!) lacks its exceptions. For one thing, all this talk of posture, but not word about the bustles that cause that appearance far more than any corset could ever do?

    For another, that somehow, tightening a corset around one’s torso leads to osteoporosis. A corset could certainly lend itself to some muscle weakness over time. And a poorly-fitted corset could do terrible damage to anyone who lacked the tough connective tissues to withstand it.

    But that has nothing to do with weight-bearing operations, unless one became so incredibly weak as to not be able to stand. Weight-bearing is merely the act of defying gravity by remaining upright – and no corset can prevent that! At least, not any more than a bra would cause a smoker to quit getting oxygen. If anything, smokers are exceptionally efficient at it – they pretty much have to be, or they’d choke like non-smokers do! (I can only wonder what country this physiotherapy school is in?)

    The 13-inch waist was carried in a photograph in medical texts as late as the early 1960’s. It was attributed to a whole range of supposed causes, corsets being only one of them. Anorexia was another, which turned up as eating disorders became the new complaint of the day. As was Marfan’s, which often causes people to be accused of eating disorders they don’t actually have due to their naturally slender build. I doubt we’ll ever know the exact cause in that case. That same book also gave the advice that we really should shampoo our hair every couple of weeks, if that gives any indication how drastically medical fashion also changes! And the lady’s picture gets trotted out again every few years to explain…something-or-other. That something seems to change every time it resurfaces.

    The idea that the uterus cause ‘female troubles’ by roaming about the body was carried in Grey’s Anatomy as late as 1939. This one harks back to Ancient Greece, iirc. But it gives us a pretty good birdseye view of the general state of modern medicine as it applied to women, well into the 20th century (and many will complain, still today!).

    Makes it just a little hard to take any broad pronouncements about underwear too seriously.

  27. Michelle Says:

    Great article! I have worn corsets for different events and find them very comfortable, even when laced to drop my waist more than three inches.

    However, I need to comment on #2. We went to Strokestown Park House, Rosscommon, Ireland, on our honeymoon. Mary Pakenham-Mahon (the mother of the last occupant of the home, Olive) had her last rib removed in the late 1800’s specifically to get a smaller waist.

  28. Christine Says:

    I think this article, while mostly reasonable, overstates the ease of corsets. Laura Ingalls Wilder complained in one of her later “Little House” books that her corset would not allow her to draw a deep breath. She couldn’t stand to sleep in one, as her sister Mary did (Mary was considered extra-virtuous for this). How comfortable could it be to wear something that doesn’t allow you to fully breathe?

    Tight lacing was not just a feature of fetishist literature. The very well-researched book “Corsets and Crinolines,” by Norah Waugh, quotes an 1867 letter (p. 141 of the paperback edition) describing a fashionable London school, where it was the policy to reduce students’ waists by one inch per month until they met the headmistress’ standard. The writer claimed a 13-inch waist when she left the school at age 17, having supposedly dropped 10 inches during her time there. (She specifically mentions the circumference of her waist, not her corset’s measurement.) This was probably not typical behavior, but it indicates that tight lacing was not quite as unusual as stated in this article. The girls competed to see who could be the smallest–that certainly sounds plausible. (The correspondent does say that the girls didn’t suffer any ill-health from this practice–apart from headaches, loss of appetite, and fainting!)

    I disagree with the commenters who say that corsets were always meant to be worn wide open. I’m sure some people wore them this way, but most period pictures of corsets I have seen show them laced all the way closed, or not open much more than an inch, and an 1869 poem (p. 142, “C and C”) refers to the struggle: “‘Don’t lace me tighter, sister dear;…’ ‘My dear, they’re not near closed.'”

    I’ve worn corsets myself, and I’m really glad I’m not expected to wear one every day.

  29. Elspeth Says:

    When viewing anything historical, you really have to take a step back and view it both with a ‘human’ lens and a contemporary one. I wear corsets frequently, both for reenactment purposes and because it does wonders for the pain I get from a spine condition called lordosis. I love them and the way I look in them, but I won’t pretend they don’t ever hurt. The wearing of corsets in the 19th century was exactly the same as the wearing of bras or shoes today. Basic humanity doesn’t change. Just as people today wear what they can find/afford, plenty of Victorian women would have worn ill-fitting, badly made corsets that pinched or hampered movement. Just as some people wander around in sneakers with the back mashed down and others wear extremely high heels, some Victorian women would have left a generous gap in the lacing and some would excessively waist train. Let’s not forget that Victorians were PEOPLE.

  30. Jenny Says:

    Re. Christine’s post. The 1867 letter to which you allude forms part of a protracted and often highly fetishistic correspondence (“Conversazione”) not only on the subject tightlacing but also on more dubious topics such as crossdressing and flagellation. Published in the EDM (Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine) over a period of two years, it’s now thought that the editor, Samuel Beeton (husband of Mrs Beeton of cookery book fame) along with a number of other male fetishists, authored of most of the racier letters publishing them under, often female, pseudonyms. They therefore cannot be taken as evidence of a widespread practice of tightlacing.

    Though I gave up using corsets myself some time ago, I retain an interest as an erstwhile wearer and collector. I’d have to say that the smallest size period corset I’ve ever come across, which BTW I still own, is a 17″ Y & N corset from c. 1894. This corset has never been worn and is mounted on a contemporaneous form as a shop/exhibition display. It’s therefore more than likely a ‘one off’ manufactured specifically to promote the company’s wares, I guess much in the same way that today’s fashion houses put size zero dresses on impossibly thin models to sell to normal sized women such as you and I.

  31. Miss Grey Says:

    I have a few nits and picks with the article, though it’s fine overall. I will say that Vivienne Westwood was herself a punk and rose to her current place in haute couture as a result of her contributions to punk fashion. Saying she seized on the punk look and placed it on the runways does her a grave disservice when she was one of the primary originators of that look.

  32. Cille Says:

    The point about women wearing them “voluntarily” is absurd. Women chose and choose to wear bras and heels and all types of ridiculous, beautiful, and uncomfortable things, but to say that because a few men protested the corset, all women wore them completely voluntarily …that’s disregarding completely the complicated social pressures that prompt or even require that desire in the first place.

  33. Clare Says:

    I’m a dress historian and I’m glad to see this article debunking some myths and foregrounding Valerie Steele’s research. BUT there is one misconception that you didn’t address – that corsets were worn directly over the skin. As they were non-washable, and the ridges of the ‘bones’ would press into the skin, they were always worn over one or more undergarments: originally a loose linen chemise (linen absorbed perspiration better than cotton), later fitted ‘combinations’ made from cotton or wool jersey. Camisoles and slips were worn on top to stop the corset showing through – and to add extra volume with ruffles over the bust. Eleri Lynn’s book is good on all these layers.

  34. Anthony Says:

    Small edit needed under point 1:
    “Most people would reduce to a couple of inches.”
    should be:
    Most people would reduce _by_ a couple of inches.

    Small change, but big difference in meaning and supporting your article!
    Fixed, thanks!-Eds

  35. Sarah Says:

    To everyone still screaming about the patriarchy, yes, impressing men sexually is ONE of the reasons women corseted, because it happens to make women look more extremely feminine. However women also wore and still wear impractical, difficult and confining garments in order to compete with other women in terms of class status.

    Corsets, unlike stays, were often difficult to get into, especially if you wanted them tight it was often best to have a ladies maid to dress you and tighten the laces while it was on. Ergo, a woman in a tight corset could afford a maid. A corset said “I don’t have to do much hard physical work, like housework” and the tighter it was, the louder the message came across. Same for hoops and crinolines, which positively scream, “I live in a big house with wide doorways”. Today a tight skirt and stillettos still sends the message “I don’t have to walk far or carry much”.

    For much of history the clothing of rich men was quite awkward too…high heels were originally for men, NOT women, and tight breeches with layers of brocaded vests and jackets are not great for free movement either. And, of course, the most damning evidence against “the patriarchy” being to blame for corsets is that men also wore corsets, mostly for a general slimming effect that let the fashionable clothing hang well, but from 1820 to 1834 a nipped in, wasp-waist was also fashionable for men.


  36. Gilles Says:

    Wow, this is quite an interesting article and the comments are as interesting !
    I guess , one has to know that the female body was quite tiny ,up until the 20 th century,say, up to WW1. If you look at dresses , shoes, gloves and hats sizes of different periods and countries, women were tiny and petite , for an average height between 4’11” to 5’1″ -ish .

    We have to know that bourgeois girls were trained to wear corsets as early as age 12 so the body would be trained to the conditions the corset would dictate, and slowly. as the body grows,by the time they were adults , the bone structure and organs position were already shaped .
    Plus ,the reference texts and corsets we can admire from different periods were from wealthy women, and in general they would have a slimmer type of body because of a smaller muscular mass, and by consequent, smaller bone mass as well, since they did not have to work .then again,according to the period, the country, the social ranks, and all other sorts of reasons .

    Before the advent of the sewing machine,(around 1850s ) corsets were all made by hand and made to measure, so there would be no need of a gap at the lacing.
    Only with the industrialization ,some corset manufacturers started to offer already-made corsets, then, a larger gap would be needed in their product to accommodate different sizes in body,also introducing a lesser comfortable fit,( possibly opening doors to medical conditions that sadly contributed to the dark reputation of the corset),but this is just my assumption,based on a very few medical reports, I’m a corset maker so I know how important a good fit can be and how uncomfortable and dangerous a bad fitting corset is. ( A well made to measure corset doesn’t need an open gap at the back, this only happens when is it worn looser than when it was made) .
    Now, the “tiny waist” corsets often linked with the medical conditions was not always its main feature through time:some periods were rather featuring high bust or larger hips , high waist or straight front etc…. So the small waist crave only last a few decades at best.
    Non-working women- despite the fact that Bourgeois would have much unhealthier eating habits than the working class with greater quantity and much fatter food – wearing a corset would not allow a stomach to be filled past a certain amount,thus restraining the food intake , and then the body size. Wealthy women would have a slightly slimmer type of body then working ones because of a smaller muscular mass, and of course, smaller bone mass as well.
    As adult, most of the time, corsets were worn mostly to ‘support” the body position and organs and enhance femininity , more or less like our modern Spanx would do.
    In some occasions, it was laced tighter to enhance the figure like for a specific event,a ball, a dinner ,a wedding , while looking for a husband, or a drastic change of fashion.
    In general, corsets would not need to be laced tightly , just firmly because the body was already shaped and adapted to years of conditioning with them .
    Proof is: did you ever try to get out of a tightly laced corset by yourself, using the font busk opening?( that’s why it is there for ,right? , to take it off yourself, without the help of a maid)
    You will agree It is practically impossible , if it is tightly laced ,without bending the blades or some accidents!…
    Enjoy wearing your favorite corsets!

  37. jeff cole Says:

    My uncle, a WW2 bomber crewman and later pilot wore a corset most of his remaining life after several crash landings and a bailout. The main manufacturers of women’s corsetry here at the time also made medical corsets I think.

  38. Kim Says:

    Interesting article. I agree with a previous commenter that Victorians were human, and just like today, women have a tendency to push the envelope when it comes to fashion, In all likelihood, lacing up a little too tightly was probably pretty common. Growing up in the 80s, I remember how us girls would have to lay flat across a bed, take a deep breath in and sometimes even pull the zipper up with the prong of a fork just to get into our Jordache Jeans. Jeans back then weren’t made with the elastic stretch that they have today. Talk about restrictive clothing! And, yes, there were plenty of sources telling women how unhealthy tight fitting jeans were. But, we wore them as tight as we could get them. And we survived. :-)
    I recently made my very first historical costume and learned a lot in the process. Even though I made my costume from relatively light-weight fabrics, when I put it on in its entirety it is surprisingly heavy. Nothing like the weight distribution of clothes today. Considering the weight of fabric and the multiple layers and even the way clothes had to be constructed (no zippers, no elastic) its no wonder they needed the rigid foundation of a corset.
    I once read an article in an old women’s magazine from around the turn of the century that talked about a new way to dress infants. Apparently, up until that time infant’s clothing, at least around the torso, was made extremely tight-fitting because the thought was that babies were so fragile that if they were not bound up tightly in their clothing they would grow in some deformed way. I have read other accounts that lead me to believe that there was a general assumption among Victorians that the bodies of women and children needed restrictive clothing to *prevent* deformities. They were less convinced that restrictive clothing *caused* problems.

  39. Isabel luecke Says:

    In truth corsets were first used to hold up the fourteen pounds if clothing women would wear not to tighten the waist. it wasn’t until the mid 1800s that tight lacing was used, but only the aristocrats, street walkers, models and actresses would tight lace. for the everyday Victorian woman you could not be running around in a tight corset, you had to work. Corsets do however impact one’s health. they did tests and wearing a corset (even an inch tight) can speed up your heart rate, breath and make just walking across the room an arduous task. corsets can also cut into your skin. now, think about tight lacing. the invention of the hook and eye made it possible to reduce one’s waist to an unbelievable size. they have examples of lungs with indentations from the ribs. tight lacing is dangerous! and corsetting can be too.

  40. Marie Says:

    For the sake of posture enhancement, I am beginning to wear a corset, sometimes a girdle, regularly. I wear one that is not too tight, not too loose. I find it to be beneficial in its use as a brace .It is understandable that for the sake of vanity in some special situations, I might where an apparatus that is tighter that makes my appearance more ” put together ” and/ or flattering. I personally believe that, as with most scenarios, an amount of practical moderation is the key to achieving success. I applaud all of the previous comments as they are instructional and contain a broad scope of opinions on a pertinent question of health risks of the pursuit of beauty. The article itself is re!event to any and all avenues of sociology or fashion design.

  41. Sam B Says:

    Just a note, Dr. Ines was a WOMAN, one of the first European female MDs ever. She still attributed all kinds of illnesses to conventional corsets, and designed her new supportive corset with hopes that women would stop compressing their waists…which didn’t work. This article is very well researched:

  42. Kathleen Connell Says:

    Look at the old Sears catalogs. They were selling corsets for pre-pubescent girls. And I have seen the measurements listed for the old dress patterns and the waists definitely were tiny. I used to have a beaded belt my grandfather made for my grandmother and wore it as a hat band. Her waist was 18 inches.

  43. kayla Says:

    Hello! I am a younger person who is interested in historical costuming and has been for a while. I would like to say that while most of the content of this article is correct, not all of it is. Something that I would like to point out (and many others have pointed out) is that the 13-in waist was likely for marketing use only (on a mannequin), though if it wasn’t the waist would not have actually been squeezed into a 13-inch space. The corset typically would not close all the way, even if tight lacing was done meaning that the women’s waist would most likely be in the 18-20″ range at the least.
    I would also like to point out that tight lacing was not actually common. It was used by wealthy women to show that they did not have many responsibilities and were able to wear more restricting clothes. If someone was going to tight lace a corset, they would have had to have it done by a maid. Corsets were also rather expensive, so if someone was tight lacing one, they were likely rich and had many servants. The smaller one’s waist was, the less work they needed to do. This also applied to the number of layers and crinolines were worn.
    The last thing I would like to say is that underneath corsets, there were more undergarments worn. The most common was a thin dress called a chemise. These were typically made of linen and were used to absorb perspiration and prevent any injuries from wearing a corset on bare skin. In fact, corsets were very rarely, almost never worn on bare skin.
    Here’s a fun fact, high heels were originally made for men! They actually got upset with women for stealing their fashion when women began to wear them as well.

    Overall, this was really well written and informative, great job!!

  44. Michael McGrath Says:

    I have never worn a corset, but I have worn girdles of various types and brands for years. I prefer the girdle as it pulls in and supports the bottom and you can relax into its support in good comfort.
    And I prefer the type with suspenders (garters) to hold up nylons. I grew up at a time when all women in particular, and some of us males, wore girdles from an early age.
    I would find it hard, I would feel ‘naked’ and unsupported without my girdle today.

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