Corsets, Gracious Instruments of Torture - Health, Punishment and Oppression
Created | Updated Oct 14, 2007
Introduction to Corsets | Period Costumes - Corset History | Corsets, The Fashionable Foundation - Style, Wealth and Status
Types of Corsets, How to Make Them and Where to Get Them | Corsets, Gracious Instruments of Torture - Health, Punishment and Oppression
The Subversive Stays - Corsets and Sex, Erotica and Fetishism | The Corset - Conclusion
One of the more unsavoury aspects of the corset is its reputation as an oppressor of women, condemning them to painful submission. This is coupled with its notoriety as a cause of ill health - even death. Frequently, it is held to be the ultimate symbol of archaic female servitude, and - had there been any to hand - would no doubt have been burned along with bras.
There are definite physical effects that result from corsetry. Problems occurred when women were, for fashion's sake, compelled to discard their stays. Some didn't want to, but most were physically unable to. Over time, the lower back muscles become used to additional support and - aggravated by tight-lacing - atrophy, making them unable to support the spine.
There are many tales about the horrific effects of corseting - girls who died in agony, their livers pierced by their own ribs three days after the ball... those who were unable to eat, etc. These are apparent from early days - in 1650, the stays were compared to the 'little-ease' (instrument of torture which worked on the principle of squashing), which would bring them consumption and unspecified rottenness. However, real concern for women's well being was often confused with mockery; it is difficult to ascertain what they truly endured.
The physical effects of tight-lacing are now better understood, and advice is freely given on how to lace safely. Study the shape of any tight lacer, historical or imaginary, and the narrowing and compression effects can be clearly imagined (without recourse to one of those novel cut-away diagrams). They can be summarised as follows:
Constriction of the lower chest results in thoracic (upper chest) breathing.
The abdominal cavity is decreased.
The intestines are compressed.
Expansion of the upper ribcage compensates for constriction below.
The stomach narrows, and gradually relocates.
The five lower 'floating' ribs are driven inwards, and sometimes meet.
The liver is squeezed so that eventually furrows develop, and the so-called 'corset lobe' (in previous eras, sometimes surgically removed).
The lower back is supported and the spine straightened.
Upper body weight is considerably unloaded from the back.
Throughout these changes, the internal organs function normally. The effects upon them are actually very similar to those of pregnancy, and likewise are reversible - women who tight-lace are advised to keep themselves corseted at all times, lest they reconfigure. A series of exercises is now advised to keep the back muscles healthy; apart from this, careful tight-lacing is not considered dangerous. For example, the famous Polaire (French Belle Epoque actress) was said to be in good health throughout her long life. However, the effects only occur over time, and must be gradual - therefore most tight-lacers are committed practitioners. 'Crush-lacing' is both uncomfortable and dangerous - damage is caused only by excessive constriction, but this is difficult to achieve due to the pain involved.
Sickness and Health - Some Novel Uses
Chlorosis (greensickness, as mentioned in Romeo and Juliet), the disease of choice for young virgins of the past, has been blamed (facetiously, at least) on corseting. The characteristic greenish pallor which supposedly appeared could be blamed on an overwrought gall bladder; young girls were certainly unhealthily confined but it's not something reported by modern tight-lacers. Neither is anorexia.
For sure, a corset can be used to create discomfort, but it is also a health device. It has been a concern of the trade, even to the extent of altering fashion - the change in shape of the late 1890s was due to the reintroduction of the straight busk, by a corsetiere who had studied medicine and was concerned about the pressure a dipped spoon-busk exerted on the abdomen. Pregnancy corsets, with side lacings for gradual, extra shaping, were consistently produced and orthopaedic models in wrought-iron date from the 1500s. Medical body-braces of today are simply specialised corsets, taking over the work of a weak or injured part so that it may heal. Formidable-looking corsets of straps and wooden boards were previously used to treat scoliosis (lateral curvature of the spine), which continues today - further bending is prevented and support given. This method is also effective in other back problems, such as herniated spinal discs.
There is some evidence that corsets can be used to relieve asthma. In the 19th Century, treatment consisted of constricting the lower chest - the corset's effect is to force breathing upwards, to a different area of the lungs. This displacement has been said to avoid the reaction of the airways which brings on attacks. However, this is not a general finding but the individual experience of corseted asthmatics.
'Do that again and I'll lace you...'
The corset's use as a tool of discipline may stem from its posture-correcting abilities. Children, expected to behave as adults, were corseted to ensure good carriage - the effect upon rowdy tots would have immediately been evident. Young girls especially, being figure-trained, would be in some discomfort and reluctant to misbehave. It was assumed that if corseting began early, better development would ensue: there are cases of girls' laces being used to bind their hands.
In 1889, the magazine Family Doctor endorsed corset discipline. Unladylike behaviour could be easily corrected by using extra-long boned stays, in which horseplay was impossible - patience and submission result. Some mothers had special punishment garments made. A boy of fourteen was subjected to the staylaces - they were never removed but periodically tightened, and endowed him with an 18" waist. This was of course justified in that it was equal to what girls had to go through.
The most important factor in discipline of this kind was discomfort, good figure development secondary. Women, brought up in such a way, submitted to it themselves, and the consequence was 'ladylike behaviour'. Exuberance, idle lolling and overeating were prevented, consequent exhaustion (night-stays were little more forgiving) resulting in a complete inability to rebel.
Hysteria and unreason in the 19th Century colours any evaluation of what women really endured. It is unlikely, however, that the average waist was 18" - picture how small a hand-span really is. Most corsets in museums are this wide when fully laced (closed in the back), but they are generally worn somewhat let out and made to be 4" smaller than the natural measurement. Women almost certainly did not have surgery to remove their lower ribs. This would have little effect anyway, since they are naturally mobile - in any case, the ideal Victorian shape was the hourglass, and did not feature a tapering chest.
By no means was tight-lacing a conspiracy by men to keep women from taking over. In view of the time, women had little alternative - Amelia Bloomer's proposed reforms were laughable and/or scandalous, the dress of the Aesthetes mocked. It would not have been in the nature of women in general, who expressed themselves through their homes, to want to attain positions of 'control'. (No disrespect to them - not that they had very low ideals but to attain something more was simply out of their reckoning.) That women were inferior because men kept them that way is simplistic, since neither sex questioned the arrangement.
There is an argument that suggests corseted women were symbolically rebelling against set gender roles. During pregnancy, the waist disappears first and, by emphasising it, women presented a decidedly unmaternal appearance. This was seized upon by scaremongers (responsible for most corset myths) who saw it as a possible rejection by young women of their baby-making status, ie, liberation.
The corset was oppressive in that it prevented women from behaving unexpectedly and unlike ladies, but not from fulfilling personal goals. The era in which they lived, and its social conditions, were responsible for their status; in any case, it was their preference to accept fashion since they saw no alternative. Women's emancipation, although vastly influential, did not destroy the corset - merely redefined it. Its reversed modern meaning surely indicates it is not an effective tool of oppression.
Other Entries in This Project
- An Introduction to Corsets
- Period Costumes - Corset History
- Corsets, The Fashionable Foundation - Style, Wealth and Status
- Types of Corsets, How to Make Them and Where to Get Them
- The Subversive Stays - Corsets and Sex, Erotica and Fetishism
- The Corset - Conclusion