My feeling is that the subject is complex, and cannot be simply declared feminist or unfeminist. There are far more factors than the average internet commenter allows for.
Prior to the 1870s, the discourse around corseting was overwhelmingly centered on men's disapproval of the practice, with few if any published women's opinions on the matter. Doctors - all male - attributed numerous physical and mental ailments to it; moralists disliked the heightened sexuality it gave the body as well as the vanity it implied; satirists simply saw it as an excellent target, something essentially fashionable that women appeared to be addicted to. This addiction to a garment that the doctors had claimed was fatal allowed them to portray women as frivolous morons: in 1858, Punch baldly stated that "a narrowness of waist betrays a narrowness of mind." Despite the lack of peer-reviewed studies to ensure that a doctor's report was accurate and based on solid data, it was considered appropriate to refer to women "for [the] want of medical knowledge in the sex - clasp[ing] the fatal, idiotic corset on their [daughters'] growing bodies ... so the girl grows up, crippled in the ribs and lungs by her own mother."
|"Fiend of Fashion, from an Ancient Manuscript", The Corset and Crinoline, 1868, p. 43|
But in looking at the specific health claims made about both tight-lacing and corsetry in general - as well as the unsourced, anonymous reports of corset-caused suffering that are frequently taken as factual today - a modern reader must be critical. For one thing, many of the detractors of corsets were equally concerned about heavy skirts with tight waistbands and tight clothing in general: something nobody today would connect to liver deformity, tuberculosis, or overall ill health.
For another, extant historical corsets do not show extreme reduction. A study of the 18th century stays in the Colonial Williamsburg collection show a range of 24" to 30+" waist circumferences (a range completely ordinary among uncorseted women today). Examining the patterns of extant 19th and early 20th century corsets in Norah Waugh's Corsets and Crinolines, most have waist measurements around 20", at the larger end of the measurements that disgust modern people; however, they also show bust and hip measurements that appear extremely small from a modern perspective. Altogether, they present a picture of women who were generally slimmer than today, lacing tightly enough to achieve a figure more curved than it would naturally have been, but not to any kind of extreme.
The pattern company McCall's sizing chart does not go down to a 20" waist, but the dimensions for a modern, uncorseted woman can be extrapolated from the smallest size to be about 27.5-20-29.5, with a 68% waist:hip ratio and 73% waist:bust ratio. (Please bear in mind that a smaller ratio means a larger difference in measurement.) Meanwhile, Waugh's corsets have waist:hip ratios from 62.5% to 70.5% and waist:bust ratios from 59% to 71% - generally more curvacious than someone with a natural twenty-inch waist, obviously, but not by that much. The examples in Jill Salen's Corsets are generally more workaday and less fashionable, with waist:bust ratios of 66.7% to 87.2% and waist:hip ratios of 73.3% to 84%.
Comparing the numbers, these corsets show little more curviness than would be expected from a comparable woman today. A 20" waist sounds sensational to us, because we pair it with "normal" modern bust and hip measurements: according to the CDC, the average American woman has a 37.5" waist - according to McCall, this would give her a bust of about 44.5" (84.3%) and hips of about 46.5" (80.6%); a roughly size 10 woman with a 30" waist likely has a bust of 38" (78.9%) and hips of 40" (75%). The women who laced to 20" were simply smaller than we are overall, with bust measurements that resemble our underbust measurements. Given this, the potential of even slimmer teenagers lacing without much difficulty to 18" or even 16" does not seem so implausible.
I am assuming for the purposes of simplicity that all corsets were laced fully closed, but this is not necessarily how they were worn. An extra inch or three may have been open. It also must be remembered that the smallest of all garments are what tends to be preserved and that these do not represent average sizes, and also that adding ease to the hip and bust of a corset allows the waist to be cinched tighter by displacing the fatty tissue more easily, meaning that the bust and hip measurements of antique corsets may even be larger than the actual measurements of the women who wore them.
For reference, the dimensions of the corsets in Corsets & Crinolines are: 30-20-30 (late 1820s), 34-24-34 (1844), 28-19-22* (1860), 28-20-32 (1873), 30-18-26 (late 1880s), 30-19-33 (mid 1890s), 34-20-30 (1901), 22**-20-26 (1911), 35**-28-32* (1904), 22-34 (1918), 33-31-37 (1925). Dimensions of corsets in Corsets: 33-22-31 (1830s), 38-26-32 (1840s), 33-22-30 (1860), 31-24-30 (1885), 26**-21-26* (1890), 31-22-28 (1890), 30-21-32 (1890s), 39-34-48 (1890s-1900s), 34-27-32 (1890s), 32-22-28* (1890), 24**-22-26* (1900s), 28**-24-31* (1900s), 24**-21-25 (1914), 30-23-31 (1917).
* above-hip measurement
** underbust measurement
|From Golden Thoughts on Chastity and Procreation, 1903, p. 107; Library of Congress - a frequently-cited illustration based on conjecture|
- "[A good female doctor] will tell you that the little belle who laced herself into organic disease of the heart, and lies at death's door ... is no mournful exception ..." (What to Wear?, 1873) It is difficult to prove a negative, but Valerie Steele points out in Corsets: A Cultural History that there is no conclusive evidence tying corsetry to heart disease; additionally, we now know that risk factors for heart disease (still prevalent today, despite our lack of corsets) include many different things, such as age, genetics, blood pressure, smoking, lack of exercise, and other habits.
- "The friction thus produced [by breathing in a corset] occasions a constant irritation of the upper portion of the lung, which induces a deposit of tuberculous matter, and the individual becomes a prey to that dread disease, consumption - a sacrifice to a practice as absurd as pernicious." (Good Health, 1876) Consumption, now known as tuberculosis, is a disease caused by bacteria and spread through the air. Smokers and those suffering from malnutrition have higher risk factors; rather than killing fashionable women, it was primarily a disease of the urban poor. (Good Health also claims that the corset reverses the flow of blood in the heart to cause heart disease. It then goes on to say that women do not naturally have defined waists - there was an obsession with presenting the Venus de Milo as the ideal female figure in contrast to the fashionable corseted woman.)
|Fashion in Deformity, 1881, p. 80|
- "When post mortem examinations have been made upon the bodies of confirmed corset wearers, a deep furrow has been found crossing the right lobe of the liver. This deformity is so obviously the result of tight corset wearing, that a liver so affected has come to be called a "corset liver." It has been observed in a large number of necropsies upon the bodies of both sexes that gall stones occur three times as frequently in females as in the males. While we cannot assert that improper habits in dress are the cause of this great dissimilarity, yet it is a significant fact that forty per cent of the women so affected were corset wearers." (New England Medical Gazette, "The Diseases of Women Induced by the Prevailing Mode of Dress", 1890) Deformities of the liver are one of the most common problems with corsets cited today, now that some of the more ridiculous claims have been forgotten. And it appears to be true that corsets cause changes to the shape of the liver. However, like the lungs, the liver has a very high reserve capacity: the body does not suffer ill effects if only a small portion of the organ is functioning. It also can regenerate itself when cut into or injured, which is why liver transplants are possible. "Corset liver" is still attested in medical textbooks, but as a condition without symptoms, and it is treated as a relic of the 19th century.
Regarding gallstones, they are still found more frequently in women, despite our lack of corsets. (Note that most of the women with gallstones did not regularly wear corsets; I also find it interesting that 40% of the women being corset-wearers is more significant to the writer than 60% of them not.)
- "The preponderating elongation of the right lobe in corset liver is of value in differentiating the two conditions. ... If the separation is very marked the lobe will appear like a tumor that has no connection with the liver but seems to be connected with some other organ such as the intestine, the kidney, the ovary or the mesentery." (Diseases of the Liver, Pancreas, and Suprarenal Capsules, 1903) It is now known that Riedel's lobe is simply an extra lobe on the right side of the liver that has a higher incidence in women, with no malignancy or association with a decrease in liver function.
- "Now what are the effective causes of cancer? ... Second. - Local irritation of an epithelial surface, as the pressure for a great length of time against the breast of the point of a corset." (Cancer, 1885) (See also Philosophy of Tumour-Disease, 1890, in which corsets cause depressed nipples which cause cancer; AMA Journal, 1894) I believe that today the causes of cancer - genetic and environmental - are sufficiently accepted without citations. Corsets were also connected to abscesses and mastitis: mastitis is usually caused by a blocked milk duct or an infection during lactation, which can and do occur without corsets but was likely contributed to by corset-wearing.
In the late 18th century, the corset's potential use as an agent of miscarriage or abortion was a primary cause of concern from the medical establishment; this was eventually supplanted by the issues above, but did continue in medical discourse in the 19th century. A large part of the outrage surrounding corset-caused miscarriage was that it (theoretically) enabled women to control their reproductive systems or accidentally caused the loss of the children that women were meant to produce in marriage. The corset was supposed to deform women to the point of increasing the difficulty of childbirth, causing birth defects, or of causing the distended abdominal muscles after the birth. A study of tight-laced remains has shown, however, that the pelvis was not deformed to the point of causing problems in childbirth. And even in the late 19th century, writers noted that Native American women without corsets died as a result of childbirth just as frequently as white women, and that a corset could relieve the back pain of late pregnancy. (It should here be noted that women did not, as is popularly supposed today, wear ordinary corsets throughout the pregnancy in order to conceal their bodies: specially designed gestational or maternity corsets curved around the belly to support the growing fetus, with added lacing in front of the hips to increase its girth.)
Given that people today have a hard time divorcing corsets from these looming claims of death and disease, it is hardly surprising that many people of the 19th and early 20th centuries believed them implicitly. (Though many more women clearly did not - their own experiences taught them that corsets did not cause disease, and that they did provide necessary back and bust support.) But because we have a more scientific perspective on the matter, we should not appeal to the authority of Susan B. Anthony and her contemporary activists as having an objective view of corsets.
For another reason we should avoid appealing to that authority, see my post on next Wednesday: "Fact and Fiction".