A Difficult History: Corsetry and Feminism, Part One

Recently, I began following a couple of Tumblr blogs focusing on waist training and daily corset wear. Daily wear is not for me, waist training even less so, but I find it an interesting practice. It is also a controversial one. For example, a recent Huffington Post article, "Corset Queen Penny Brown Loves Getting 'Waisted'," drew comments which were nearly all extremely negative, as do most articles that bring the practice to mainstream attention. Usually, the mental states of the women who waist-train are called into question, and there are numerous references to feminism as incompatible with corsets. The general idea is that the first wave feminists of the late 19th and early 20th century would be horrified by women today wearing them, and that their assumed reaction is an objective statement on the practice.

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.

Historical Context

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
Neither women nor men are immune to socialization. Living in this atmosphere, it makes sense that many women would accept the medical knowledge and hearsay as correct and agree that women who wore corsets - or at least wore corsets the wrong way - were valuing fashion over their very lives, with corsets considered as bad for the health as opium or tobacco. It was taken as a given that tight-lacing while young would result in being "bedridden, anxious, desponding, and wretched; oppressed by the recollection of her early habits [of tight-lacing] ... broken down with suffering", even among women who otherwise approved of well-fitted corsets as beneficial. (Health and Beauty, 1864)

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
Ruinous to the Health

- "[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
- "The lower and stronger parts of the lungs, being thus impeded in their work, the act of breathing - if carried on at all ... must be transferred to the upper and weaker part. ... Everything, therefore, which in any way restricts the free use of all the muscles of the waist and chest, interferes the function of breathing and throws duty upon the weakest part of them, obliging them finally to succumb to the unnatural and self imposed strain." (Phrenological Journal and Science of Health, "The Breath of Life", 1878) The lungs are actually full of alveoli, top and bottom, to take in air and exchange it with carbon dioxide from the blood. Additionally, the average woman has 5.6 times more space in her lungs than is used in an ordinary breath, indicating that a corseted woman not involved in strenuous exercise would likely not have had her breathing significantly obstructed.

- "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.)

advertisement, 1913
While opponents of tight-lacing today will sometimes protest that they don't believe that corsets caused breast cancer or TB, it should be noted that the Wikipedia page on "Effects of Tight Lacing on the Body," as created in 2009, was built entirely on these outdated and generally baseless claims. It was not until April 2013 that the article was edited (by myself) to reflect modern sources rather than Victorian ones. I came across the page during a discussion on corsetry in the comments to a post on Jezebel - in fact, I was directed to it as an unbiased source on the damage that corsets did to women's health.

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".


  1. I really enjoyed reading this exceptionally well written and well researched post. Thank you for enlightening the many out there who refuse to acknowledge the falsity of Victorian health claims!

  2. When I saw the title of your post, I mentally braced myself, expecting "the crazies". Thank you for actually knowing what the hell goes on in corsetry and pseudo-science. (I didn't know about the wiki page -- grrrrrrr)

    1. Ha ha, not from me! I've been arguing with internet denizens about the issue for some time, and I wanted to have a response with actual citatons, etc. ready for the next time I (or anyone else) has to deal with that. But I also wanted to look at some of the more meta issues past the facts, the actual historical attitudes, why prior believe the myths so implicitly and so on.

      The wiki page was incredibly frustrating. The writer had taken the old claims for things like constipation or decreased long capacity and attached doctors stating, in unrelated situations, that extreme constipation or highly reduced breath can kill, making it look like corsets are known to be deadly.

  3. Very enjoyable read!

    I remember visiting a costume exhibit once were several garments from the same woman were shown (late 19th Century) It was especially noted that the ball gowns were notably smaller in the waist than the other gowns, even if they were purchased at the same time period. I Think it is safe to assume that she just laced herself comfortably on a normal day and then Went the full hog for parties.

    1. Thank you! That's so interesting - I haven't had the opportunity to see garments like that, I'll have to keep my eye out.

  4. The claim that I see most often is that a corset "pushes your organs out of place"--which is true, but it certainly doesn't push them out of place 1. more than doing yoga or being pregnant does, and 2. not PERMANENTLY, which is part of what's claimed. POSSIBLY if you've waist-trained enough to have a wasp-waist without the corset on. People seem to forget that out guts are squishy!

    1. Yes, I wasn't quite sure of where to put that one - it clearly does relate to Victorian fears (those anatomical diagrams!) but as my response to it is more about common sense than academic citations, I decided to put it in part three, which focuses on the lived experience of modern corset wearers.

  5. Corsets of all sizes should have a 2"-3" gap between the laces to function as they should. Corsets were sold by the closed measure at the waist.
    Thus, your math would look like this:

    Corset measures 20"
    2" spring measures 22"
    reduction of a modest 3" (because she's slim and mostly muscle rather than wobbly bits) leaves an uncorseted waist measure of 25"
    ...which is a modern size 8 for misses and 11 for juniors.

    1. Having a certain amount of inches open in the back for spring is a good rule and one usually followed today, but I haven't come across conclusive evidence that it was common practice historically. I haven't seen conclusive evidence that they were laced closed either, but it seemed more appropriate to treat the measurements as they are and note after that they might even be less extreme - since they are not very extreme as they are - rather than to do the reverse, which might detract from the point. There also a lot of wiggle room involved in spring, which would make the calculations more imprecise.

    2. I've heard that looking at actual dress measurements, rather than the corset, is more accurate to what the waist measurements are since the corset most likely would have had a gap in the back

    3. That is a good point, and perhaps I'll follow up with an analysis of the patterns in Arnold and Waugh.

  6. Very interesting, as always!

    Waugh also points out that "nineteenth-century corsets are usually too short in the body for a modern woman and may need lengthening" (p 155), confirming that people were shorter as well as slimmer.

    If you'd like to incorporate this in your post, please feel free to delete my comment!

    1. Exactly! Those "anatomical" drawings where the entire rib cage has been transformed into a droop ice cream cone drive me bonkers! Most Victorian corsets stopped at the nipple line mid-bust, so they didn't even compress that high up. In a healthy person, ribs don't bend like that anyway.

      I've noticed that many Victorian corset companies offered not just different waist sizes, but also different lengths, short, standard, long, and even extra long: http://thegraphicsfairy.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Corsets-Catalog-GraphicsFairy2b1.jpg

      If only they still did this today! It's nearly impossible to find a short-waisted overbust OTR!

    2. Thank you! I think I'll leave it for now, but maybe in a while I'll come back and measure the heights of the corset patterns and compare to modern corsetieres' size charts. (I have noticed that when I scale up a Waugh pattern I don't need to shorten the waist as much as with modern patterns.)

      That corsets came in different styles and shapes is also a good point. Let me see if I can work it into part two ...

  7. I think people forget that a prime cause-- aside from bacteria or virii-- of lung diseases would have been smoke and other air-borne particulates.
    --Kitty Calash

    1. Excellent point! Not to mention poorer general nutrition leading to bone and organ diseases (rickets, scurvy, etc.), sicknesses caused by exposure to toxic chemicals (such as arsenic and lead), unidentified hereditary conditions, poor/improper medical care, and the fact that many of the problems associated with corsets (like prolapses, hernias, scoliosis, and asthma) occur in uncorseted women, too. It's a perfect example correlation vs. causation: Many women are dying of illness. Most of the women wore corsets. They must be dying because of the corsets. It's the perfect example of a wide-spread logical fallacy usurping the truth.

    2. Yes, and it drives me a little bonkers that people don't seem to see that.

  8. I can't find it just now, but about a week ago I came across a gif of a cross sectional view of a developing fetus, and it brilliantly demonstrates how it squishes your organs out of place. That is far scarier to me than just a light squishing from a corset. I lace about 10-12 inches off my waist, though I am a plus size girl, so I have plenty available to squish.

    1. I think I've seen that one - it may have scarred me.

      That's an amazing reduction!

  9. Great post! I think one of the most frequent of the FAQs I get at living history events are in regards to my stays, how uncomfortable they must be, and how glad I must be that we don't wear them any longer. It's an uphill battle to try to convince them that truly--it's a support garment, it's not trimming much off my waist measurement, and I promise my organs have not been compromised!

    I find it very funny that on nearly any other medical opinion, we would deride a 19th century doctor's "antiquated" opinion, but on this, we automatically agree...a critical eye is needed, indeed!

    I remember a fantastic conclusion in a book on historic corsets I once read that asserted that we do, indeed, wear corsets today--our body modification is diet, exercise and "Ab Ripper X" videos. A rather convicting consideration, I think, to our sense of superiority over those who came before us.

    1. I've been asked about it a lot as well - with the same result. People ask, I think, because they want to be reassured that it was worse back then and is better now; when you respond that you're not very hot and it doesn't take very long to get dressed, they're annoyed because their perceptions are being challenged instead of validated.

      A classmate of mine at FIT delivered a paper at our symposium on the subject, and she came to the same conclusion that our corsets are dieting and exercise! It's very true, and just as we don't always think of it as an external pressure, historical women probably didn't feel their corsets were imposed on them.

  10. Oh--and I must add that as concerns corsetry and pregnancy: garments similar to the domen belts and other contraptions of the era are still being sold today (though now all made of elastic). Pressure below the belly not only supports the back but assists with blood flow to the legs and lower abdomen.

  11. Aaand it seems to have deleted the part where I said "I like this article, and I hadn't heard the cancer reference." This is a bungled reply if ever there was one.

  12. Hey Cassidy, This is very well written. I must say this is one of the best story I have read. Further, corsets are actually very helpful and makes your body in shape and also makes you look young and pretty.

    Great informative story !!!!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Pride and Prejudice 1995: The Little Things

Pattern Time: 1860s Chemise

Ca. 1866 Brown Gown - A Close-Up Look