Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Corsetry and Feminism: Appendix

As mentioned in the third part of this series, there are many modern women who regularly wear corsets who have never been scientifically studied. Obsolete Victorian medical science is far too frequently cited as an objective, truthful source - but there have been a few recent studies that are also brought up to defend the idea that corsets are inherently harmful. It is my belief that these studies, however, are flawed and do not prove what they intend or what they are used to prove. A short summary of each, the valid points, and their flaws:

Historic Medical Perspectives of Corseting and Two Physiologic Studies with Reenactors
Colleen Gau
(PhD Dissertation, 1998)

This paper is obviously - as it is a dissertation - very involved. At base, though, it is an exploration of Victorian health claims against the corset and a study of corseted women performing physical tasks.

The main strike against this study is that it is not impartial. From the beginning, Gau showed a predisposition toward taking Victorian assumptions (and those problematic, fetishistic stories of boarding school sadism) as "honest and accurate"; she also showed a real concern that modern women might begin wearing corsets to the detriment of their own health, and that reenactors might hurt themselves. Numerous quotes from earlier fashion historians were used to emphasize women's physical restriction and pain due to their clothing; an explanation was given for female doctors who did not join the dress reform movement. Overall, Gau repeatedly rationalized positive or neutral historical attitudes towards the corset but very rarely speculated on negative ones, and routinely used unnecessarily negative terms that bias the reader even before the statistics from the study were brought up.

Corset, ca. 1875; MMA 2009.300.3044a-b (OASC)

In the limitations of the study delineated at the beginning of the dissertation, she identified reasons why the results might be biased in favor of corsets not reducing the body's abilities - such as the subjects' potential underreporting of discomfort - but no reasons why the subjects might report discomfort that Victorian women might not have felt. One problem with this latter issue that occurs to me is the construction and fit of the corsets used. Gau noted that the corsets were made to produce the fashionable silhouette of 1870 - but there is little specific information about their individual shaping. Given her statements in the dissertation on the abdomen and chest being compressed while wearing a corset, in addition to her bias against corsetry as a whole, leads me to be highly skeptical that she would have had the knowledge of corset-fitting based on experimentation and practice that is a little more common today. Another problem is that all the subjects reduced their waistlines by 3", rather than a percentage of their waist, so that thinner women were more tight-laced than larger ones.

In the end, her lung capacity findings do not show anything drastic. Gau's subjects lost an average 9% of their tidal lung volume while wearing a corset, but, as previously noted, an ordinary breath takes about 18% of the lungs' capacity - the total lung capacity is so large that 9% is not a significant loss. The lower back pain reported by the subjects was possibly or probably a result of improper fitting. For the most part, the actual symptoms reported during the study - different breathing patterns, decreased eating and drinking - are not actual negatives, just an awareness. The reenactor subjects also reported finding their backs supported during work.

It is rather impressive, given Gau's admission that she encouraged the subjects to loosen or remove their corsets and note discomfort, that they seem to have been unmoved by her bias and reported less pain and difficulty breathing than she expected, especially given their changes in lung capacity. Her rationalizing was continued to the subjects' attitudes themselves, with suggested reasons for their not removing their corsets despite their lack of complete physical comfort. In sum, while the text of the dissertation (discussing historical context) is overwhelmingly negative, the result section, especially the subsections on reported experience, is mainly positive. Really, despite Gau's ending statement of concern for actresses and other women's health, this study should be taken as supportive for women who choose to wear corsets.

Binding Femininity: An Examination of the Effects of Tightlacing on the Female Pelvis
Katherine Klingerman
(Master's Thesis, 2006)

While Gau's paper focused on the effect that corsets have on the lungs, Klingerman examined the size and shape of the pelvis. As with Gau, my impression is that Klingerman had a bias going into the project, wanted to find that tight-lacing caused severe pelvic defects (her hypothesis was that the, and took many dubious historic sources at face value. And again as with Gau, despite the apparent desire to prove that corsetry was a medically harmful practice, the conclusion of the study is fairly positive. Klingerman's findings were that tight-laced bodies had slightly narrower pelvises, but that the women were still capable of bearing healthy children.

When I first came across this thesis, it was being used to show the dangers of historical corsetry - because even though the conclusion is positive, the non-scientific sections describing the practice are written with a strong slant. For example, the earlier history of the corset heavily relies on a sixty-year old source that treats Catherine de' Medici's 13" waists and iron torso-cages as facts (a story which comes from the 1860s and is patently untrue). Klingerman cites Valerie Steele quite a few times, but often for "facts" like the just-mentioned 13" waists and heavy iron stays at Catherine de' Medici's court which Steele specifically refutes; she also cites other sources for "facts" (like sadistic, tight-lacing headmistresses, or women unable to do anything physical while dressed in corsets) that she would have found were untrue in Steele. This helped to add to my feeling that Klingerman seriously wanted to find that corsets were very harmful and actively ignored information that contradicted her prejudices.

The historical section as a whole is shallow and rife with assumption, based on stereotypes and few reputable, modern sources - you may notice the same few citations appearing over and over again. When discussing the medical community's reaction to corsets and women's health, Klingerman flips back and forth between doctors' opinions being reasonable (when anti-corset), and doctor's opinions being misogynist (when not attributing diseases to the corset). There's no point in my going into the medical history section in detail, as the first post in this series essentially refutes it - basically, the conditions described are either not simply caused by the corset or are not demonstrably related to the death of various autopsy subjects (eg. overlapping ribs). From the discussion of pregnancy, one would think that our foremothers had few-to-no healthy births and small families, but this is clearly not the case.

And at the same time, the fact that the skeletal samples run from 1729 to 1857 while the bulk of the criticism of tight-lacing in the text is based on post-1870 corsets means that much of the above is simply unnecessary.

"Mlle Colombe L'Ainee", Jean Baptiste Patas, ca. 1778; VAM S.3835-2009

My understanding of the science is not advanced enough to allow criticism of Klingerman's methods in examining skeletons. I confine myself to critiquing her interpretation - of the remains of younger women showing evidence of tight-lacing while the remains of older women do not - that women who tight-laced died young, rather than considering the possibility that women stopped tight-lacing after a certain age. She also goes further and assumes that the change in pelvis size from tightlacing must also indicate horrendous organ damage.

Despite determining through her studies that the pelvic opening was not narrowed to the point that it would cause difficult births, Klingerman is unable to let go of her hypothesis, in the end attributing difficult births to soft-tissue problems caused by the corset. I can sympathize with her for having disproved her intended point rather than proving it, but at bottom it's important to keep one's mind open and base theories on solid data rather than the belief that corsets simply must be extremely bad.


  1. A great appendix to a wonderful series. Many corset "scholars" are much like those who refused to believe the Sun, not the Earth, was the center of the universe despite all the evidence to the contrary. Many such modern studies are often flavored with an unhealthy amount of logical fallacies. I wish that once, at least, someone would conduct a direct study unadulterated by 100-year-old bias.

    1. Thank you! I was a little worried that it comes off as too personal and mean, but these are two studies that I've seen referenced to support the idea that tight-lacers (or even moderate corset-wearers) are hurting themselves seriously.

      I'd like to work out a study myself, I'm just not sure exactly how to do it yet. It would definitely involve people who have well-fitted corsets, though.

  2. About the skeletal remains from the 18th century I don't see how 18th century stays could affect the pelvis, given that stays split into tabs at the waist and don't really confine the hips at all. Now I don't remember where I read it, but basically it said that stays had a weaker construction than 19th century corsets and one couldn't tightlace them in the same way. (Because no metal grommets, no spiral boning and lacing with just one cord.)

    1. I can't remember if she found different pelvic narrowing in the different periods - IIRC, she presents numbers overall for the whole group of samples. But I agree, I can't imagine she found much narrowing before 1830 at the earliest.