Fact and Fiction: Corsetry and Feminism, Part Two

Suffrage vs. Dress Reform

Given that the members of the women's rights movement lived at a time when there was no scientific evidence against the intensely negative health claims, it is no wonder that they might regard the corset as a death-trap. However, early feminist opposition to the corset is vastly overstated today. To illustrate, see the fashionable photograph of Susan B. Anthony at the end of the 19th century:

Susan B. Anthony, ca. 1895
Based on the smoothness of her bodice and the curve of her waist, we can say that she was clearly wearing a corset even late in her successful career. (Other photographs of Anthony show corsetry as well, as do photographs of other proto-feminists.)

The Dress Reform movement associated with the women's rights movement began in the 1850s, promoting the "freedom suit" or "Bloomer costume" consisting of a loose dress over full trousers, worn without a corset. The suit attracted ridicule from the public instead of praise, and faded into obscurity. Several decades later, the Rational Dress Society (and the Aesthetic/Artistic movement whose clothing derived from the pseudo-medieval pre-Raphaelite costume; it was not overly concerned with woman's position as a whole, mostly remaining the province of the wealthy and bohemian) took up the cause - and even they were more focused on tight-lacing than the corset itself, and tried to distance themselves from the accusations of cross-gender dressing that had been leveled at Bloomers. The idea that women were trying to dress as men had been more of a problem than their getting rid of the corset specifically.

Satire of Frances Power Cobbe, a women's rights reformer, in Punch, 1877: a common stereotype of feminists has always been that instead of insisting on equality, they intend to subjugate men
During this time, most of the people involved with the women's rights movement were occupied with the legal rights of women and the progress of female suffrage. There was not - as there still is not today - a united community composed of all the people working to champion women, and the suffragists did not always cross over with the dress reformers. In fact, women in the suffrage movement frequently used fashionable dress, including the more difficult s-bend corset of the 1900s, to emphasize their respectability and attractiveness and to show their opponents as old-fashioned.

Whenever an inaccuracy is as widespread as this, one has to ask what purpose it serves to the people who eagerly repeat it. Why do we want to perceive early feminism as being tied up with dress reform? And the main answer that occurs to me is: because the popular narratives of women's history and twentieth century history require broad stereotypes. In both, there is the idea that the 1920s were a revolutionary decade, with women winning the right to vote and outdated social mores being flung to the winds after World War I, one of those mores being the necessity of wearing corsets.

In actuality, there was no sudden moment of change. The fashionable figure had changed from a voluptuous hourglass into a shapely column by 1910, requiring a similar change in corsetry; the new corsets did not exert much force on the waistline, and do not fit in with the idea that corsets were meant to force the body into an exaggeratedly sexual shape. From the beginning of the century, the top edge of the corset descended until it was just above the waist during the war years, and rubber and elastic panels were used to increase the garment's flexibility. After the term "corset" fell into disuse, both girdles and corselets (foundation garments that supported the bust as well as the hips, usually fitted with straps) were used as different figures became fashionable: they flattened out curves in the 1920s, slimmed the hips in the 1930s, and created a more hourglass figure in the 1940s and 1950s. It was not until the 1960s and the style revolution of that era that shapewear really became unfashionable.

"A new Thompson Glove-Fitting Corset ...", Corset and Underwear Review, 1920
Another part of this mythology is the idea that women suddenly entered the workforce during World War I and stopped wearing corsets, either because their jobs required more flexibility or to give up the steel to be used in the war effort. Well, women had been working as teachers, clerks, doctors (see also), dentists, journalists, and factory hands for decades before this period - WWI may have opened new doors for women who had not previously needed to work, but it did not create a female workforce. During the war years, corset factories were declared an "essential industry", while men in steel complained that women were buying too many corsets and depleting the raw iron they needed. (Corsets were apparently later declared an inessential industry on the advice of Alice Roosevelt , which has led some to say that she killed the corset - but all this means is that new corsets would have been in shorter supply during that time.)

One reason for the distilled narrative of women's liberation is that it is easier - the story is simple, made up of distinct steps, with obvious cause-and-effect and clear correlations between fashion and women's position in society. However, the idea of a direct progression is also important to many in terms of self-perception: that is, it feels better to see oneself as being at the end of a chain of improvements. Seeing the Victorian and Edwardian eras as a mass of female oppression, followed by women proving themselves and seizing independence during the war, then celebrating and finding more personal freedom during the 1920s, followed by more seized independence during WWII and the clear political gains of the 1960s and 1970s can give one a sense of satisfaction, a feeling that women today have much better lives and more opportunities than ever before. And that is true! But acknowledging that women had more control over their lives and more opportunities during the 19th century can bring the feeling that we haven't come as far as we'd like and are not as free as we think we are.

I have digressed. But to move onto my next sub-point: because the popular narrative of women gaining jobs and suffrage lines up with the popular narrative around dress, they are elided together and it is assumed that the women who fought for suffrage also fought for the abolition of the corset.

That the suffragists were not fighting against the corset despite its general reputation as a health hazard suggests several things. One interpretation is that women may have been relying on their own feelings and experiences in wearing corsets, deciding independently that they were not in pain and did not succumb more easily to illness. The extreme claims from doctors and anatomists of the period would have been easily ignored by women who did not suffer from and knew nobody who suffered from tuberculosis, cancer, or circulatory and digestive problems.

Another is that the women who worked for a reform in the legal and social oppression of women - difficulty in procuring a divorce, inequal pay, fewer property rights, the expectation that they were passive and weak - may not have generally viewed the corset itself as an instrument or symbol of that oppression. Scientifically-minded feminist Lydia Becker was in fact reported in the Rational Dress Society Gazette as telling women to "stick to your stays, ladies, and triumph over the other sex"; even many of the few female doctors practicing in the 19th century did not speak out against corsets. While some activists did eschew corsets from an early period, most others apparently did not see themselves as needing to get rid of their corsets to achieve equality. That corsets were a manifestation of the societal repression of Victorian women is a later interpretation, not a fact.

Male and female suffragists, the women in corsets and fashionable dress, 1913; Library of Congress LC-B2- 2810-14
Modern scholars and non-academics routinely describe corsets in this way and ascribe their use only to social pressure, falling into the same bent as the scholarship in the Victorian era in characterizing the majority of women as stupid or frivolous fashion-followers, or painting them all as victims. While these scholars see themselves as following in the footsteps of the proto-feminists, the lack of feminist support for the dress reformers means that, in effect, they are actually aligning themselves with Victorian moralizers and misogynists, and are patronizing the very women they intend to support.

And More Fictional

Another part of this misreading of the history of the women's rights movement is our present-day obsession with unconventional heroines in historical fiction. We have much more contact with historical fiction than historical fact, especially if myths perpetrated by docents and fiction are weighted on the former side. We see our current dress as the most acceptable, we value the individual's ability to change society very highly, and we have these popular narratives embedded in our culture: these are layered onto our perception of history and reinforce the inaccuracy. When confronted with facts, people generally insist that the perception they have is correct instead.

Fictional women oppose the corset as individuals who personally dislike it, usually because they find them uncomfortable; their bodies often conform to a more modern, slimmer ideal and they do not benefit from them. (The ideal example of this is of course Elizabeth Swann, of Pirates of the Caribbean - who can forget her fainting into the ocean, or the line, "You like pain? Try wearing a corset"?) They represent the modern woman's publicly stated feeling on restrictive shapewear - it's unnecessary and worn to attract men at the cost of one's comfort.

One heroine who has influenced a great many people's opinion on corsets is Scarlett O'Hara. The iconic book and film scene where she is laced down to a 17" waist is commonly cited in popular articles on the practice by horrified writers. Perhaps Gone With the Wind has achieved something near to the place of a primary source because it was written decades ago ... but, of course, it is not a primary source. It is a work of fiction that was written by a woman who most likely never wore a traditional hourglass corset; moreover, early 20th century commentary frequently mythologized the Victorian era as a far more repressive time than it was in order to play up the new mores and speed of life in the 1920s and 1930s.

Of course, few would actually state that they believe all fiction is objectively true. But historical fiction has a tendency to stick in the mind through its vividness and its ability to set out the thoughts and motivations of people who did not leave much of a record of their personalities. In the case of Shakespeare's Richard III, for example, the fiction was accepted as historical fact for centuries due to its position in the literary canon.

Some vivid fiction is historic, rather than historical: there is a myth, spread by fictional letters written to mainstream Victorian magazines, that young girls were ruthlessly squeezed by sadistic headmistresses in order to get waists many inches smaller than their natural ones. By looking at advertisements, we can see that young girls (of a particular class background) were actually gradually shaped into the fashionable figure, just as modern adult tight-lacers recommend working very, very slowly to reshape the ribcage. Rather than having a ribcage just like ours suddenly pushed into more of a cone, they were molded at a time when their bones were more flexible. Thus, as adults, they would be able, if they wished, to achieve a figure that appears even more extreme to our eyes by reducing only a few more inches.

Another reason for historical fiction's effect is that it can often resonate more with the present than a straight, factual narrative would. A novel about a past war can give its hero an attitude more common to those surrounding a present war; rather than seeing a shapely corset as a desirable symbol of beauty and adulthood, a young woman can display the modern reaction of disgust and distaste. It does not seem a stretch to speculate that historical fiction with more modern attitudes could seem more vibrant and accessible to the modern reader and therefore become more popular than the truth.

I have no scholarly sources or studies to prove that. But it goes a way toward explaining how certain ideas are so frequently ascribed to Victorian women and proto-feminists when they did not actually express these ideas that often, and when modern corset-wearers can and do give their impressions of living regular life in a corset.

(For more on modern corset-wearers, see next Wednesday's post, "It's My Body: Corsetry and Feminism, Part Three".)


  1. If I had one request for contemporary historical fiction authors and filmmakers, it would be to stop relying on the crutch of "she hated her corset," "her corset bothered her," and most egregious "she chose not to wear a corset" themes to make their characters sympathetic. For one, as you've laid out here, it's inaccurate. And for another, it's getting to the point that the trope is lazy writing!

    One point I'd be curious about would be recollections of women who lived through multiple eras of corsetry for their opinions of affiliations between "freedom" and clothing, whether they were glad to not have to wear corsets later in life, etc. I imagine there aren't too many of these saved out there from previous generations, but plenty of us could still ask the question of grandmothers or other older women in our lives who wore some type of "corset" when younger--girdle or otherwise--how she felt about it and subsequently not wearing one.

    1. Yes, I would love to see the end of it! While I have some issues with Outlander, I do love that Claire's corset isn't really an issue, even though she's coming from the 20th century.

      I have seen some recollections from women who were young in the 1900s saying that they hated their corsets as teenagers - mainly just copied into articles about why corsets are terrible, somewhat out of context. Unfortunately, I think that, given human psychology and the negative connotations of corsetry, women who didn't mind their corsets were unlikely to include that in their memoirs, leaving the impression that women generally disliked them.

    2. That's one of my pet peeves, when they use the hating the corset of refusing to wear it as a way to show a woman as independent. I wrote a long blog post about it some years ago with the prime example being a modern crime novel using a real person as heroine, claiming she hated corests and refusing to wear them, but the photo included ofher shows a woman clearly wearing a corsets. I was very pleased in Outlander when Claire was dressed in stays and clearly wears them under her clothes- and that it isn''t an issue at all.

  2. Has anyone seen the movie "Topsy Turvy"? It's about the making of the Mikado. There's a hilarious set of scenes, where during the costume fitting, both the male AND female leads shrieked "but I can't sing without my corset!"

    It's actually easier to sing in a corset, if you know how to do it -- which is why the stars in the movie were so shocked. Yet many opera singers today (more diva than talent usually) will clutch their breasts and proclaim that they could NEVER wear a corset how horrendous I must be a sadist.

    Also re: Outlander, I wish that Claire was a SMARTER heroine. Gee, you're running around 18th Century Scotland in a SHIFT, and your hair tumbling all over the place, you're currently IN a brothel, and you're surprised someone assumed you're a prostitute? Self-awareness honey, self-awareness. Also, her lovely habit of refusing to pay attention to the proper number of layers and headclothing that a woman of her status should have worn, and then being surprised that she had witchcraft charges. You're ONLY making moldy bread+water solutions to find penicillin! Gosh!

    1. I haven't seen that movie in ages - I should rewatch it. But I do remember that scene! And I read comments from a singer somewhere, while researching all of this, saying that she got a benefit from having the corset to push against.

      My favorite thing about the STARZ version - after Sam Heugan, of course - is her unending supply of chunky knitwear. Why? How? Why??

  3. I concede that the history of the corset is complicated, and its relationship to the suffrage movement in particular. But not only "misogynists" were against it. The suffrage movement of the mid 1800s was, like the feminist movement today, a great number of people with varying opinions. The reformers of that era concerning dress tended to be radicals, whereas Anthony was always at best a liberal (shortly after the civil war, she complained that "greasy spics and foreigners" had the right to vote, while Congress' own wives and daughters did not.) But Louisa May Alcott, pro-suffrage and not a misogynist, has a scene in I think Rose in Bloom where the protagonist is given a bloomer outfit because her doctor uncle wants her to be healthy and unconstrained. I do agree the narrative of progress, with everything getting better, is a highly inaccurate one; but Anthony's suffrage partner, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, has written to her that going up and downstairs in long skirts with a baby in one hand and a candle in the other was dangerous. Women did catch fire and burn to death in their dresses, in those days before electricity and non-inflammable materials. The corset was known, or believed, to interfere with the body shape for childbirth; and the constant fainting of ladies in Victorian novels actually reflected the difficulty breathing during times of stress while wearing a corset.

    1. I think you may have misunderstood me, because that the women's rights movement was not monolithic was my point. People have a tendency to equate the fight for the vote with the fight for dress reform, and because the suffrage movement was so broad and populous, this gives/they have the impression that a lot more women were vocally anti-corset than actually were. It wasn't only misogynistic doctors and commentators that were against the corset, but those were the more numerous and more mainstream anti-corset voices, and that's something that really should be taken into account when people try - as they always do when corsets come up - to invoke the suffragists in general (or by name, because the women who really were against corsets aren't well-known enough and they pick, say, Susan B. instead of Matilda Jocelyn Gage) as support for 19th and early 20th century women in general not wanting to wear corsets.

      Regarding fire - death by burning was actually fairly rare. There seems to have been a small spike during the 1850s-1860s, when the light materials used plus the airy structure of the hoop skirt led to a dropped candle or a brush near the fireplace being fatal for some actual documented cases. But for the most part, women's clothing didn't catch fire that easily. Wool, for example, smolders - it's modern, cheap fabrics that blaze up and/or melt into your skin. I'm not denying that going up stairs with a baby and a candle and no hand to hold up your skirt to keep you from tripping was bad, but like the dangers of corsets, the danger of fire is also overstated.

      I've never noticed that much fainting in Victorian novels - I'm not really sure where the stereotype comes from. But I wouldn't take what fainting there is in them and in 18th century novels as indicative of people just mirroring real life. In Fanny Price and the Sentimental Genealogy of Mansfield Park, Amy J. Paul writes about the ideal of strong feelings completely overcoming the heroine in sentimental novels, to the point where they can't speak at all or pass out.


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