The No t-So Controversial History of the Corset
By Sadira Sittampalam
While corsets are having a huge comeback right now, many people are still under the impression that this piece of fashion was something that is a symbol of the restrictive patriarchy, being torture devices that heavily constricted one’s breathing, one’s movement and even caused rib breakage and squished up your organs to the point of failure. However, this is far from the truth. While corset-like garments can be traced throughout history, corsets as an undergarment were first popularised in the 1500s.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, there was less of an emphasis on the smallness of the waist, than on the contrast between the flatness of the front of the bodice and the curvature of the breasts peaking on top of the corset. In the 18th century, corsets were used to raise and shape the breasts, tighten the midriff and support the back, improving posture. They would again only slightly narrow the waist and they were quite comfortable. It was only in the 1840s and 50s (midVictorian era) that tightlacing first became popular.
The corset became more to exaggerate curves rather than be the funnel shape of the previous centuries. However, corsets were not, as modern narration would like you to think, all focused on minimizing the waist, even during this time. Victorian corsets were actually very complicated, being welltailored garments that were meant to fit your body perfectly and put tension and pressure all over your body, not just on your waist. There was still a lot of work put into tricking the eye into thinking the waist was smaller than it was, with artificially inflated shoulders, skirts that bellowed out and a lot of padding on the bum and the bust. This made the waist look a lot smaller even with a moderately laced corset.
Corsets were also worn by practically all women at this time (except for the very, very poor who could not afford them), and therefore, it was primarily worn with functionality in mind. They supported your back by helping to distribute breast weight evenly across the body and helped support the hips against the pretty significant weight of multiple petticoats, layers of crinolines, bustles etc. While this did restrict your movement (you probably wouldn’t be able to touch your toes), this actually did help with a lot of physical labour, allowing women to work, forcing them to lift with their legs, which actually protected their back from strain.
Only very upper-class women would tightly lace up their corsets, and even this was very rare. Fashion-wise, it also helped clothes fit a lot better and look a lot smoother. Even men wore corsets at a time (early 19th century), in order to reduce the beer belly and make them have a slimmer waist as it made their shoulders look wider. In modern media, a lot of attention happens to go to people who take corset wearing to the extreme, which has helped .
fuel this idea that corsets are dangerous. Especially with modern celebrities who have pouted headlines about the perils of wearing corsets, when in reality, they are not wearing proper fitting corsets or very tightly lacing them up which was not the norm back in the day. This misconception has also been brought forth with the strikingly silhouetted photographs and portraits during this era.
However, it is no secret that portraits have always portrayed a heavily idealised version of reality. Meanwhile, old photographs often feature women with a very substantial amount of padding, which is added to the already heavy amount of editing (as was the norm). When looking at a study that examined over 1000 Victorian dresses, it was found that the average waist was around 28-29inches or 71-72 centimetres. The population was also pretty malnourished at the time.
According to WHO, a healthy waist size should be around 31.5inches (80cm) or less, which is very close to this figure. The reason why the corset has remained so controversial is because of Victorian-era men, who perpetuated the corset as a dangerous moral ‘evil’ (while simultaneously fetishising the corset, ironically). Women’s fashion has always been a subject of ridicule to men, with many publications focusing on new fashion trends or hairstyles. Women following these trends were thereby seen as vain or even indecent at times. Furthermore, with women’s fashion being one of the only ways in which a woman at the time could express herself, the field was further looked down upon. After all, the Victorian era was one where the obedient wife expectation was very much alive, which clashed with the growing popularity of the women’s rights movement. Thus, opposers of the movement took every opportunity to bring women down. Fashion was also one of the only industries run by and populated by women.
Throughout the century, most of the era’s high fashion designs were made and designed by women and the most famous fashion houses were actually run by women. Some of these houses employed more than a hundred workers. So it is no wonder that men, especially those opposed to women’s suffrage, were so keen to pick on women’s corsets, and ridicule wearers of corsets which were a prime example of women’s pride and independence. In the second half of the 19th century, when the development of medicine started, a new anti-corset mania began as doctors argued that corsets could lead to tuberculosis, cancer, cutting the liver in half and even just “bad behaviour”.
When the X-ray was invented, doctors were quick to scan a corsetted body to further prove this claim. However, there was no scientific proof that it was as damaging to the bodies as they claim. If they were, most 19th-century female skeletons would be deformed - which we know isn’t the case. Nevertheless, wearing corsets for extensive periods of time still did affect women’s bodies - just not to the extent people claim.
Studies have shown that wearing corsets for a long time slightly adjusted your digestive system and shifted your organs a bit; similar to what happens when you are pregnant. Moreover, women who wore corsets couldn’t immediately stop wearing them as some of their core muscles weakened over the course of their use. However, it was never any significant or unreversible harm. Finally, certain groups of women did also ridicule them - it was not a uniform voice of hate or appreciation from either gender. There were many nuances to this topic; but at the end of the day, it was never a torture device used to confine women.