The Controversial Corset
A high and larger bust line and full round hips, at least by comparison to a small waist, these are the delights of a curvaceous, voluptuous figure which corsets help to create.
An illustrated guide to the beauty and controversy of corsetry.
The corset's history dates back to ancient times when in 1600 BC the Minoan Snake Goddess is usually shown wearing a corset or corset-like garment. In the 16th century, boned bodices appeared and were worn by the aristocrats of Spain and France. In the 17th and part of the 18th century, when infants began to walk, they grew from swaddling clothes to stiffened bodices to "help the child grow straight" and "protect from bruises". Little boys abandoned this attire when they became active. Little girls, as they developed more womanly bodies. But it was in Victorian and Edwardian times when the corset really came into vogue.
Women and teenage girls in those days wore a heavy corset reinforced with 24 stays made of whale bone or steel, with laces designed to be tightened to trim the waist by at least four inches. It seems preposterous that a garment meant to enhance the allure of the female form with an hour-glass shape was to be worn as a matter of propriety, but 'tis true, for no decent female would be without her tightly-laced corset.
However, by the late 19th century doctors and feminists were campaigning strongly against the corset, or at least the practice of tight-lacing them. This was nothing new. For in 1653, Dr. John Bulwer wrote (in "Anthropometamorphosis, man transform'd, or the artificial changeling", London 1650) that 'straight lacing' was said to be the cause of "stinking breath" leading to "consumptions and a withering rottennesse." (Bulwer also was anti-circumcision, but that's another 'piece' altogether *wink) But now, in the late 19th century, the medical community and those speaking for women's rights wanted to free females from the corsets which bound them.
Corsets and tight lacing were to blame for breathing problems, broken ribs, curvature of the spine, hunchbacks, prolapsed uterus, miscarriages, hysteria and other mental illness, fainting spells and even fatalities. In 1859, a 23 year old Parisian woman at a ball was "proved to be the envy of all with her thirteen inch waist; two days later she was found dead."
As one who has held antique corsets in her hands, I find some of this a bit hard to swallow. Holding antique corsets which have been worn, one sees the evidence that the human body is not so easily molded. Along with stretched fabric and folds from human flesh, there are torn seams and broken boning, all proof that female forms made the corsets conform to them.
As additional proof, I offer you 19th Century advertising, expressing the wonders of corsets that were "absolutely unbreakable" for just £1. And the 1874 ad shown above (click to enlarge) for Thomsonís undergarments featuring "unbreakable" material which "greatly reduces the risk of fracture, while permitting the use of most highly-tempered steel."
I've held those corsets too.
While I do not suggest that we women whittle away our waists as we while away our days in the constriction of too-tightly-laced corsets, I do believe there is evidence to at least encourage people to look into the claims and assertions made by the 19th century medical community and the suffrage movement.
Fashion, especially women's dress, has always reflected the the morals and dynamic changes in society.
Fashion and its icons have also been used to sway public opinion. Is the corset an exception, or part of the rule?
First, let's look at the medical evidence of health problems from wearing corsets and resulting trauma of disturbed physiology.
Fact: It was (and still is) easier to obtain permission to study and open the bodies and burials of the lower and working classes. As with any 'scandal', the wealthy have the privilege of privacy -- both in their lifetimes and afterwards. Not only are the wealthy protected from any examinations, but from stories about their lives and deaths -- real or fanciful. Publicity could and would bring lawsuits. The poor or not-wealthy have less might to preserve any rights. As a result, the information available would be skewed at best, and completely false at worst.
Fact: The health of lower class women was rather poor. Many of the 'ills' supposedly caused by corsets sound more like general health problems, diseases such as tubercule bacillus, reproductive problems from multiple pregnancies, and dietary deficiencies such as rickets.
Most of the anecdotal or historical evidence of the corset as undergarment of death and destruction are cases of lower-class women. Such examples include:
* A 21 year old prostitute who died of syphilis, consumption, and corsets while sitting in a police station.
* A chambermaid who was found dead after suffering from extreme stomach pains. Upon her death, her stomach was found to be nearly severed in half "leaving a canal only as narrow as a ravenís feather."
These historical (or is that hysterical?) stories are horrific, yes, but are they accurate? Clearly these women had health problems, but from corsets alone?
It's more than possible that these stories have been exaggerated or even made up to further an agenda. Who would question the 'findings' or rush to the defense of a prostitute or a chambermaid? But if the stories were made up, why? What was the motivation, the agenda?
For some, it may have been basic greed. According to this article on the brothers Lucien C. and I. DeVer Warner, founders of Warner Brothers, now Warnaco:
"It took a couple of doctors to sell women on the idea that "rearranging" the human body via the old-fashioned corset was not practical. Doctors Lucien C. and I. DeVer Warner put their heads together and came up with a corset to fit a woman's body, unlike other Victorian undergarments which "tied" her in."
And so, as early as 1875 the company was running what may be the first corset ads in America and was selling the idea, and the corsets, "to seller and (retail) buyer alike."
Money is a rather powerful motivator, especially doctors, just look at today's pharmaceutical companies.
But what about the early feminists? Were they so easily bought, or were they sold a package of goods by the seeming-to-care medical community? Or did they buy other claims?
While many state that Victorian fashions for women were used as a means of control and admiration for a male dominated society, there is evidence to the contrary. In fact, many in 19th century cried in outrage over the corset itself, seeing it as impure and saw it's confines and promoting impure behaviors among women.
Victorian phrenologist Orson S. Fowler, an American, warned that wearing a corset excited dangerous "amative desires" by pressing blood to bowels. In Intemperance and Tightlacing, he argues that this made blood become "impure and corrupt," caused "disease to the brain," and inevitably led to "impure feelings" as "weak-minded" ladies were, obviously, easily prey to temptation.
As for feminists, of the corset is a great symbol. Rid women of the ties that bind them, and you literally as well as figuratively free them. But what if these suffragettes and fighters for female equalities were actually being forced by patriarchal stays that they did not see? The answers may lie in the times they were bound to.
Victorian women were placed on pedestals. Perceived as (and raised to be) innocent, she was void of any "animal feelings" such as sexual love. This "special nature" made her a trusting, giving and warm person which, when combined with her lack of intellect, made her not only prey to sexual seduction, but once introduced to such 'sins' she would be insatiable. Such views of women, convinced Victorian professionals that corset wearing led to such sins as hyper-sexuality and masturbation. In A Textbook on Sex Education (London, 1918), Walter Gallichen wrote:
"The early wearing of stays is said to cause precocious sexuality. When it is known that a degenerate cult of tight corset wearers exists in England with a journal devoted to their craze between tightlacing and sex hyperaesthesia [heightened feeling] seems to be well established."
Ahh, so now it becomes a bit clearer. The corset was deemed dangerous to dames because we poor things were too weak to resist sexual desire, ey? We'd easily fall for any man, any time, any where. Or is it that we'd be able to seduce men with our siren's call of ample curves. Much more likely that men feared our sexual desires which would allow us to make choices. If we opted to masturbate, what need would we have for Mister's three-huffs-and-his-puffs? If we decided to have fun with
Perhaps the early feminists, living in a misogynist society, misinterpreted the 'medical concerns' over corsets, and motivated by fear, fell for the easy symbol of freeing themselves. They jumped from the frying pan, into the fire -- or rather, they removed the confines of the corset's boning, only to find themselves being boned another way.
Today, modern feminists claim the corset as a choice
Not just for the vain, corsets also can reduce pain and improve function for people with back problems or other muscular/skeletal disorders. For example, large-breasted women find overbust corsets and bustiers more comfortable than bras. This is because the weight of the bust is carried by the whole corset, which distributes the weight to both stomach and back muscles rather than placing the weight, via the bra's shoulder straps, to the upper back only.
Most often, corsets are worn as an example of being able to delight in all that is feminine yet be treated as an equal in any other manner she should choose. Corsets allow women to express their sexual freedom. No longer considered part of a forced dress code, corsets are sexual leisure-wear.
This choice allows for a freedom not experienced by our Victorian sisters. And a properly fitting corset, worn in moderation, also allows for a physical freedom, free of medical complaints. Be it these freedoms alone, the power of choice, or the sight of ourselves, the power of our curves, in the mirror, we women feel sexy in corsets.
However, the sexual joy and personal liberation may lead to an increased sex drive and masturbation. Perhaps those Victorians had something right afterall.