What If Everything You Knew About The Corset Was Wrong?

fig6-7-squishy-guts-from-corsetsIt’s fashionable these days for folks to denounce the historical use of corsets as akin to Chinese footbinding — an early form of plastic surgery.

Corsets and tight lacing are said to have controlled women to their physical detriment; corsets have been blamed for breathing problems, broken ribs, curvature of the spine, hunchbacks, prolapsed uterus, miscarriages, hysteria and other mental illness, fainting spells, epilepsy, and even fatalities. Supposedly, 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.

1874-thomsons-underthings-adBut you don’t have to take my anecdotal word for it; there’s an ephemera trail of advertisements to prove this too. This 1874 ad for Thomson’s undergarments features The Unbreakable, which by its claim that it “greatly reduces the risk of fracture, while permitting the use of most highly-tempered steel,” proves that women’s bodies forced damages on corsets and their structures.

But you don’t have to take this to heart either — you can, at least for now, remain as firmly fixed on the idea that corsets were bad as you believe the horrible contraptions were on the female forms they mangled. You wouldn’t be the first…

In 1653, Dr. John Bulwer wrote in Anthropometamorphosis, Man Transform’d (aka 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.) However Bulwer’s B.S. (consumption, for example, was tuberculosis and not caused by corsets; halitosis is rarely, if ever, a result of stomach issues, rottennesse or otherwise), is generally aimed to ridicule and condemn female vanity and following of fashion than it is aimed at helping physical ailments.

Fashion, especially women’s dress, has always reflected the the morals, values, and dynamic changes of society. And fashion (as well as its icons) have also been used to sway public opinion and create changes in society to reflect new norms. Which part of this rule, reflection of or tool used, is the corset?

Am I to believe that by the late 19th century the medical community — which was still neither treating female patients nor studying their physiology — suddenly cared about women? Even if they seemed to agree with the feminists of the time, the suffragettes, they seem too much like the proverbial odd bedfellows to me…

Let’s start by looking at the facts about where the so-called medical evidence of health problems from wearing corsets (such as in The New York Medical Journal, November 5, 1887) came from.

Fact: It was (and still is) easier to obtain permission to study the bodies 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; prostitutes and others who either dropped dead on the streets or otherwise would have had their bodies dumped in pauper’s graves (and mass burials) have virtually no rights at death. These are the bodies science used. As a result, the information available would be skewed at best, completely false at worst..

Fact: The health of the lower classes was (and comparatively still is) horrible. Among the anecdotal examples of the corset as undergarment of death and destruction:

  • 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 raven’s feather.”

These stories are horrific, yes; but are they accurate?

fig17-the-tilting-of-the-liver-in-certain-cases-of-tight-lacingClearly dead women had health problems, but from corsets alone? When you read such things (which are said to be documented in Fashion and Fetishism by David Kunzle), you simply have to consider the alternatives to “the corset did it.” These deaths are more likely attributed to general health problems of the poor and working class. Diseases such as TB, syphilis (and other STDs), reproductive problems from multiple pregnancies, dietary deficiencies such as rickets, etc. were incredibly common.

It’s more than possible that these stories have been exaggerated or even made up (Who would question the ‘findings’ or rush to the defense of a prostitute or a chambermaid?) to further an agenda. But if the stories were made up, why? What was the motivation, the agenda?

Come back Monday, for more


  1. while i agree with most of what is said here you also have to take into consideration that corsets are still harmful to the body. working in theater like i do I have to wear replicas of the corsets used in the Victorian and baroque era very often. it is not only one of the most painful experiences. I have often experienced shortness of breath which causes arrhythmia, extreme nausea, inability to keep food down, constipation, headaches, and severe cramps. I’m not saying it will kill me but i also don’t bind my torso every day. statistically women were extremely likely to die during childbirth if they conceived during their mid to late twenties which is why women were married off so young… let’s brake it down… a girl of sixteen had probably only been wearing a corset for two years tops in those days meaning that while there was already some damage being done… she hadn’t gone through the same physical devastation a girl of say 24 or 25 has gone through…what physical devastation u ask…well not only were they distorting the organs causing them to be constricted meaning they might grow inappropriately meaning their lower bodies get weaker. the constriction of the lungs made it a lot harder for them to breathe making the lungs weaker and thus harder to push like they needed to during delivery. not to mention how malnourished they must have been avoiding most foods because it made them nauseous and the stuff they could keep down were things that were very high in cholesterol and attached itself to the body or things like bread and pastries that expand when they reach the stomach which would have made them nauseous but its a lot harder to throw up. I’m not arguing that corsets probably weren’t the sole barer of blame for a lot of women’s early deaths but facts and statistics aside its common sense… when corsets broke they were likely to be replaced and the more they were replaced the more they would bind and binding anything in your body to the point where it creates physical distortion is not healthy…although it looks amazing

  2. Dear Folks,

    I am researching 19th century New Orleans. I have run across two women who died suddenly in their late twenties. One woman died after a long train ride and the other thirty days after childbirth.

    Both women had no apparent health problems. The woman who died after a train journey, the cause of her death was unknown.

    It was Henry Clay’s daughter Anne Brown Clay Erwin who died after childbirth. Anne was up and around and in the kitchen when she suddenly dropped dead. The doctors guessed her death was caused by a blood vessel rupturing in her brain.
    Anne Brown Clay Erwin was twenty-eight when she died.

    I suspect both deaths were caused by corsets. I have no proof of this but only suspicion. After seeing the deformities caused by corsets, I am satisfied that my theory is based in reality.

    Question: Are there known references from books to this anomaly? Please write.

  3. Hmm…. First of it’s not “fashionable” to “denounce” the use of corsets. It’s a proven, logical fact that corsets distort, and destroy the health of, the human body.

    While many of your arguments are ideally represented and adequately backed with sound knowledge, the foundation for your case against death-related causes is seriously lacking in proper research and is merely an opinion you hold and is not factual.

    You have to remember that women wore corsets from very young ages. As a body grows, the bones have to build themselves in order to keep the body structurally sound. Wearing a corset while your body is still growing would thus force your body to grow in the direction the corset demands.

    To quote you: ” This 1874 ad for Thomson’s undergarments features The Unbreakable, which by its claim that it “greatly reduces the risk of fracture, while permitting the use of most highly-tempered steel,” proves that women’s bodies forced damages on corsets and their structures”

    You have to remember a woman like any other human being sits, bends and standsd. This would wear on the boning in the corset just as repeatedly bending a piece of hard plastic would eventually force that hard plastic to break at the point where. It was not the woman’s body forcing the corset to conform to her. It’s the natural wear and tear of age.

    Take a rubber band for instance; you can use it to bind your hair for only so long before it eventually snaps or becomes so distorted it no longer holds your hair properly because of its repeated use. So what do you do? You use a new rubber band until that one breaks or becomes too distorted. However, hair bounces back to its original shape far easier than would the human body.

    People have for centuries forced trees to grow in directions they want them to. They do so by binding the tree from its early stages to conform to the way they want it to grow.

    Growing bones are like saplings; they will eventually take the shape that is forced upon them and the organs of the human body will be move to make room for itself. Organs have to grow to during this time. If there is not room for them to do so they’ll either have to shrink to make room for everything else in the body or they will have to also conform to the shape. Organs have their natural size and shape for a REASON. They function best in their given size and shape. Distort them and the reliability of your organ function plumets and their duration of use shortens.

    A boxy vehicle can not gain speed as easily as an aerodynamically shaped vechile. Why do you think vehicles have changed in shape from what they used to be? Because slanted shapes provide less resistance than boxy shapes when traveling at higher speeds.

    As I already said; organs have their size and shape for a reason. They are proportionally sized to our bodies except in the rare cases where a natural deformity takes place. (and I say natural to differentiate from an unnatural deformity caused by things like corsets and girdles).

    Everything wears and tears with age, the same would be true for corsets. Your argument that the boning broke and the fabric stretched only proves one thing; that they just like any other person, place or object in this world are affected by the natural aging proces.

    You could put a corset on a 13 year old child and force her to wear it until she turned 16 and if she had an x-ray done at this age there would already be noticeable deformities to her skeleton in comparison to other 16-year-old females. Perhaps with constant health care she wouldn’t suffer immediate health problems to the degree women back in those days did, but she would eventually have irreversible health issues.

    Even women who might start wearing corsets only after their bones have reached maturity will eventually suffer health problems; a matured skeletal system is not as resiliant as a matured tree; a matured skeletal system can still be molded.

    Why do you think dentists are able to use retainers on people, even on adults, to force the jaw into the desired possition or braces to force teeth to be more evenly spaced? Why do you think this is encouraged to be done when a person is still young; it’s easier to force the bones to the desired positions.

    To me your argument reeks of an unwillingness to accept facts because you like corsets and the shapely image they give the female body. You want the studies to be wrong and for you to be right so you might possibly wear corsets without the weight of the fear of them causing your eventual death. You like the idea of shaping, or have the desire to shape, your body to the marketed idea of perfection. Women are so set on making themselves appear beautiful so they will be desireable to men that they are willing to go through any amount of pain to become thus.

    Not to mention the desire to be more beautiful than the next woman so they stand a chance of obtaining more possible suitors.

    Even today we have our “corsets”. Women get implants in their breasts or butt to make them appear fuller, rounder; no matter that you can’t breastfeed future babies if you do this, we have baby formulas now that take care of that problem! Companies make millions off of creams and oils targeting the aging problem; wrinkles. Doctors do too by providing people with plastic surgery and numerous varieties of skin-tightening procedures including botox.

    This whole situation is a psychological mess inside the human brain even more so now than it has ever been because of the media and hollywood always portraying the ‘perfect’ female body. They put specific emphasis on women and their bodies and how they can now get this and that done to achieve a desired look. It’s mass-marketed like a cure for some damned disease.

    Yes, even men are being targeted on a smaller degree. But if you watch all the commercials and movies and look at magazines you’ll notice that the majority of these “fixes” target women. Men have generally ONE area that is targeted for ultimate perfection. A woman’s entire body is targeted and women world-wide fall for it. Why? Because women are more psychologically prone to being unsatisfied with their bodies. Especially a woman who’s been through a bad breakup, or can’t seem to find “the right guy”, or a woman who’s in a relationship where she’s always being put down or her man is always comparing her to other women, or remarking on another woman’s beauty far more often and enthusiastically than he does to his own woman.

    These “cures” are insane. Women need to toughen up and wisen up and say enough is enough.

    I’m no feminist, in fact I disagree with a lot of feminist opinions; they are as sexist as men back in the day. They say a female is only a woman if she conforms to this or that ideal. If she doesn’t, then they attack her and say she’s no woman; a meer puppet on a string controlled by a man. Why do they say this? Because they think they have to go to the Nth degree in order to get out from under the control and ideals of men for women. So they result to insulting any woman who doesn’t measure up to their standards. They don’t care if a woman WANTS to be this or that way; they decide that she HAS to want to be this way.

    But the fact is a woman is a woman because she chooses what she wants to be and how she wants to be rather than letting society choose how she should be defined.

    If you want to wear corsets or whatever, fine, go ahead, just know plain and simply that you WILL suffer health problems. Not things like TB or halitosis, but things more obvious factual things like organ failure from the stress of being tortured 12/7 (or 24/7 if the corset is worn to bed). It’s your right to choose to wear them, if you want to have that look. But don’t try to convince others it’s okay and safe simply because you want it to be okay and safe. Wanting something to be a certain way does NOT make it that way. Nor does it make it right to attempt to convince another person it’s safe especially if convinced they also will die younger than they should have.

    In my opinion that’s nothing less than murder; if you convince people something’s safe, especially when, deep down, you know that something is NOT safe, then it IS murder. How many ways can I say it? You have caused that person to die because you knowingly convinced them it was other than stated.

    Tobacco companies do the same thing, but at least they WARN people, even if in small print, that smoking can be hazardous to your health. Anyone who makes and sells corsets should also be forced to put a warning on the corset.

    WARNING: corsets can be hazardous to your heatlh.

    You know the risks. Wear at your own risk. But don’t convince others to take that risk, especially with a petty and unintelligent argument like yours. Let them research and decide for themselves.

  4. Hello Anastasia,

    Thank you for taking the time to write such a long argument to counter my “petty and unintelligent” one.

    I think the true dangers of corsets are like anything else put into use or practice 24/7 — and I don’t advocate the prolonged 24/7 use or practice of anything; even critical thinking requires a break now & then.

    However, what is most fascinating to me are the historical reasons behind the standards, be they of beauty or behavior, and, in the case of the corset, much of the truth has been as bent — and the intolerance as strict — on both sides. As equally by those “for” as “against.” And that, Anastasia, is part of the information that needs to be available for folks to research and decide for themselves.

    At least there we agree :)

  5. I read the article and all the comments. Did the OP say they were a ‘feminist’? I find your views very unusual for a feminist, but so be it.

    Did you do any research at all? You can clearly see evidence of organ displacement in anatomical sketches and xrays of women who regularly wore corsets, on images available through a simple Google search.

    Have you heard of Cathy Jung? She has the Guiness Book record for world’s smallest waist. She, if I recall correctly, on got into tight lacing as an adult and yet it has moulded her into a completely unnatural shape. Her waist is truly like that of a wasp and her lower abdomen is swollen and distended from the organs having relocated to that area since they have had nowhere else to go 23.5 hours a day for the last couple of decades.

    It’s understandable why so many women once wanted to wear corsets everywhere and why many still want to do so today. I have one, which I wear from time to time. I only wear it when I know I won’t be physically exerting myself and that I’ll only be at the location/occasion for a maximum of 5-6 hours because it really is utter torture. The last time I wore the thing was a couple of weeks ago. I had to sit through an adult class before going where I was headed and I was late. I walked to the front of the room to sign the role and I heard and audible gasp from almost the whole class and a couple of ‘Wow”s from the guys. It was an awesome feeling and I’m sure it was the corset that made all the difference, but how the hell anyone has ever worn those things for such long periods is beyond me. I wouldn’t wear mine more than once a week at the most, even if I worked with Antonio Banderas every day because I plan to have another child. I simply wouldn’t risk having a baby with a weakened or altered reproductive system. If you don’t believe in the alteration to these organs, ask Cathy Jung to let you see her medical scans. Even better, just take one look at a photo of Cathy Jung and you’ll clearly see that nothing is where it should be (though I believe she’s quite proud of her inhuman figure, it is rather amazing but I’m sure, not healthy)

  6. I’m rather flattered that an older post of mine continues to get comments, however please note that no where do I say that excessive use of corsets (in terms of length of time worn or severity of ties) is healthy or optimal.

    I am, however, presenting research and facts into the story as most of us have been told it. Please do read my other corset history posts to get the full story.

    And ask yourself if merely wearing a corset — not used to “train” a waist to ridiculous proportions, but merely wearing it everyday — was so horrible, why there were any children born, or indeed how any children survived to adulthood as it was common for children, boys and girls alike, to wear corsets daily. Not all the women or all the fashionable women of the time died from wearing the commonplace daily corset. There are those then, as today, who take fashion, ideas and ideals to extremes; such idiocy usually results in paying at least one price.

    But the story as we’ve been told it, “Corsets caused death and the feminists saved we frail women from it,” is not as simple or even as accurate as that. Again, read my other posts on the subject.

    When you’ve read more, I remain here to discuss and debate with you. :)

  7. Here’s a modern-day example of how hardware shapes the body: “Video Games Lead to Finger Deformities in Young Children” (http://www.gamepolitics.com/2009/03/30/author-video-games-lead-finger-deformities-young-children; http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2009-04/01/gaming-blamed-for-childhood-finger-deformities). When gripping and manipulating a game controller, you’re exerting pressure both against the controller and on your own bones. I imagine that if steady, nonpainful pressure can misshape bones in children, then the much greater pressure exerted by a corset on any body must have health repercussions. But hey, a lot of people do a lot of potentially risky things that make them happy. We must not judge.

  8. Hello Retrofresh,

    I’m not sure you can effectively compare the pressure and force of using a video game controller to a corset… Seems the thrusting force of play would be more detrimental than the constant firm support of a corset. But it is an interesting comparison. Food for thought. Especially in terms of the moderation argument. If things are done in moderation, they are relatively safe. In fact, corsets and girdles are still recommended by doctors — properly used, of course. (Not to be confused with the harsh tight-lacing tactics.)

    However, I still stand by the research I’ve posted. There is enough evidence to make a sane, critically thinking person question all we’ve been told about corsets.

  9. I know for a fact there have been numerous female members of my family throughout history who wore tight laced corsets and had 15″-18″ waists who had lots of children and well into their 80’s.
    Although this may not be truely representative, but from what I know waist training is not dangerous.

    Also I have never had any problems wearing a waist training corset, it does reduce my appetite, but to me that is a good thing.

  10. This is mostly in reply to Regina, though her post is old and she probably wont read this, I’m still going to reply in case anyone in the future reads this and hopefully wont leave with the wrong impression on corsets.

    Regina, what you’re doing at the theater is very different from what the Victorians did and from what modern day 24/7 tight lacers do. The only thing the two situations have in common is that both are using corsets. It doesn’t matter that your using a replica. You’re using it wrong. Though I totally understand why. I think it’s okay to use it “wrong” for special occasions, even if it does cause discomfort/pain (and apparently all those health problems!?).

    For tight lacing, first you need a corset made specifically for your body. Then you need to take it slowly. If it hurts or is uncomfortable, it’s too tight. If you can’t breath right, it’s too tight. And if it’s causing health problems, it’s definitely too tight. There’s more to it than that, but I would have to write a book, so this is just the general gist of it. There’s a method to tight lacing to avoid the discomfort and apparently the health problems you’re experiencing too. Which is the reason why it’s supposed to be worn every day. Wearing it every day, when worn correctly, AVOIDS the problems that people who only wear it occasionally and too tightly experience. It doesn’t make things worse like you implied. And this isn’t something that modern day tight lacers have just made up. It’s been in practice for years and is what the Victorians did too.

    What your doing on the other hand, is taking a corset that wasn’t made to your measurements and lacing it down too much right away. Which is okay in this circumstance because you need to create a certain look right away. Let say, for example, you’re going down 7 inches within a few minutes. I can see how that can be a shock on your body. But it can take the tight lacer a year or more to go down that much, and that’s with a proper fitting corset too. Within that time, the body and rib cage has time to adjust.

    Corsets are more than just a waist size. If your natural waist sits just a bit higher than the corset your wearing was made for, or if your upper rib cage to waist ratio is just a bit bigger than the corsets, then this can greatly increase your pain when you lace down too tightly. And even if you were to just lace down until it’s snug, like you’re supposed to, a non-proper fitting corset can still hurt.

    I don’t want people to think that what what you’re experiencing is the typical experience of people who wear corsets every day (or nearly), because we do a lot of research to do this properly before going into it. I do tight lacing/waist training and so far have reduced my waist 4 inches. I haven’t experienced any breathing problems or pain. And only minimal discomfort back when I was trying to sleep on my side like I usually do. But that’s no longer a problem since I found it’s more comfortable to sleep on my stomach with the corset on. And I definitely haven’t had any health problems. Granted, 4 inches isn’t much, as I just started. But I chat with the online tight lacing community, who have people that have gone down much much more, and have never heard someone complain of the problems you mention.

    The only thing that’s true is that the ribs do become distorted. But that’s kinda the point as that’s the only way to get a smaller waist (if you’re not overweight) and it’s basically a form of body modification. And the organs do move around and stack on top of each other if taken to extremes. But that’s only with extreme waist reduction. Most of us who only go so far as to get a normal looking waist, or slightly curvier than average, don’t experience this. And for the few who do take it to extremes, the organs are still able to work properly. Btw, people who do this know what they’re doing and what’s happening to their bodies.

  11. I’m from New York, and it turns out that one of NYC’s labor laws actually came about because of womens’ increasing societal emancipation in combination with the corset. Women were in the workforce in various capacities in NYC while the corset was in vogue. (Triangle Shirtwaist corp. and other sweatshops were major employers of women when NYC was a major garment production center.)
    The law about having an employee lounge separate from the shop floor/main workspace was developed because of women working all day in their corsets; those who faited/needed to loosen their laces, etc. had to be provided with somewhere private to do so. It evolved into present-day labor law!

  12. Regina, if you experience all that in a corset, there is something horrendously wrong with the way the corset fits you, or you are lacing completely irresponsibly.

    Corsets should not hurt. If they do hurt, you are doing something wrong. It’s no different than trying to squeeze size 7 feet into size 5 shoes, or wearing brand new shoes for 2 days straight and then getting blisters. You are doing something wrong.

    I am perfectly comfortable in a well-made corset. Fizzy drinks tend to make me feel a bit bubbly while laced, but otherwise, I don’t really compromise anything. I can eat just as much as I did before. I just can’t gorge myself on a massive food binge. And since when is binging a good thing? I can eat a sensible meal in a corset.

    I can breathe just fine. It is likely corsets reduce the max capacity of the lungs by about 10%, but you only use about 15% of your lungs while doing most normal activities. You are unlikely to notice the impairment unless you’re running a marathon. Opera singers often wear corsets to help them project. Obviously it’s not impairing their breathing much.

    Women giving birth in the 19th and early 20th centuries mostly died of infection, because the living quarters of the poor were absolutely filthy. Are you going to tell me corsets cause germs? That’s like rubes who believe demons cause mental illness.

    And if you are so worried about your organs moving, you had better never get pregnant. For that matter, don’t ever move again.

    Your organs are highly mobile, and they move every time you eat or bend or do yoga. They move a LOT when you are pregnant — much more than any corset could ever move them. In fact, the inter-abdominal pressure of pregnancy much higher than that of a corset. If your organs didn’t move, you wouldn’t be able to bend at the waist.

    Most Victorian women laced themselves about 2 to 3 inches, which is a pretty mild reduction, and some people can comfortably achieve that the very first time they wear a corset. It is not particularly taxing on the body.

    In fact, we still use corsets for medical purposes even now. Back braces are likely to have a very corset-like effect, and may even be sold as corset braces (in order to get good corrective posture, they must be tight enough to displace some fatty tissue — thus, a corset effect).

    Please don’t misinform people based on your own poor practices. Any tightlacer in the world would tell you that whatever you are doing to yourself is extremely irresponsible, if it makes you feel so bad. Corseting should never hurt or impair you. Loosen your laces, or find one that fits you better.

  13. I’m a bit late in coming across this page. What you say is true insofar as if the corset is hurting and causing you to faint, you’re doing something wrong. But the fact remains that many women did do something wrong…they aspired to a waist size that was abnormal for the average human in order to be fashionable. A lot of them used the corset unwisely, just as many women and girls now follow fashion styles that are harmful…such as extremely high heels that shorten the Achilles tendon, can cause falls that sprain or even break ankles, and they wear shoes that are too narrow across the toes and end up with deformed feet from bunions.

    Just as true as the corset, when used properly, is not harmful is the fact that an awful lot of people don’t do things properly when it comes to following society and fashion. The question I have is why wear things that constrict and change the body shape, why bake in a tanning booth in spite of the proof that tanning booths cause skin damage the same way the sun does, and so on for the sake of appearance while most everyone keeps going on about how real beauty is inside, in the personality and in our actions, not our looks? It does seem rather hypocritical.

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