Updated: Jan 27
Most of us have probably seen the following scene in some period film or drama: a young woman stands braced against something, expressing discomfort as her corset is tightened immensely to achieve a fashionable figure. Or perhaps we have read in a book that corsets shifted organs, caused fainting, and restricted movement. Maybe we have seen interviews from actresses in period films saying that wearing a corset led to their impaired health. Clearly, this shows that corsets were symbols of female oppression and patriarchal society’s unrealistic values being forced upon women. After all, corsets were torture instruments women were tightly laced into, restricting the wearer, causing pain, and leading to fainting. But how accurate of a portrayal of corsets is this?
It turns out, this portrayal is extremely inaccurate and riddled with many holes in its “soundproof” logic. Corsets, and their predecessor, stays, were foundation garments worn by women of all classes-- including those engaging in heavy physical labor, such as maids or fieldworkers-- since circa the sixteenth century. What is seen most commonly and thought of as a corset would be the corset from the Victorian era (1837-1901) when they had the most dramatic shape. Corsets supported the back by distributing the weight of the breasts, as well as the hips against multiple layers of petticoats, crinolines, and bustles. To prevent putting pressure on muscles by only putting pressure at the waist, corsets were artfully cut to apply pressure evenly over the torso. This also made clothes fit better by smoothing out the body. Corset use was not restricted to wealthy women. Men wore corsets as well to slim down the appearance of their waists in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Poor women wore corsets to show the upper classes that they were responsible, respectable and put together. Women wore corsets while they cooked, cleaned, took care of children, ran, played sports, sang in operas and did so much more. So where did the most persistent and popular fashion myth arise from?
The answer to this is patriarchy. Fashion was one area that women could express themselves in a society that expected them to remain subservient to men. As a result, women’s fashion has been criticized throughout history, with women that follow it being seen as vain or indecent. Patriarchal values were enforced during the Victorian era, but almost all of the fashion industry was run by women. Women designed high fashion, owned fashion houses, and created garments. Men took whatever chance they got to bring women down as a result.
The development of medicine in the latter half of the nineteenth century exacerbated anti-corset sentiments. Doctors blamed the corset for various maladies and vices: it caused tuberculosis, cancer, cut the liver in half, and caused bad behavior. The invention of the x-ray led to doctors scanning the corseted body to prove that it was harmful. Yet, there was little medical evidence to support their claims. Women’s skeletons were not deformed, very few medical reports showed women with corset induced broken ribs, and livers were not cut in half. There were also no famous women suffering from their corset. In addition, very few women tight-laced (laced their corset very tight for aesthetic reasons).
The debate became even more heated during the 1890s and 1900s when women began going out more often and were seen in public more. Women played sports and went to universities during this time, and the suffrage movement became very popular as well. The fact that the female silhouette was especially striking only fueled the debate. However, such a figure was the result of strategic padding and artful tailoring. It must also be taken into consideration that primary “evidence” of this time (photographs, portraits, fashion plate drawings, etc.) were either heavily edited, idealized, or exaggerated. Furthermore, Victorian medicine made even the simple, non-invasive, surgical procedure of removing a tooth dangerous. An infinitesimal number of women were willing to risk their lives for a fatal procedure that produced results which could easily be replicated with padding and tailoring.
Image Credit: Andrea Schewe Design
So, why does this myth still prevail? For one, corsets are meant to fit the body very closely. They are not to be worn without a layer underneath and must be broken in (worn in short increments often to mold to the wearer’s body) to be fitted properly. Modern film production prevents actresses from being fitted properly into corsets, leading to the tales of terror we hear so often in the media. (It is also interesting to note that red carpet gowns have structured under-layers similar to corsets to create the stunning figures of actresses. Yet, very few actresses have spoken out against the gowns they wear on the red carpet.) Another reason could be that we like to think our ancestors were stupid and lived impractically to feel better about the progress modern society has made. Examples of other myths stemming from this thinking include the assumption that medieval people were dirty and that the pomaded and powdered hair of the eighteenth century caused the hair to become infested with vermin.