I Grew Up in a Corset. Time to Bust Some Myths. (Ft. Actual Research)


Hello! So if you’re a regular round here, you may
already be aware of my present endeavor to recreate a c. 1890s corset for my very asymmetrical
and decidedly not very fashionably 1890s self. More details on the trials and challenges
of the making process for that to come anon, but for now, there is so much research and
thoughts floating about in my head regarding all this corsetry business, that I just thought
I’d sit down and have a little chat about it. Now before we proceed further down this precarious
path of Corset Myths and Prospective Truths, I must first suggest that if you are dead
set in your beliefs that corsets are the physically damaging tactical symbol of historical female
oppression, you may wish to save yourself the distress and click away from this video
now because I am about to share with you my first hand account of growing up in the nearest
21st century equivalent, and I feel like some of the things I may have to say might be a
bit triggering for you. Now that we’ve at least made an effort to
avoid those long pontificatory comments proclaiming the devilry of corsetry from—someone with
no sources or actual practical experience, we’ll begin by addressing just that: the
fervid, twenty-first century belief that corsetry is a painful instrument of torture imposed
by patriarchal society: that every woman throughout 500 years of history was tight lacing into
a teen-sized waist, inducing fainting spells, removing ribs, and displacing organs strictly
for the benefit of the male gaze. First and foremost, it is important to point
out the difference between tight lacing and corsetry as form of everyday clothing. I’m not sure if there is a clearly defined
measurement threshold between ‘tight lacing’ and regular corsetry, judging from discussions
on tight lacing in some of the magazines and medical journals I consulted, tight lacing
seems to have included waist measures of up to about 19 or 20 inches—and, of course,
includes alleged examples of the mystical 16 or 17 inch waist. But tight lacing and corsetry are not synonymous:
simply because a woman is wearing a corset does not mean that she is—or indeed has
to—lace down to such extremes. We have to keep in mind that the reason tight
lacing is written about so fervently in contemporary sources is precisely because it was so uncommon—and
really rather shocking: then, just as it is now, to have a waist small enough to wrap
your hands around. It is in regards to these references of tight
lacing specifically that we see most of the insistences that all corsets cause —insert ceaseless
list of diseases and ailments claimed but feebly or not at all proven to have been caused
specifically by corsetry. One discussion that I came across in the Toronto
Daily Mail, dated to the 5th of May 1883 sheds a particular bit of light on the situation:
on the topic of tight lacing, the writer, who is of the opinion that anyone wishing
to lace a young girl down to an 18 inch waist “should be put into a straight waistcoat”,
proceeds to advise that “twenty-five inches is not too large for a medium-sized figure,
and twenty-six or twenty-seven inches is more in proportion when the figure is above the
average height”. This got me thinking back to the days I spent
measuring and fitting actors in my theatrical costuming days: and upon going back and consulting
the archive of actor measurements I’ve accumulated over the years, found the waist measures of
young, say, 18-to-30 year old ladies to measure between 26 and 30 inches, uncorsetted. Not terribly far off from the claim of the
acceptability of a 25, 26, or 27 inch waist–corsetted. But if you don’t trust my vaguely anecdotal
findings, let’s have a look at modern retail sizing: I know this varies from store to store,
but for example let’s have a look at the measurement chart for Forever 21, a brand
marketed specifically towards the similar demographic of young–albeit 21st century–women. They have listed the size XS as having a waist
measure of 24 to 25 inches with the size Small at 26 to 27 inches, all within the healthy
yet acceptable range according to our friend from the Toronto Daily Mail. So, side note I don’t think you can really
argue that ‘people were smaller back then’ and that they were corsetting down to a 24
inch waist; it doesn’t really work both ways. Although granted indeed not all women today–nor
indeed 130 years ago–could be classified under this single and perhaps idealized measurement
range. But this just goes to show that this very
prevalent 24-inch Victorian measurement is not at all extraordinary by today’s standards,
and is still in fact still seen–naturally–in twenty-first century bodies today. Which brings us to the inevitable discussion
of societal definition of ideal beauty: yes, we are *trying* to push back against this
idea of a Single Beautiful Body Type, and make a conscious effort to include a wider
range of body types in advertising today, but the fact remains that the majority of
models we see in fashion advertising today are precisely these size 0, 25-inch-waisted
young women. It stands to reason that a similar trend may
have also been true in the 1890s: that waist sizes depicted, discussed, and praised were precisely
these 24, 23, 21-inch waists, whereas the less “ideal” 27, 29, 33-inch waists were
simply less well-represented. A historian 200 years from now may look back
on print advertising today and draw remarkably similar conclusions to the ones we draw in
regards to the sparse advertising left behind by the Victorians: that all young women–and
subsequently (although without any basis of logic whatsoever) all ages of women entirely,
either are Size 0 Forever 21 models, aspire to be, or are irrelevant within society completely:
a fact which we, living and experiencing the active reality of today’s life, know to
be entirely false. But it’s easy to put these tight laced measurements
in print, to illustrate the dainty, tight-laced figure on fashion plates, to even manipulate
photographs with a bit of prehistoric photoshop wizardry to make the waist appear smaller;
it’s much less simple to disguise the actual actual measurements present on surviving garments. Granted, I’ve only been down this research
hole for a couple of weeks, but I did still want to take into account as many extant garments
as I possibly could; so after examining the–two–extant bodices in my own collection, I proceeded
to look at the extant garments analyzed in Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion 2 as
well as Nancy Bradfield’s Costume in Detail; sure enough I found that the overwhelming
majority of waist measurements on these gowns were 24 inches, with a notable sprinkling
of 25, 26, and 27 inch measurements. But before we go presuming that everyone in
the late 19th century had a 24 inch waist, we mus first consider the provenance of these
gowns: who they belonged to, why they were worn–and more importantly, why these particular
gowns survive. Almost consistently, on the occasion that
provenance was actually recorded, the smaller-waisted gowns were labelled as having belonged to
a ‘miss’–a young woman–or is said to have been worn specifically ‘before her
marriage’; whereas the gowns featuring slightly larger measurements were said to have belonged
to a ‘Mrs’, or ‘the mother of’–or presumably a woman of a few more years. So, it’s important to note that the two
outlying 19- and 20-inch gowns were both recorded as having belonged to the same person, a “Lady
Evelyn Lindsay before her marriage to”–some dude: or, more importantly, a young woman
of high status, who probably would have been keen to endure a little bit more discomfort
for the sake of high fashion. We totally don’t still see that nowadays,
or anything. This theory was further endorsed in ‘The
Woman in Fashion’ by Doris Langley Moore, one of the first dress historians of the early
20th century. She had such an extensive collection of historical
dress, it would eventually go on to found the Fashion Museum in Bath in England, so I expect that
she may be saying something significant when she wrote “the smallest waists in my
collection are not less than 21. And these are far below the average, which
for young women’s clothing was 24.” So why do such a prevalent number of these
young women’s dresses survive? There are a number of possible explanations
for this, including my own personal favorite bit of logic: that they were simply too small
to wear to bits or pass on others who would, but that were probably expensive and evoked
fond memories. You know; you may not fit into your wedding
dress–or your prom dress, or your court presentation dress a decade later, but somehow it feels
important (and expensive)–so you keep it. So all of that being said—what about all
those detrimental physical effects of corsetry that we’re so intrinsically lead to believe? The fainting? The shortness of breath? The shifted organs and the squashed ribs? By the way—there is absolutely no evidence
for anyone ever having had ribs removed to achieve a smaller waist. It is hypothesised in Valerie Steele’s ‘The
Corset: A Cultural History’ that this is simply a myth begun by contemporary rumors,
but seeing as medicine was still experiencing the dawn of anaesthetic practices and abdominal
surgery was still an extremely risky endeavour, such frivolous and unnecessary operations
seem highly unlikely. So if you don’t already know, I have a little
skeletal disease called Scoliosis, which means that my spine has decided to grow in an S-bend
shape—and not by the graceful Edwardian definition. I spent many of my younger years in what is
effectively a corset, so of course I fell into this massive research hole whilst researching
for my own corsetry project, because here’s the thing: nowadays there are so many myths
floating around about the physical effects of corsetry. I always wonder, how can one person possibly
insist with such fervency that corsets caused fainting and deformed ribs when they themselves
have never actually worn one—and, most importantly—worn a proper one? Because—as you shall soon discover with
my own corset making endeavors soon to come, there is a huge difference between the ways
the Victorians drafted their corsets versus the way that modern costumey corsets are drafted
today. The negative perceptions of corsetry that
we have today I think are stemmed mainly from the rational dress and anti-tight lacing tirades
presented in magazines, newspapers, and journals from the period. Because here’s the thing: as with any fashion,
there are always going to be opponents of a certain trend, and there are always going
to be people who just can’t bear the feeling of tight clothing. So of course they are going to be the ones
to speak out about it, and of course to try and convince others to drop the fashion as
well. This doesn’t necessarily mean that this
opinion was ubiquitous throughout Victorian society, or that people agreed with it. The historian in me clung desperately to this
question: how can any 21st century person–on either side of the corsetry argument–possibly
fully understand the effects of Victorian corsetry when today it isn’t exactly common
practice to begin wearing a corset from adolescence—if not earlier? Again a medical study referenced in Valerie
Steele finds that starting to wear a corset in adulthood does not cause any permanent
deformation or reshaping of the ribs as it can do when begun in early adolescence. So yes, present day studies find that the
ribs–and organs–shift right back into their normal positions when the corset is removed. So if that’s true, even corset enthusiasts
of today, who probably didn’t start wearing corsets on a regular basis–if they
do at all–until adulthood, probably still can’t quite closely understand the Victorian
experience. And it’s not as if we can—ethically—conduct
present day experiments on young children to find out exactly what effects growing up
in a Victorian corset might have on the body. But wait, thought I. I have been effectively
wearing a corset since age 14. Granted, the obvious flaw in my retroactive
and entirely unintentional experiment is that my corset was not at all constructed in the
same way as a 19th c corset would have been, and in fact was deliberately built asymmetrically
with intent of treating my spine, not with creating a fashionable figure. Nevertheless, since the worst of my curves
sit right at waist area, significant waist reduction was necessary to stop the progression
of the curves, which means that I was corsetted down to a 24 inch waist. I wore this for about 5 years, after which
I was almost forcibly instructed to get out of it. Had I not been explicitly told to do so, I
would honestly probably still be wearing it today. Because let me tell you a thing: I loved it. Aside from the obvious fact that what 14 year
old girl doesn’t want to roam the windswept moors of adolescence pretending to be Jane
Eyre all the time, it was extraordinarily comfortable. It was made specifically to my body shape
so nothing poked or pressed or hurt–very much like historical corsets, which was most
often conformed to the unique shape of the wearer with shaped steel–or light, flexible
whalebone which moulded to the body with heat. It was supportive, did wonders for my posture,
and actually provided a very intrinsic sense of comfort in knowing that all these vulnerable
squishy bits were very well armored. It became such a regular part of my daily
wear, and like any well-fitting undergarment nowadays, you just sort of forget that it’s
there, to the point where, although I was instructed to have it off for three hours
per day (of course phrased a bit like ‘you are allowed 3 hours of freedom per day’),
I kept it on continuously. But doctors actually have a very good reason
for telling you to get out of your brace for a couple of hours every single day: because,
no matter how comfortable and well-fit it may be, there will always be changes to the
function and movement of the upper body when its placed under any sort of structure. When we take measurements for theatre, we’re
often in the habit of taking a chest and waist measurement–as well as an expanded measure,
because the expansion of the ribcage can cause a significant inch or more in difference. While the effects of minor–or even significant–restriction
may not necessarily be harmful, the impediment of this natural movement of the body does
cause it to adapt to these new circumstances by developing new physical habits; and, seeing
that I was wearing my very comfy hard plastic shell for most of my growing years, my body
did indeed develop some different methods of performance that still persist today. The most immediate effect was of course the
muscle pain. You can probably imagine that after having
5 years of external support, I had…absolutely no abdominal strength. And still kind of don’t. Like–I can’t even do half a sit up. So indeed there were many moments of lying
on the floor in small amounts of agony, waiting for the muscle spasms to pass–and I can actually
very clearly see why the Victorian woman may have seen it as healthier to just continue
wearing her corset. Again, those who are more bothered by tight
clothing would probably have been more determined to do without their corsets–and of course
to then insist that others do as well. Thankfully things have improved in the muscular
department on my end; although I still do have trouble standing up for more than an
hour, and wearing heels–but that’s all spinal issues, and I don’t think have anything
to do with the effects of corsetry. Moving on…to the fainting. We see loads of references to this swooning
and fainting in novels—in works of fiction—dating from this period, but do we actually see this
prevalently in actual, non-fictional writing? Indeed, Doris Langley Moore points out that
“in the diaries, letters, and other literal records of the time there is surprisingly
little of this swooning.” It is entirely likely that this dramatic and
conspicuous manner of reaction was simply a popular literary device used to communicate
the extreme shock value of a fictional situation. Anyway, with aforementioned research in my
head, I find it incredibly difficult to believe that the overwhelming majority of women were
tight-lacing down so extremely as to cause such a significant a decrease in lung capacity. In fact, in my own years of said ‘restriction’,
enduring the same 24 inch waist that we see popping up so prevalently in our investigations,
never once did I feel desperately short of breath, and never once did I actually faint. But you do breathe differently—and I find
this still to be true today. To compensate for the lack of expansion capacity,
you learn to breathe with the tops of your lungs rather than with the lower or middle
parts of your abdomen, taking smaller breaths more frequently as opposed to deeper breaths
less frequently. Which is why I’ll sound winded after walking
up a flight of steps–or just walking briskly down the street, really. Is this harmful? Valerie Steele goes into more detail on this
in the chapter in her book devoted to the medical effects of corsetry, but her sources
and conclusions find that there is no real medical harm in breathing in this different
way. In fact, people with different sorts of pressure
on their diaphragms–say, for example, from pregnancy or obesity, breathe in this same way. It’s perhaps a slightly more laborious way
to obtain oxygen, but I have yet to experience anything so extreme and detrimental as punctured
lungs, and fainting, and such pulmonary diseases claimed to have been caused by corsetry. The final most obvious possible effect of
this all this corsetry business is my eating habits. I have always been an excruciatingly slow
eater, that is my own problem, but that seems to have been something that’s been slightly
exacerbated by my years spent in the brace: this is perhaps an entirely personal psychological
effect, and is by no means necessarily widespread amongst corset wearers past and present, but
I found it extraordinarily unbearable to feel full whilst wearing it, and so preferred to
eat smaller meals more frequently or normal portions but very very slowly, to avoid this. This is something that I am still in the habit
of doing today, despite the fact that I am no longer restricted. So what about all those other items on the
neverending list of corset-related grievances put forth by 19th century physicians? Consumption, dyspepsia, heart disease? Anaemia? Birth defects? Yes–it’s possible…I won’t claim that
there aren’t any inevitable harmful effects as with any sort of extreme bodily modification
as with tight lacing–but we must remember that tight lacing was not commonplace, and
is not synonymous with corsetry in general. It must also be pointed out that there’s
really no definitive evidence that many of these abundantly claimed effects were solely
and specifically caused by tight lacing—since these problems weren’t ubiquitously common
and particular only to women—and haven’t miraculously disappeared in our uncorsetted
population today. Or–in the case of consumption, or tuberculosis,
have since been firmly proven to have other and completely unrelated causes. So yeah. That I think is where I shall stop for now. Corsetry and its effects is a massive topic,
written on and extensively, both historically as well as today, and I’ve really only just
scratched the surface with this video. I’ve put together a list of some of the
sources that I explored during my own investigation into this down in the description box below
if you are also interested in doing some investigating for yourself. And since of course I have not explored all
of the resources available out there, I would be really interested to hear if you come across
any additional points of interest or any new important sources yourself. So with all that being said, I think the one
thing we can actually definitively conclude at this place in time in regards to the social,
cultural, psychological, physical effects of Victorian corsetry–no matter how much
research we do and similar personal experience we may had…we’ll probably never really
fully understand them. And maybe it’s time that we stop pretending
that we do. That is the point of history, I guess.

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