About Corsets: A Short Essay to Answer Some Frequently Asked Questions

Andrea Johnson

Corsets were created to provide a structure underneath clothing to create the silhouette fashionable at the time period. The shape of feminine beauty has varied from era to era. Think of the difference between the firm hourglass shape at the turn of the 19th century, and the controlled, slim-hipped shape of the 1920's. Both owe their contours to the corsetry of the period. Although the corset is absent from most women's everyday wardrobe, many people enjoy the nostalgic or sensual connotations of a corset. Who needs to do 200 sit ups a day when you can lace yourself into a corset, that will give you a striking shape no exercise regime can accomplish ?

Almost everyone vividly remembers the scene in 'Gone With the Wind' where Scarlet O'Hara is tightly laced into her corset by her maid. While the wealthy few may have had servants and attendants to help them dress every day, most people did not. Some wise person invented the bifid corset busk (the front fastening device) around 1830. This is basically a pair of steel bones with a type of hook on one side, and studs on the other, that is put in the front of a corset. This allows a corset to be easily put on and taken off, without assistance.

Whalebone was used to stiffen corsets from the 16th century, until the whale was hunted nearly to extinction. Whalebone was the baleen (the sieve like structure) in the mouth of the Right Whale. Because of its unique strength and flexibilty, whalebone was used for a variety of uses besides corsets, including umbrellas, riding crops and medical sounds. As whales became scarcer, and the price of baleen skyrocketed, substitutes for whalebone were created. Spring steel was common in corsets by the late 1880's. There are two types of spring steel used as "bones" in a modern corset — flat steel, and spiral steel. This is produced in various gauges and widths, from narrow 5mm widths that are very flexible to almost rigid 25 mm steels that are used in orthopaedic appliances. Plastic or nylon boning is suitable in garments like evening wear, but cannot withstand the strain that a corset places upon it. A non invasive test for the type of boning used in a corset is to place a magnet over the boned areas. Even through layers of cloth or leather a magnet will be attracted to steel, if it is present.

There is a great deal of folklore concerning corsets and corset wearers. I believe that it is a myth that women had their lowest ribs removed to create a smaller waist. You must consider that in the 1880's, medical science was not very sophisticated. Antibiotics were non existent, and little was known about sterile procedure. Anaesthesia was provided by very rudimentary methods. For a woman to have ribs removed, she would have undergone major, excruciating surgery. The risk of infection would have been severe, and untreatable if it had occurred. 20th century tightlacers have attained tiny waists without the use of surgery. The lowest set of ribs (the "floating ribs") are fairly flexible, and will gradually yield to the constant pressure of a corset. Corsets for tightlacing are very different from orthopaedic appliances, many of which are as rigid as a body cast, and must be to effect any skeletal change. Recently I phoned a variety of plastic surgeon's offices in Toronto, Canada, to inquire about whether rib removal was practiced in the 21st century. The receptionists I spoke with had never heard of this procedure, and no office I contacted offered it. I was told that it would not be considered a cosmetic surgery procedure, as most procedures deal with soft tissue or cartilege. A slightly concerned sounding receptionist told me that it would be a surgery that would be done by an orthopedic surgeon, if it was done at all. The only book I have come across about the history of the development of cosmentic surgery makes no reference to it whatsoever.

It is also a common myth that in the 19th century, many women had outrageously tiny waists. Valerie Steele, in Fashion and Eroticism, refers to a survey done by Ms. Annette Carruthers, who measured 19th century corsets in the Leicestershire Museum and Art Gallery's collection. It is significant that there was only one corset with a waist that measured 18". Five percent of the collection had a 19" waist measurement. The majority of the collection had waists that measured 20 – 26". In a separate study, Doris Langley Moore, a costume expert, measured more than 1000 women's garments from the Victorian period. She did not find any with a waist measurement less than 20". Corset advertisements of the time (1860 – 1910) commonly list measurements as small as 18" up to 30". Ads for corsets for stouter figures list waists up to and past 36". A gap of approximately 2" was left in the back, when the corset was worn. The size of the corset's waist was proportionate to the rest of the figure, ie a turn of the century corset in my collection with a waist of 19" has a bust and hip measurement of 31". Exceptions to this had to be custom made to the client's specifications, and surviving examples are very, very rare. This is not to say that there weren't people then who tightlaced to challenging proportions. However these women were few and far between. (Documentation of Victorian men who tightlaced is even rarer.) Photographs from the time period were commonly retouched to accentuate the shape of the feminine subject, so they are unreliable as proof of extreme corsetted waists. (Look for slightly blurry or darkened areas around the waist, discontinous fabric folds or cloth patterns). Nude daguerreotypes and photographs (circa 1855 – 1910) show a wide range of female figures, from slender to plump. I have not seen any models who show evidence of deformed rib cages, or skin irritations from extreme daily corsetting. It is my opinion that extremely small waistlines were about as common then as women with tremendously large breast implants are today. People often comment that women's bodies were "different then". This is both true and untrue. It is true that people in the developed world have unprecedented access to better nutrition and healthcare, and are greater in stature, and heavier. Women have fewer children and have a completely different standard of beauty today. However, evolution is a slow process, and the human body has not changed radically in the last 100 years.

Ethel Grainger is probably the most famous tightlacer in history. She is listed in the Guiness Book of World Records as having the smallest waist in the world (13"!) and no one has ever broken this record (set in the 1950's). Mr. Pearl follows a close second for recognition, after stunning photographs of his tightly corsetted 18" waist were published in a variety of mainstream magazines and photography books. Most people can comfortably lace in 4 – 5" when they begin to wear a corset. To achieve a figure such as Mr.Pearl's, a corset must be worn all the time, every single day and night. It wasn't like one day he woke up, and put on an 18" corset, that reduced his normal waist measurement 12"! Severe waist reduction like this, as a rule, takes years. The person doing it must have a series of incrementally smaller corsets, which must be custom made in order to fit correctly, and strong enough to withstand the strain. They must also possess a great deal of self discipline, to wear a corset every day, despite negative social pressures.

Corsets have been blamed for a multitude of ills, from light-headedness to death! "Corsets are responsible for bad complexions, red noses and irritable tempers... When a girl puts on a corset she is dwarfing and perverting the instinct most essential to her development, her physical and mental welfare and her happiness in general" states a book from 1904. I can think of many other things that are responsible for irritability or red noses ! Tightlacing does create certain bodily changes, including a slight displacement of internal organs. However, people who were/are long term tightlacers seem to have lived ordinary enough lives without serious physical complaints related to corset wearing. Ethel Grainger stopped tightlacing when she was pregnant and gave birth to a normal child. She resumed her tightlacing practices and attained the smallest waist in the world many years after she had her child. (Please bear in mind that Ethel Grainger was petite. Her achievement is very exceptional.) Many people enjoy the feeling of a corset that is firmly laced in. It is important to be aware that lacing in too much too quickly can lead to minor physical complaints like skin irritation, heartburn, gas, nausea, a sensation of claustrophobia or unease. Loosening or removing the corset will relieve these symptoms.

Maternity corsets were common during periods of history when the corset was a necessity in a woman's wardrobe. These were not intended to severely repress or disguise the pregnancy. Most had two rows of laces up the front or sides, as well as the usual set in the back. This allowed the corset to be adjusted as the belly expanded. There is still a type of maternity corset available today, which supports the weight of a maternal belly, and offers some back relief.

Children's corsets were common from the 1800's to the 1920's, and were worn by girls and boys. They were a part of everyday dress. They were not cut to form children's figures into a small waisted shape. They were worn in much the same fashion as an undershirt, and sometimes included hosiery supports. Most were lightly corded vests which buttoned up the front. Some were more involved garments to correct poor posture, but all bear little resemblance to the corsets worn by adult women, in form or function.

Victorian corsets were worn over a light chemise. Victorian dress dictated wearing layers of petticoats, a chemise, a corset, perhaps a corset cover as well, stockings, garters and long baggy drawers under everyday dress. Bustles and bust pads were optional additions to underclothes. Undergarments were washed frequently, but outer garments were not. Corsets were not regularly laundered. This might sound distasteful, but the chemise kept the corset quite clean. Corsets are problematic to launder, especially ones that are made of luxurious fabrics. Most of the historical corsets I have examined do not show evidence of laundering, nor are they filthy. A frequent problem with corset laundering is the potential for shrinkage which can distort the garment. A corset that is meant to be worn every day has different demands placed upon it than a fancy corset that is worn occasionally. It is tempting to choose beautiful, sensuous fabrics for a corset, but these may not be the most durable or practical for constant wear. A wardrobe of two or more corsets is suggested for day to day wear.

There are many companies today who produce corsets in standard sizes. These corsets are fine for occasional dress up wear, and fit most people as well as any off the rack garment will. Back laces provide some adjustability in fit. If a person falls outside of the range of average height or proportions, or is wanting to tightlace, an off the rack garment is probably not suitable. Corsets that are custom made can help to disguise or correct figure trouble spots. A custom corset should fit better, too, as long as the maker understands the principles of cut and uses correct materials and construction techniques.


References

An Exclusive Production by William Grainger, Insight Books reprint, 1994
Body Play Magazine
Corsets and Crinolines by Nora Waugh, 1954
Corsets: A Visual History complied by R.L. Shep, 1995
Dress and Undress : A History of Women’s Underwear by Elizabeth Ewing, 1978
Early Erotic Photography by Serge Nazarieff, 1993
FASHION: A History from the 18th to the 20th Century/The Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute, 2002
Fashion and Eroticism by Valerie Steele, 1988
Fashion and Fetishism: A Social History of the Corset, Tight-lacing and Other Forms of Body-Sculpture in the West by David Kunzle, 1982
Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power by Valerie Steele, 1997
Freaks of Fashion: the Corset and the Crinoline (1868) by William Berry Lord, 1993 reprint
Health-Beauty-Sexuality; From Girlhood to Womanhood by Bernarr Mac Fadden and Marion Malcolm, 1904
History of Medicine: A Scandalously Short Introduction by Jacayn Duffin, 1999
London Life Education Notes/Newsletter, 1988 - 94
1000 Nudes from the Uwe Scheid collection, 1994
Orthoaedic Surgery, Fourth Edition by Walter Mercer, 1950
Stereoscopic Nudes 1850-1930 by Serge Nazarieff
Support and Seduction: A History of Corsets and Bras by Beatrice Fontanel, 1997
The Corset : A Cultural History by Valerie Steele, 2001
Toleration of The Corset: Prescribing Where One Cannot Proscribe (essay) by Robert L. Dickinson, M.D., 1911
Venus Envy: A History of Plastic Surgery by Elizabeth Haiken, 1999
Verbal Abuse #3 : New Religions, 1994
Waisted Efforts: An Illustrated Guide to Corset Making by Robert Doyle, 1997
Whalebone to See Through: A History of Body Packaging by Michael Colmer, 1979

Copyright 1998 by Andrea Johnson/Lovesick Corrective Appare,revised 2003.

Not to be reprinted or distributed without permission, please.