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Corsets Were Always Terrible, But Maybe Less Terrible Than You Think

Tight-lacing was not nearly as popular as advertised, but bending over was impossible.

Why are you wearing a bra right now? Or not wearing a bra! Maybe you’re wearing nothing! I guess it depends on you, your style and what you’re doing right now. But whatever you’re wearing, why are you in and that and not a corset, as you almost certainly would have been 200 years ago?


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The short answer is because corsets were murderous on your body.

However, they weren’t as murderous as some people have been lead to expect. The notion that women throughout history laced them so tightly that they prevented breathing and crushed livers is mostly a myth, although tightlacing was a fad in the mid-19th century.

Up to the end of the 18th century, corsets were mostly worn like shapewear is today. While they were supported by whalebone, they were mostly just intended to smooth out any bulges that might be unseemly under a fairly unstructured muslin gown. However, by the 19th century, they began to be fastened with unyielding metal hooks, and were made with bendable steel running through them. That meant they could take on new, different shapes. Some women began lacing them much tighter, for a more shockingly noticeable hourglass figure. An 1850’s corset advertisement ran, "100 patterns for stays for ladies and 50 for children, seven Shillings for an eighteen-inch waist, rising Sixpence an inch."

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Just for perspective — 18 inches is approximately the circumference of a honeydew melon. That is a teeny tiny baby waist.

As with most trends, there were people who embraced this wholeheartedly. Some women even claimed they loved the sensation of being laced so tightly they could barely breathe, probably because a lack of oxygen produced feelings of euphoria. It also produced fainting spells. Admittedly, the theoretical fashion magazine ideal for women of the time was to be married with a waist whose inches were not larger than their age — and to be married by their very early 20’s. But look, the theoretical fashion magazine ideal now is to be 5’10 and a size 0. Neither ideal is really a reflection of the majority of women.

So, while Scarlett O’Hara did demand that her corset be laced to make her waist 18 inches, she was probably in the minority. 19th century corsets might measure 18 inches fully closed, but you were supposed to keep a little room in the back open with the laces, kind of the way you do when lacing your shoes. Which is to say, you don’t force the fabric sides of the shoe to close over one another, because that would be crazy. A lot of stories, about say, a "whalebone academy" where young women’s corsets were laced so tightly that their waists didn’t exceed 13 inches are thought to be apocryphal, made up by guys who were really turned on by the idea of a woman having a waist only slightly larger than an orange.

Some women even claimed they loved the sensation of being laced so tightly they could barely breathe, probably because a lack of oxygen produced feelings of euphoria.

But, really, most people did not want that.

In an interview with Collector’s Weekly, Valerie Steele of the Museum of Fashion and Technology explained, "Most people today think corsets were extremely dangerous and caused all kinds of health problems, from cancer to scoliosis," Steele says. "And that’s quite inaccurate. Most of the diseases that have been credited to corsets, in fact, had other causes. Corsets did not cause scoliosis, the crushing of the liver, cancer, or tuberculosis."

The liver thing is mostly just because livers come in different shapes, so when Victorian doctors doing autopsies found a weird one, they credited it to tightlacing.

Corsets did, however, cause the shape of your organs to shift, and that is sort of terrifying.

In 1908, Dr. Ludovic O'Followell used X-Rays to show where women who did not wear corset’s organs were located, versus women who did. Non-corset wearers organs were about whether you’d expect to see them today. Meanwhile women who wore tightlaced corsets had organs that had moved to their lower stomachs. Before you leap up and say, "corsets were the most monstrous fashion ever designed!" I’m going to stop you and say, "No, it’s still the lotus shoe."

Again, this shift in organs applied mostly towards women who took the most extreme approach towards wearing corsets over many years. And, even today, there are some states — like pregnancy — where organs do shift without terrible long term consequences. Your organs are floating in fluid, they’re supposed to be able to shift around a little bit. That said, the idea of your organs ending up in your stomach, as well as your lungs being compressed by ribs, understandably made people pretty squeamish about the garment.

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The turn of the century was also a time when exercise — like bicycling, archery, golf and many other sports — were being embraced by women. All of those were much harder to do if you were wearing a corset. Not because you were necessarily lacing it so tightly that you’d be fainting at the merest hint of exertion, but because corsets made it virtually impossible to bend over at the waist. One tradesman from 1828 illustrated the problem by saying of women in corsets, "They are unable to stand, sit or walk as a woman used to do. To expect them to stoop would be absurd. My daughter Margaret made the experiment the other day… her stays gave way with a tremendous explosion, and down she fell upon the ground. I thought she had snapped in two."

That would really ruin your golf game.

And, when World War I came, it would also hinder women who were trying to help with the war effort, as factory workers, nurses, or really just about anyone who needed to bend over from the waist from time to time. By the time the war was over in 1918, new flapper fashions that didn’t require an hourglass waist had become popular. Since then there have only been two notable revivals of the corset — when Dior wanted women to have wasp waists in the 1940’s, and when Madonna thought it would be cool in the 80’s.

There’s always a chance there could be a comeback though, especially as some large breasted women like that the corset provides full body support for their breasts, rather than forcing their shoulders to carry their weight. But, you know, if they do, don’t lace them too tightly, and remember to keep an eye on your internal organs.

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