Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Corsetry and Feminism: Appendix

As mentioned in the third part of this series, there are many modern women who regularly wear corsets who have never been scientifically studied. Obsolete Victorian medical science is far too frequently cited as an objective, truthful source - but there have been a few recent studies that are also brought up to defend the idea that corsets are inherently harmful. It is my belief that these studies, however, are flawed and do not prove what they intend or what they are used to prove. A short summary of each, the valid points, and their flaws:

Historic Medical Perspectives of Corseting and Two Physiologic Studies with Reenactors
Colleen Gau
(PhD Dissertation, 1998)

This paper is obviously - as it is a dissertation - very involved. At base, though, it is an exploration of Victorian health claims against the corset and a study of corseted women performing physical tasks.

The main strike against this study is that it is not impartial. From the beginning, Gau showed a predisposition toward taking Victorian assumptions (and those problematic, fetishistic stories of boarding school sadism) as "honest and accurate"; she also showed a real concern that modern women might begin wearing corsets to the detriment of their own health, and that reenactors might hurt themselves. Numerous quotes from earlier fashion historians were used to emphasize women's physical restriction and pain due to their clothing; an explanation was given for female doctors who did not join the dress reform movement. Overall, Gau repeatedly rationalized positive or neutral historical attitudes towards the corset but very rarely speculated on negative ones, and routinely used unnecessarily negative terms that bias the reader even before the statistics from the study were brought up.

Corset, ca. 1875; MMA 2009.300.3044a-b (OASC)

In the limitations of the study delineated at the beginning of the dissertation, she identified reasons why the results might be biased in favor of corsets not reducing the body's abilities - such as the subjects' potential underreporting of discomfort - but no reasons why the subjects might report discomfort that Victorian women might not have felt. One problem with this latter issue that occurs to me is the construction and fit of the corsets used. Gau noted that the corsets were made to produce the fashionable silhouette of 1870 - but there is little specific information about their individual shaping. Given her statements in the dissertation on the abdomen and chest being compressed while wearing a corset, in addition to her bias against corsetry as a whole, leads me to be highly skeptical that she would have had the knowledge of corset-fitting based on experimentation and practice that is a little more common today. Another problem is that all the subjects reduced their waistlines by 3", rather than a percentage of their waist, so that thinner women were more tight-laced than larger ones.

In the end, her lung capacity findings do not show anything drastic. Gau's subjects lost an average 9% of their tidal lung volume while wearing a corset, but, as previously noted, an ordinary breath takes about 18% of the lungs' capacity - the total lung capacity is so large that 9% is not a significant loss. The lower back pain reported by the subjects was possibly or probably a result of improper fitting. For the most part, the actual symptoms reported during the study - different breathing patterns, decreased eating and drinking - are not actual negatives, just an awareness. The reenactor subjects also reported finding their backs supported during work.

It is rather impressive, given Gau's admission that she encouraged the subjects to loosen or remove their corsets and note discomfort, that they seem to have been unmoved by her bias and reported less pain and difficulty breathing than she expected, especially given their changes in lung capacity. Her rationalizing was continued to the subjects' attitudes themselves, with suggested reasons for their not removing their corsets despite their lack of complete physical comfort. In sum, while the text of the dissertation (discussing historical context) is overwhelmingly negative, the result section, especially the subsections on reported experience, is mainly positive. Really, despite Gau's ending statement of concern for actresses and other women's health, this study should be taken as supportive for women who choose to wear corsets.

Binding Femininity: An Examination of the Effects of Tightlacing on the Female Pelvis
Katherine Klingerman
(Master's Thesis, 2006)

While Gau's paper focused on the effect that corsets have on the lungs, Klingerman examined the size and shape of the pelvis. As with Gau, my impression is that Klingerman had a bias going into the project, wanted to find that tight-lacing caused severe pelvic defects (her hypothesis was that the, and took many dubious historic sources at face value. And again as with Gau, despite the apparent desire to prove that corsetry was a medically harmful practice, the conclusion of the study is fairly positive. Klingerman's findings were that tight-laced bodies had slightly narrower pelvises, but that the women were still capable of bearing healthy children.

When I first came across this thesis, it was being used to show the dangers of historical corsetry - because even though the conclusion is positive, the non-scientific sections describing the practice are written with a strong slant. For example, the earlier history of the corset heavily relies on a sixty-year old source that treats Catherine de' Medici's 13" waists and iron torso-cages as facts (a story which comes from the 1860s and is patently untrue). Klingerman cites Valerie Steele quite a few times, but often for "facts" like the just-mentioned 13" waists and heavy iron stays at Catherine de' Medici's court which Steele specifically refutes; she also cites other sources for "facts" (like sadistic, tight-lacing headmistresses, or women unable to do anything physical while dressed in corsets) that she would have found were untrue in Steele. This helped to add to my feeling that Klingerman seriously wanted to find that corsets were very harmful and actively ignored information that contradicted her prejudices.

The historical section as a whole is shallow and rife with assumption, based on stereotypes and few reputable, modern sources - you may notice the same few citations appearing over and over again. When discussing the medical community's reaction to corsets and women's health, Klingerman flips back and forth between doctors' opinions being reasonable (when anti-corset), and doctor's opinions being misogynist (when not attributing diseases to the corset). There's no point in my going into the medical history section in detail, as the first post in this series essentially refutes it - basically, the conditions described are either not simply caused by the corset or are not demonstrably related to the death of various autopsy subjects (eg. overlapping ribs). From the discussion of pregnancy, one would think that our foremothers had few-to-no healthy births and small families, but this is clearly not the case.

And at the same time, the fact that the skeletal samples run from 1729 to 1857 while the bulk of the criticism of tight-lacing in the text is based on post-1870 corsets means that much of the above is simply unnecessary.

"Mlle Colombe L'Ainee", Jean Baptiste Patas, ca. 1778; VAM S.3835-2009

My understanding of the science is not advanced enough to allow criticism of Klingerman's methods in examining skeletons. I confine myself to critiquing her interpretation - of the remains of younger women showing evidence of tight-lacing while the remains of older women do not - that women who tight-laced died young, rather than considering the possibility that women stopped tight-lacing after a certain age. She also goes further and assumes that the change in pelvis size from tightlacing must also indicate horrendous organ damage.

Despite determining through her studies that the pelvic opening was not narrowed to the point that it would cause difficult births, Klingerman is unable to let go of her hypothesis, in the end attributing difficult births to soft-tissue problems caused by the corset. I can sympathize with her for having disproved her intended point rather than proving it, but at bottom it's important to keep one's mind open and base theories on solid data rather than the belief that corsets simply must be extremely bad.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

It's My Body: Corsetry and Feminism, Part Three

A Modern Health Perspective

Historical views on corsetry cannot be divorced from the world their creators lived in. When dress reformers wrote about the practice of wearing corsets, they were referring to a context in which women were not sanctioned to be seen without them in public. Is it even possible to infer how they would feel about corset-wearing in a world where it is the extreme anomaly rather than the norm? This was also a context in which medical claims that we now know to be incorrect were taken seriously based on very little evidence. There is no reason to apply Victorian perspectives (feminist or not) to the practices of modern corset-wearers, since none of their experiences would have approached the modern situation.

It never ceases to amaze me that critics of modern tight-lacing or moderate corseting ignore and dismiss the experiences of those modern corseters in favor of the Victorian medical claims. Regardless of the official statistics on total lung capacity and the workings of the digestive system, modern women who actually wear corsets with the same frequency as Victorian women have an understanding of the physical effects of corsetry that is superior to the understanding of someone who has not done the same or specifically studied the subject. For one thing, living as these women do in a world with antibiotics and other medicines, they avoid many of the health problems previously attributed to the corset and thereby prove them to be unrelated.

Scarlet Empress, April 21 2014
An overwhelming amount of evidence from modern corseters is that there are complications that can arise from corsetry - raising or lowering blood pressure, slight constipation, skin infections - but that these are not constant, life-threatening, or dangerous, except in very special cases. There is no reason to speculate that their kidneys, heart, or liver are damaged and will soon cripple or kill them. Cathy Jung, the most famous and most extreme modern tightlacer, has been reducing her waistline since the 1980s and attests to skin issues (though she says that her skin is naturally very sensitive), but she is not suffering the effects of organ damage. X-rays of her torso show that her heart is not affected by her corset. When mainstream media sources quote doctors' opinions on the dangers of tightlacing or moderate corset use, there are no modern studies underlying their statements. Bruising of the liver, spleen, or kidneys, for example, has not been attested by any modern tightlacer to my knowledge.

To go further, modern corseters have found corsets to have some health benefits. They have been used to treat extreme scoliosis; they can support the back during hard work and prevent bending from the waist, like a back brace; after childbirth, they support weakened and overstretched abdominal muscles; as they reduce stomach capacity, they cause the wearer to eat smaller meals, and to avoid fatty foods and fizzy drinks.

There are also many modern women who have worn corsets and reported pain and discomfort. Jessica Findlay Brown (Sybil on Downton Abbey) has said that she "absolutely hates corsets", and others who work at living history museums in costume or in the theatre have agreed at times. In these cases - so often cited as proof that corsets are harmful - the wearers are probably or possibly wearing a corset that has not been made with a proper understanding of how body fat redistributes itself. (Based on Lady Mary's corset, those on Downton Abbey are not properly shaped for the period, covering far more of the bust than was usual, which makes it likely that they are also not built correctly for the body, either. That said, Michelle Dockery has said that she doesn't mind hers.) Professional corsetiers understand how to fit individual bodies, and that adding ease in the hips and bust allows for easier and greater reduction without difficulty. Historically, women might have corsets made specifically to fit them, or more commonly availed themselves of a company with professional fitters and many different styles and sizes of corset to fit different figures. Today, this knowledge is mostly lost, with corsetmakers constantly having to remind the public that they will not be able to simply buy one based on their dress size and have it reduce them comfortably.

Feminist or Regressive?

And now we come to the basic question which caused me to write these thousands of words. Is a modern woman who chooses to wear a corset regularly - whether she is achieving a smooth hourglass shape or an exaggerated wasp waist - an empowered feminist, or is she moving backward?

This is a trick question. It is impossible to answer.

"Third-wave feminism" is a term used to broadly cover the strains of feminism existing in the present. The second wave of feminism focused, like the first-wave feminists discussed in previous posts, on legal and social issues that oppressed women, but much of post-modern third-wave feminism examines the interlocking structures of gender and race and focuses on issues within traditional feminism. A strong but controversial branch (sometimes called "choice feminism") argues for individual agency in deciding whether a particular practice is is personally empowering or misogynist, especially with regard to practices that have been previously considered incompatible with feminism.

For example: some women today are choosing to be stay-at-home mothers rather than to work outside the home, and are not being forced into it by economic necessity (the costs of childcare that would be incurred if they were to work). Ideally, a feminist stay-at-home mother would not argue that all stay-at-home mothers are making a deliberate choice and that working mothers are making a bad choice, accepting that the satisfaction she derives from it is personal to herself, while another feminist would attempt to see the situation from her point of view without assuming that the first woman is misguided or lying.

Likewise, many women who wear corsets today feel a sense of empowerment. The shape they give their bodies pleases them, and the feeling of the corset itself is described positively as "hugging". Some, like Cathy Jung, did begin tight lacing on their husbands' requests, but in an informal poll of corseters and non-corseters in their late teens and twenties, within the 79% of respondents who lace moderately or tightly on a regular basis, 93% said that they liked the way corsets feel, 82% wore them for back support, and 87% wore them to look sexy for themselves. (Several respondents mentioned that the sensation helped them with anxiety)

Scarlet Empress in one of Cathy Jung's corsets with a 16" waist, July 1 2014
For some reason, we can easily accept that an historical woman making aesthetic/clothing choices that conflict with the standards of her context - but agree with ours - is behaving as an individual by bobbing her hair, wearing trousers, shortening her skirts. Yet when the case is flipped, and a modern woman makes an aesthetic choice that conflicts with modern standards, she must not be behaving as an individual but as a freak or oddity which must be corrected.

The objective feminist value of the corset itself in a modern context may be uncertain or impossible to determine, but what is more clear is that the frequent treatment of women who wear them today is not within the bounds of feminism. How does it promote equality to stand by outdated (and frequently misogynist) medical science while disbelieving the evidence given from numerous lived female experiences? To say that tightlacers must have a disorder because their shapes are not traditionally attractive? To call them "gross" or judge them as insecure? To state that it's all done for male attention?

Popular feminist history holds that women threw off their corsets in 1920, picked it back up with the New Look of the late 1940s, then shed the uncomfortable girdle in the 1960s. This fairy tale is an important part of how modern women see themselves: we no longer require artificial means to achieve a fashionable figure, because the fashionable figure is one that is unconstrained. Except that this high-minded ideal is both false - Spanx and similar stretchy shapewear are extremely popular, attracting the same type of medical fears based on worst-case scenarios and exaggeration - and disingenuous, since the "natural" body is often altered through intense dieting and exercise, to the point where the corset is now an invisible, unremovable restraint.

Wearing a corset in the modern milieu is no more a promotion of female repression than is regular exercise to obtain a fashionable figure. The fad diets that have predominated since the mid-twentieth century and the rise of malnutrition as a method of shaping the body have measurable negative results that far outweigh the imaginary risks of corsetry. Athletes do actually die from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy related to overtraining; young female athletes in particular are highly subject to disordered eating - and yet you rarely see negative comments on the same scale attached to articles about sports.

There is something about the refusal to accept that corsets do not cause organ damage that strikes me as suspicious. It is as though citing the unproven risks allows the public to express socially-accepted judgement and control over women's bodies: the bodies of women who transgress social norms, in particular. Are the disdain and ignorance displayed over modern corset-wearers essentially a form of concern trolling, pretending worry about tight lacers' health in order to undermine women's agency?

Perhaps this is too extreme a theory. But perhaps those who actually wish to uphold feminism will attempt to understand the women inside the corsets before judging them.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Fact and Fiction: Corsetry and Feminism, Part Two

Suffrage vs. Dress Reform

Given that the members of the women's rights movement lived at a time when there was no scientific evidence against the intensely negative health claims, it is no wonder that they might regard the corset as a death-trap. However, early feminist opposition to the corset is vastly overstated today. To illustrate, see the fashionable photograph of Susan B. Anthony at the end of the 19th century:

Susan B. Anthony, ca. 1895
Based on the smoothness of her bodice and the curve of her waist, we can say that she was clearly wearing a corset even late in her successful career. (Other photographs of Anthony show corsetry as well, as do photographs of other proto-feminists.)

The Dress Reform movement associated with the women's rights movement began in the 1850s, promoting the "freedom suit" or "Bloomer costume" consisting of a loose dress over full trousers, worn without a corset. The suit attracted ridicule from the public instead of praise, and faded into obscurity. Several decades later, the Rational Dress Society (and the Aesthetic/Artistic movement whose clothing derived from the pseudo-medieval pre-Raphaelite costume; it was not overly concerned with woman's position as a whole, mostly remaining the province of the wealthy and bohemian) took up the cause - and even they were more focused on tight-lacing than the corset itself, and tried to distance themselves from the accusations of cross-gender dressing that had been leveled at Bloomers. The idea that women were trying to dress as men had been more of a problem than their getting rid of the corset specifically.

Satire of Frances Power Cobbe, a women's rights reformer, in Punch, 1877: a common stereotype of feminists has always been that instead of insisting on equality, they intend to subjugate men
During this time, most of the people involved with the women's rights movement were occupied with the legal rights of women and the progress of female suffrage. There was not - as there still is not today - a united community composed of all the people working to champion women, and the suffragists did not always cross over with the dress reformers. In fact, women in the suffrage movement frequently used fashionable dress, including the more difficult s-bend corset of the 1900s, to emphasize their respectability and attractiveness and to show their opponents as old-fashioned.

Whenever an inaccuracy is as widespread as this, one has to ask what purpose it serves to the people who eagerly repeat it. Why do we want to perceive early feminism as being tied up with dress reform? And the main answer that occurs to me is: because the popular narratives of women's history and twentieth century history require broad stereotypes. In both, there is the idea that the 1920s were a revolutionary decade, with women winning the right to vote and outdated social mores being flung to the winds after World War I, one of those mores being the necessity of wearing corsets.

In actuality, there was no sudden moment of change. The fashionable figure had changed from a voluptuous hourglass into a shapely column by 1910, requiring a similar change in corsetry; the new corsets did not exert much force on the waistline, and do not fit in with the idea that corsets were meant to force the body into an exaggeratedly sexual shape. From the beginning of the century, the top edge of the corset descended until it was just above the waist during the war years, and rubber and elastic panels were used to increase the garment's flexibility. After the term "corset" fell into disuse, both girdles and corselets (foundation garments that supported the bust as well as the hips, usually fitted with straps) were used as different figures became fashionable: they flattened out curves in the 1920s, slimmed the hips in the 1930s, and created a more hourglass figure in the 1940s and 1950s. It was not until the 1960s and the style revolution of that era that shapewear really became unfashionable.

"A new Thompson Glove-Fitting Corset ...", Corset and Underwear Review, 1920
Another part of this mythology is the idea that women suddenly entered the workforce during World War I and stopped wearing corsets, either because their jobs required more flexibility or to give up the steel to be used in the war effort. Well, women had been working as teachers, clerks, doctors (see also), dentists, journalists, and factory hands for decades before this period - WWI may have opened new doors for women who had not previously needed to work, but it did not create a female workforce. During the war years, corset factories were declared an "essential industry", while men in steel complained that women were buying too many corsets and depleting the raw iron they needed. (Corsets were apparently later declared an inessential industry on the advice of Alice Roosevelt , which has led some to say that she killed the corset - but all this means is that new corsets would have been in shorter supply during that time.)

One reason for the distilled narrative of women's liberation is that it is easier - the story is simple, made up of distinct steps, with obvious cause-and-effect and clear correlations between fashion and women's position in society. However, the idea of a direct progression is also important to many in terms of self-perception: that is, it feels better to see oneself as being at the end of a chain of improvements. Seeing the Victorian and Edwardian eras as a mass of female oppression, followed by women proving themselves and seizing independence during the war, then celebrating and finding more personal freedom during the 1920s, followed by more seized independence during WWII and the clear political gains of the 1960s and 1970s can give one a sense of satisfaction, a feeling that women today have much better lives and more opportunities than ever before. And that is true! But acknowledging that women had more control over their lives and more opportunities during the 19th century can bring the feeling that we haven't come as far as we'd like and are not as free as we think we are.

I have digressed. But to move onto my next sub-point: because the popular narrative of women gaining jobs and suffrage lines up with the popular narrative around dress, they are elided together and it is assumed that the women who fought for suffrage also fought for the abolition of the corset.

That the suffragists were not fighting against the corset despite its general reputation as a health hazard suggests several things. One interpretation is that women may have been relying on their own feelings and experiences in wearing corsets, deciding independently that they were not in pain and did not succumb more easily to illness. The extreme claims from doctors and anatomists of the period would have been easily ignored by women who did not suffer from and knew nobody who suffered from tuberculosis, cancer, or circulatory and digestive problems.

Another is that the women who worked for a reform in the legal and social oppression of women - difficulty in procuring a divorce, inequal pay, fewer property rights, the expectation that they were passive and weak - may not have generally viewed the corset itself as an instrument or symbol of that oppression. Scientifically-minded feminist Lydia Becker was in fact reported in the Rational Dress Society Gazette as telling women to "stick to your stays, ladies, and triumph over the other sex"; even many of the few female doctors practicing in the 19th century did not speak out against corsets. While some activists did eschew corsets from an early period, most others apparently did not see themselves as needing to get rid of their corsets to achieve equality. That corsets were a manifestation of the societal repression of Victorian women is a later interpretation, not a fact.

Male and female suffragists, the women in corsets and fashionable dress, 1913; Library of Congress LC-B2- 2810-14
Modern scholars and non-academics routinely describe corsets in this way and ascribe their use only to social pressure, falling into the same bent as the scholarship in the Victorian era in characterizing the majority of women as stupid or frivolous fashion-followers, or painting them all as victims. While these scholars see themselves as following in the footsteps of the proto-feminists, the lack of feminist support for the dress reformers means that, in effect, they are actually aligning themselves with Victorian moralizers and misogynists, and are patronizing the very women they intend to support.

And More Fictional

Another part of this misreading of the history of the women's rights movement is our present-day obsession with unconventional heroines in historical fiction. We have much more contact with historical fiction than historical fact, especially if myths perpetrated by docents and fiction are weighted on the former side. We see our current dress as the most acceptable, we value the individual's ability to change society very highly, and we have these popular narratives embedded in our culture: these are layered onto our perception of history and reinforce the inaccuracy. When confronted with facts, people generally insist that the perception they have is correct instead.

Fictional women oppose the corset as individuals who personally dislike it, usually because they find them uncomfortable; their bodies often conform to a more modern, slimmer ideal and they do not benefit from them. (The ideal example of this is of course Elizabeth Swann, of Pirates of the Caribbean - who can forget her fainting into the ocean, or the line, "You like pain? Try wearing a corset"?) They represent the modern woman's publicly stated feeling on restrictive shapewear - it's unnecessary and worn to attract men at the cost of one's comfort.

One heroine who has influenced a great many people's opinion on corsets is Scarlett O'Hara. The iconic book and film scene where she is laced down to a 17" waist is commonly cited in popular articles on the practice by horrified writers. Perhaps Gone With the Wind has achieved something near to the place of a primary source because it was written decades ago ... but, of course, it is not a primary source. It is a work of fiction that was written by a woman who most likely never wore a traditional hourglass corset; moreover, early 20th century commentary frequently mythologized the Victorian era as a far more repressive time than it was in order to play up the new mores and speed of life in the 1920s and 1930s.

Of course, few would actually state that they believe all fiction is objectively true. But historical fiction has a tendency to stick in the mind through its vividness and its ability to set out the thoughts and motivations of people who did not leave much of a record of their personalities. In the case of Shakespeare's Richard III, for example, the fiction was accepted as historical fact for centuries due to its position in the literary canon.

Some vivid fiction is historic, rather than historical: there is a myth, spread by fictional letters written to mainstream Victorian magazines, that young girls were ruthlessly squeezed by sadistic headmistresses in order to get waists many inches smaller than their natural ones. By looking at advertisements, we can see that young girls (of a particular class background) were actually gradually shaped into the fashionable figure, just as modern adult tight-lacers recommend working very, very slowly to reshape the ribcage. Rather than having a ribcage just like ours suddenly pushed into more of a cone, they were molded at a time when their bones were more flexible. Thus, as adults, they would be able, if they wished, to achieve a figure that appears even more extreme to our eyes by reducing only a few more inches.

Another reason for historical fiction's effect is that it can often resonate more with the present than a straight, factual narrative would. A novel about a past war can give its hero an attitude more common to those surrounding a present war; rather than seeing a shapely corset as a desirable symbol of beauty and adulthood, a young woman can display the modern reaction of disgust and distaste. It does not seem a stretch to speculate that historical fiction with more modern attitudes could seem more vibrant and accessible to the modern reader and therefore become more popular than the truth.

I have no scholarly sources or studies to prove that. But it goes a way toward explaining how certain ideas are so frequently ascribed to Victorian women and proto-feminists when they did not actually express these ideas that often, and when modern corset-wearers can and do give their impressions of living regular life in a corset.

(For more on modern corset-wearers, see next Wednesday's post, "It's My Body: Corsetry and Feminism, Part Three".)

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Difficult History: Corsetry and Feminism, Part One

Recently, I began following a couple of Tumblr blogs focusing on waist training and daily corset wear. Daily wear is not for me, waist training even less so, but I find it an interesting practice. It is also a controversial one. For example, a recent Huffington Post article, "Corset Queen Penny Brown Loves Getting 'Waisted'," drew comments which were nearly all extremely negative, as do most articles that bring the practice to mainstream attention. Usually, the mental states of the women who waist-train are called into question, and there are numerous references to feminism as incompatible with corsets. The general idea is that the first wave feminists of the late 19th and early 20th century would be horrified by women today wearing them, and that their assumed reaction is an objective statement on the practice.

My feeling is that the subject is complex, and cannot be simply declared feminist or unfeminist. There are far more factors than the average internet commenter allows for.

Historical Context

Prior to the 1870s, the discourse around corseting was overwhelmingly centered on men's disapproval of the practice, with few if any published women's opinions on the matter. Doctors - all male - attributed numerous physical and mental ailments to it; moralists disliked the heightened sexuality it gave the body as well as the vanity it implied; satirists simply saw it as an excellent target, something essentially fashionable that women appeared to be addicted to. This addiction to a garment that the doctors had claimed was fatal allowed them to portray women as frivolous morons: in 1858, Punch baldly stated that "a narrowness of waist betrays a narrowness of mind." Despite the lack of peer-reviewed studies to ensure that a doctor's report was accurate and based on solid data, it was considered appropriate to refer to women "for [the] want of medical knowledge in the sex - clasp[ing] the fatal, idiotic corset on their [daughters'] growing bodies ... so the girl grows up, crippled in the ribs and lungs by her own mother."

"Fiend of Fashion, from an Ancient Manuscript", The Corset and Crinoline, 1868, p. 43
Neither women nor men are immune to socialization. Living in this atmosphere, it makes sense that many women would accept the medical knowledge and hearsay as correct and agree that women who wore corsets - or at least wore corsets the wrong way - were valuing fashion over their very lives, with corsets considered as bad for the health as opium or tobacco. It was taken as a given that tight-lacing while young would result in being "bedridden, anxious, desponding, and wretched; oppressed by the recollection of her early habits [of tight-lacing] ... broken down with suffering", even among women who otherwise approved of well-fitted corsets as beneficial. (Health and Beauty, 1864)

But in looking at the specific health claims made about both tight-lacing and corsetry in general - as well as the unsourced, anonymous reports of corset-caused suffering that are frequently taken as factual today - a modern reader must be critical. For one thing, many of the detractors of corsets were equally concerned about heavy skirts with tight waistbands and tight clothing in general: something nobody today would connect to liver deformity, tuberculosis, or overall ill health.

For another, extant historical corsets do not show extreme reduction. A study of the 18th century stays in the Colonial Williamsburg collection show a range of 24" to 30+" waist circumferences (a range completely ordinary among uncorseted women today). Examining the patterns of extant 19th and early 20th century corsets in Norah Waugh's Corsets and Crinolines, most have waist measurements around 20", at the larger end of the measurements that disgust modern people; however, they also show bust and hip measurements that appear extremely small from a modern perspective. Altogether, they present a picture of women who were generally slimmer than today, lacing tightly enough to achieve a figure more curved than it would naturally have been, but not to any kind of extreme.

The pattern company McCall's sizing chart does not go down to a 20" waist, but the dimensions for a modern, uncorseted woman can be extrapolated from the smallest size to be about 27.5-20-29.5, with a 68% waist:hip ratio and 73% waist:bust ratio. (Please bear in mind that a smaller ratio means a larger difference in measurement.) Meanwhile, Waugh's corsets have waist:hip ratios from 62.5% to 70.5% and waist:bust ratios from 59% to 71% - generally more curvacious than someone with a natural twenty-inch waist, obviously, but not by that much. The examples in Jill Salen's Corsets are generally more workaday and less fashionable, with waist:bust ratios of 66.7% to 87.2% and waist:hip ratios of 73.3% to 84%.

Comparing the numbers, these corsets show little more curviness than would be expected from a comparable woman today. A 20" waist sounds sensational to us, because we pair it with "normal" modern bust and hip measurements: according to the CDC, the average American woman has a 37.5" waist - according to McCall, this would give her a bust of about 44.5" (84.3%) and hips of about 46.5" (80.6%); a roughly size 10 woman with a 30" waist likely has a bust of 38" (78.9%) and hips of 40" (75%). The women who laced to 20" were simply smaller than we are overall, with bust measurements that resemble our underbust measurements. Given this, the potential of even slimmer teenagers lacing without much difficulty to 18" or even 16" does not seem so implausible.

I am assuming for the purposes of simplicity that all corsets were laced fully closed, but this is not necessarily how they were worn. An extra inch or three may have been open. It also must be remembered that the smallest of all garments are what tends to be preserved and that these do not represent average sizes, and also that adding ease to the hip and bust of a corset allows the waist to be cinched tighter by displacing the fatty tissue more easily, meaning that the bust and hip measurements of antique corsets may even be larger than the actual measurements of the women who wore them.

For reference, the dimensions of the corsets in Corsets & Crinolines are: 30-20-30 (late 1820s), 34-24-34 (1844), 28-19-22* (1860), 28-20-32 (1873), 30-18-26 (late 1880s), 30-19-33 (mid 1890s), 34-20-30 (1901), 22**-20-26 (1911), 35**-28-32* (1904), 22-34 (1918), 33-31-37 (1925). Dimensions of corsets in Corsets: 33-22-31 (1830s), 38-26-32 (1840s), 33-22-30 (1860), 31-24-30 (1885), 26**-21-26* (1890), 31-22-28 (1890), 30-21-32 (1890s), 39-34-48 (1890s-1900s), 34-27-32 (1890s), 32-22-28* (1890), 24**-22-26* (1900s), 28**-24-31* (1900s), 24**-21-25 (1914), 30-23-31 (1917).

* above-hip measurement
** underbust measurement
From Golden Thoughts on Chastity and Procreation, 1903, p. 107; Library of Congress - a frequently-cited illustration based on conjecture
Ruinous to the Health

- "[A good female doctor] will tell you that the little belle who laced herself into organic disease of the heart, and lies at death's door ... is no mournful exception ..." (What to Wear?, 1873) It is difficult to prove a negative, but Valerie Steele points out in Corsets: A Cultural History that there is no conclusive evidence tying corsetry to heart disease; additionally, we now know that risk factors for heart disease (still prevalent today, despite our lack of corsets) include many different things, such as age, genetics, blood pressure, smoking, lack of exercise, and other habits.

- "The friction thus produced [by breathing in a corset] occasions a constant irritation of the upper portion of the lung, which induces a deposit of tuberculous matter, and the individual becomes a prey to that dread disease, consumption - a sacrifice to a practice as absurd as pernicious." (Good Health, 1876) Consumption, now known as tuberculosis, is a disease caused by bacteria and spread through the air. Smokers and those suffering from malnutrition have higher risk factors; rather than killing fashionable women, it was primarily a disease of the urban poor. (Good Health also claims that the corset reverses the flow of blood in the heart to cause heart disease. It then goes on to say that women do not naturally have defined waists - there was an obsession with presenting the Venus de Milo as the ideal female figure in contrast to the fashionable corseted woman.)
Fashion in Deformity, 1881, p. 80
- "The lower and stronger parts of the lungs, being thus impeded in their work, the act of breathing - if carried on at all ... must be transferred to the upper and weaker part. ... Everything, therefore, which in any way restricts the free use of all the muscles of the waist and chest, interferes the function of breathing and throws duty upon the weakest part of them, obliging them finally to succumb to the unnatural and self imposed strain." (Phrenological Journal and Science of Health, "The Breath of Life", 1878) The lungs are actually full of alveoli, top and bottom, to take in air and exchange it with carbon dioxide from the blood. Additionally, the average woman has 5.6 times more space in her lungs than is used in an ordinary breath, indicating that a corseted woman not involved in strenuous exercise would likely not have had her breathing significantly obstructed.

- "When post mortem examinations have been made upon the bodies of confirmed corset wearers, a deep furrow has been found crossing the right lobe of the liver. This deformity is so obviously the result of tight corset wearing, that a liver so affected has come to be called a "corset liver." It has been observed in a large number of necropsies upon the bodies of both sexes that gall stones occur three times as frequently in females as in the males. While we cannot assert that improper habits in dress are the cause of this great dissimilarity, yet it is a significant fact that forty per cent of the women so affected were corset wearers." (New England Medical Gazette, "The Diseases of Women Induced by the Prevailing Mode of Dress", 1890) Deformities of the liver are one of the most common problems with corsets cited today, now that some of the more ridiculous claims have been forgotten. And it appears to be true that corsets cause changes to the shape of the liver. However, like the lungs, the liver has a very high reserve capacity: the body does not suffer ill effects if only a small portion of the organ is functioning. It also can regenerate itself when cut into or injured, which is why liver transplants are possible. "Corset liver" is still attested in medical textbooks, but as a condition without symptoms, and it is treated as a relic of the 19th century.

Regarding gallstones, they are still found more frequently in women, despite our lack of corsets. (Note that most of the women with gallstones did not regularly wear corsets; I also find it interesting that 40% of the women being corset-wearers is more significant to the writer than 60% of them not.)

- "The preponderating elongation of the right lobe in corset liver is of value in differentiating the two conditions. ... If the separation is very marked the lobe will appear like a tumor that has no connection with the liver but seems to be connected with some other organ such as the intestine, the kidney, the ovary or the mesentery." (Diseases of the Liver, Pancreas, and Suprarenal Capsules, 1903) It is now known that Riedel's lobe is simply an extra lobe on the right side of the liver that has a higher incidence in women, with no malignancy or association with a decrease in liver function.

- "Now what are the effective causes of cancer? ... Second. - Local irritation of an epithelial surface, as the pressure for a great length of time against the breast of the point of a corset." (Cancer, 1885) (See also Philosophy of Tumour-Disease, 1890, in which corsets cause depressed nipples which cause cancer; AMA Journal, 1894) I believe that today the causes of cancer - genetic and environmental - are sufficiently accepted without citations. Corsets were also connected to abscesses and mastitis: mastitis is usually caused by a blocked milk duct or an infection during lactation, which can and do occur without corsets but was likely contributed to by corset-wearing.

In the late 18th century, the corset's potential use as an agent of miscarriage or abortion was a primary cause of concern from the medical establishment; this was eventually supplanted by the issues above, but did continue in medical discourse in the 19th century. A large part of the outrage surrounding corset-caused miscarriage was that it (theoretically) enabled women to control their reproductive systems or accidentally caused the loss of the children that women were meant to produce in marriage. The corset was supposed to deform women to the point of increasing the difficulty of childbirth, causing birth defects, or of causing the distended abdominal muscles after the birth. A study of tight-laced remains has shown, however, that the pelvis was not deformed to the point of causing problems in childbirth. And even in the late 19th century, writers noted that Native American women without corsets died as a result of childbirth just as frequently as white women, and that a corset could relieve the back pain of late pregnancy. (It should here be noted that women did not, as is popularly supposed today, wear ordinary corsets throughout the pregnancy in order to conceal their bodies: specially designed gestational or maternity corsets curved around the belly to support the growing fetus, with added lacing in front of the hips to increase its girth.)

advertisement, 1913
While opponents of tight-lacing today will sometimes protest that they don't believe that corsets caused breast cancer or TB, it should be noted that the Wikipedia page on "Effects of Tight Lacing on the Body," as created in 2009, was built entirely on these outdated and generally baseless claims. It was not until April 2013 that the article was edited (by myself) to reflect modern sources rather than Victorian ones. I came across the page during a discussion on corsetry in the comments to a post on Jezebel - in fact, I was directed to it as an unbiased source on the damage that corsets did to women's health.

Given that people today have a hard time divorcing corsets from these looming claims of death and disease, it is hardly surprising that many people of the 19th and early 20th centuries believed them implicitly. (Though many more women clearly did not - their own experiences taught them that corsets did not cause disease, and that they did provide necessary back and bust support.) But because we have a more scientific perspective on the matter, we should not appeal to the authority of Susan B. Anthony and her contemporary activists as having an objective view of corsets.

For another reason we should avoid appealing to that authority, see my post on next Wednesday: "Fact and Fiction".