Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Corseting - Myth vs. Fact Pt. 1

We have all heard about them. We have all seen them in various forms. They have even been the focal point of a few Hollywood movie clips (remember that scene from Gone with the Wind of Mamie tightening Scarlett's corset?). 

During the Victorian Era, corsets were a necessary piece of the clothing from an aesthetic standpoint set forth by the fashions of that period that favored smaller waists. While they remain one of the most iconic images from this same period, they have also surfaced to become one of the more controversial pieces of clothing to be worn.

As a costumer who actually wears a corset (please note, I only wear one under costumes and not on a day-to-day basis), I am constantly faced with numerous questions that seem to plague modern people when it comes to this strangely fascinating garment (If I had a dollar for every time someone asked if I could breathe in a corset, I'd be rich). Along with these questions comes the little "Well I heard..." factoids people have heard throughout the years that have somehow cropped up.

What bothers me most about some of these factoids, is how false some of them are, but that they are still passed along as legit information. In other cases, the fact lies somewhere in the middle between the truth and the myth.

From the historical costuming standpoint, I would like to help set the record straight on some of these. Much of this information is from collected pieces I have read about corseting through history, my personal work with historical and reproduction costume pieces, and from the standpoint of a person who does wear a corset. 

Myth 1 - Women had their ribs removed to achieve a smaller waistline
This is probably the biggest myth circulating out there in regards to corseting and to many people's surprise, it is entirely false. Why? To start, there has never been a documented medical case from the Victorian or Edwardian Era of an individual having surgery to remove their lower ribs. Valerie Steele documents this finding - or rather lack of - in her book The Corset: A Cultural History.

This type of procedure would have been extremely hazardous and risky in a period when medical knowledge was still somewhat primitive in comparison to today's standards, and  anesthesia was still in the early stages of use. Not only would the surgery have been extremely painful, but there was probably a good chance the patient would die following surgery. During this period, people were susceptible to infection and other complications for even minor surgeries, such as appendix removal. So any type of open chest surgery, such as the famed rib removal, would have been mortally dangerous. While women have done some crazy things for fashion over the years, risking one's life is usually not worth any type of beauty trend.

Myth 2 - Women had crazy small waists
Well, yes and no. Has there ever been a 13" waist? No, unless you're about 2 months old. Has there ever been an 18" waist? Getting closer. While the rumors circulate about women of the time period who had the fabled 16"-18" waistline, the average I seem to find amongst my readings is about 20"-22". Before we start jumping to the, "But that's still tiny!" statements, there are a few things we must consider.

The first is that people were much smaller then. By this I don't just mean their waist size, I mean their entire body stature overall. The height of the average Victorian woman was about 5'-5'2", men were 5'4"-5'6". The next time you go to a museum with Victorian women's clothes on display, note how big the dresses are. See how small they are in comparison with yourself? Despite how they look, these were dresses worn by full-grown women in their 20s and 30s. Because these women were smaller, it is logical that their un-corseted and corseted waists will also be smaller.

The second reason the tiny-waist misconception has gained ground is because of how people look at corsets, both historical and modern. In many cases, they take the corset and tighten it so that both of the back edges are touching. Generally, corsets are made and designed to be worn with a 2"-4" gap between the panels at the back. If we were to take a historical corset, lace it so both back panels meet, then measure around the waist, it could come up to the speculated 18" that all women seemed to have. Now if were to take that same corset and - keeping in mind that gap that is supposed to be there - the corset now has anywhere from a 20"-24" waistline, more inline with the Victorian average.

For example here are my own corset measurements:
Laced panel to panel - 29"
Laced with gap - 33"
Usually the reduction goal for the ideal waist measurements was about 4". There were extreme cases of waist reduction, to be discussed later.

Myth 3 - Corsets had an effect on women's health
This myth also lies somewhere between fable and fact. During the Victorian period, it was thought that corsets caused various health issues from cancer and tuberculosis, to female hysteria, which is now recognized as an entirely fake, sexist medical condition. Although there is no proof of corsets causing cancer, they still were not the healthiest article of clothing to wear. 

The main purpose of the corset was to decrease the size of the waist. The corset itself does this by squeezing fatty tissues of the body in different directions away from the midsection, either downward toward the pelvic area or up toward the upper ribcage and bustline. Along with fatty tissues, internal organs and the rib cage got mooshed around a bit, causing indigestion and constipation. The straight boning in the back was great for back support, but lack of use of the same muscles left them very weak. The corset that was likely to cause health concerns or issues was one that was ill-fitted or tight-laced (more on that later).

One of the biggest modern day health concerns is the use of corsets during a pregnancy. There were two sides to this case. The first is that yes, corsets weren't exactly the best clothing option for a steadily increasing midsection. While still compressing the waist down, they put pressure on the developing fetus in the pelvic area. Various designers came up with corsets that had supportive belts and adjustable panels which not only alleviated some of the pressure, but also supported the increasing midsection and fetus. 

Image via Pinterest
The other side of the pregnancy corset is that it was necessary to hide the woman's midsection during her pregnancy per mores of the time period. Just like how we prescribe to young children that the stork came for a visit, Victorian babies just miraculously came out of nowhere. The topic of pregnancy was considered taboo, so pregnant bellies were usually laced into a more acceptable appearance by these same modified corsets until it could no longer be hidden. At that point, the woman succumbed to her "lying in" period (this usually happened during the last 2-3 months of the pregnancy). The lying in was essentially a modified form of house arrest, the mother-to-be went almost nowhere, made little to no public appearances and - in general - hid from the public eye until...Voila! Oh haven't you heard? Mr. and Mrs. Chesterfield had a baby!

Myth 4 - Corsets were invented by Victorian men
No, they weren't. Corsets are actually a modification of earlier versions that were previously known as stays. Historical origin of the corset lies in the mid 1500s when thicker waists were supposedly banned in Catherine de'Medici's court. Early stays were made from canvas with whalebone and evolved throughout the centuries from a vest-like undergarment, to a conical shape, then to the more widely viewed hourglass figure of the Victorian period and the S-bend of the Edwardian. Each of these modified versions usually matched the fashion silhouette and beauty ideals that were prevalent at the time.

1780s stays
1880s corset

Around 1790, when the neoclassical style of dress became popular, stays lost favor with women, and it was actually men who took up wearing corsets since a trim figure was ideal during the Regency period. Men continued to wear corsets well into the 1850s, but by this point is was for "back pain."

So while there isn't a name to link with the invention of the first set of stays/corset, it was most certainly not a Victorian man.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting history with fun facts and humor! - It's a good thing I didn't live in the Victorian age otherwise my 5'11" stature would make me prime for a side-show exhibit!