Sunday, September 8, 2013

Corseting - Myth vs. Fact Pt. 2

A continuation of the previous post on corset myths and facts.

With these next myths, a number of the elements fell under previous headings, but the speculation behind them led me to place them in their own space. 
Image via Pinterest

Myth #5 - All women who wore corsets tight-laced them
Not true. While most women who could afford even a basic corset did wear one, not all women had the luxury or stamina to tight-lace. A working woman who had to rely on her mobility would not have chanced the restrictiveness of tight-lacing. An upper class or rich lady however, would have the means and ability to pursue tight-lacing if she chose.

Before we go into women who did tight-lace, we'll first cover what tight-lacing is exactly. The Victorian ideal for waist reduction was about 2"-4". Tight-lacing was even more extreme, reducing the waist by 4" or more. Rigorous training was involved with tight-lacing, usually beginning when the woman was a young girl. She would wear a corset that, over a gradual amount of time, would be reduced in size little by little. Take a look at Princess Mary of Teck's waistline. While it cannot be confirmed that she tight-laced, this was not something achieved overnight.

Image via Pinterest
When the desired waist size was achieved, it would be very hard to move around, breathing could only be done with small amounts of air since the lungs were compressed, and blood flow would be reduced to the internal organs.

Because of the extreme lengths at which the waist was reduced, it could result in health problems that were more extreme than some of the conditions mentioned in Myth #3. It also had a severe detrimental effect on the body...

(A small note on tight-lacing. I accidentally did it once while in a hurry to change into costume and forgot to measure my waist beforehand. I spend the entire morning feeling very light-headed, my ribs ached miserably, and even sitting caused pain. When I later checked, I had laced myself down to 31", I'm usually at about 33"-34".)

Myth #6 - Corsets deformed the natural body shape
Any time you alter the body in a way that it does not naturally occur, you are, in a way, deforming it. Even pierced ears are considered a way in which we alter our natural bodies. Corseting, especially tight-lacing, did the same exact thing.

Corsets molded and shaped the body to make the waist smaller. Worn on a daily basis as they were during the Victorian and Edwardian periods, the body would eventually start to retain some of the shape created by the corset. 

This illustration was used mostly by anti tight-lacing campaigners to show the effects a corset could have on a woman's body. Regular corseting may have compressed the ribcage and internal organs slightly, but not as much as tight-lacing did. Organs could end up in different locations altogether, and in some cases, the lower lungs would be compressed so badly that they would fill with mucus since the woman couldn't breathe in completely. The rib cage would be completely reshaped into a smaller form with the ribs angling more inward.

Before anyone starts to scoff and say how untrue it is, visit the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia sometime. They have on display two skeletons next to each other; one is a regular skeleton, the other is one that suffered the effects of tight-lacing. They look almost exactly like the illustration above. I would offer pictures as proof, but photography is not allowed in the museum.

The corset that was mostly responsible for the whole "deformation" issue is the Edwardian corset of the early 1900s. As fashion evolved at the turn of the century, so too did the corset that went underneath. Instead of a straight-backed hour glass figure, the awkwardly bent, S-bend became all the rage. This new figure still retained the reduced waist, but now the corset was designed to push the woman's lower backside back, and thrust her upper chest forward. The body does not naturally shape itself this way and led to increased strain on the spine.

Illustration from Ladies Home Journal, 1900
Myth #7 - Corsets were restrictive and uncomfortable
Now that we've read up a tiny bit on tight-lacing and S-bend corsets, I can certainly understand where the ideas of corsets being torture devices could come from. I believe this myth mostly surfaces from the lack of understanding about corsets though.

Corsets are restrictive. Yes, they are, I won't deny it. Remember how your grandmother always said to bend at the knees to pick things up? Your grandmother might have worn a corset once upon a time because when wearing one, there is no bending over. There is no slouching either, or quickly turning around. Basically your body is encased from hip to bust in a thick garment that has molded the body into an entirely different shape that requires careful movement to make sure that the displaced mid-section stays momentarily displaced.

Corsets are uncomfortable. No, they are not. Let me explain this one. A corset is not uncomfortable if it is fitted correctly. This is the key element here. Corsets are not a one size and design fits all type of garment. Although they are not tightly worn, a corset is like a glove that is snug over the body and molds to the individual's curves and body shape. A proper corset is designed and fitted to the individual who will be wearing it on a regular basis. If Susie takes Lisa's corset and puts it on herself, chances are it will be very uncomfortable because they do not have to the same body shape.

Here I must speak as the experienced wearer. I bought a ready made corset long ago and wore it for a long time. It was somewhat uncomfortable and while it did shape to my body after a while, it still didn't fit in certain areas (I have been gifted with almost no cleavage). I finally coughed up, bit the bullet, and made my own corset to match my body shape and measurements. What a difference! I have never experienced discomfort while wearing it, and actually enjoy wearing the corset under my costumes now. 

Myth #8 - Whew! Thank goodness the Victorian Era is over and corsets died out
Nope, corsets are still alive and well today. They of course exist because costumers/re-enactors use them to achieve a period correct look for historical clothes worn in the modern day. A number of companies and small businesses, like Orchard Corset, make ready made corsets for use as fashion pieces, shape wear, and for other costuming purposes. Some women actually prefer corsets to wear not for waist reduction purposes, but for support of the bust. While a bra places all the weight of a woman's bust on her shoulders, a corset supports it from below and the weight is placed on the corset.

Like their earlier counterpart, the whalebone stays, corsets have evolved over the years to take on different shapes. The best modern-day counterparts are the girdle and Spanx. Although neither look remotely like a corset, both take the mid-section of the body and shape it into a more desirable appearance.

Girdle from Orchard Corset
Spanx from JCPenny
Corsets also exist for modern medical purposes too. Individuals with scoliosis or internal injuries may wear a specially designed medical corset to help limit mobility in the torso and protect it.

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These are just the handful of myths that I hear most often when the subject of corsets is brought up. I certainly invite for additional input on other factoids heard throughout the years since some can be quite be amusing. I hope this has been informative and for those looking to discover more, I suggest these books:

The Corset: A Cultural History by Valerie Steele

Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian Corset by Leigh Summers

A History of Underclothes by C. Willett Cunnington

1 comment:

  1. Love the pictures that accompany this article!