Corsetted Victorians and others – myths and reality

1851-60 blue ribbed silk corset, Museum of London Prints. Image Number 002188

1851-60 blue ribbed silk corset, Museum of London Prints. Image Number 002188

“Oh my, this must hurt – how do you breathe in this?!” –  Many re-enactors, (and modern corset wearers), will recognize that remark, whether as a comment under a picture or spoken at an event.  I have heard my fill over the last few years, when dressed in Victorian kit, and the discussions that followed were equally interesting and illuminating for both parties.

Recently I have been browsing through Pinterest boards looking for images  of 1895 corsets, and noticed several nice pictures – yet it was not the pictures that captured my attention, rather the comments and descriptions below that were even more arresting…..

Just a few examples:

* ‘They are lovely, but so uncomfortable’ ( on this pin )

* ‘This is a victorian corset which was used to create the perfect hourglasss figure. This is gorgeous but I can’t imagine wearing it. No wonder Victorian women passed out all the time! …They couldn’t breathe ‘ ( on this )

*’Vintage 1910-1918 Fashion Corsets….women used to be laced up so tight in these corsets that they sometimes endured cracked ribs…..can’t imagine! All for the sake of having a tiny waist….’ ( on this pin)

*’how many ribs do you think had to be removed so the ladies could wear this torture device?’ ( on this pin)

*Talk about taking appearance to extremes! In the 18th – 19th century, it was fashionable to either surgically remove smaller rib bones or crush the waistline into an impossibly small size in order to achieve a “waspish” waist. Incredibly dumb!’  ( on this)

There are more, but no doubt you get the idea…
😦

Well,  I have been wearing corsets for work and for going out for the last 7 years – and earlier-period stays for even longer…. I have also been making Victorian, Edwardian and modern corsets for the last 7  years ( I think I’ve made about 200  altogether)  so have managed to learn a bit about the history of corsets and their day-to-day use….

Let us have a look at a few popular myths.

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1898 Print Victorian Woman Spring Toilette Fashion Clothing Costume Dress Hat

 ‘Their waists were tiny!’

Some of them, probably yes – there are always people with  smaller waists, especially when tight-lacing,  but by no means was that the norm.

*Extant corsets have  waist measurements from roughly 18″ to 30″ or more – and considering that they were not meant to be worn closed but with 2″ gap, and allowing 2-4″ tissue displacement (the so-called “squish” factor), the original waist circumference could be anything from 22″ to 40″ or more. Jennifer  from Historical Sewing explains it very well in her own blog.

*optical illusion factor – crinolines, bustles, hip pads, bug sleeves, sloping shoulders and V-shaped blouse cut and decoration – with these, it was easier to emphasize the waist, which looked smaller when contrasted with hide hips and/or shoulders.

*extant clothing and corsets are usually small –  this is true, but again, there may be several explanations for the fact that it is the smaller items that have survived to the present day:

primo –  people did tend to be just a tad shorter than nowadays – so different proportions…

secundo – and that is just my theory – it seems to me that a lot of surviving clothes belonged to teenagers and very your ladies. I have owned, handled and seen a great deal of the clothing  with labels pronouncing that they belonged to ‘Miss Smith’ or ‘Miss Brown’ – so at that time mostly unmarried, young women  (of course there were exceptions). Since they were only worn for a limited time, once young miss outgrew them, (or got married and had babies etc), they were stored ready to be handed down as necessary to the next generation. Clothes that were worn by grown-ups don’t seem to survive that well – mostly because they were worn much more thoroughly, but also because they were remodeled, restyled, etc, so that the original gown could be used for many years.
This is  just a theory, discussed with a few fellow costumiers, but there might be a little truth to it too – I would be interested in other people’s opinions!

*photoshop. No, really –  at least the Victorian/Edwardian version of it.  Most of the fashion plates from that era are drawings. It is easy to draw a tiny waist…. The reality however is a bit different.  A quick search on Pinterest of Google images will show just as much – or better still, a book I happen to have here – Victorian Costume for Ladies 1860-1900, with over 350 original photographs. Yes, there were  a few tiny waists in evidence (  and let us bear in mind that early attempts at editing was already done – by taking the photograph, concealing unwanted bits and taking the photograph of the  retouched original – an excellent blog post on Victorian/edwardian photo shopping by Cynthia from Redthreaded   here), but looking at the photographs  from the era you will find that the majority of ladies are far from willowy. They look natural, with comfortable sizes of 10-18 or more….. the book is amazing, and recommended! Below a few snaps from the book:

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Also, interestingly enough, have a look at  the  Victorian burlesque dancers –  the lovely ladies are definitely  much more substantial than our “size 0” models…..

burlesque fairies

The chorus of fairies in the burlesque Ariel, Gaiety Theatre, London, 8 October 1883

The fact is also  backed up by the original patterns – they encompass a variety of sizes. I use  Francis Grimble’s books a lot, and if you have a look and do some maths, you will see that many garments  are not that small waisted at all. Plus the names are rather endearing – ‘ a jacket for a stout lady’, or ‘a bodice for a medium size  lady’, ‘a bodice for well-developed ladies’, ‘bodice with narrow shoulders and back’ – etc. A superb resource!

All together I think we can safely agree that  the incredibly small waist myth is just that – a bit of a myth….

 Corsets are so uncomfortable! 

This is very true, as most of the ladies who ever bought a modern generic size cheap corset can say….  Ill fitted corsets can be a torture – I have had the dubious ‘pleasure’ of trying on a few of the corsets-UK modern items,  and though no doubt there are women who will find the fit comfortable,  for me it was a very painful experience – and not because of the waist measurements.  It is usually  the hip and rib part that is too small – not enough hip spring can be very uncomfortable! As a result, I ended up in a ‘corset tube’, which did not reduce my waist, but rather pinched my hips and ribs…

However a well-fitted corset can be a real blessing.  I am a comfortable size 12, with 34F bust, and I find Victorian and Edwardian corsets a pleasure to wear.  My natural waist is 34″ and I usually lace to 27-28″  if I know I am wearing the corset for a whole day. They support my bust from underneath – so my shoulders don’t ache from carrying the burden.  They help me maintain my posture – this is a godsend  especially for markets and events when I have to be standing for long periods – for example, the last 2 weekends I spent working with the public, standing for 6 hours with a short lunch break. Normally my lower back would be screaming – but in corset I could feel the comfort of the ‘exoskeleton’, keeping me upright and supporting my back…

Also, in the last few months I have been suffering from costocondritis – a painful condition of the ribs ( connective tissue), that made wearing a modern bra impossible – the band sits just on the painful parts.   But a corset, laced just enough to support the bust from underneath was a real blessing – as a result I ended up wearing mine for a few weeks daily, just in order to work – and only swapped for a soft bralette once the acute stage subsided.

Corsets and Tunics Dec 16 (58)

this is my favourite corset from the days when my ribs ache a lot – a replica of corded 1850s one.

 

47. at Holkham (4)

at work…. 🙂

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early edwardian corset 27″ waist

Why the difference between the modern and traditional corsets? Apart from the fit issues, the style is also important – modern corsets are usually overbust, designed to be worn on their own.  Historical pieces are usually mid-bust –  and a well fitted  corset squeezes the waist, but accommodates the rib-cage and supports the bust without compressing one’s lungs (so normal breathing is not impaired). Mid bust corsets are more comfortable to wear as they do not ‘ride up’ like many modern overbust corsets when sitting. 🙂

Some Victorian corset feature a spoon busk –  which is  gently rounded, accommodating the belly ( the famous fashionable rounded belly of the time!), so the internal organs were  comfy, but the support and fashion was achieved at the same time,

I have recently made a replica of a 1880 one – and it is one of the most comfortable corsets i have ever owned.

 

Victorian Dressmaker (85)

 

Of course, the materials used for quality corsets which can be used everyday are very different to the plastic-boned viscose jacquards available in mass produced versions….

Let’s remember that corsets were worn every day, all day and women were not sitting idly looking pretty.  They walked, danced, worked, rode, played sports – all in corsets. True, sport corsets were shorter (especially important for riding), but still, they were all practical garments… In fact we now have a group showing people doing a variety of activities in corsets ( Corsets in Action)

In my Victorian corset I have danced  ( video here), skated

47.trying on the ice rink - fail....

and ridden side saddle.. in a mock up  first –

7. side view of the mock up - back just a bit too high

8. mock up in action - sides half an inch too high, and digging into armipts when riding - mark the arms position

and in a proper habit

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It is also a myth that you cannot bend in a corset as it is impossible to bend from the waist. Well,  try bending from the waist without one –  you won’t go far…. Humans are designed to bend from the hips!!

A brief demo – my apologies for the style of the pictures but grabbed my corset as I was writing this article and took some pictures to show  that it is possible to bend…

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corset worn on modern clothes, laced to 27.5 waist – the size of my Victorian clothing

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side view

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starting to bend from the hips

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touching the floor. not the most comfortable position , and usually can go further, but sort of makes a point. warning, dont try at home if you are not naturally bendy! 🙂 If you need to pick something up, crouch down instead of bending – healthier and easier….

Voila!  🙂

And so, in my opinion if the corset is well fitted, laced properly (not too tightly), it can be very comfortable. This  refers to both modern and historical wear – well-made corsets will support your back and bust and won’t crush your ribs.
True, if you are wearing a corset just for a photo-shoot, it is OK to lace tightly- I can get to 24″) for fashion corsets, but then I don’t spend a day wearing them…

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natural waist 33″

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corseted waist 24″. Here a lovely underbust by Clessidra Couture

 

 

 No wonder women fainted all the time! 

Here there is some truth to it – but this mostly refers to the lightheaded feeling you can get if you take off your corset too fast, after wearing it for a long time… As the blood rushes down more abruptly, it is indeed possible to swoon…. so gradual lacing  and unlacing is recommended.

It may also have happened if your fashionable women laced too tightly….. more for a fashion’s sake than practical.
😉

Women had ribs surgically removed!

With surgery as dangerous as it was in Victorian times?  with no antibiotics to battle the infection? Really very, very doubtful…. plus, again, neither medical or the photographic evidence doesn’t really  support it…

Corsets deformed silhouette and caused medical problems

This can be very true if laced excessively, I dare say. Yes, your body will change if you are a trained tightlacer, and wear a corset from early on. We are all familiar with the drawings showing how the organs move and ribs deform and there may be some truth in it. At the same time many of us have seen modern MRI imagery of a corset being worn – and as it turns out it is not as bad as we thought, with the organs being moved in exactly the same way pregnancy would affect them – here the results of the experiment as presented by Lucy Corsetry

 

Also, corsets did not cause pneumonia, colds, consumption etc. You need viruses, bacteria or fungi to cause the infection in the first place. As for the argument that you breathe differently with a corset on – If you do, then the corset doesn’t fit you properly. Opera singers wore them on stage, singing their hearts out…. 🙂

I do however think that if you wore a corset day in and day out, unless you stayed active, you were in serious danger of suffering from muscle atrophy. Corset supports you very well ( many people with back problems find them  great for pain relief!), but it does all the work your lumbar and core muscles usually do. So unless you are an active person and keep in shape, using the muscles,  prolonged  use of corset will weaken the muscles. Also, an interesting point, discussed with a medical friend as a possibility – many more women than today suffered from prolapsed uterus  – usually after the birth. The reason may be just that – long use of corset, weak muscles, especially in the late stages of pregnancy –  and bad things may have happened. Again, just a theory here.

Still,  usually women did stay more active than we nowadays believe –  and so managed to keep at least some reasonable strength in their core muscles ( horseriding was great for that !).

Well, I think I’d better stop – if you have any other remarks or comments, please do so, very interested in others’ opinions and experiences!

Further reading

Our youtube video, showing Victorian activities in corsets – here

 

A great article with more references by Johanna  Goldberg : Did corsets harm women
Lovely article by Historical Sewing – here

…and a comprehensive read on the myths are covered here and a few more – by  Yesterday’s Thimble – here

…also, an interesting article by the  Pragmatic Costumer – here

Hope you can find the article useful – best wishes from Izabela of Prior Attire!

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