1x05 | Corsets: Fact & Fiction

What most modern women know of corsets is what they’ve seen in movies, but that’s wildly inaccurate. We think of Scarlett O’Hara being tight-laced by Mammy and later wearing a corset to take a nap. We think of the scene in Titanic where Rose is having the life sucked out of her by a corset her mother is adjusting. From the historical standpoint, these scenes are actually ridiculous.

I’m Lenore and I’m the Victorienne. Today’s topic of Victorian corsetry was suggested by Emma Droste.

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There’s a common mental image of Victorian women constantly fainting because their corsets were too tight, but this really wasn’t all that common. If you look at writing from the time, you can see that fainting is mostly used by male writers as a literary device. Victorian women didn’t mention corsets in writing very much because to them it was just part of life and not all that notable.

Actresses regularly complain in interviews of how the corset they wore in a period drama caused them to faint or was extremely uncomfortable. This is not, however, a reflection of how awful corsets were, but how awful modern costume designers are at using corsetry. Making a corset that fits properly is a long process. There need to be multiple fittings and the corset needs to be broken in - known as seasoning - for it to mold to your body. It’s like breaking in a new pair of shoes. If you haven’t done it properly, you’re going to be in pain.

Another inaccuracy about modern costume design is the way corsets are worn. There are scenes where women are wearing corsets up against their skin with no protective layer of fabric, which is uncomfortable and not how Victorian women actually wore them. It’s no wonder actresses are complaining! Their corsets aren’t made to fit them properly, they aren’t broken in, and they’re being worn incorrectly. Of course that would be painful.

Studies of Victorian corsets that have been preserved have shown that the waist sizes were quite small, but some historians believe those particular corsets were preserved for that very reason. The average woman’s corset wasn’t considered to be anything special, so it wasn’t saved, but the corsets of young, attractive, fashionable ladies were saved. Looking at data on non-corseted waists at the time show that the average woman was still thinner than today, but we have to remember how many working class women at the time could barely afford enough to eat. Many of them were thin not because they were naturally that size, but because they were malnourished.

You may have seen photos of women from that time with tiny waists, but some of those photos were altered. The Victorians didn’t have photoshop but they did have paint and thin-tipped brushes. The clothing catalogs of the time featured drawings with unrealistically small waists, just like how advertisements today contain unrealistic images.

Hearing about how corsets were constructed can give us a false idea of how restrictive they actually were. Boning is what gives the corset its more rigid structure, and there were multiple materials that could be used for this. Steel-boned corsets did exist, but it wasn’t the fashion for most of the 19th century and women didn’t care for that style, so we see advertisements from that time boasting about how their corsets didn’t contain steel.

Some corsets, like those for younger women, had gentler bones of woven cotton cords, but what gives "boning" its name is the use of whalebone. Now, whalebone corsets weren’t actually made with the bones of whales. They were made with a cartilage called baleen that came from the mouth of the baleen whale. Baleen is much more flexible than actual bones and it was useful in corsets because the material molds to a person’s body when it comes into contact with their body heat or perspiration. We think of corsets being these rigid cages that women squeezed their bodies into, but in reality well-made corsets adjusted to fit women’s bodies.

The most dangerous type of corset boning was actually celluloid. It was cheap and flexible, but it was also highly flammable and made for a fire hazard.

Newer corsets aren’t made with the same materials the Victorians used, which makes the garments less forgiving. Cotton corsets of that era are much more comfortable than the polyester corsets made today, and modern corsets are almost exclusively made with steel bones.

Once corsets started to be mass-produced, less wealthy women could buy more of them. The best known of these mass-produced corsets is the Pretty Housemaid. It was advertised as being "the strongest and cheapest corset ever made" and was specifically for women working as domestic servants. Some of these mass-produced corsets were pre-seasoned before they were sold by being laced onto copper dress forms and then steamed.

You might be wondering why women wore corsets in the first place. There are several reasons. Corsets supported the bust, improved posture, made clothing fit better and more consistently, kept you warm in the winter, and helped support the weight of layered skirts, petticoats, crinoline, and bustles. Wearing a corset made you look more put-together, and poor women would wear corsets to show that they were respectable. If you weren’t wearing a corset, people could tell and it suggested you had loose morals. For lower class women, not wearing a corset could reflect badly on their employer and thus could get them fired.

There were different kinds of corsets available for different activities, like how we have so many different kinds of bras to choose from today. There were corsets for everyday wear, some for sports, and there were even ventilated corsets made for women visiting warmer climates. The type of corset a woman wore was also based on her age, social class, occupation, and how closely she followed fashion trends.

One lesser-known upside to corsets is a surprising one: protection. Depending on the material, a corset could stop a knife or a bullet. In 1888, Mary Sarah Phillips of Barnsley, England, was stabbed multiple times by her husband and his knife actually broke. It turns out, her corset deflected eight of his knife strikes. There’s also the case of Edith Bowman of Omaha, Nebraska in 1890. Her steel-boned corset deflected bullets.

Of course, the main purpose of a corset was not to act as a bulletproof vest, but was about fashion, and men took part in it too. Ironically, male corsets gained popularity in the early 19th century at the same time that women temporarily stopped wearing corsets. Women’s fashions of the Regency era were much more natural and flowing, with a neo-Classical silhouette. Male fashions also had this neo-Classical inspiration, but that meant a narrower idea of the ideal male figure. At that time, men wanted small waists, wide shoulders, broad chests, and muscular thighs. Male corsets helped give them this specific figure, but they also helped to simply reduce beer bellies and they gave military men more structured, upright appearances. By the 1830s, the fashions had changed again and corsets were once again part of women’s wardrobes. Some men continued to wear corsets, but claimed they were for back problems, since corsets had again come to be seen as effeminate.

We think of corsets as being forced on women as part of the patriarchal system, but in the later part of the 19th century, men actually hated that women wore corsets. The women’s fashion industry in the Victorian era was led by women. Corsets were designed by and constructed by women. For as long as women’s fashion has existed, men have made fun of it. There are satirical cartoons going back centuries that men drew to ridicule women’s clothing trends and corsets got a lot of this bad press. Surprisingly, men who were against women’s suffrage were also frequently against corsets because they saw that clothing as a form of women asserting their pride and independence, expressing themselves through their appearances. Some men even claimed that corsets caused "hysteria".

The distaste for corsets also accompanied the women’s rights movement. Dress reform was one of their platforms and the Rational Dress Society was formed in London in 1881. They were against corsets, high heels, big hoop skirts, and any other clothing that restricted movement.

There were also men against corsets who were concerned about their medical effects, though these reports are exaggerated. There were claims of corsets causing tuberculosis, liver disease, and cancer, which we now know is absolute nonsense, but other claims of poor circulation, poor digestion, and breathing problems were reasonable. Still, modern medical research has shown that corsets didn’t damage women’s bodies the way people have been led to believe. There is evidence that corsets can - temporarily - shift your organs. You know what else temporarily shifts your organs? Pregnancy.

The serious health effects of corsets came from women who practiced extreme tight-lacing, but that was a small minority. We see reports of tight-lacing in newspapers of the time and more was written about it because it was shocking to the Victorians, just like it’s shocking to us today. Tight-lacing became more dangerous with the invention of metal eyelets that let women tighten their corsets without the fabric tearing.

Some of the changes in corsetry came from material shortages. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, baleen whales became endangered, so whaling was prohibited in some countries and whalebone corsets were forced out of fashion. This made steel bone corsets more common, but during World War I their production was halted because steel was needed for the war. Corsets were already going out of style at that point, and their widespread use came to an end because of this wartime rationing of materials and women taking on more physical labor while the men were away at war.

By the 1920s, most women had abandoned the corset in favor of newer fashions, but older and more traditional women stuck with their corsets because it’s what they were used to.

We like to look back at previous generations and laugh about how ridiculous they were. It makes us feel superior, as if we’ve made more progress than we actually have. We think of those poor, oppressed Victorian women who squeezed themselves into tight corsets to achieve the ideal figure of the day. But are modern women really so different? While corsets are no longer widespread and are more of a stylistic choice, shapewear like Spanx still abounds. Thanks in part to the Kardashians and other influencers, waist training has gained attention in recent years, as women feel the pressure to look a certain way. Unlike corsets, these waist trainers serve no practical purpose. They’re meant to permanently change the shape of your body, which was not the goal of Victorian corsetry.

It can be argued that in terms of beauty ideals, modern women are actually more restricted than Victorian women. Ideas of how we should look are more specific and our modern clothing is much more revealing, putting more areas of our bodies under daily scrutiny. The old debate about corsets shares a lot of parallels with the modern debate about makeup. Are women doing it because it makes them feel prettier and more put-together, or are they doing it because it’s what men supposedly like? Personally, I’m not ready to give up my makeup or my bras because they do make me feel more composed.

As ideas about gender are shifting, so too are attitudes toward corsets. To achieve curvier figures, drag queens often wear corsets and today’s most popular corset makers regularly cater to transgender women who want to have more traditionally feminine silhouettes.

Corsets have a long and complicated history. I definitely don’t think we should be looking back at Victorian women with any sense of superiority.

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Thanks for listening.

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