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The tight-laced corset is most commonly seen as a symbol of oppression, whereby women subjected their bodies to discomfort or deformity in order to maintain an implausible shape. There is, however, an opposing opinion that suggests we’ve inherited the view of 19th century, mostly male, campaigners against the corset.
One such campaigner was the anatomist William Henry Flower, whose household happily continued to wear their corsets despite him. This view also holds that, in reality, few women practised extreme tight-lacing: fashion historian, Doris Langley Moore, when measuring the waistbands of her extensive collection of 19th century dresses, found that “the smallest waist…is not less than twenty-one. And these are far below the average, which for young women’s clothing was twenty-four.” (The Woman in Fashion, 1949).
What is remarkable about the corset controversy is that the oft one-sided criticism of corsets became a debate with women making their voices heard, both for and against stays, in journals and the press of the time.
We don’t have much information about our corset. It has been dated to 1800-1880, is brass and probably English. We can’t be sure whether it was worn as a fashion item or to correct a bad back. We can’t even be sure if it was worn by a woman.
In the 18th and 19th centuries men regularly wore corsets. It is clear that many enjoyed the experience too: “the sensation of being tightly laced in an elegant, well made, tightly-fitting pair of corsets is superb” (letter from “Walter’ to The Englishwoman’s Magazine, Nov 1867).
In the cartoon below by George Cruikshank, Monstrosities of 1818, the men in the picture are wearing hourglass corsets; the shape so associated with the distortion of the female form. But this tight-waisted shape for women was on its way, with new technology enabling tight-lacing across the classes – not just for those with servants.
Restricting the torso serves different purposes at different times. The painting of Elizabeth I shows the bodice as a tight inverted cone emphasising the Queen’s luxurious skirt: a statement of wealth and status.
It is really only at the end of the 18th century, around the time of the French Revolution, that we see a big change in women’s shape (below) with a short-lived emphasis on ‘natural’ form. The corset no longer needs to restrict the waistline which has relocated to – unnaturally! – immediately below the breasts.
Helen Gilbert Ecob, a prominent member of the late 19th century dress reform movement, underlines the absurdity of certain arguments in support of the corset: “Those who uphold the corset argue its morality because ‘the only period in which its general use appears to have been discontinued are the few years which immediately followed the French Revolution, when the general licentiousness of manners and morals was accompanied by a corresponding indecency in dress.”
Today we tend to see the tight-laced shape as ‘knowing’, erotic; poised between restraint and abandonment. We may even see those who wore it as rebels but in the 18th and 19th centuries, the wearing of corsets was mostly seen as an upright, disciplined, respectable habit. The heroine of Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarissa, finding herself in a brothel, is particularly shocked to discover that the prostitutes are not wearing stays.
Our corset is a clunky bit of technology in more ways than one, however. Outwardly, it forms a carapace of the ideal form of the day, without the capacity to mould the body to it: an unlikely fashion item. However, there is a history of metal corsetry in orthopaedics.
Ambroise Paré, the 16th century surgeon and innovator, describes metal corsets, depicted in engravings of the time as criss-crossing bands covering the torso, as being used to correct “crookednesse of the Bodie’. Could our corset be a later version?
The Victorian age is one where back problems became something of an epidemic, engendered by repetitive industrial tasks. At the start of the century, back problems were still being attributed to a build up of cold, damp ‘phlegm’ in the body; heat treatments such as ‘blistering’ might be applied as an attempt to treat this cold/damp humour with its ‘opposite’. Later in the century, the internal causes of back problems began to be investigated, albeit sometimes reaching strange conclusions: the diagnosis of ‘Railway Spine’, for example, was not the result of labouring on the emerging rail network but was thought to be the result of travelling at excessive speeds by train!
It is possible our corset was used both to support a back problem and to maintain the fashionable shape of the day. We don’t know for sure.
If the corset wasn’t, except in extreme cases, quite as damaging as was thought at the time, there are plenty of fashion and beauty practices that are dangerous. The corset controversies are interesting in that they show the impact culture and society have on our habits, the way risky practices are perpetuated and how easily opinion is polarised.
Sarah is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.