The Victorian Corset. Or “Hector, I’m Going to Faint!”

Impossibly tiny waists were the ideal.

Book research turns up of a lot of odd knowledge.  If you’ve ever wondered how Victorian women achieved those bizarre hourglass figures, you have to learn about the corset.  In Queen Victoria’s time, the corset was a torso-moulding undergarment gripping the body from bosom to hips.  Expected to actually hold a woman up, it had 24 whalebone or steel stays, closed with metal fasteners at the front  and laced up at the back as tightly as two maids or husband a could pull. It was then covered with a corset cover to protect clothing should the steel stays rust or stain.


Organ displacement by the corset

The goal was a “wasp waist” that a man’s hands could span.  Remember Scarlett O’Hara so proud of her 17 inch waist?  A girl’s waist was supposed to be smaller than her age when she married.  And if she wasn’t married at 21, she was on the shelf.

It took two maids to lace these corsets tight enough.

Corsets made women faint, especially at events like balls where the corset would be at its tightest, compressing 3 to 7 inches away from the lungs and diaphragm. Breath could only be got at the top of the lungs. Any exertion, like dancing, ramped up the oxygen deprivation.  Next thing the dancer knew, she was draped over the fainting couch, waiting for the world to come back. Engineers have calculated the pressure applied by the corset was 20 to 80 pounds per square inch!

The corset not only squeezed the lungs and displaced internal organs, it distorted the upper skeleton.  The corset was considered a medical necessity since females were thought too delicate to hold themselves upright for long without help. Girls, at age five, were put into corsets and kept there for the rest of their lives. Ribs were pushed inward and the spine malformed, usually due to the presence of Rickets, a vitamin deficiency disease common at the time, that made bones soft and fragile.

Corset liver

Corset liver. A liver pressed against the ribs so much the bones made grooves on the edge.

Since respectable women could not be seen in public while pregnant, the corset was used to suppress evidence of their condition so they could evade their “confinement” as long as possible.  It is no wonder that miscarriages, fetal deformities and still births were the result, not to mention the myriad other “hysterical” ailments brought on by this iron-gripped garment. Doctors forgot what a normal woman looked like because their female patients had been shaped, or deformed, by their corsets.

Reforming rants against tight lacing had little effect on women who, as today, were trying to emulate the impossibly shaped ideal beauties they saw in illustrations and catalogues. And the tighter the lacing, the higher your status.  After all, if you couldn’t bend over, you couldn’t work, signaling to all your membership in the leisure class. Women who rebelled by undoing their corset laces became, quite literally, “loose women” and lost their reputations pronto.


Tight laced woman.

It wasn’t until the flapper era, with it’s waist-less tubular figure, that the corset finally expired and women could truly join the work force of the 20th century. Today, it’s pale descendant is the elastic girdle.  Women resort to diet and exercise to attain the slender grace their great grandmothers forced with corset laces.  I hope we can say we won.

Gail Hamilton’s books.

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