In the annals of Victorian medical history, few foes receive as much bile as the corset, which physicians claimed contributed to miscarriages, cancer, and slow, crushing deaths. But while there are some health problems that can be linked to corsets, they aren't nearly the instruments of medical terror that they're popularly painted as.
There seems to be a sort of lurid delight in talking about all of the ills associated with the corset, and Victorian and Edwardian literature offers no shortage of ailments that physicians and dress reformers associated with corsets. It seems that the supporting garment was to blame for everything from cancer to hysteria, which in itself should invite a critical eye when investigating the supposed ills of corsetry.
While some dress reformers would paint the elimination of the corset as an act of feminism, a literal liberation of the torso from its corset cage, the social reality of the corset was much more complicated. With its waist-cinching qualities, the corset stood in opposition to the Victorian ideal of women as mothers. Instead of round, fecund bellies, Victorian women chose to portray themselves with slender figures—sometimes even well into their pregnancies. And while some writers (notably David Kunzle in his book Fashion & Fetishism: Corsets, Tight-Lacing and Other Forms of Body-Sculpture) claim that a handful of male fetishists enjoyed the sado-masochistic quality of a tight corset, it was women who primarily enforced corsets as an essential part of the day's fashion. There was also an aspirational quality to the corset; in earlier times, upper class women with their narrow waists might have seemed an entirely different species from the bourgeoisie. But as designers came up with new patterns that could be made at home and laced without the help of a servant or a lover, upwardly mobile women could achieve the formerly impossible body shape of the upper class. Plus, corset stays were seen as an important way to support women's backs—and in some cases, men's backs as well.
Fashion historian Valerie Steele's book The Corset: A Cultural History provides a fascinating takedown of many of the so-called medical objections to the corset. She asserts that many of the physicians and other male thinkers who railed against the corset did so for prurient rather than medical reasons. The corset, aside from giving women's bodies a less maternal shape, was also closely associated with sex, a topic for lewd cartoons and dirty jokes. Condemnation of corsets was often uttered in the same breaths as the evils of high libidos and masturbation. And even physicians who did have genuine medical concerns about corsetry may have in some cases been mistaken about the effects of the corset on women's health, mistaking correlation for causation in an era when most of their female patients would have employed corsets to at least some extent. For example, gallstones were sometimes blamed on corsets when even today the typical sufferer of gallbladder disease is a woman over forty.
This is not to say that corsets didn't contribute to some ailments, nor that they were comfortable for the average wearer. We have plenty of primary sources written by women who complain about various discomforts associated with their corsets (including skin issues, which modern corset-wearers also complain about) and corset makers seemed always in search of a more comfortable design. But when considering the ill effects associated with wearing a corset, we need to question both the level of knowledge and the intentions of the people writing about these supposed ills.
Among the anti-corset writers, the worst sin that a woman could commit was tightlacing, which, as the name suggests, involves extreme tightening of the corset to create an extremely small waist. Although reports of waists as small as 14 inches fill the letters pages of Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, some modern writers question how common the practice of such extreme waist training really was. Certainly, the waist can become quite small with the help of regular corset use; corset enthusiast Cathie Jung can cinch her waist to a mere 15 inches—although she is a Guinnness World Record-holder for the smallest waist on a living person. But both Kunzle and Steele express doubts that such itty bitty waists were really the norm. Steele notes that much of the writing about such small waists have notes of fetishism and fantasy about them. (Steele also measured a number of 19th-century corsets, although remarkably few such corsets remain today.) Kunzle asserts that while the occasional woman who could cinch her waist below 20 inches might get a lot of attention in historical literature, she was probably the extreme exception rather than the rule.
We're regularly treated to fashion drawings of women with tiny waists, but many of those illustrations are intended to be either comical or aspirational. Marion McNealy in her essay "The S-Bend in Context" compares illustrations of the notorious straight-front S-Bend corset, which is associated with a particularly unnatural posture, with photographs of actual women wearing them, noting their posture is far, far less extreme even in these formal portraits than the illustrations would suggest. Even photographs of tightlacers may have been exaggerated; photo retouchers were narrowing women's waistlines long before Photoshop was invented.
Given the incredible amount of literature on tightlacing, however, some writers, including K.M. Klingerman in her masters thesis Binding Femininity: The Effects of Tightlacing on the Female Pelvis, assert that the practice was relative common. So how do we resolve this disagreement among modern writers? Perhaps the most compelling evidence one way or the other comes from fashion historian Doris Langley Moore, who in the 1950s measured the waistbands of some 1,000 19th-century dresses in museum collections and found none under 20 inches. With the emphasis on garments that fit slimly around the waist, it's unlikely that the waistband would have been much larger than the corseted waist it slipped over.
Turning to health, what issues have realistically been caused or aided by corsets? And which have been exaggerated?
The fainting woman is a common image of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and fainting was often seen as an ailment related to women's weakness. The corset, however, may very well have contributed to decreased lung capacity, which in turn made corset-wearing women more likely to faint. Colleen Ruby Gau, a registered nurse with a PhD in clothing design, published a study in which she tested the lung volume of reenactors wearing different two different types of 1870s-style corsets: the hourglass and straight-front (the latter of which creates the S-bend). She found that subjects who laced three inches less than their natural waist measurement lost an average of 9% of their tidal volume, with a range of 2%-29%, indicating a wide variety range of responses from her subjects. Her subjects also reported shortness of breathe that was easily remedied with brief periods of rest. Gau also found that the straight-front corset had a greater deleterious impact on physical activity than the hourglass corset did.
Some modern corset enthusiasts have noted that Gau's study doesn't necessarily represent the experiences of people who wore corsets nearly every day of their lives, but Gau's study has found a diminished lung capacity associated with those particular styles of corsets.
First of all, the idea that women had their lower ribs removed to tighten their corsets to extreme proportions is likely a myth. Steele collaborated with cardiologist Lynn Kutsche to investigate whether such a procedure was ever practiced, and neither of them was able to confirm such a story. In fact, the procedure was likely beyond medical practitioners of there era; it was far more likely that a physician would have removed fat from a woman's body in order to help her squeeze into a tinier set of laces. The procedure also was likely unnecessary; Jung has confirmed through X-rays that she still has all of her original ribs.
However, corsets do change the shape of the rib cage. Some of the more interesting historical studies on corsetry are those performed by Dr. Robert Latou Dickinson, who at least made the effort to study the actual physiology of corseted women (even if his writings do make some assumptions). His X-rays of corseted torsos made the rounds online recently, and they show the altered position of the lower, flexible false ribs. Jung's X-rays show something similar. Dickinson also measured the pressure that corsets assert on different parts of the body, and his measurements have been confirmed by Gau. Interestingly, Dickinson found that the amount of pressure exerted upon the torso was determined less by the amount of constriction at the waist than by the strength of the abdominal walls and the rigidity and shape of the corset. Klingerman notes, however, that when studying skeletons from that era for rib deformities, it is important to assess whether the deformities are a result of corsetry or of ailments associated with the era, such as rickets or, in rare cases, tuberculosis.
Klingerman also investigated whether corsets had an impact on not just the ribs, but also the pelvis. One of the key claims surrounding corsets is that they negatively impacted fecundity, with some writers claiming that corsets contributed to miscarriages. Klingerman examined skeletons from the Spitalfields skeletal collection and found that female skeletons with deformed ribs (which in this case she associated with corsetry) did have smaller pelvises than female skeletons with non-deformed ribs. However, there was no significant difference in the incidence of pelvic inlet contraction. Klingerman noted that, if 19th-century corsets did have an impact on female fecundity, her study of the skeletons could not state that conclusively.
The infamous straight-laced S-bend corset was actually designed to a more "hygienic" corset, meaning that it was supposed to cause fewer health problems than earlier models. Unfortunately, both Dickinson's study and Kutsche's research into the corset suggest that the opposite was true, and that straight-front encouraged a greater curvature on the anterior spine, distorting the connection between the pelvis and the spine and creating hyperextension of the knees. This corset likely contributed to persistent lower back pain and changes in gait. It's no wonder that modern corset makers warn that corsets should not cause back pain.
Corsets do change the position of organs in the human body, although we should be careful not to rely on Dickinson's illustrations, which are based on guesswork and tradition rather than his own actual investigation. Jung's scans contribute to our modern understanding of how corsets alter organ placement, and corset enthusiasts point out that corsets don't shift the position of the organs any more than pregnancy does, although we must look at not just how much organs move but also in which the way they move and are constricted.
As mentioned above, Gau found a decreased lung capacity associated with waist tightening, and it's likely that corsets also have a constricting effect on the digestive system as well. But we have a rather nice modern analog for compression of the stomach: stomach stapling procedures. Steele suspects that corsets did contribute to some digestive ailments, such as constipation, but that corsets were likely no worse for digestion than modern stomach constricting. Kutsche also suspects that the straight-front corset caused far more bladder problems than its predecessors simply by altering the angle of the pelvis.
Things get a bit dicier when we start talking about the reproductive system. Women in the Victorian era wore corsets well into pregnancy, and even so-called maternity corsets did much to alter the position of the reproductive organs and even hide the appearance of pregnancy. Klingerman suspects that corsets may have inhibited fetal development by putting pressure on the tissues surrounding the uterus, although she notes that medical reports on miscarriage and other pregnancy woes are deliberately coy. Steele isn't convinced that corsets contributed to miscarriage, but she does accept that they may have been a contributing factor in another reproductive ailment: uterine prolapse. Victorian women would have been far more susceptible to uterine prolapse than women today by virtue of giving birth more frequently. However even today, conditions that put pressure on the pelvic muscles, such as chronic cough and obesity, are associated with uterine prolapse. Steele notes that, by exerting pressure on the pelvic muscles downward, corsets likely did, along with other factors, contribute to uterine prolapse, although oddly pessaries, plugs used to treat uterine prolapse, were often shown attached to corsets. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that modern corset wearers would be at particular risk for uterine prolapse absent other risk factors.
Corsets were designed to hold the wearer upright. In Medieval times, a corset would have been particular beneficial to a courtier who had to spend hours on end standing up. But absent other means of building up muscles to support the back, constant corset wearing did contribute to muscle atrophy. If you relied so heavily on a corset to stay upright, after all, you weren't utilizing those muscles. That's why modern corset makers recommend that wearers keep up with regular exercises to keep the back and abdominal muscles nice and strong. Modern understandings of health and medicine can make us more healthy corset wearers—but they also teach us that the corset doesn't quite deserve its terrible reputation.