Victims of Fashion: Effects of the Corset on the Body

        Since the 1850’s, the ill effects of the corset on the female body has been the site of constant feminist debate. Nineteenth century fashions and the corset were inextricably linked to issues of women’s rights. The corset was thought, among dress reformers and feminists of the nineteenth century, as a garment imposed upon women by men in order to physically and mentally suppress women. Yet, not all feminists were willing to abandon the use of the corset. Women’s rights leaders such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton advocated “frilly” women’s fashions in order to appeal to the public and gain support for “larger” women’s rights issues. Feminists and advocates of women’s rights and dress reform had a lot to lose if they abandoned wearing the corset. Since the corset was the sight of femininity and respectability, the “woman question” would never gain support if women abandoned the corset, and thus appeared less respectable in public. There were “reform garments” that were created tin place of the corset which were much looser and had less shape, which made these reform garments non-appealing and less attractive to women and men. Yet, because women were not willing to abandon the corset, they were accused of being vain and narcissistic. Men accusing women of being vain because of their use of the corset is ironic in many ways because men set the standard for sexual beauty. Also, the tiny wasp waist as depicted in advertisements set the standard for female sexual beauty (achieved through drastic means such as tight lacing). In order to obtain a “tiny,” attractive waist, a woman risked her health in not only tight lacing but wearing the corset over an extended period of time.

Doctors of the time studied the effects of the corset, and it was universally agreed upon among medics that the corset negatively affected women’s bodies and health. Yet, doctors’ reports were mainly circulated within medical circles and their findings were not disseminated amongst the larger general public.  Women were also afraid to confide in their male doctors of any of their complaints related to the corset. Sexual assault by doctors during this time was not uncommon, and the female body in general was not only taboo, but something to be feared. Thus, women were rarely if at all educated about their own bodies, and entirely dependent on male doctors if they wanted to seek out information about their bodies. Although some of the negative side effects caused by the corset may have been exaggerated or ill founded, many of these “female complaints” and medical findings cannot be ignored.

In general, corsetry, and especially the practice of tight lacing, pressed upon the stomach, liver and the large and small intestines. One of the most common side effects of the corset, however, was known as chicken breast. Chicken breast occurred when the corset pressed too tightly against the ribs, causing the ribs to fracture. Fractured ribs could then lead to punctured lungs. The constant pressure upon the ribs that the corset caused inevitably spurred the myth that some women actually had their ribs removed in order to wear their corsets as tight as possible. This myth is completely unfounded considering the fact that no medical procedure during the nineteenth century would have been able to successfully complete such an operation without the proper disinfectants and anesthetics. Another popular misconception and caricature of corsetry is that it caused women to have fainting fits. The corset did press upon the diaphragm which did not allow it to expand properly, causing trouble in breathing. There were, however, cases of fainting due to the corset, but only under extreme circumstances were women prone to faint. Another more significant ill effect of the corset was that of women experiencing a prolapsed uterus. A prolapsed uterus was so common among women that pessaries (pictured to the left) were created and used to hold the uterus in place. Pessaries were created to be worn along with the corset in that the pessaries were attached to the corset. Although doctors knew about all of the negative effects of corsetry they were reluctant to advocate the disuse of the corset because much of their practice depended upon these “female complaints” caused by the corset. Essentially, the corset, to some extent, kept doctors in business.

Finally, since women were always expected to wear the corset, it may come as no surprise that even pregnant women were expected to wear a modified form of the corset. Although women were essentially bred to be married and have children, the pregnant woman’s body was taboo and was not meant to be shown. Therefore, corsets for pregnant women were created in order to reduce the appearance of their pregnancy, to the obvious detriment of their future child. The pregnancy corset was essential in order for a woman to maintain her ideal “virginal” state of appearance. In fact, during a woman’s state of pregnancy the female body became invisible, offensive, and tabooed, and it was the fetus that was of the most concern and not the mother. However, if a woman was unwed and became pregnant, the corset was used to not only hide her pregnancy, but to cause a miscarriage as well. Some women who were unaware that they were pregnant, and continued their use of corset or even of tight lacing could inevitably cause an unexpected miscarriage. It was also widely thought among doctors at the time that the continual use of the corset throughout a woman’s pregnancy would produce a child that was not only unhealthy, but would affect the child’s mental capabilities as well. In fact, pregnant women were chastised for wearing the corset, yet in order to appear in public during their pregnancy they had to wear the corset. Again, women experienced a double standard in being criticized for wearing the corset and not wearing the corset. Also, corsetry also affected women during labor, making labor more painful for women, especially women who began wearing corsets at a young age. In terms of the psychological effect that pregnancy had on women, the corset functioned as a means for “the pregnant nineteenth-century woman to convince herself, consciously or unconsciously, that no pregnancy had occurred and that bleeding after months of ‘failed’ menstruation was simply a case of cleared ‘obstruction’” (Summers 52). In sum, the corset was used to perpetuate society’s taboos about pregnancy and the maternal body.

4 thoughts on “Victims of Fashion: Effects of the Corset on the Body

  1. I am currently writing my english persuasive speech on the impacts of vuctorian corsetry and found this a very helpful and comprehensive article. Thank you

  2. Excellent article! I am trying to digest this information about pessary use and corsets- I had not idea about this. Really very disturbing stuff..

  3. Hi, I would like to use this post for a project I am doing. Is it possible for you to get the sources you used to write this piece? It has a lot of great information, but I can’t use it unless it has citations. Please and Thank you!

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