“There is one thing that bothers me recently, but I don’t think I’m brave enough to make a video on it as it may be perceived as controversial – and it’s implementing modern mindsets in period dramas,” renowned costume blogger Karolina Zebrowska told The Costume Rag in a recent interview. “Especially women hating corsets and perceiving it as a form of oppression. I’ve seen so many female characters protesting ‘do I really have to wear it’, ‘I can’t wait to get it off’, and maids saying ‘we need to get it tighter!’ It’s such an awful stereotype. They would wear their corsets gladly and for their own comfort, just as nowadays most women choose to wear bras.”
Zebrowska is right to think this view controversial given the difficulty of deconstructing social attitudes from more than a century ago. However, recent research suggests she may be quite right – and why not given the recent resurgence of the corset in fashion and popular culture?
Indeed one major concern is of oppression versus agency and whether women were put in corsets by society or whether they used the sexually-imbued garment to gain power.
“Though formally and socially you were expected to obey your husband at all times, there are tons of stories of women outsmarting their husbands and making them rely on their wives completely. Not every woman in Victorian era was a sad, helpless butterfly as portrayed in the modern movies,” said Zebrowska.
Recent research by Rebecca Gibson published in the NEXUS Canadian student journal of anthropology drew upon contemprary sources claiming men did not like corsets. “D. O. Teasley (1904), a woman writing for and to other women said ‘For my part I cannot see why tight lacing was ever invented. Men, as a rule, especially men of good judgment, do not admire slender waists,’ she said. The importance of this implication cannot be overlooked when discussing corsets; women, Teasely implies, were choosing to control their own bodies, even to the point of self-harm.” Plenty of male sources compared the constricted modern woman against the more relaxed forms of classical statuary and Renaissance paintings.
While attitudes towards corsets were varied, many contemporary medical reports were fanatical and unreliable, with O’Followell in 1908 a fequently-cited example listing such symptoms “with those who wear bad corsets: slices near the armpits, difficulty with the venous circulation of the upper limbs, accidents resulting in the compression of the brachial plexus, flattening, crumpling of the breasts and diverse maladies of the lymph nodes or the mammary glands, extreme difficulty of certain movements, weakening and atrophy of compromised or inactive muscles, pressing down and permanent overlapping of the lower ribs.” The full list is considerably longer.
Gibson analysed skeletons and corsets to establish just how damaging the practice was. Far from being crushed by medieval torture devices, seven skeletons in the French Musée de l’Homme and 18 in the Museum of London found that women across the social spectrum showed S-shaped ribcages and yet lived relatively long lives. In London four were between 36 and 45 while the remaining 13 were over 46 when they died.
“While nothing can be said about the quality of life of these particular women,” said Gibson, “these results confound the very popular notion that corseting was inherently overtly harmful and a violence done to women, as well as the longstanding medical belief that corseting was responsible for early death, this being defined as death before or within a few years of marital age.”
Corsets Cared For
In an interesting extra approach, Gibson analysed 44 corsets in the V&A dating from 1700 to 1900 to look for signs of wear and strain.
“As modern researchers differ on what constitutes tight lacing, and as it was never clearly defined in either the words of women or their doctors, what one sees in the literature does not necessarily represent what women experienced on a daily basis. There have been reports of broken laces and hyperbolic drawings of maids with their feet upon the backsides of their mistresses as they struggle with recalcitrant lacing. Yet the corsets themselves tell a different story: a story of being often and well worn, but handled with care and used for years, something that would be less than likely were they pulled tighter than their frames allowed.”
Crucially Gibson concluded that viewing women’s social history as a reflection of patriarchy is overly simplistic and going forward more research needs to take a more nuanced approach to how women were treated and how they shaped their own identities.