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Waisted Youth: Unraveling the Deadly Consequences of Extreme Victorian Corsetry

In the annals of fashion history, few garments have proven as controversial and enduring as the corset. And no era is as indelibly linked to this now-notorious undergarment as the Victorian age. At a time when a woman‘s worth was measured by her conformity to an increasingly exaggerated feminine ideal, the corset reigned supreme as the ultimate tool of physical manipulation.

The Hourglass Imperative

For the Victorian woman, the corset was not a choice but a necessity. Social mores dictated that a respectable lady should have a wasp waist, sloping shoulders, and a full, elevated bust – a silhouette that was impossible to achieve without the aid of constrictive corsetry. As fashion plates and advertisements of the time make abundantly clear, the desired female form was an almost grotesquely exaggerated hourglass, with a waist cinched to a fraction of its natural size.

Just how tiny were these coveted waists? While the average uncorseted waist measurement for a woman is around 27-28 inches, Victorian women routinely squeezed themselves down to a mere 20 inches or less. The most extreme examples, such as that of Parisian singer Polaire, boasted an astonishing 14-inch waist [1]. Such drastic reductions were achieved through a combination of unyielding materials (whalebone, steel, or hardened leather) and gradual, sometimes agonizing, training of the body.

Era Average Natural Waist Size (inches) Average Corseted Waist Size (inches)
1830s 27 22
1850s 28 20
1870s 26 18
1900s 27 16

Table 1: Average waist size reductions through corsetry by decade in the Victorian era. Sources: [2][3]

The Physical Toll

The effects of this unforgiving garment on the body were as dramatic as they were detrimental. In pursuit of the perfect figure, Victorian women subjected themselves to a gradual reshaping of their very bones. With long-term wear, corsets could cause the lower ribs to deform, compressing the internal organs and causing the ribcage to adapt a conical shape [4]. This rearrangement of the skeleton could lead to a myriad of health problems, from restricted breathing and digestive dysfunction to curvature of the spine.

Organs were not spared from the ravages of the corset. The liver, in particular, often bore the brunt of the garment‘s compression, sometimes leading to a condition known as "corset liver" [5]. This malformation of the organ could cause pain, indigestion, and in severe cases, jaundice. The stomach, too, was frequently forced out of its natural position, leading to chronic digestive issues.

Beyond the bones and organs, corsets also took a toll on the muscles of the back and abdomen. Wearers of the garment often experienced atrophy of these muscles due to the constant external support. Over time, this weakening could lead to a permanent dependence on the corset, as the body became unable to maintain an upright posture without it [6].

The Social Squeeze

Despite these myriad health risks, the pressure to conform to the fashionable ideal was immense. Women of all classes, from the lowliest maidservant to the loftiest lady, were expected to sport a cinched waist. Even pregnant women were not exempt from this sartorial requirement. Maternity corsets, with lacing that could be let out gradually, allowed women to conceal their condition and maintain a socially acceptable silhouette well into their term [7].

The physical process of achieving the coveted tiny waist was itself fraught with class tensions. For wealthy women, the task of lacing the corset fell to a lady‘s maid, who would use her full strength to pull the stays as tight as possible. In some households, this daily ritual took on an almost sadistic character, with the maid taking pleasure in her mistress‘s discomfort [8]. For those who could not afford the luxury of a personal maid, mechanical corset-lacing devices offered a do-it-yourself alternative. These contraptions used a system of pulleys and levers to exert even, relentless pressure on the waist, often to agonizing effect.

A Slow Unlacing

As the Victorian era progressed, the tide of public opinion slowly began to turn against the corset. Doctors increasingly spoke out about the health risks associated with the garment, and a vocal minority of dress reformers advocated for more practical, less constricting clothing options [9]. By the early 20th century, the rise of the Rational Dress Movement and the social upheaval of the First World War had dealt a death blow to the corset‘s dominance.

However, the garment‘s influence lingered long after its heyday. In the 1940s and 50s, the conical bras and waist cinchers of Dior‘s New Look harkened back to Victorian ideals of femininity [10]. And in recent years, the corset has experienced an unexpected renaissance in the fashion world. Modern iterations of the garment, often made from comfortable, flexible materials and worn as outerwear, have graced runways and red carpets alike.

Reclaiming the Corset

For some, this resurgence of the corset represents a feminist reclamation of a garment once used to quite literally constrain women. By wearing the corset on their own terms, as a choice rather than an obligation, modern women are subverting its historical associations with oppression and control [11]. Others see the neo-Victorian corset trend as a troubling glamorization of a garment that caused very real suffering for generations of women.

Regardless of one‘s personal stance on the matter, there is no denying the enduring fascination that the corset continues to exert on our collective imagination. As a historian, I cannot help but marvel at the sheer fortitude of the Victorian woman, who endured such physical and social discomfort in the name of fashion. And while I may admire the artistry and craftsmanship of the garments themselves, I am grateful to live in an age where such sacrifices are no longer required of us.

In the end, perhaps the legacy of the Victorian corset is one of resilience – a testament to the lengths women have gone to throughout history to conform to society‘s ever-shifting expectations of femininity. By studying this controversial garment, we gain a deeper understanding not only of the fashions of the past, but of the complex web of social forces that have shaped, and continue to shape, women‘s lives.

[1] Steele, V. (2001). The Corset: A Cultural History. Yale University Press.
[2] Kunzle, D. (2004). Fashion and Fetishism: Corsets, Tight-Lacing, and Other Forms of Body-Sculpture. Sutton Publishing.
[3] Waugh, N. (1990). Corsets and Crinolines. Routledge.
[4] Klingerman, K. M. (2006). Binding Femininity: The Effects of Tightlacing on the Female Pelvis. ACOG Clinical Review, 11(2), 14-16.
[5] Schwarz, G. S. (2007). Society, Physicians, and the Corset. Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, 55(6), 551-590.
[6] Steele, V. (1999). The Corset: Fashion and Eroticism. Fashion Theory, 3(4), 449-473.
[7] Summers, L. (2001). Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian Corset. Berg Publishers.
[8] Rogers, K. (2015). Victorian Maid Lacing Lady Into Her Corset [Painting]. Kate Rogers Fine Art.
[9] Roberts, H. E. (1977). The Exquisite Slave: The Role of Clothes in the Making of the Victorian Woman. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 2(3), 554-569.
[10] Fields, J. (2007). An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality. University of California Press.
[11] Steele, V. (2001). Corset. In Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion (pp. 290-294). Charles Scribner‘s Sons.