We’ve all seen the depictions of corsets in films and TV shows: typically, a young woman is laced into a corset tighter and tighter, until soon enough she’s doubled over and gasping for breath. But was wearing corsets really so torturous? Did women actually faint from wearing them, as happened to Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swan in Pirates of the Caribbean?
In short, yes and no. Victorian corsets were typically reinforced with whalebone and drawn tight around the waist to exaggerate the wearer’s ‘hourglass’ figure. When worn frequently, this could restrict breathing, limit digestion and cause curvature of the ribs and spine.
Nonetheless, corsets weren’t inherently torturous or overtly dangerous garments. Frequent wearers of corsets could still live long and happy lives, and some of the myths of corsetry that abounded in the Victorian era – such as the idea they caused respiratory diseases – have since been widely rebuked.
Here’s the story of a highly controversial garment, the Victorian corset.
The first corsets
Garments comparable to the corset existed in the ancient world, but the first true corsets emerged on a wide scale in around 1500. They would remain intermittently popular up to the early 20th century, with women – and sometimes men, depending on the fashion of the time – donning them in a whole host of different styles over the years.
In the early 16th century, the first proper corsets emerged from the fashion trend of dividing dresses into two pieces: a skirt and a bodice. The top section was then reinforced – typically with whalebone or buckram – and tightened, extending the torso and raising the bust. It’s said that Catherine de Medici brought this new garment to France.
The 16th century also witnessed the rise in popularity of enlarging the sleeves that sat above a corset to exaggerate a narrow waist and highlight an ‘hourglass’ figure.
A staple of Victorian fashion
In 18th and 19th-century Europe, corsets were a mainstay of women’s fashion. Indeed, women of just about every class and age would don corsets in the Victorian era, including children and pregnant women.
Victorian attitudes to pregnancy placed scorn upon visibly pregnant women being seen out in public, dismissing pregnant bellies as ‘indecent’. By donning maternity corsets, women could conceal their bumps for longer, granting them greater social freedom during pregnancy. For new mothers, manufacturers produced corsets with removable cutouts over the breasts to allow them to nurse their babies without having to remove the full garment.
The 1820s saw the introduction of metal eyelets to the world of corsetry. Used to reinforce the corset’s lace loops, they allowed the garment to hold up to greater strain when laced up. In other words, corsets could be tied viciously tight without the fabric giving way.
Were corsets inherently dangerous?
Corsets, with repeated use, could alter the shape of women’s ribcages, misalign spines, restrict breathing and inhibit proper digestion. Sustained pressure on the ribs and waists of women, particularly young girls, undoubtedly caused strain and irregular growth patterns.
That said, anthropologist Rebecca Gibson has argued that these dangers didn’t necessarily equate to a shorter life or prove detrimental to one’s health. By examining dozens of women’s skeletons held in museums, Gibson confirmed contortions in the spine and ribs concurrent with sustained corset use from a young age. But she also recognised that many of her test subjects lived long and healthy lives – sometimes longer than the average for their age.
Similarly, historians Colleen Gau and Valerie Steele have argued that corsets wouldn’t necessarily cause respiratory diseases – a theory popular with many doctors and researchers of the Victorian era – but that they could nonetheless restrict breathing and sometimes cause fainting.
Just as the dangers of corsetry has proven a contentious topic over the years, so has the question of the corset’s social implications. Increasingly into the 20th century, historians and the public alike reflected on Victorian corsetry as a form of patriarchal oppression, a physically restrictive way of shaping and controlling women’s bodies. As historian David Kunzle put it, 1960s commenters looked back at corsetry as “one of the quintessential Victorian social horrors”, on par with the use of young boys as chimney sweeps.
Modern reflections are more nuanced, with some historians and commentators arguing that many women over the centuries would have worn corsets willingly and happily; individual experiences shouldn’t be overlooked.
The corset’s reign as a fashion staple – or popular instrument of torture, depending on your viewpoint – started to wane in the 20th century. With the outbreak of World War One, many women assumed traditionally male jobs, for example in factories and warehouses. With this seismic social shift came a decline in the popularity of corsets amongst women.
Nonetheless, corsets could still be seen – though less frequently – throughout the 20th century. In the 1920s, the emergence of elasticated fibres gave rise to more flexible, comfortable corsets. By the 1960s, however, corsets were more or less abandoned by the general public and fashionistas alike in Europe and America.
But the 21st century has seen an unexpected resurgence of the corset. The Netflix period drama Bridgerton contained a scene in which a young woman doubled over, gasping for breath as her corset was fastened viciously tight. Despite the character’s obvious discomfort, sales of corsets are reported to have spiked after the show was released.
Similarly, fashion-conscious celebrities, such as Rihanna and Bella Hadid, have recently adorned corsets on runways and in public. And nowadays, corsets are made of soft elastic and are often worn over clothes, as opposed to the historic fashion of wearing them under other garments. Some have interpreted this new style as a positive expression of femininity and self-expression, in contrast to the sometimes painful contortion of women’s bodies witnessed during the Victorian era.