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Victorian Period Corset Controversy

Introduction

The practice of wearing corsets has historically provided women the perfect, sculpted hyperbolic female body. The corseted figure becomes an almost permanent body modification as the internal organs and ribs gradually adjust to its shape (Riordan 2007). This practice has been the reason for a long debate, which is still alive today.

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Traditionally, even though wearing stays or corsets were popular since the 16th century, tight lacing became popular concept in the early 19th century in the Victorian era due to the disappearance of exaggerated shoulders, as it demanded narrower waistline in order to achieve the same effect. Corsets were thus, differentiated from stays as they provided a more curvaceous structure rather than a funnel shaped structure provided by stays. Therefore, corsets evolved with the change in fashion and women’s underwear.

Corset controversy began with a series of newspaper letters and articles appeared in the 19th century arguing that corsets were harmful to health of women and wearing it was a symbol of vanity and class structure. However, the advocates of corsets believed that it was nothing but fashion attire and accentuated the pleasure of wearing fashionable clothes. The argument was more for tight lacing than wearing corset and there were confusion related to the controversy as many women said that they did not tight laced their corsets. In this relation, an article in The West Coast Times wrote:

The evil consequences of tight lacing are universally admitted. Ladies, however, generally refuse to acknowledge that tight lacing is at all common. Each possessor of a small waist claims that it is a gift of Nature, not a work of art, and wears a corset, not for the purpose of compressing her shape into a narrow circumference, but merely as a comfortable, if not necessary support.” (West Coast Line 1884, p. 3)

Women themselves were a party to the subjugation theory presented by many like Leigh Summers (2001) and as a means of defining social status and disciplining as suggested by Valerie Steele (2001). Almost all women wore corsets, however, the way they wore it differed with class and social levels. For instance, working class women wore more loose fitted stays then middle or upper middle class women, while servants and maids were not allowed to wear similar corsets as their mistresses (Summers 2001).

Summers (2001) criticized the corset as not only a patriarchal tool in sexual and social subordination of women but also as a tool to endorse class structure. Thus, it is believed that corsets aided in the women’s own construction of their social and sexual subjectivities. Others like David Kunzle (1982) have argued that corsets and tight lacing has been a custom adopted by women themselves as an attempt to challenge their socially appointed role of maternity and family care. Similar idea has also been expressed by Summers who argues that women often used corset as a contraceptive tool to stimulate miscarriage. However, Kundle does not agree to the feminist argument that corset was a tool for male subjugation of women. Further, much concern regarding the wearing of corsets and health issues has been found in the literature suggesting that to a great extent corset have ill effects on women’s body.

There are many arguments for and against the custom of wearing corset and no fashion item has abated such flare of a debate in the history of fashion (Steele 2001). This article is a study of the controversy related to corsets stressing more on the arguments presented by the opposes of corset who believed that corsets created health problem for women and were a sign of social and sexual subjugation of women, thus implying that corsets were not necessarily good for women. The thesis that will be presented in the paper is that Corsets were not good for women during Victorian period in England.

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History of Corsets

Tracing the historical origin of corset reveals that the origin so far detected by historians is in the figure of Constance, Queen of Castle in 1372 who was the wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (Caplin 1864). Almost after a century, evidence may be found in the attire of Duchess of Gloucester. Before this period, usually women used stays. These were used to provide proper shape and posture to the body however; they did not change the shape of the body. In the early 1820s, corsets were made to alter the shape of the figure and shape of the body. It was then that the wearer could pull the waist to make it appear a more desired smaller waistline. Corsets were initially made with coarse cloth and metal springs in order to give them “elasticity”. However, in 1830s with the discovery of vulcanized rubber was used in corsets to make it flexible. The corsets so gained increased social symbol.

Scholars of 19th century women’s history note that corsets had the power to regulate the women’s behaviour and signify the social class and status of women (Summers 2001). Many believe that corsets have the power to revealing a social meaning (Kunzle 1982; Steele 2001; Summers 2001).

Summers noted that women from the middle and the working classes wore corsets and “both groups resisted and manipulated the societal compulsion to corset” (2001, p. 9). It is believed that corsets were not just a means of constructing femininity but was also used as a means of constructing “class based identity and subjectivity”. The contour that was the direct derivation of wearing corsets attained a class-conscious contour for the middle class women. In other words, corsets helped in hiding any unwanted abdominal bulges and created small round waistline indicating good breeding.

The corset defined the social norms of dos and don’ts for women. Summers (2001) points out, Victorians adored the maternity and the postnatal child, however, they had a high repugnancy for the maternity body which was deliberately kept away from public view. Pregnancy set strict rules and parameters for middle and working class women as their life was severely constrained by the pregnancy.

Middle class women who were about to bear a child, were ostracized due to their biological condition, and working class women failed to work as it was considered indecent. Thus, women resorted to corsets for maternity and standard designs in order to avoid such seclusion. Thus, maternity corsets became exceedingly popular as by 1830s, and by the end of the century, their patterns advertised in magazines (Summers 2001). However, the taboo of the maternity body continued and for the Victorian women, a tight-laced body allowed them a few more weeks of freedom against such social constructs.

In the eighteenth century corsets was worn by both the sexes however, with the advancement of the nineteenth century it gradually became a part of the undergarments specifically worn by the fairer sex. Corsets thus became the first sexualized item for children. As has been stated by Summers, “The corset was the first item of juvenile material culture to be sexualized” (2001, p. 63). Wearing corsets became exceedingly popular which was clear through the persistent advertisements and the long-lived extensive debate on the product.

Summers (2001) points out that corsets were used by children from infancy until puberty, which were special corsets, made for children. These were called ‘reform corsets’ also known as corset waist or bodice. These aimed at fitting the child’s body shape rather than moulding it according the societal ideals. These were laced rather than buttoned. The second kind of corset that was used was called the standard corset. These were significant for their hourglass shape, which was unlike the body of a child. Nevertheless, these corsets were designed specifically to accentuate a tiny waistline, which was not the aim of a reform corset.

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As corsetry wearing became an unavoidable part of middle class girlhood in 1860 and 1880, it was a source of discomfort for many girl children. One incidence recounted by Summers show that a young girl who was made to wear an exceedingly uncomfortable dress and tight stays caused a lot of trouble to the whole household (Summers 2001). Many well-known figures like Marion Harland who wrote with a pseudonym of Mary Terhune in the magazine The Homemaker that corsetry was an essentially part of a women’s attire and should be worn by daughters and mothers alike. However, she stressed that girls should be wearing corsets lesser than twenty-two waist size. Harland believed that wearing corsets protected the abdomen and spine and helped in breast development (Summers 2001).

Corsets in the Victorian era evolved as more than a fad (Steele 2001; Summers 2001; Kunzle 1982). However, its effect on women and their health is a question of a long lasting debate, but the social and cultural significance of this piece of garment is undeniable. In the following section, the paper will discuss the various arguments that were presented in the famous corset controversy and the problems, which were put forth by many.

Corset Controversy

In the nineteenth century, there arose a plethora of literature, which spoke for and against the tradition of tight lacing among Victorian women and this attributed to the rise of feminism and health related problems asserted by the medical practitioners (Kuznle 1977, p. 3). The controversy around corsets in the Victorian era arose due to the belief that tight lacing was a form of female repression and caused immense health problems.

In this regard, David Kunzle stated that in the nineteenth century the corset “had an expressive and dissident function, tending to a kind of female sexual self-assertion, even emancipation” (1982, p. xvii). He further asserts that women who tight laced their corsets “were abused out of fear… of female sexuality’’ and that ‘‘[t]he abuse was part of the Victorian repression of sexuality, particularly female sexuality, which was regarded as subversive of the social order” (Kunzle 1982, p. xviii). Therefore Kunzle puts forth his belief that “historic as well as moral justice requires that… their practice be honored [sic ] according to their own criteria” (1982, p. xviii). Therefore, Kunzle, through his work, tried to unveil the long hidden truth about Victorian corsets, which he believes, was repressed for a very long time.

In a way, Kunzle showed how Victorian women used tight lacing as a means towards sexual fulfillment. Tight lacing allowed them to position themselves in a position towards their male partners during a time when women were “expected to conform to the role of the socio-sexually passive, maternal woman” (Kunzle 1982, p. xviii). Thus, Kuznel directly hinted at the use of corsets as a means of sexual stimulation used by women in the Victorian era.

Kunzle further argued that Victorian women used the tight-laced waist as an expression of female sexuality. Thus, he states, “the evidence… is overwhelming that the corset gave… not merely physical support, but positive physical and erotic pleasure” (Kunzle 1982, p. vxi). As a source for his claims, Kuznle used the “corset correspondence” published in the Englishwoman’s Magazine, which Valerie Steele has described as a figment of his imagination (Steele 1985, p. 163).

According to Steele, the letters may not be valid, as no corset has been discovered with the narrow waistline as the letters claim to have achieved. Further, the identity of the authorship of the articles is dubious as they could have been men or women under pseudonym who used the public forum to express their personal fantasies regarding female sexuality (Steele 1985, p. 163).

The other source that Kuznle used was a number of interviews, which were unrecorded as to ascertain the real feeling of the tight lacers and their views. He claims to have conducted these interviews with contemporary tight lacers in order to gain “a clearer view of the sexual psychology of non-pathological fetishism” (Kunzle 1982, p. xxi). Thus Kuznle makes conclusions regarding the Victorian women using evidence from contemporary women, which itself is erroneous as he was “effacing important differences between two historical contexts, in which women are positioned very differently with regard to their ability to make decisions about their bodies and sexualities” (Riordan 2007, p. 266).

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Kuznle believes that “fashion and fetishism collide and merge in the unique phenomenon of tight lacing” (1982, p. xvi). Kuznle believes that the idea of tight lacing as viewed by the Victorian women was different from that argued by the reformists. He pointed out that women felt “pleasure in submitting to male taste for small waists” and denying this would be equivalent to calling women “brainless and inferior creatures” (Kuznle 1977, p. 572). However, he points out that tight lacing was not a fashion as there is no evidence that could point out to the practice embraced by women from the upper class. It was largely a practiced accepted among the lower middle class and the working class women (Kuznle 1977). Thus, Kuznle considers the increased correspondence in the popular press as a female support of the practice, which was the right of these women. Therefore, he states,

They were not necessarily adherents of feminism, which was largely an upper-middle-class movement, but it is significant that correspondence on the fetishes overlaps with that on feminist issues (notable the Married Women’s Property Bill), which the EDM broadly supported. Tight-lacing and women’s rights were recognized to have a common enemy: those who would “impose the Slavery of Silence upon women.” (Kuznle 1977, pp. 573-4)

Kuznle states that tight lacers claimed that they “enjoy superior health and to take more than the usual amount of exercise, medical theory to the contrary” (1977, p. 574). Therefore, Kuznle believed that women wanted to tight lace and it was a personal and individual choice and not something imposed upon them. He believes that all the arguments put forth by medical practitioners and dress reformers of health issues related to corsets and female repression were not valid as the corset went out of usage not due to their campaigns, but because “other means were found for the sexual and self-expression of women, and men” (Kuznle 1977, p. 579).

Summers (2001) pointed out that there were several health related problems that regular tight lacing of corsets has on women. Corset was used as cures for backache (BMJ 1956) and lumber pain (Cope & Green 1972; BMJ 1988). People with problems of backaches were usually advised rest on a stiff bed, however, the usage of the plastic or plaster of Paris corsets were also recommended (BMJ 1956, p. 560). Further articles in British Medical Journal state that literature on corsets argues of the harmful effect of the attire on underdeveloped muscles and weakened spine. However, no evidence to support this argument been found (BMJ 1988). However, the article suggests that corsets should be avoided for young people as they increase the possibility of spondylitis.

Medical practitioners often used spinal corsets as an alternative to stiff bed when the patient has a complaint of a split disc and insist on being mobile (Cope & Green 1972). However, this is not a full proof substitute to bed rest and traction.

In a correspondence to the British Medical Journal, a Mr. P.A. Sahay stated about the use of maternity corsets as a cause of pre-eclamptic toxemia that “Contrary to his experience we find that pre-eclamptic toxemia is very high in Indian women, most of whom belong to the class in which, barring a few exceptions, use of corset or corset-like arrangement at any time either before, during, or after pregnancy is very rare.” (BMJ 1954, p. 1418)

On the other hand, in a paper presented before the Brooklyn Pathological Society showed that from a scientific point of view, corsets caused displacement to the users (Dickenson 1887). The paper studied the “amount of pressure it asserts, to ascertain the distribution of the pressure, and to determine the displacements resulting therefrom, studying the subject with as little bias as possible, stating facts and rarely expressing opinions.” (Dickenson 1887, p. 281).

Dickenson suggest that women who do not wear a corset are less affected by the excessive pressure caused to the abdomen and those women who wear a corset restricts their movement as well as alters the size and shape of the corset wearing thoracic cavity. He argued that corsets crippled the lungs and picural cavity due to the pressure exerted below the fifth rib. Further when a corset is tightened to raise the shoulders, it forces the body to breathe through the upper lobes, consequently raining the “thoracic or five upper ribs” and widening the interspaces and thus expanding the conical thoracic cavity (Dickenson 1887). This may lead to increased chances of emphysema of the upper lobes.

Dickenson (1887) attributes this condition to the usage of corsets and to the practice of tight lacing among women. Further, the study showed that the abdominal wall weakens by the usage of stays and there is pressure that is more direct on the liver of the wearer of corsets, which results in frequent displacement of the organ. Further, he also stated that the pelvic floor bulges downward due to tight lacing.

Helene Roberts (1977) was on the feminist side of the controversy who believed that corsets were a means of subjugating women. She points out that clothes played a major role in defining sex roles, which she believed made men more “active”, and “aggressive” and women “inactive” and “submissive” (Roberts 1977, p. 555). Thus, she points out that this was a means of establishing gender roles i.e. for women to be more submissive and docile. Thus, she argues that the dress and clothes worn by Victorian women was a means of constraining her movements as well as any outspoken body language.

Related to corsets Roberts states, “It was designed to change the configurations of the body to accord more closely with the feminine ideal of the small waist which haunted the period” (Roberts 1977, p. 558). She points out that this effect was attained due to the tightening of the laces, which varied due to the “social occasion, their age, and marital status” (Roberts 1977, p. 588). Thus, she believes that Victorian women were conditioned to “the submissive-masochistic role symbolized by the corset” (Roberts 1977, p. 559). This practice, according to Roberts, inculcated from the very childhood of girl children and through instructions at finishing schools during the period. Roberts states that this custom of tight lacing at a very early age left girls with a hunched spine and underdeveloped muscles.

G.B Somers distinguishes between “good and bad corsets” (BMJ 1911). He states that a good corset is one that provides adequate support to the lumber and keeps the back and the stomach flat. It should be form fitting or loose around the waist and the bust. However, it reduces the hip, but does not reduce the waist size. It should be laced from upward with the help of two or more laces. He describes a bad corset as one, which “exercises its greatest compression about the waist and diminishes its measure from two to four inches. It is loose about the hips and held down by garters or by the tight lacing above.” (BMJ 1911, p. 1050) Therefore, a good corset is one that should not require a tight lacing making the practice redundant.

In another correspondence in British Medical Journal, it was pointed out that diaphragmatic weakness is caused due to breathlessness among patients who are in a habit of wearing tight fitted clothes (BJM 1986). They feel that wearing of a corset causes weakness of the diaphragm and causes difficulty in breathing.

Elizabeth Fee, Theodore M. Brown, Jan Lazarus, and Paul Theerman (2002) argue that back laced corsets caused serious health hazards to women, which resulted in compression of the ribs and other internal organs. They mentioned a physician called Von Sommerring argued that tight lacing also caused tuberculosis, cancer, and scoliosis (i.e. curvature of the spine). They pointed out that these corsets led to serious disfigurement of the body due to tight lacing, resulting in the female body taking an ideal hourglass shape. Thus, it resulted in contraction of the rib cage and the crevices. Thus, this symptom of tight lacing is called Sommerring Syndrome.

Corsets and Mothers

Leigh Summers (2001) argues that women who wore maternity corsets as well as corsets in general were adhering to the societal norms for conduct of a Victorian woman and conforming to the standard of beauty and femininity, which correlated with respectability, security, reputation, and class. She argues that women wore corsets even when the health hazards related to wearing one was high, implying a very strong discourse working to endorse wearing of corsets.

Summers (2001) argues that maternity corsets were a shield used by women to hide their pregnant body and thus helped the Victorian society to avoid the question of female sexual activity which confirmed with the prevailing ideology. Further, this also provided pregnant women greater accessibility to move out in social circle longer rather than be hidden in confinement during pregnancy. Maternity corsets have often been criticized for their ill effect on the foetus. However, Summers points out that the critics did not speak of the discomfort of the mother as they assumed that she was acting in her self-vanity. However, Summers also points out that some women have used corsets to tightly lace their body during the pregnancy period in order to induce miscarriage.

Tight lacing Fetishism

David Kuznle points out that corsets were a means of expressing the body in a sexual manner by women in order to attract men. He thus stated, “The state of being tightly corseted is a form of erotic tension and constitutes ipso facto a demand for erotic release, which may be deliberately controlled, prolonged and postponed” (Kunzle 1982, p. 31). He points out that women who endorsed corseting in the Victorian period were sexually assertive women and the debaters against corsets were mostly conservative men who felt threatened by this implicit expression of female desire.

However, the feminist argument is against Kuznle who believe that corset is a tyrannical garment of the male oppression. However, Kuznle’s analysis of the women’s magazines of the Victorian era showed that women were exchanging advises in the magazines in order to attain smaller waist, which he believes was an expression of autoerotic pleasure of the women. Kuznle’s argument has found partial support from the medical practitioners who felt that during 1860-1880 doctors argued that using of corsets provided masturbatory satisfaction among pubescent girls (Kunzle 1982, pp. 170-1, 218-22).

Valerie Steel presents a more moderate argument stating, “most accounts of very small waists represented fantasies” (Steele 1985, p. 163). For which she uses the corsets displayed in the fashion museums where corsets are found which shows that corsets were wider than the Victorian and Edwardian ‘perfect’ 11 inches as aspired by the readers of magazines like Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. Thus, Steele concludes that the tight lacing was an imagination of the male and female mind alike as it excited both.

Conclusion

Corset controversy swept the Victorian era was mainly surrounding the practice of tight lacing of women. Corsets were undergarments which were used by women, and who felt that lacing them tightly could make them a part of the higher order or social standing. Therefore, women from the middle and the working class mostly resorted to tight lacing practices.

The critiques of corset and tight lacing argued that it produced unnatural difference in the natural female body and the corseted body and altered the shape of organs and bones (Roberts 1977; Steele 1985). This was in one instance when the medical practitioners and the feminist dress reformers shared a common view. However, the debate was not devoid of confusion as no definite conclusion could be reached regarding the issues related to female health and beauty after wearing of corsets. Therefore, the argument then spun around societal constructs rather than health and beauty. Therefore, the argument that was put forth was that the corseted body was a social body, which was under the control of the society while an un-corseted body was considered a social disgrace. Thus, it must be noted that none of the correspondents in the popular press actually indicated that women should totally do away with wearing corsets; rather it revolved around tight lacing and its abuse. Margaret Beetham (1996) pointed out that “natural femininity had to be trained, and the trained figure was a symbol of the social restraint which marked off mature sexuality from girlhood” (p. 83). Thus, she stresses that the idea was to turn a middle class girl to become a woman and as it has been suggested in one of the correspondent in Englishwoman’s Daily Magazine “If you want a girl to grow up gentle and womanly in her ways and feelings, lace her tight” (Beetham 1996, p. 83).

Tight lacing as a practice was prevalent in the Victorian era (Summers 2001), however, their effect on female body or construct has been debated for a long time. It is widely believed that women who wore corsets were constructed to do so and were following a social norm to look thinner than their usual self through tight lacing (Summers 2001). Others like Steele (1985) believed that women were being subjugated by the male dominated society to meet up the ideal women of a male fantasy. While others like Kuznle believe that corsets were an erotic expression used by women themselves. However, there are a lot of ambiguity regarding the sources that he used to come to this conclusion (Riordan 2007). However, the problems related to female health has been unanimously agreed upon by medical as well as scholars. Therefore, it can be concluded that corsets had a definitive impact on women, which was not necessarily good. Women tight laced their own self as well as their body in order to meet the societal expectations and therefore constricted their freedom largely.

References

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