The corset is touted as the must-wear item in Dear Newbie’s wardrobe. She’s promptly told that she won’t be taken seriously without one. She’s heard all the myths though, and the corset looks like those myths can be believed. Let’s take a look at some of those myths and the reality of the situation.
1) “It's uncomfortable.”
If your corset fits properly, it’s no more uncomfortable than a bra. If your corset doesn’t fit properly, it can be agony.
2) One can’t breathe/ breathe correctly/ take a full breath/ sing in a corset.
A woman who is not breathing is dead. Obviously, we can breathe because we aren’t dead. A corset forces one to breathe correctly, from the diaphragm rather than the shallow breaths from the stomach. For the reason of correct breathing, opera singers often insist on corsetry during performances… even today.
3) The corset inhibits movement/ can't bend over
A corset promotes healthy posture. While one may not bend at the waist as modern women are accustomed to do, one can bend at the hips, which gives better leverage for lifting heavy objects safely. The safety belts worn by stockers are essentially corsets, reminding stockers to lift heavy objects correctly.
4) The corset is dangerous to the unborn child during pregnancy.
Obviously, baby doesn’t like to be rearranged. There were special “gestational corsets” for pregnant women. They have lacing in the abdomen area to accommodate the expanding waist. They offer such support to the back and abdomen that modern re-enactors/living historians who have worn gestational corsets claim they support better than modern garments meant to support the abdomen.
5) The corset re-arranges the internal organs.
A corset is meant to rearrange tissue, not organs. With extreme tight-lacing, yes, the internal organs become accustomed to different locations in the body. Few women lace tightly enough, on a consistent enough basis, for this to be an issue. Neither did our fore-mothers. Like all things, moderation is the key.
6) The 18” Waist MythA posting might be written on this myth alone. One needs to understand how corsets are sized and how sizes can be manipulated. Many women bought their corsets ready-made and had them tweaked. Corsets were sold by waist measure… of the corset itself. So say the corset we’re buying measures the mythical 18” waist. The woman will want at least 2” spring in the back… leaving her actual measurement at 20”. Many slender women can get a reduction of 2”-4” without entering the realm of “tight lacing”… leaving her waist measure actually in the 22”-24” range. This is a modern size Misses 2/ Juniors 0. Say our mythical woman is vain and delusional about what size she wears… she can still buy that 18” waist corset and use a wider spring, with the bragging rights of an 18” waist.
7) The corset was only worn by the fashionable or wealthy.
Just like underpinnings today, corsets came in many styles marketed to women in different situations. Corded stays might be chosen by women about active work. Looser lacing might be chosen during an active day. Tighter lacing with frilly detailing might be chosen for a special night out. Among the poorest, a group of women might get together a society where they each contribute a little bit of money periodically. They would then buy a corset for one member when they had enough money collected. They would continue to contribute until corsets had been bought for everyone in the society.
8) The corset was only worn by adult women (not girls or men)
Corsets were worn to promote healthy posture and to alleviate waistbands digging into the waist. Children began wearing corded stays as toddlers. Boys stopped wearing stays when they were breeched. Girls continued in corded stays until they were put into corsets. Stays for girls would get progressively more boning and more focused cording as the girl develops.
Men sometimes did wear corsets. They were especially popular among fashionable men in the 1830s. They were worn for much the same reasons women wear them… posture support and fashionable silhouette.
9) Some women removed ribs to be able to wear a smaller size corset.
To logically refute this, one needs to consider the state of surgery at this time. Surgery was often the last resort to solve a medical issue. Hospitals, which contained the operating theatres, had a reputation for filth, debauchery, and low morals… the last place a woman of reputation would want to be seen. The risk of infection related to a surgery, in this era before germ theory, was very great. Most surgeons would not consider a cosmetic issue of this nature to require surgery, or be interesting enough scientifically to warrant the experimentation needed to become adept at the procedure.
This particular story can be traced back to a good showman/salesman. The earliest I've seen anyone come up with this story is about the 1890s. A Google search for "rib removal actress" (without the quotes) will bring up Snopes. If one scrolls down they'll find Anna Held, an actress of the 1890s and 1900s who "was celebrated for her 18 inch waist." It is believed that her manager "Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. (of the Ziegfeld Follies)" made up the story to "build interest in her (and so sell more tickets to her performances)..." So there we have rib removal, the “Victorian” era, and the 18" waist. Unfortunately the story is believed to be false. Ziegfeld sounds like a P.T. Barnum, and there are still fools enough to believe it today.
10) The corset inhibits eating correctly/ promotes digestive issues/ one couldn't eat a full meal in a corset.Some re-enactors/ living historians do report that often they eat lighter meals and don’t handle carbonated beverages well when wearing corsets. Period cookbooks and entertainment manuals show the heavy, involved meals women of the era ate. What we need to understand about those meals, however, is that much smaller portions were expected. Often, a few bites of a dish would constitute a portion. People of the era also took their time over their heavy meals.
11) The corset was worn to attract men/ The corset was worn by women to make themselves more attractive to men.
Much of fashion is used to get ourselves noticed by a potential mate. Unfashionable people are likely to get noticed, but not in a “good” way. The corset, however, was not solely worn for fashion. The attributes of promoting posture and preventing waistbands from digging into the waist were the main functions of a corset. Women, themselves, were the ones who were insisting that a well-dressed woman needed a corset. Men, in the form of doctors, were advocating against fashion extremes and tight-lacing.
The sexualization of the corset as a garment and tight-lacing as a sexual practice can be traced to 20th and 21st century fetishists. In the mid-19th century, the corset was viewed as a common foundation garment, not as a sexual object itself.
12)The corset could only be worn by someone who had assistance in dressing.. if they dressed alone they didn't wear one.
Historic records show that few women had servants… but few women truly lived without assistance that could be called upon when needed in the form of female relatives, children, and the occasional hubby. The number of photographs of middle-class and lower women who are obviously wearing corsets, but wouldn’t be of an economic station to afford servants are staggering. With the advances in front-closing busks and larger mirrors… many women can don their corsets without assistance.
13) Slender women didn't need their bust supported and thus, didn't need to wear corsets.
Again, the reason for a corset is not bust support alone. The slender women are exactly the women who need the skirt weight supported rather than digging in at the waist. Slender women are also ones who cannot safely accommodate a large reduction from their corsets, so their waist reduction will look a bit more subtle… but it is there.
14) The corset was never removed/ The corset was slept in, etc.
Even today there are women who have support garments they sleep in, but few will sleep in a “regular” full-support bra. This era was no different. Some women chose to switch from a full corset to corded stays to sleep. Many women did not. Logic suggests that the corset must be removed to change underpinnings and bathe… so all women removed their corsets for some time for hygienic reasons.
15) “Fainting” Couches
Low, long chaises were seen in many of the ancient and classical eras that were popular inspirations for mid-19th century furniture designers. The wide couches could gracefully accommodate a fashionably wide cage without crushing the skirts or skirt supports. A substantial piece of furniture, such as a couch, was not as easily caught up by the skirt supports when standing and toppled over as stools and small chairs were. Naps were popular, among those who had the leisure… so perhaps they’re just getting in touch with their inner cat.
So to recap… get a corset that fits correctly. Go moderate in your lacing. Plan to eat lighter meals, go easy on carbonated beverages, and plan to take your time eating a heavy meal. If you feel faint, loosen your laces immediately… and don’t lace that tightly again. Listen to your body while in a corset, it will tell you how to move safely.
The shockers: I have worn my corset on a three day event, without the opportunity to change underpinnings… this included sleeping directly on hard-wood floors and outdoors on the ground, sitting on the ground, and walking upwards of three miles (I have friends who’ve done longer events and further walks). I have cut hay while wearing my corset. I’m an avid singer… and am very much alive, thanks. I’m not uncomfortable in my corset and I have my full complement of ribs and have never fainted… ever. I did get a bit uncomfortable when I had to retch while wearing my corset… but that’s probably T.M.I. :-p