It might seem surprising that, even today, the humble corset carries a bad reputation. Though corsets were once a staple in fashion among high society, they are now often relegated to the realms of costume dress or fetishism.
Even with the popularity of corset tops and steampunk corsets among the alternative fashion community (not to mention the recent rise of the so-called ‘waist trainer’), this wonderfully diverse and surprisingly functional piece of clothing can’t seem to shake off its negative connotations.
So what’s the problem with corsets anyway? Why are they a symbol of the historical oppression of women to some people, and a motif of sexual liberation to others?
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It’s likely that a lot of their ‘bad press’ stems from pure, outdated misinformation. While tight-lacing, body sculpture, and body modification were incredibly popular in the Victorian era, it was also the breeding ground for multiple myths and misconceptions surrounding the wearing of corsets, some of which have still survived to this day.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common misconceptions about corsets, and discover the truth behind myths.
Myth Number 1: Corsets Cause You to Faint
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It was commonly thought throughout the Victorian period (the height of the corset’s popularity) that women would lace their corsets so tightly that they were prone to fainting. This is even documented in Halles’ ‘Physician and Sexuality in Victorian America’ – a relatively recent text published in 1977, which describes women who “walked around breathless and half-swooning”.
The text even alludes to the idea of corsets causing the lungs to collapse – and perhaps most astonishingly, intimates that this was somehow driven by the motive of seeking male attention:
“They fainted by the score in crowded drawing-rooms and gallant males rushed to their rescue with trusty pocket-knives which they used with almost surgical precision to cut corset strings as the quickest remedy for collapsed lungs.”
Now, it definitely stands to reason that wearing an overly tight corset can restrict breathing (the same way you can feel a bit restricted while wearing a tight sports bra). In this scenario, a person may not inhale deeply enough into the lungs, because the ribs can’t move to accommodate such full, deep breaths.
Tight lacing was big in the 1800's, so this makes sense, right?
It stands to reason that there might have been instances where women felt shortness of breath (and perhaps fainted) from ill-fitted corsets – but in modern corsetry, this does not happen. Developments in design and greater knowledge the concept of tight-lacing and waist training means that there is generally no reason why a well-made corset top should cause anybody to faint.
It’s not rocket science. If you’re irresponsible with anything, then it can have negative consequences, and this, of course, applies to fashion too. We all know the horrors you can inflict on yourself from wearing the wrong sized shoes, so why should corsets be any different?
Myth Number 2: Corsets Deform Your Internal Organs
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It’s no secret that corsets have been credited with causing a whole host of physical and medical complications over the years – but there is actually scarce evidence that can be regarded as proving any of this. It’s been claimed that corsets can misshape the internal organs due to applying ‘pressure’ on the mid-section, most notably causing ‘abnormal or misshapen livers’.
It’s now believed, however, that this misdiagnosis was due to a simple lack of medical knowledge at the time – as doctors were unaware that the livers could actually vary in size and shape considerably from person to person.
Historically speaking, the wearing of a corset every day was not necessarily healthy. It has been claimed that corsets did in fact cause indigestion and constipation, and also weakened the back muscles if worn constantly.
Some of the more outrageous claims, however, include the idea that corsets caused ‘hysteria’ - a now hilariously sexist idea that has no scientific backing whatsoever.
Myth Number 3: Wearing Corsets Will Break Your Bones
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This myth might actually stem from yet another misconception surrounding the wearing of corsets in the Victorian period. Popular culture and general speculation claims that women would go to extreme lengths to fit into corsets. So extreme that it is claimed they would actually have ribs removed in order to attain a tinier waist. Given how deadly surgery was in the 1800s, this myth is particularly absurd.
As far as breaking bones – it’s pretty much impossible for a corset to exert enough force to break a bone (unless, of course, you have a pre-existing health issue). The corset would have to be pulled so tight that it would become agonisingly painful before it even reached a point where a bone could be broken.
Although, we should mention that one of the more notable corset styles, made popular in the Edwardian period may actually have had a damaging effect on the back and posture. The “S-bend” (sometimes referred to as the “swan-bill”) corset laced in such a way that women were forced to alter their posture, tilting awkwardly with the hips thrust backwards and thus creating an ‘S’ shape in the back.
These were probably much worse for the back and hips than the earlier Victorian corsets, putting pressure on the spine by causing such an unnatural posture. However, rest assured that the Edwardian “S-bend” corset bears little resemblance to the modern corsets of today.
Myth Number 4: Corsets Can Be Used to Shed Fat
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Oh, wouldn’t it be great if this was true?
But, sadly, it’s a myth – no matter what ‘waist training’ propaganda you might have read recently. The misconception that corsets can shed fat probably comes from a general misunderstanding of the term ‘waist training’.
Waist training in itself traditionally refers to using steel-boned corsets to develop an hourglass figure. The ‘training’ element comes from the fact that one ‘trains’ the waist to accommodate a tighter and tighter corset over time. While this can alter the silhouette over time and help you to appear slimmer – there is absolutely no scientific evidence to suggest that it can help the wearer to shed fat.
Plus, the more popular ‘waist trainers’ of today (as popularised by Kim Kardashian) do not have the ability to be laced tighter and tighter over time, as with traditional waist-training using a corset. Rather, a waist trainer in this sense is simply a body-cincher. You put it on; your waist looks a little smaller. You take it off, and you’re right back to normal. It does not magically shed fat from your body. Sorry!
Myth Number 5: Corsets Are Only Used for Aesthetic Purposes
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Corsets are synonymous with the ‘hourglass figure’, specifically designed to draw the wearer in at the waist to accentuate the hips and bust. A variety of styles and aesthetics, ranging from contemporary faux leather corsets, to Victorian steampunk designs, right through to fetish-style pieces: there’s a variety to suit pretty much everyone.
But what some people may not be aware of is the fact that corsets and corset tops can actually be used for medical purposes. This is usually in the form of a spinal brace, commonly used to treat lower back pain. Just like their fashionable counterparts, these braces are tightened using laces at the back and at the sides to increase stability.
It’s even been claimed that people who suffer from hypermobility syndrome can benefit from wearing corsets, (and not just the medical-grade kind) as this helps to brace the torso, support the lower back, and prevent spontaneous movements that can lead to injury.
Have you heard any other myths about corsets that you'd like share? Let us know about it in the comments section!
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