The Writer’s Guide to Corset Myths

Part 1

When people find out I’m a historical reenactor and routinely wear a corset, I am asked several outlandish questions. Have I ever passed out? Have my organs moved? Isn’t that thing incredibly uncomfortable? I was told by a former coworker once that if anyone wears a corset, they will die.

Obviously, there are a lot of myths perpetuated about corsets and other boned garments like 18th century stays and 16th pairs of bodies. In this two-part article, we will be jumping into the most common myths.

If you want a brief history of boned garments, I recommend you read my Writer’s Guide to the History of Corsets.

I also recommend this video about corset myths.

The Purpose of Corsetry

There is this narrative out there that women were forced into a device of torture that was cranked down to achieve a twelve-inch waist (30.48 cms). First, many women throughout history voluntarily choose to wear a corset just as many women today freely chose to wear a bra. And let’s not forget the modern waist trainer that is basically a corset.

Second, the purpose of corsetry throughout most of its history was to smooth the figure and lift the bust. They also acted as a back brace for working women. During the 18th century, stays were used as a base to pin clothing to, such as stomachers.

Third, there is a big difference between tight lacing and wearing a corset as part of everyday clothing. I have put tight lacing into its own section, so more on that later.

Impossibly Tiny Waists

We might as well address the elephant in the room. Did all women from the 16th to the early 20th century lace down to extremely tiny waists? The short answer is no. I’m sure there were some women who went to extremes. In our modern world, there are people who are starving themselves or getting extensive plastic surgery. Is this minority indicative of what the rest of us are doing? Of course not! Yet these people tend to get outsized attention because their behavior and appearance is outrageous. The same was true of women who tight laced to extremes.

In fact, during the period there were concerns about lacing down too far and recommendations of sensible waist measurements. One example is this 1883 article from the Toronto Daily Mail that states that 25-27 inches (63.5-68.58 cms) not too large. In fact, the columnist says anyone that laces an unfortunate girl day and night down to 18 inches (45.72 cms) should be put in a straight waistcoat (i.e., a straitjacket). [1] For comparison, below is the size guide for Forever 21, an American brand marketed to younger women. As you can see, their XS and S sizes have a waist measurement range from 24-27 inches (60.96-68.58 cms).

Another reason we know not all women had tiny waists is because we have surviving garments with large waist measurements. [2] Yes, there are blouses from the 19th century in museums with small waists but most of them were made for teenagers or women in their early twenties.

The 1883 Toronto Daily article. Photo source.
The Forever 21 size chart. Photo source.

Optical Illusion

The appearance of a tiny waist through much of history was achieved partially by optical illusion. If a woman is wearing a large puffy skirt, especially one supported by multiple petticoats or a cage crinoline (and multiple petticoats) with a bodice with a large fluffy bertha or wide sleeves then her waist will look small by comparison. Another thing to keep in mind is that padding was common. Women (and men) padded out their hips, butt, bust, and shoulders. The amount and location of padding depended on the time period and fashionable silhouette. A great modern example of this optical illusion is Lily James in Disney’s Cinderella.

Lily James in Disney’s Cinderella showing how a big skirt and bertha paired with a corset can make your waist look tiny.
Photo source.

Tight Lacing

Throughout much of history, eyelets for lacing were just holes bored through the fabric with an awl and reinforced with stitching. As a result, there was a limit on how tightly they could be laced. Cranking the lacing on thread eyelets will cause them to tear out. It wasn’t until the metal eyelet became widespread in the 1850s that tight lacing was even achievable. Even then, tight lacing was only practiced by a small minority of high fashion women.

Many of the photographs of Victorian women with impossibly tiny waists were altered. Photo shops routinely touched up photographs to not only make waists smaller but remove freckles, wrinkles, cleavage lines, and other imperfections. If you’re interested in a deeper dive into Victorian photoshop, I recommend this video by Bernadette Banner.

Victorian photoshop. Photo source.

Worn Against the Skin

One of the biggest mistakes I see regarding boned garments in movies and TV is that they were worn directly on the skin. This is not true. Pairs of bodies, stays, and corsets were always worn over a chemise or shift. This prevented the body’s oils and sweat from damaging the corset and protected the wearer’s body from chafing. Also, the chemise could be laundered frequently while the corset could not.

A Victorian corset and chemise. Photo source.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[2] Arnold, Janet. “Patterns of Fashion 2: Englishwomen’s Dresses & Their Construction C. 1860 - 1940”, 1982.

90 Comments on “The Writer’s Guide to Corset Myths”

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