The Writer’s Guide to Corset Myths

Part 2

Today we are busting more corset myths.

If you want to read Part 1, please go here.

Passing Out

The image of the swooning lady is one of the most lasting of the Victorian era. Were some women passing out because they had laced down too severely? I’m sure there were. I personally have seen a woman pass out from being too tightly laced. However, there were a lot of other things going on to lead to swooning.

Gaslighting (using a gas flame as lighting, not the method of psychological manipulation) was first developed in the 1790s. [1] It became widespread in cities by the 1820s. Victorian homes often had small rooms and they rarely opened their windows. Being in a closed room with open gas flames would understandably lead to a shortness of breath.

Arsenic was commonly used during the 19th century to produce a popular green color for wallpaper and clothing. White arsenic was also used in makeup and skin whitening treatments. [2] One of the symptoms of arsenic poisoning is an abnormal heart rhythm and lung cancer can occur with long term exposure. [3]

Lastly, swooning was a common device used in literature of the period. Real life women began copying their literary counterparts and swooning to get attention or escape a distressing situation.

The toxic Victorian home with gaslighting and arsenic wallpaper. Photo source.

Moving Internal Organs

A corset can cause some shifting of internal organs and fat. However, when it is removed, the organs just go back to their normal positions, sort of like squishing a water balloon. Mainly, corsets lift the bust and squish the fat either down or up. It should also be kept in mind that internal organs are displaced during pregnancy, only to return to their original positions after birth.

When wearing a corset (or stays) there is some compression of the bottom of the ribs, making it harder to take a deep breath. However, you simply learn to breath more shallowly and in the top of your lungs. Honestly, after a few minutes of wearing a corset, I hardly notice I’m breathing differently.

An x ray of a woman in a corset. As you can see, there is little effect on the ribcage. Photo source.

Removing Ribs

There is no documented case that I know of a woman having ribs removed during the Victorian era. Considering the primitive state of medicine and anesthesia at the time it is unlikely a woman would voluntarily go under the knife to remove ribs.

Inability to Move

I can confirm from practical experience, that a corset (or any other boned garment) doesn’t drastically affect movement. I have shot archery, ridden a horse, and fenced in a corset. There are many examples of women being active while wearing corsets, including this article of female mountain climbers.

Yes, there is some limiting of movement but not enough to prevent most activities. The biggest limitation is being unable to bend at the waist. But it’s easy enough just to bend at the hips instead.

Two female mountaineers obviously wearing corsets. Photo source.

Male Corsetry

Men were not excluded from corsetry. Military officers during the Napoleonic War began discretely wearing boned waistcoats or other garments to achieve the flat-bellied look. During the 1820s and 1830s, the silhouette for men had a severely nipped in waist that pretty much demanded a corset to achieve.

Examples of male corsetry. 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.

[1] Janet Thomson; The Scot Who Lit The World, The Story Of William Murdoch Inventor Of Gas Lighting; 2003; ISBN 0-9530013-2-6
[2] "Display Ad 48 – no Title". The Washington Post (1877–1922). 13 February 1898.

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

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