Third-wave feminists waving copies of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth once proclaimed that men had hatched an ominous conspiracy to trick women into pursuing an impossible beauty ideal rather than real social progress. In The Corset: A Cultural History, Valerie Steele lays waste to that doctrine by documenting the extent to which women, not men, have historically policed the ideals of femininity, often in spite of the objections of bewildered men.
No Victoria’s Secret bimbo, Steele is serious about her subject. In her hands, the history of fashion is treated as a study of the intersection of beauty ideals with new technologies that enable them. Chief curator at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, Steele teamed up with cardiologist Dr. Lynn Kutsche to investigate the havoc wreaked by tight-laced corsets on women, from the late Renaissance Madonna Catherine de Medici to the more modern Material Girl. Steele thumbed through early medical journals for accounts of corset-induced casualties and trekked to the Smithsonian Institute to examine its collection of female skeletons with rib deformities.
Though commonly associated with Victorian upper-class matrons, corsets originated much earlier, in the 16th century, and by the 19th had become a hallmark of fashion for women of nearly all classes. Practically compulsory for women of aristocratic birth, corsets were also adopted by working women who aspired toward similar ideals of fashion. One popular line of mass-produced corsets in the 1880s was the “Pretty Housemaid” model.
Fetishists aside, gentlemen of the 19th century did not strap their women into corsets in order to titillate their erotic fancies, as some conspiracy theorists would have us believe.
Many men, especially doctors, warned women of the dangers of lacing corsets too tight and some advised not wearing a corset at all. Steele found that The Lancet, a preeminent British medical journal, published “more than an article a year from the late 1860s to the early 1890s on the medical dangers of tight-lacing.”
One famous rant against the corset in 1874, “Madre Natura versus the Moloch of Fashion,” enumerates 97 different “diseases produced by Stays and Corsets according to the testimony of eminent medical men.” The alleged symptoms ranged from the rational (impaired breathing and circulation) to the pseudo-scientific (heightened hysteria and melancholy) to those characteristic of the premodern obsession with reproductive well-being (the inability to breast-feed properly and the danger of miscarriage or deformed offspring).
That’s not to say, though, that these early doctors were sounding the alarm in hopes to liberate women from their lowly social status. Most of this early anti-corset literature was clearly misogynistic, maligning the waist-cinching undergarment alternately as evidence and as cause of “innate” female irrationality. Instead, the male doctors’ concerns about women’s health stemmed largely from their concerns over women’s ability to procreate. Steele shows that criticism of the corset increased during periods of low fertility.
Though absolved of the most drastic claims lobbed against it (Steele could not determine that any of the Smithsonian skeletons were deformed by tight-lacing), corsets did contribute to a variety of milder ailments, including shallow breathing, shortness of breath, atrophied back muscles, and potential difficulty in labor. Victorian heroines’ heaving bosoms and fainting tendencies were more likely induced by insufficient oxygen and upper-diaphramic breathing than by arousal in the embraces of mustachioed lovers.
Despite the obvious physical inconveniences, as well as admonitions of both doctors and philosophers against such an “unnatural” fashion—Thorstein Veblen condemned the corset as “a mutilation, undergone for the purpose of lowering the subjects’ vitality” in his 1899 Theory of the Leisure Class—the market for mass-produced stays was on the rise in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Industrialization put fashionable garments within the reach of more and more consumers. Working women didn’t need to pay for tailoring once new steam-molding techniques allowed manufacturers to shape corsets on metal torso frames rather than taking individual measurements. Catalogues made corsets available to women who didn’t live near urban boutiques. Trade journals such as The Corset and Underwear Review proliferated. Women also produced and peddled corsets. “By the early nineteenth century, the majority of small and medium-sized corset manufacturers were women,” Steele reports, though she doesn’t delve into who reaped the profits from this lucrative industry, which on the eve of the Second World War raked in $65,000,000 annually (equivalent to nearly $2 billion today).
Women persisted in wearing corsets despite the obvious health problems for complex, and often counterintuitive, reasons. We assume today that corsets were designed to attract men, but for Victorian women, waist-cinchers helped establish a class-based pecking order within their own sex. While some early corset advertisements catered to the fantasy of snaring a husband with a corset-enhanced figure, more common were ads showing women watching women. One 1882 trading card for the Adjustable Duplex Corset depicted two women peeking through a keyhole to discover “Why Mrs. Brown has such a perfect figure.”
The corset facilitated a pernicious association between physical beauty and virtue, as upright posture and a slender waist came to be regarded as evidence of discipline, modesty, rigor, and refinement. Ladies who abandoned their stays were scorned as both lazy and immoral. “Older women, not men, were primarily responsible for enforcing sartorial norms,” Steele writes. “The cultural weight placed on propriety and respectability made it difficult for women to abandon the corset, even if they wanted to.”
What eventually happened to the corset? First, a technological change: In 1960 DuPont introduced Lycra into the manufacturing process, which made whalebone or metal frames obsolete. In effect, the corset became the girdle. Then, the 1970s, with their bra-burning feminists, brought cries for less restrictive, more natural feminine fashions. But Steele says the corset, with its moral and postural uplift, didn’t vanish altogether. Instead, she doesn’t stray too far from Naomi Wolf, positing that the tools for achieving the feminine ideal have simply changed: “The corset did not so much disappear as become internalized through diet, exercise, and plastic surgery.” Men, though, no longer seem to object to these body-shaping tools. Instead, they’re adopting them. Perhaps that’s progress.