Did Corsets Harm Women’s Health?

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

“It is difficult to imagine a slavery more senseless, cruel, or far-reaching in its injurious consequences than that imposed by fashion on civilized womanhood during the past generation. Her health has been sacrificed, and in countless instances her life has paid the penalty; while posterity has been dwarfed, maimed, and enervated, and in body, mind, and soul deformed at its behests. … [T]he tight lacing required by the wasp waists has produced generations of invalids and bequeathed to posterity suffering that will not vanish for many decades. By it, as has been pointed out by the authorities cited, every vital organ in the body has been seriously affected.”1

The title page of

The title page of “Fashion’s Slaves,” 1892. Click to enlarge.

So writes Benjamin Orange Flower in “Fashion’s Slaves,” a 32-page pamphlet published in 1892 as an appeal for women’s dress reform. One of the many causes Flower takes up is the corset, expressing his concern that the undergarment causes damage to internal organs. He continues, “If women will continue this destructive habit, the race must inevitably deteriorate.”1

Certainly, many women felt fettered by their restrictive clothing or there would never have been a dress reform movement. But just how damaging were corsets?

Not all corsets were alike. Tight lacing—cinching a corset to achieve a very small, or wasp, waist—began in the 1820s and 1830s after the advent of corsets made with metal eyelets. Medical professionals came out strongly against the practice.2 As shown in dramatic X-ray images in Ludovic O’Followell’s Le Corset, tightly laced corsets could change the shape of the rib cage,3 but there is no evidence that women had lower ribs removed to decrease their waists.4

Click on an image to view the gallery from Le Corset.

By measuring 19th-century corsets and dresses, historians have determined that women probably did not cinch their waists below 20 inches.4 (By comparison, today many U.S. stores list their XXS waist size at 23.5 inches.5,6) While many waists were still quite small, they may never have gone to the 14-inch extremes reported in women’s magazines, regardless of what fashion drawings depicted.4

A tightly laced corset could reduce lung capacity, irritate skin, and weaken back and chest muscles used to being supported.2 Whether tight lacing caused long-term health issues, like reduced pelvis size, constipation and digestive issues, and reproductive problems ranging from miscarriage to uterine prolapse, is more difficult to assess and remains unclear.2,4,7

Dr. Warner trade card, inside and out. An 1883 article from Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine hailed Dr. Warner’s Coraline Corset as a model of comfort, superior to whalebone and horn corsets, and endorsed the model as a substitute for tight-laced models: “They have demonstrated that tight lacing is not essential to grace or beauty of form; and while impractical dress reformers have been preaching reforms which no one would adopt, Warner Brothers, by introducing properly fitting corsets, have given practical aid to the health and comfort of several million ladies.”8

Dr. Warner trade card, inside and out. An 1883 article from Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine hailed Dr. Warner’s Coraline Corset as a model of comfort, superior to whalebone and horn corsets, and endorsed the model as a substitute for tight-laced models: “They have demonstrated that tight lacing is not essential to grace or beauty of form; and while impractical dress reformers have been preaching reforms which no one would adopt, Warner Brothers, by introducing properly fitting corsets, have given practical aid to the health and comfort of several million ladies.”8 Click to enlarge.

Many health problems once blamed on the corset are now clearly not the fault of the undergarment. Death caused by postpartum infections, or childbed fever, became relatively rare with the advent and spread of antiseptic techniques. With the discovery of the tubercle bacillus in 1882, it became clear that corsets did not cause the disease. Incidence of breast cancer did not decrease after corsets that did not compress the breasts came into vogue. As Gerhart S. Schwartz wrote in a 1979 Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine article, “one disease after another found an explanation which was unrelated to the corset.”9

Many of the doctors against tight lacing, including O’Followell, did not condemn corsets as a whole. Instead, they championed designs less tightly laced. Several pamphlets in our collection feature what they claim to be medically sound corsets.

In one, “La Grecque Corset as an Aid to the Physician and Surgeon,” printed circa 1911, the van Orden Corset Company advertises corsets that pull in the abdomen while reducing strain on abdominal muscles.10

Incorrect and correct pressure applied by corsets. In

Incorrect and correct pressure applied by corsets. In van Orden Corset Company, “La Grecque Corset as an Aid to the Physician and Surgeon,” circa 1911. Click to enlarge.

The pamphlet also features a maternity corset, “designed for a natural change of figure.”10 Corsets for maternity came on the market in the 1830s, and were often tightly laced.11 Yet the medical literature of the period does not discuss dangers of maternity corsets to the fetus or the mother,11 either due to taboos of the time or because negative impacts were rare or unreported. The maternity corset advertised by the van Orden Corset Company, from the early 1900s, was not tightly laced, taking advantage of new elasticized fabrics to expand as needed.10

La Grecque Maternity Corset. In

La Grecque Maternity Corset. In van Orden Corset Company, “La Grecque Corset as an Aid to the Physician and Surgeon,” circa 1911. Click to enlarge.

Corsets from a Surgical Standpoint,” from H. W. Gossard and Company (still in business today as a lingerie company), describes to physicians the benefits of prescribing their pliable front-laced corsets. These corsets, they claimed, improved posture and “preserve[d] the lines demanded by fashion, but without discomfort or injury.”12

Figures 5 and 6 in

Figures 5 and 6 in H. W. Gossard and Company, “Corsets from a Surgical Standpoint,” 1909. Click to enlarge.

Both of these pamphlets were published at the end of an era. The advent of elasticized fabric paved the way for the creation of an early bra, displayed by Herminie Cadolle at the Exposition Universelle in 1889.13 The corset’s final death knell was World War I. Women could not work in factories or the field while wearing restrictive clothing. Once household staff went to work for the war effort, upper-class women had no one to help them dress. Girdles and bras took over the corset’s supporting role, about 20 years after Flower’s calls for the end of the “destructive habit” of corsetry.1,13

References

1. Flower BO. Fashion’s slaves. Boston: Arena Pub. Co.; 1892.

2. Starr M. Vintage X-rays reveal the hidden effects of corsets. CNET. 2015. Available at: http://www.cnet.com/au/news/vintage-x-rays-reveal-the-hidden-effects-of-corsets. Accessed May 14, 2015.

3. O’Followell L. Le corset; histoire, médecine, hygiène. volume 2. Paris: Maloine; 1908.

4. Davis L. No, corsets did not destroy the health of Victorian women. io9. 2014. Available at: http://io9.com/no-corsets-did-not-destroy-the-health-of-victorian-wom-1545644060. Accessed May 14, 2015.

5. LOFT: Size Chart. Available at: http://www.anntaylor.com/catalog/sizeChartPopup.jsp. Accessed May 18, 2015.

6. Gap – women’s size chart. Available at: http://www.gap.com/browse/sizeChart.do?cid=2081. Accessed May 18, 2015.

7. Klingerman KM. Binding femininity: An examination of the effects of tightlacing on the female pelvis. 2006. Available at: http://etd.lsu.edu/docs/available/etd-04072006-115441/unrestricted/Klingerman_thesis.pdf. Accessed May 14, 2015.

8. Coraline: Its discovery and use in the manufacture of corsets. Godey’s Lady’s B Mag. 1883:468–469. Available at: https://books.google.com/books?id=nXA-AQAAMAAJ&pgis=1. Accessed May 18, 2015.

9. Schwarz GS. Society, physicians, and the corset. Bull N Y Acad Med. 1979;55(6):551–90. Available at: http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1807654. Accessed May 14, 2015.

10. La Grecque corset as an aid to the physician and surgeon. New York: van Orden Corset Co.; 1911?

11. Summers L. Bound to please: A history of the Victorian corset. Oxford, New York: Berg; 2001.

12. Corsets from a surgical viewpoint. Chicago: Gossard Co.; 1909.

13. Fontanel B. Support and seduction: The history of corsets and bras. New York: Abrams; 1997.

Women, Equality, and Justice

By Danielle Aloia, Special Projects Librarian

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, observed a month after the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). VAWA was drafted in 1990 by then-Senator Joe Biden, who understood the devastating effects of domestic violence on women and children and the need for legislation. Congress took four years to approve the act, which was subsequently reauthorized in 2000, 2005, and 2013.

In honor of VAWA’s 20th Anniversary, the White House published the report 1 is 2 Many: Twenty Years of Fighting Violence Against Women, reminding us that: “In the name of every survivor who has suffered, of every child who has watched that suffering, the battle goes on; much remains to be done.” This statement seems even more relevant after the high-profile domestic abuse cases in the media recently.

Until the 1990s, laws weren’t enforced or guaranteed to protect women from their male abusers. In the past, domestic violence was thought to be a personal matter between the concerned parties. The legal system was reluctant to impinge on such a personal affair and if it did the punishment was less severe than for the assault of a stranger. Even though child abuse reporting laws were established in the late 60s, laws against the abuse of women weren’t in effect until the mid-70s.1

Several historical sources in our collection deal with domestic violence from long before the time of VAWA.

John Stuart Mill. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004672081/

John Stuart Mill. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

In 1861, John Stuart Mill wrote The Subjection of Women, but didn’t publish it until 1869 because he didn’t believe it would be well received.2 He was a British philosopher and wrote very candidly about women’s equality. Today, he is seen as an inspiration for women’s liberation. Even though he touted equality for women, as in the quote below, he was still constrained by the times in which he lived. He wasn’t keen on women finding work outside of the home or having the same choices as men. But he did believe that women’s knowledge was just as important as a man’s.

“The principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes—the legal subordination of one sex to the other—is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.”3

During this same time in the United States, Dr. Mary Walker was making news across the country for her activity in equal rights, especially in the Dress Reform Movement. She was the first woman to win the Congressional Medal of Honor for her medical work during the Civil War. She was later stripped of the title because of technicalities, but refused to give back the medal. The Honor was justly restored to her posthumously in 1977.4 She was seen as a rabble-rouser and was arrested on numerous occasions for wearing men’s clothing in public. She even designed a suit that would hinder the incidence of rape.

From: Lockwood, Allison. Pantsuited pioneer of women’s lib, Dr. Mary Walker. Smithsonian 1977;7(22):113-119.

From: Lockwood, Allison. Pantsuited pioneer of women’s lib, Dr. Mary Walker. Smithsonian 1977;7(22):113-119.

In 1871 Dr. Walker wrote a book on women’s equality titled Hit. The title is a bit of an enigma and possibly has to do with her own unhappy marriage. This treatise asserts that women should be treated as equals under Constitutional law: “God has given to women just as defined and important rights of individuality, as HE has to man; and any man-made laws that deprive her of any rights or privileges, that are enjoyed by himself, are usurpations of power.”5

From: Lockwood, Allison. Pantsuited pioneer of women’s lib, Dr. Mary Walker. Smithsonian 1977;7(22):113-119

From: Lockwood, Allison. Pantsuited pioneer of women’s lib, Dr. Mary Walker. Smithsonian 1977;7(22):113-119

Hit discusses topics including love and marriage practices of various cultures, like Sicily, Syria, and Java; dress reform; divorce; and labor. Her chapter on tobacco is quite enlightening. She writes of the over-spending on tobacco products in New York City and the harm that smoke causes. “If all this $10,500,000 was expended in providing homes and food for the worthy poor, and unfortunately degraded women of New York, thousands of agonies would be relieved, and millions more prevented.” On alcohol consumption she boldly stated: “Every few weeks we read an account of a man killing his wife, or butchering his children while under the effects of the poison that our great Government derives such a large internal revenue.”6

From: Comstock, Elizabeth. Maude Glasgow, M.D. Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association 1953;8(1):26.

From: Comstock, Elizabeth. Maude Glasgow, M.D. Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association 1953;8(1):26.

Another pioneer in women’s rights was Maude Glasgow, MD. She was also a pioneer in preventive medicine and public health in New York City in the early 20th century.7

Dr. Glasgow wrote the book Subjection of Women and Traditions of Men, which provides an historical perspective on the status of women throughout ages. Prehistoric times, she described, were considered the “Matriarchal Age” because women founded almost everything from tools to agriculture. The “Patriarchal State” that followed was “founded on property and physical force.” As women lost their sense of autonomy men gained and refused to relinquish control.8

“The literature of all ages is full of insults, diatribes and accusations against women, yet in spite of the prolific abuse he lavished on her, man apparently cannot stand even the most gentle censure no matter how well-founded, and tries to suppress everything drawing attention to any of his own shortcomings or blunders. His self-love and ideas of grandeur must be protected at all cost.”9

Domestic violence-related issues continue to loom large today. In a recent publication, the CDC reported that domestic violence is a serious public health problem with long-term consequences.10 Their prevention “strategy is focused on principles such as identifying ways to interrupt the development of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) perpetration; better understanding the factors that contribute to respectful relationships and protect against IPV; creating and evaluating new approaches to prevention; and building community capacity to implement strategies that are based on the best available evidence.

From: Breiding, M.J., Chen J., Black, M.C. Intimate Partner Violence in the United States -- 2010. 2014. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/cdc_nisvs_ipv_report_2013_v17_single_a.pdf

From: Breiding, M.J., Chen J., Black, M.C. Intimate Partner Violence in the United States — 2010. 2014. Click to enlarge.

We have to do better in fostering a society of zero tolerance, holding offenders accountable, and not blaming the victim.

References

1. California Department of Health Services. History of Battered Women’s Movement. Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence; 1999. Available at: http://www.icadvinc.org/what-is-domestic-violence/history-of-battered-womens-movement/#dobash. Accessed September 26, 2014.

2. California Department of Health Services.

3. Mill, John Stuart. The Subjection of Women. London: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer; 1869. Available at: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/27083/27083-h/27083-h.htm.

4. Lockwood, Allison. Pantsuited pioneer of women’s lib, Dr. Mary Walker. Smithsonian 1977;7(22):113-119.

5. Walker, Mary E. Hit. New York: The American News Company; 1871.

6. Walker, Mary E.

7. Maude Glasgow, MD. American Medical Women’s Association; 2014. Available at: https://www.amwa-doc.org/faces/maude-glasgow-md/. Accessed October 9, 2014.

8. Glasgow, Maude. The Subjection of Women and Traditions of Men. New York: M. I. Glasgow; 1940.

9. Glasgow, Maude.

10.  Breiding, M.J., Chen J., Black, M.C. Intimate Partner Violence in the United States — 2010. 2014. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/cdc_nisvs_ipv_report_2013_v17_single_a.pdf