Physicians concerned about public health focus their attention on curtailing preventable risks to health, not only infectious diseases but also harmful behaviors. A hundred years ago Western physicians were fighting to eliminate a particular risk to women’s health—the corset, an undergarment once worm by most Western women (and some men). Artfully designed clothing alters how the body looks, but the corset dramatically changes basic body shape.
Corsets have been common in Western society for the past 500 years. They are fabric garments that constrict the torso. Reinforced with stiffeners, they fit so tightly that the body is molded into the desired shape.
The shape was originally architectural, making a woman’s torso a straight-sided, inverted cone. It masked all natural shape between breast and hip, and, although it hampered movement somewhat, it affected only the torso and left the hips and arms free. (History buffs will remember this look as being popular during the reign of England’s Queen Elizabeth I.) This basic approach, which was always the mark of aristocratic women, continued until the early 1800s with relatively minor changes in shape.
In the early 1800s, after the French Revolution, fashionable women temporarily gave up their corsets (along with the other symbols of the aristocracy) for looser clothing that seemed to parallel new ideas of freedom in political life.
But when the corset returned a few years later, it took forms that eventually led to concerns for women’s health. Two things changed. First, the corset accentuated rather than hid the woman’s natural form, producing the corset shape that most of us recognize—an hourglass figure, with tight compression of the waist. Throughout the 1800s, corset forms became more and more exaggerated, women’s clothing increasingly hugged the torso, and the corset squeezed in more and more of the body to create an “ideal” female shape from shoulder to thigh. (See an example in the exhibit.) Second, more and more women wore them, and mothers used them for young children.
Harmful Effects of Corsets
These efforts to achieve ever-smaller waists eventually led to outcries against corsets, first in the 1820s and 1830s and again in the 1880s and 1890s. Physicians objected to the health risks, religious leaders objected to the display of the exaggerated female shape, and feminists decried the corset as real and symbolic imprisonment of women.
The important place of the corset as a health risk is highlighted in the title of the book An Examination of Five Plagues: Corsets, Tobacco, Gambling, Strong Drink and Illegal Speculation, published in 1857 by Charles Dubois. As the health campaign gathered force, innumerable ills were attributed to the corset (tuberculosis, liver disease, even cancer), but some physicians got to the heart of the problem by emphasizing the extent to which a corset prevented proper muscle development and vigorous exercise.
By the early 1900s, the public campaign had become a mainstream concern, with two results. First, manufacturers began to emphasize that their corsets were made according to the latest scientific and medical principles, and therefore prevented the vital organs from shifting and would not hinder breathing. Second, fashionable clothing became looser.
Corsets now are relegated to costume dramas, a few high-fashion designers (although they do not use true corsets), and the half-hidden world of enthusiasts and sexual fetishists.
We might be tempted to consider the corset’s 500-year reign a puzzling historical curiosity. Society may, however, have merely shifted to different ideals and approaches. First, it is women’s feet that are now reshaped and constricted, by stiletto-heeled shoes with pointed toes that restrict women’s movement and lead to serious problems with spinal alignment and foot problems. (See examples in the exhibit.) Second, instead of using corsets to mold women’s bodies, we now reshape the body itself through diet and exercise (and anorexia and bulimia) to achieve the thin, virtually androgynous body of today’s fashion model.
— Addeane S. Caelleigh
The author is director of special projects, Office of the Dean, UVA School of Medicine.
The essay, here slightly revised, was originally published in Academic Medicine (vol. 73, no. 12/December 1998, p. 1228), and is reproduced with permission of the publishers.
Special thanks to Normajean N. Hultman, Historical Collections Assistant, for creating the content for the Reflections Web exhibits.