Thursday, 30 October 2014

The Corset and its consequences on women's behaviour and rights

The Corset and its consequences on women's behaviour and rights.

Women wore corsets because of the fashion but we can see that it is a part of their bond : the corset is a physical proof of women's compression. We can note that slavery was abolished in 1833 in the British Empire but in a certain way, the more the population was free the more the women pressed their corsets. Indeed, more than underwear, it became a part of their body without which they felt “naked”. The bond became a habit and men were paradoxically sometimes more alarmed by the consequences on their body than women themselves.

The fact is that the corset by itself is an interesting clothe and I experienced that feeling when I went to the Victoria and Albert museum. The first impression I had when I went to the fashion section was “What a beautiful dress” with sparkling eyes : the fabrics, the decorations, the cut, everything made women look like princesses and I think it is because of the corset which gives that shape to women. I noticed the same reactions from other people : “It must give so much inspiration for people who study fashion”, “Look at the corset!” and it made me wonder; why such a painful clothe could retain our attention that much? Even in the 21th century, while women's right changed, we are still attracted by the corset.

When I started to think about the corset I thought I could find a lot of stories about the pain and the consequences for women who wore corsets but the thing is that I didn't find so many testimonies and I found it even more interesting. Even Florence Nightingale, who wrote about women's conditions didn't say a word about the corset while she was really close to that subject in Cassandra. Here is a quotation which called out to me : “What form do the Chinese feet assume when denied their proper development?” I think we could ask the exact same question for the corset and women's waists but we can note that she choose to pick a example which doesn't belong to her country and habits. Yet she describes women's behaviour as a “farce of hypocrisy”, which complicates our present topic : women put themselves in that situation, and I found three different examples of the danger of wearing corset, seen by men or women.

“Hygiene of the corset”  in The morning postWednesday May 18, 1842, p. 6 by Gazette Medicale de Paris.

As I said, I found interesting the fact I couldn't find too many testimonies about women wearing corsets, and most of the time, men were writing about that subject in the newspaper more than women. From a scientific point of view, we can see how “evil” the corset could be : “One never would believe that women were capable of enduring such torture, if one did not actually witness it. How is it that a body so soft, tender, and with such delicate springs in appearance, can suffer so cruel and so constant a ligature!”.

The scientific who answers is making a great point when he writes : “it orders them to crush and to compress the chest, to prevent respiration, digestion, walking and running, and nobody opposes it.” because we can see how paradoxical it is to be fashioned if it's prevent you to live. He is also saying that women themselves did nothing to stop the phenomenon and it shows how much they were constrained in their actions. The corset made them weaker than they could have been.

“Melle Lucile, your daughter, is approaching an age when a wish to please is quite natural; but it is possible to please without an elancé shape, or, in other words, without the corset which forms and delineates it?” the scientific answers to a mother which is worrying about her daughter who might soon wear a corset, but in the answer he is actually denouncing the fact women think they need a corset to be attractive, and today I'm wondering why women had to do such things to pleased men and the corset is a good example of what the society commanded to them. It is all the more complex that women themselves thought it was compulsory and couldn't live without that article. He tries to convince the women of the natural beauty “Rest assured that the absence of a corset destroys neither the elegance of the shape, the fulness of its lines, nor the harmony of its movements – far from it.”  

“The Cholic” by George Cruikshank, 1819

This drawing was made in the early 19th century but the corset was already an important part of fashion and I would introduce this picture with a quotation from the precedent text which suit perfectly to the situation.

“for you may well conceive that the human body is not to be obstructed in its organs and functions with impunity. It is defying nature, who soon or late will be cruelly revenged.”

This picture makes me feel uncomfortable, and even if the corset is not drown we can understand it is represented by the animals which are pressing the woman. Her expression is frightening as much as the thinness of her waist. The unhealthy atmosphere which comes out of that picture should already have made some women aware of their own situation but the fact is that wearing a corset became a habit. It was such a part of their everyday life that sometimes they didn't even think it could be the cause of some illness, as the Marchioness of Simioni in the way she is described by Louise Lurine.

The New Corset – chap. I “The Corset Fitted”, in The World of Fashion, Wednesday December 1, 1841, p. 269, by Louise Lurine.

In this fiction, the author describes how the Marchioness of Simioni is forced to cancel her apparition to a masked ball because of a powerful headache. Let's compare two passages of the extract edited in the newspaper : the first from the beginning and the second from the end.

At the beginning, she is getting ready for the masked ball by her servant : “That happy corset was made of satin, broidered with gold, and the inventor of it boasted that it was made on a new system, which would at the same time give a new grace to the most beauteous figure, and even make an ugly waist look attractive. The corset, I am quite ready to admit, was a chef-d'oeuvre in its way ” we can see how beautiful the underwear seems to be, and it reminds me my reactions in the museum, but also a kind of irony which comes out the word “boasted”. The narrator doesn't believe that it could really work and the end of the days shows it : “But there was another grief to be endured by her, greater than all the rest ; for, as she advanced to a mirror to look at herself for the thousandth time that evening, it seemed to her as if, in the course of ten minutes, she had grown ten years older, and she thought herself ugly – abominably ugly”.

So, women don't need it to be pretty in that way and it is even unhealthy to wear corsets, but the social pressure and the fashion made the women wear corsets and be stick to it, as if they weren't allowed to live, despite of it's glamourous appearance, the corset was more a death instrument than a useful and effective accessory.  


  1. I really like how despite not being able to find many texts that speak about the corset, you still managed to find many examples that supported the idea that this piece of clothing was very much part of a woman's body during the Victorian era. Especially the painting that you chose, which effectively shows the agony and the suffering that women had to face when wearing the corset. It can represent the authority that society had on women. Really nice blog post Arya!

  2. I really liked your blog post! Your mentioning of slavery in the introduction really caught my attention, and I like the way you managed to highlight the use of corset from different angles! As Kae mentions above, you use images which are very describing in terms of the sufferings women felt when wearing corsets. Your emphasis on details, such as the animals in the image, and well chosen quotes makes the blog entry very exciting to read!