Make No (Whale)Bones About It: Debunking those Corsetry Myths

When discussing historical fashion, chances are the topic will lead to corsets. As soon as that word is mentioned, one (or more) of the following statements abound:

“Women couldn’t breathe in corsets and fainted frequently. That’s why there’s fainting couches.”
“But did you know women had ribs surgically removed to tight lace?”
“Women were forced to wear corsets.”
“Corsets were painful and restrictive.”

The short response to the previously listed claims is: the 21st century understanding of corsetry is riddled with myths and conjectures based on a lack of practical experience wearing and researching these garments. However, the short answer is neither convincing nor fun, so we shall be deep diving into the history of corsetry in order to understand how these conjectures are indeed myths. After all, how can we possibly begin to debunk these myths without a proper understanding of these garments?

Centuries of Corsetry Explained

A Pair of Fully Boned 18th Century Stays
A pair of fully boned 18th century stays, BOCA Museum of Art Exhibition, 2011

Women have been wearing supportive garments for centuries, but they weren’t always called “corsets.” From a pair of bodies in the 16th century to a pair of stays roughly from the late 16th/early 17th century through the 18th century, the garment morphed from stiffened fabric to a structured garment with channels of whalebone.

Despite the general understanding of corsetry as waist cinching garments, stays were not constructed to reduce waist sizes in extreme measures. The main function of stays provided bust support, created a clean, crisp line on which the fabric would lay, and provided the desired silhouette through bone placements.

In the 18th century, stays had two main waves of construction styles. Fully boned stays were lined fully from front to back with bones. These bones were mainly whalebone, but also could be made from reed. Half-boned stays had significantly fewer bone placements and several “free” spaces, or spaces with no bones. Bones would be placed at strategic angles in order to create the illusion of a cone shape, which was the popular silhouette of the time period.

A pair of 18th century silk jumps
A pair of 18th century silk jumps, Cora Ginsburg, Costume, Textiles, & Needlework

An extremely informal alternative to stays in the 18th century were garments called “jumps.” These garments had minimal to zero boning in them, and were exclusively worn at home. These garments provided support, but offered no shape.

The term, “corsets,” came into play during 19th century. There was, however, a bit of a flux in terminology in the early 19th century, with “stays” still being used.

Unlike stays, corsets changed drastically throughout the course of the 19th century. The progression of corsetry during this time period started off as lightly boned or corded garments and transitioned into more heavily boned garments.

Corded Corset, c. 1800-1825. These corsets had no boning in them.
Corded stays, c. 1800-1825 Vintage Clothing & Textile Auction, 2007.

Tight-lacing capabilities really didn’t start appearing in corsets until ca.1840-1850, and tight-lacing should not be considered synonymous with corsetry. They are, indeed, two separate things.

Corsetry itself is the wearing of a garment that provides support to the bust.  We just associate the word with these tight-lacing “oppressive” garments that women wore for hundreds of years. Tight-lacing was an optional trend that was added to the construction and durability of corsets in the mid-1800s.

A wrapped corset, c. 1800, from the Musee Galleria
A wrapped corset, c. 1800, Musee Galliera

Throughout the 19th century, the construction of corsetry adapted with the increased technology of the period. Prior to the 19th century, stays were hand stitched and hand bound. As time progressed, corsets could be manufactured and mass produced. In addition, hand sewn eyelets, a time consuming task of the 18th century, quickly became a thing of the past with the introduction of metal grommets. 

Debunking Myths

Arguably one of the most gratifying parts to researching, reproducing, and wearing historical attire is separating fact from fiction in order to understand the people who lived before us. It is a teaching tool most important to understanding the past as a whole. After all, the phrase, “you don’t know a person until you walk around in his/her shoes” doesn’t just exist for reading purposes. It should be put to use in everyday life.

Myth #1: Women couldn’t breathe in corsets and fainted frequently. That’s why there were fainting couches.

There’s a lot to unpack here. While we can’t interview every woman who existed before us, we can use what they left behind to help answer this question.

First, corsets are working garments, meaning their adjustable features morphed with the women who wore them. While we think of corsets as being rigid (and in some ways, they are), there is some flexibility to them. Women of all classes wore corsets, which meant that this garment needed to function for the daily laborer just as much as it needed to function for the wealthy elite.  As a result, women had to be able to move and breathe in them and would lace their corset accordingly. If you are wearing a corset and you cannot breathe, the garment either doesn’t fit you, or is tightened up too much.

But the strongest support to show that women could breathe and weren’t fainting all over the place comes from the fainting couches themselves.

Wait, what? Surely, the name of this couch suggests that women fainted? Well, sure, if that’s what those couches were really called.

Truth be told, the Victorians didn’t use the term, “fainting couch.”  Let’s take a look at Google Ngram Viewer. This database searches the printed word from the 1500s and on.  After searching for “fainting couch,” the results show that this term didn’t exist until well after the Victorian Age. This term is indeed a modern construction.

Screen shot of Google Ngram viewer that shows the term "fainting couch" appearing for the first time in the 1960s.
A screenshot of Google Ngram Viewer, searching for “fainting couch” in the printed word over the years.

The couches that we call fainting couches were actually referred to as day beds in the Victorian Era. These low lying couches copied the same design of the ancient Greek and Roman daybeds. For a period of time, it was popular to go back to Greek and Roman design. In fact, Wheatland itself is built with some Grecian inspiration, such as the Doric columns on the front and back porch.

Myth #2: But did you know that women had their ribs surgically removed in order to tight-lace?

Having ribs surgically removed during the 19th century isn’t true. There seems to be no historical evidence of these surgeries ever occurring. In The Corset: A Cultural History, Valerie Steele, author, fashion historian, and Director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, affirms this conjecture as “entirely mythical” and explains that this myth came to be from the modern world’s unrealistic understanding of corsetry and the health effects surrounding it.

Indeed, we cannot state that wearing corsets resulted in absolutely zero health effects. That is not the point of this post in the slightest. Rather, the point is to show the varied myths that have cropped up around corsetry.

This brings up another important point. When talking about the myth of surgically removing ribs to achieve a smaller waist, what exactly is the definition of a smaller waist? If your answer is 16 inches, that is following suit with the mythical waist size of the period.

Let’s take a look at what history has left behind for us. In Colonial Williamsburg’s collection, the smallest pair of stays had a 24 inch waist, with the largest being over 30 inches (Steele The Corset: A Cultural History).  During Steele’s research into corsetry, she discovered that “[s]tatistics from the Symington Collection of the Leicestershire Museums Service indicate that out of 197 corsets, only one measured 18 inches. Another 11 were 19 inches. Most were 20 to 26 inches” (Steele The Corset: A Cultural History).

Picture of a corset c. 1860
Corset, 1864 Victoria & Albert Museum

In addition, Doris Langley Moore’s collection of period dresses (not corsets) belonging to young women of the period averaged at a 24 inch waist (Moore The Woman in Fashion).

While we have the few outliers of extremely small waists, such as the 18 inch waist, the majority of corsets from collections spanning from the 18th to 19th centuries fall within the range 24-30 inches, a range that women today can fall into naturally. It stands to reason, then, that we cannot say that women are lacing down to extreme measures when the waist sizes reflect natural waists of some women in today’s world.

It is also worthy to note that the proper way to wear corsets involves a lacing gap of 2-3 inches. To estimate the waist size of the wearer, one has to increase the measurement of the corset by roughly 2-3 inches.

With that said, we must also take these waist measurements of corsets (and dresses) with a grain of salt. Why, for instance, did these particular garments survive while others did not? Were they particularly beautiful? Were they not able to be passed down to the next generation for some reason? Did they belong to the wealthier class, a class that would be more apt to preserving garments than the lower class? All of this is to say that, while we have these numbers to work with, they may not be an accurate representation of women throughout all ages, classes, and social settings. What these numbers do say, though, is that corsets are lacing to sizes that are quite natural for women on their own, even by today’s standards.

Myth #3: Women were forced to wear corsets.

On a basic human level, a garment that is physically damaging, uncomfortable, and restrictive shouldn’t last for centuries. If this garment was something so massively oppressive, women would have discarded it long ago.

At a historical level, women didn’t always wear corsets. In fact, as Juanita Leisch points out in Who Wore What? Women’s Wear 1861-1865, women actually posed for photographs without wearing a corset. This is significant because we’re not just saying that women chose to be corset free around the home; instead, women chose to be corset free in public.

Myth #4: Corsets were painful and restrictive.

W.B. Cyclists Style Corset Advertisement

Not really. Again, drawing from an earlier point, if your corset is painful, or you cannot breathe, then you are doing something wrong.

Stays and corsets were garments made specifically to the measurements of the wearer. There was no “one size fits all” that every woman of every shape and size had to squeeze themselves into and suffer through all day long.  18th century stays had adjustable shoulder straps and adjustable lacing (either front or back lacing). Corsets in the 19th century had adjustable lacing and featured specific corsets tailored to certain sports or labor-driven work.

Taking their fluidity into account and pairing it with the knowledge that women would sometimes elect not to wear corsets provides further perspective into the way women used these garments. We must remember that, although these women came from different times and different societies, they still had agency. They still wore (or didn’t wear) fashions depending upon their own moods or tastes. Just as some women today choose to wear dresses while others choose to wear pants, women of the past chose the corsets that worked for them.

But why do we have all of these myths?

The answer goes back to my first opening statement: a lack of practical experience and research into these garments. As a result, it’s hard to understand how something felt when you’ve never had the experience yourself.

It’s easy for us to look at the people of the past and say, “They got it all wrong, and we’ve got it all right!” It’s the “City Upon a Hill” complex— looking down at everyone from our “enlightened” and “better” world above. It’s easy to make women victims of fashion and say that women wore corsets exclusively for the male gaze. But it’s not that simple. Nothing in life is so simple. As Valerie Steele points out, we have our own corset of today through dieting, plastic surgery, and other body shaping methods. Are we really better than anyone else, or are we perhaps just projecting our current situations and worldview upon the people of the past to make ourselves seem better?

The corset shouldn’t be viewed as something oppressive, and women of the past shouldn’t all be thrown into the corner as victims of their fashions. Women were making history back then, too, through leadership, bravery, and deeds both big and small, and they did that all in a pair of stays or in a corset. It didn’t stop them, and it shouldn’t stop us from trying to understand them and the garments they wore in a better, and less mythical way.

Featured Image Courtesy of: Godey’s Lady’s Book

Gaining perspective from the history left behind at Wheatland, Museum Associate Stephanie Celiberti explores the world that James Buchanan inhabited, digging up the intricacies of daily life in the 19th century to better understand the ins-and-outs of those who came before us. By walking in the shoes—quite literally—of the Victorians, she challenges a new understanding of history—one that is tactile and present with our world today. 

From History From The House