‘There was one blushing damsel, just budding sixteen, whose waist by a corset ne’er encircled had been, but whose mother insisted that on such a night one should find a place there, and the lacing be tight.’ (How She Felt In Her First Corset, 1887)
Tight lacing often was frowned upon in the Victorian and Edwardian era. I’ve compiled articles from 1800 till the 1920s which regard tight lacing as a danger to health. They say that tight lacing would produce diseases from cancer to consumption (tuberculosis) to abortion and even death.
Willich (1802) regards corsets as important for the health and comfort of women. However, stays shouldn’t be heavily boned, they should be rather made from wool felt or chamois leather. According to him, tight lacing causes cancer, nausea, distortion of the spine, and many other diseases. Willich recommends stays boned with nearly parallel whalebone strips and fastened at the sides with hooks and eyes. This corset should be made short so as to not to ‘produce any inconvenience on sitting down’. These stays may also be padded and stuffed as much as one wishes. – I’m wondering in what way this boned and padded corset should be better than other boned corsets. 😉 What do you think?
In 1836, Alcott says that tight lacing injures the lungs. Woman, and especially children, should never wear a corset. No busk or rigid seams should impede the movement of the ribs while breathing. The spine doesn’t need artificial support ‘to keep the body errect’. Alcott continues that tight lacing promotes shortness of breath, an unhealthy complexion, chronic diseases, and weakened organs.
There’s a cynical saying in 1846 that ‘tight lacing is a public benefit; for it kills off the foolish girls, and leaves the wise ones for good wives and mothers’ (Munn et al., 1846).
‘Above all, as you regard health, comfort, and beauty, do not lace too tightly. A waist too small for the natural proportion of the figure is the worst possible deformity, and produces many others. No woman who laces tight can have good shoulders, a straight spine, good lungs, sweet breath, or is fit to be a wife and mother.’ (Philip, 1856) Here’s a picture of an 1875-85 corded side lacing sports corset.
‘The, cultivated waist. That is what they call the twenty-four inch waist in England when it is compressed so that it may be girdled by an eighteen-inch leather helt. […] The artistic standards of beauty require that the waist should be twice the size of the throat. […] I read somewhere that the tightly-laced woman always imagines herself peculiarly sylphlike and graceful. Well, why? […] I cannot recall one–no, not even one sylph, not a single Venus, nor even a second-rate goddess, with an eighteen inch belt measure. […]
I think, however, that the men are to blame for the revival of the wasp waist. […] The truth is, that a slender, trim waist is pretty, and that a squeezed waist is not. Now, there are ways of attaining a slender waist–healthful, wholesome ways. Such a waist will, to use the slang of the period, be the real thing, while the squeezed waist will always be a deformity.
Nothing sooner destroys a woman’s freshness and the flesh-and-blood beauty of womanhood, than diseased and disordered nerves. There never was an agent conceived so diabolical in its effects upon the nervous system, as the corset that ingeniously deprives a woman of the proper functioning of every vital organ of her body.
I am no advocate of so-called dress reform […] I consider a well-fitting, properly constructed corset a blessing. I have experimented with substitutes, claiming to be æsthetic, hygienic, and elevating morally, and I have suffered, been made hideous to look upon, and certainly have not been improved in temper as a result. […]
I believe in a simple corset–not the corset coffin. The novel, boneless, ribbon corsets of Yvette Guilbert are all that are necessary to support the busts of slender women, young or old. Even stouter women look better in an easy-fitting corset that does not press the adipose tissue below or above its confines.
The great mistake American women make is in buying corsets without trying them on and securing a proper fit. No French woman ever thinks of purchasing a corset from the counter. She tries her corset on, and she is never satisfied until she secures a stay that is not only comfortable, both for sitting and standing, but one that gives her figure graceful lines, while it allows her to breathe easily and to walk without the appearance of being hampered in any way.’ (A Complete and Authentic Treatise on the Laws of Health and Beauy, 1899)
‘A perfectly fitting corset is the foundation for artistic dressing. This does not imply that the corset should be worn so tight as to contract the waist to an abnormally small size. True beauty combines symmetry with proportion. Broad shoulders and prominent hips, combined with an abnormally small, wasp-like waist, present a figure that is a monstrosity. If such a waist is natural the woman should take the necessary means to develop and correct it, and bring it to the proper proportions of the rest of the body. An abnormally small foot on a large body is no mark of beauty, but, rather, otherwise. The same rule holds true regarding the waist.’ (Talk Upon Practical Subjects, 1895)
‘No fashionable woman need tight lace; she is required to present an unbroken line from the decolletage to the knee, and this prevents any undue drawing in of the waist line.’ (The Queen, 1901)
Tight lacing shall even produce death ‘by cramping the motion of the heart’ (Johnson et al., 1909). She continues that the wasp-like shape is ‘unlovely’ and ‘unnatural’. The ‘outdoor girl’ ‘cannot have her movements impeded by long skirts, tight corsets, or a gigantic hat.’ (Every Woman’s Encyclopaedia, 1910-2a) An ‘all-in-one type of dress can be worn without corsets’. However, this source regards the modern corset as quite ‘hygienic’, not comparable to the stiff, old-fashioned stays. It is pliable, keeps the body warm, and gives support. To be healthy and keep young, a woman should wear a corset ‘made for her, and pay as good a price as she can afford.’ If a good corset is too expensive, she should choose light ones, such as ribbon corsets, and do daily exercises. Furthermore, a woman shouldn’t be ashamed of her pregnancy and therefore lace too tightly (Alsaker, 1916). If it is necessary at all, a light corset should be worn with shoulder straps. Here’s a picture of an 1890s corded health corset with shoulder straps.
Every Woman’s Encyclopaedia (1910-2b) calls the seventeenth century an era of extreme tight lacing, but today the figure is kept trim to old age with exercise, diet, and a good, but moderate, corset. Here’s an 1893 ad for a Good Sense Corset Waist. A girl should only wear a corded bodice till she’s fifteen. Between sixteen and seventeen, the figure should be gradually shaped so that there are no attempts at tight lacing in later age. Every Woman’s Encyclopaedia condemns the wearing of indiarubber belts in Turkish baths for weight reduction, and punishment corsets in schools. If some sleeping corset must be worn, it should just be of woolen stockinette.
Even in 1922, Lindlahr says that a woman who wears a tight laced corset plants ‘the seeds of cancer in the child’.
And today, it’s said that underwire bras cause breast cancer which is just a myth (Gorski, 2014; American Cancer Society, 2014).
On the other hand, well fitting corsets are thought health-promoting. Corsets are now ‘”therapeutic agents” recommended by many physicians.’ A tight laced corset isn’t bad as long as there’s no ‘nip in’ in the waist with a ‘downward pressure on the intestines’. A long, stout corset – not made from net – protects from chills and abdominal diseases in the tropics. Furthermore, corsets shall increase ‘a woman’s brain power’ because they bring stagnant blood near the intestines to the brain (Every Woman’s Encyclopaedia, 1910-2c). However the same source continues that ‘it is not necessary, in order to attain a fashionable figure, to be ” drawn in ” by staylaces until you cannot bend and can hardly breathe, for at length we recognise that beauty of outline is not gained by strenuous pinching-in of the middle of one’s figure.’ There’s a decreasing demand for small corset sizes: ‘Extreme tight-lacing is, luckily, no longer fashionable.’
Lacing a corset too tightly – especially in childhood – is surely bad for the health. Apart from that, I think there were promoted some myths as truth. On the one hand, because they knew less about causes of disease than today. On the other hand, they wanted to sell their product, such as ‘health corsets’.
- Alcott, W. A. (1836), ‘Sec. 2. Form Of The Dress. Continued.’, The Young Mother. Management of Children in Regard to Health, available at http://chestofbooks.com/health/children/William-A-Alcott/The-Young-Mother/Sec-2-Form-Of-The-Dress-Continued.html#.VZXxBkbcB7z, accessed 3/7/2015
- Alsaker, R. L. (1916), ‘Prenatal Care. Continued.’, Maintaining Health, available at http://chestofbooks.com/health/nutrition/R-L-Alsaker/Maintaining-Health/Prenatal-Care-Continued.html#.VZadkkbcB7z, accessed 3/7/2015
- American Cancer Society (2014), ‘Bras and Breast Cancer’, available at http://www.cancer.org/aboutus/howwehelpyou/bras-and-breast-cancer, accessed 6/7/2015
- Every Woman’s Encyclopaedia (1910-2a), ‘Hygiene In The Home. 3. Some Suggestions For Dress Reform’, available at http://chestofbooks.com/food/household/Woman-Encyclopaedia-4/Hygiene-In-The-Home-3-Some-Suggestions-For-Dress-Reform.html#.VZaUFEbcB7x, accessed 3/7/2015
- Every Woman’s Encyclopaedia (1910-2b), ‘The Art Of Wearing The Corset’, available at http://chestofbooks.com/food/household/Woman-Encyclopaedia-2/The-Art-Of-Wearing-The-Corset.html#.VZXvGkbcB7z, accessed 3/7/2015
- Every Woman’s Encyclopaedia (1910-2c), ‘Smart Dressing And Health’, available at http://chestofbooks.com/food/household/Woman-Encyclopaedia-2/Smart-Dressing-And-Health.html#.VZbad0bcB7x, accessed 4/7/2015
- Gorski, D. (2014), ‘One more time: No, wearing a bra does not cause breast cancer’, Science Based Medicine, available at https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/one-more-time-no-wearing-a-bra-does-not-cause-breast-cancer, accessed 6/7/2015
- Johnson et al. (1909), ‘Muscular Exercise’, Household Companion: The Family Doctor, available at http://chestofbooks.com/health/reference/Household-Companion/The-Family-Doctor/Muscular-Exercise.html#.VZaTkUbcB7z, accessed 3/7/2015
- Lindlahr, H. (1922), ‘Good Nature Cure Doctrine from an Allopathic Authority’, Nature Cure: Philosophy and Practice Based on the Unity of Disease and Cure, available at http://chestofbooks.com/health/natural-cure/Henry-Lindlahr/Nature-Cure/Good-Nature-Cure-Doctrine-from-an-Allopathic-Authority.html#.VZaaf0bcB7z, accessed 3/7/2015
- Munn et al. (1846), ‘Deerfield Bridge’, Scientific American Vol II. No. 1, available at http://chestofbooks.com/crafts/scientific-american/II-1/Deerfield-Bridge.html#.VZabaEbcB7z, accessed 3/7/2015
- Philip, R. K. (1856), ‘3288. How To Dress With Taste’, Facts Worth Knowing, available at http://chestofbooks.com/reference/Facts-Worth-Knowing/3288-How-To-Dress-With-Taste.html#.VZXtIkbcB7z, accessed 3/7/2015
- Willich, A. F. M. (1802), ‘Stays’, The Domestic Encyclopaedia Vol4‘, available at http://chestofbooks.com/reference/The-Domestic-Encyclopaedia-Vol4/Stays.html#.VZX0vEbcB7z, accessed 3/7/2015
1 thought on “Tight Lacing In The (Pre-) Victorian And Edwardian Era”
Lovely post, thank you.
I’ve just started a new blog on “why a corset”. It’s non commercial and I want to explore why women have (and still are) wearing corsets. It’s at
All comments and input is welcomed!