Our own ‘Mrs Grieve’, a most valued member of the museum team. Often remarked upon, the most noted thing is not how she died or even the use of her body as an educational tool post-mortem. Instead, one’s attention is drawn immediately to her torso; her misshapen ribcage as a result of tight corseting. But there are several misconceptions about what exactly corseting does to a body, and to that end, so many misconceptions about women’s health in general. 1

To explore this topic of medical misunderstanding we must first explore the fashion of corseting itself: “there is, in truth, no tyranny like the tyranny of fashion” (‘On voluntary distortions of the human figure by artificial compression’, 1832). Corsetry (i.e. waist cinching) has been practised in different forms throughout fashion history, but it was not until the 18th century that we began to see extremes in popular fashions. Rumours that it was commonplace to have a waist so tightly laced that a hand could be wrapped around it are unfounded: no museum to date has an example of a corset that could be laced this tightly. However, in the late 1800s tight lacing to the degree of deformity was indeed in vogue, and there are a number of existing examples (such as Mrs Grieve) to this fact.

‘Über die Wirkungen der Schnürbrüste’.
Wellcome Collection.

We have all heard tales of hysteria and the vapours. Of Victorian women collapsing in the streets and having their maladies attributed to nothing more than their sex. But while some laymen may well have assumed that women were simply too weak to function, the medical establishment was relatively quick to attribute women’s specific malaise to the tight lacing of corsets. They recognised that tight lacing was restrictive to women’s breathing and the detrimental effect that compressing the organs could have on one’s digestive system. They named these symptoms ‘chlorosis’, or colloquially, ‘the green sickness’.

Symptoms of chlorosis (from ‘On voluntary distortions of the human figure by artificial compression, 1831) included headaches and pain behind the eyes, giddiness, fainting, ringing in the ears, and nose bleeds. These symptoms were attributed to blood being driven to the head. In the chest, there was shortness of breath, blood-spitting, consumption, heart palpitations, circulatory distress, and water in the chest (in addition to surface injury to the breast). And finally, in the abdomen, there was a loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, eructation, ‘depraved digestion’, flatulence, diarrhoea, induration of the liver, dropsy, and rupture. All these maladies were given one name, and one cause.

Bones of the ribcage and pelvis: two figures, showing the appearance of the ribcage and spine in both its natural state, and when distorted by tight lacing. Etching with watercolour, 1864. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark.

In addition to chlorosis, corset-wearing also left notable lingering damage to the body. Those who were accustomed to daily wear would find that their back muscles would become so weakened that they were unable to hold themselves up without a corset. Furthermore, some would be entirely dependent on their corset as they would become faint without it, even lacing themselves before going to sleep. This was theorised as being due to blood rushing down through the body when the thorax and abdomen were released from the constraints of the corset. This was especially prevalent in those young women who had grown up wearing a corset, and it was not uncommon for children to be laced as they grew. They would go on to develop deformities such as compressed ribs, curved spine, and high shoulders. One physician noted that it was not uncommon (32–36% of women over 40) to find a groove post-mortem, corresponding with the left ribs, extending along the stomach and continuing through the liver, caused by the pressure of tight lacing.  

An anecdote to this point: a century earlier, from 1760-1770, it had been popular in Holland and parts of Germany to corset children, usually just the favourite child. These children grew up to have pronounced high shoulders and hunches. The correlation between corseting and deformity in their once beautiful sons was established and the practice fell out of favour.

With the connection established between corseting and deformity and sickness, you’d be inclined to wonder why this trend continued as long as it did. While some pleas to cease corset-wearing for women’s health may have been heard, much of wider society was more concerned with what were considered to be a woman’s priorities: to be wife and mother. Usually, the public is more attuned to the popular fashions of the day than the select concerns of medical professionals. A general belief was also held that the fulfilment of this divine purpose would lead to the betterment of a woman’s health: “She is now married; her highest ambition and most fervid wishes are fulfilled. This state of her mind reflects sensibly on her nervous system and circulation, and increases their action beyond former limits.” (J.H. Pulte, 1863). It is noteworthy that some physicians did remark better health in married women, but speculated that this was in fact due to many women choosing to cease the wearing of corsets after marriage.

Women’s health has always been predicated on their sexual health, fertility, and ability to bear child. Some thought may also have been given to a woman’s constitution in terms of her delicacy, grace, and general pleasantness, but this also only really regards her ability to be a wife and mother. Even now, women have a hard time seeing that their health issues are chalked up to anything more than just ‘woman’. A multitude of women healers (Harriot Hunt and Elizabeth Blackwell, for two prime examples) have been inspired by ignorance of women’s bodies. For example, in the latter half of the 1800s, male doctors held the belief that the ‘safe’ period was in the middle of a woman’s menstrual cycle, when the opposite is in fact true. (Note: That’s not even really ‘true’. Maybe it’s true if you live in the 1800s and your one lambskin prophylactic is still drying out on the washing line. Please use contraception.)

The acceptance from women of sacrificing their health to satisfy their prescribed role is not dead in the ground. But, favourably, chlorosis – and its adjacent disorders – has not been recorded since the androgynous fashions of the 1920s. Though corsetry as shapewear was seen through to the 1960s, and corsets are still worn today either as fantasy or fashion statement, we can hope we have learned enough to leave our ribs undone.

“In future we shall never see them without thinking of twisted bones, dropsy, consumption, indurated livers, fainting, spitting of blood, melancholy, hysteria, sour tempers, rickety children, pills, lotions, and doctors’ bills.” ‘On voluntary distortions of the human figure by artificial compression’, 1832).

  1. This body of research concerns the UK in the late 1800s, however medical texts from the US at this time have been used to inform it.

References

  • Brooke, E (1993) ‘Women enter the profession’ Women Healers London: The Women’s Press Ltd.
  • Isaac, S (2017) ‘The dangers of tight lacing: the effects of the corset’ Royal College of Surgeons of England Available at: https://www.rcseng.ac.uk/library-and-publications/library/blog/effects-of-the-corset/
  • Jessop-Moore, C (1896) Dress and health: an appeal to antiquity and common sense London: Elliot Stock
  • Lynn, E (2014) Underwear in Detail London: V&A
  • Pulte, J.H. (1863) Woman’s medical guide: containing essays on the physical, moral and educational development of females, and the homeopathic treatment of their diseases in all periods of life: together with directions for the remedial use of water and gymnastics Cincinnati: Sargent, Wilson & Hinkle
  • Unknown (1832) On voluntary distortions of the human figure by artificial compression Edinburgh: SN
  • (2014) ‘N.192 “Tight Lacer’s Liver” 1907’ Queen Mary University of London Available at: https://www.qmul.ac.uk/pathologymuseum/specimens/items/items/n192-tight-lacers-liver-1907.html
Women’s Health: Fashion and the ‘Weaker Sex’
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