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Corsets: Not Anatomical Torture Machines After All

Good News Everyone!

It’s been a joke amongst women for ages: the corset. That evil, constricting, painful thing we used to cinch our waists into nothing, all for the sake of attaining an impossible, ideal figure to attract (or keep) a husband. O, how it crushed our organs! O, those poor women who surgically removed their ribs to get into these things! O, why is there no male equivalent! O, we have to wear heels, too? Well, there is relief on the horizon for our sisters of centuries and decades past, for as it turns out, a lot of these beliefs about corsets being this horrifically terrible are somewhat exaggerated. 

Collector’s Weekly spoke with Valerie Steele, the director and curator at The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, about the popular misconceptions we have about the scary undergarment that has been all the rage for Victorian-era women and steampunk fans of the present day.

For one thing, women were not trying to achieve a 16-inch waist with a corset, and it was never the ridiculous ideal of any era. Corsets were only meant for a cinch of an inch or two, maybe four, but even that was extreme. Steele says that women’s waists remained at a safe size above 20 inches. The corsets themselves only went as low as 20 inches, and more often than not, gaps were left open in the back.

The corsets also didn’t crush women’s internal organs like we’d assume something that, um, squishy would. While it couldn’t be considered comfortable, and corsets could cause minor health issues like back pain, indigestion, and constipation, in no way did they cause cancer, scoliosis, tuberculosis, or physical damage to the liver. Says Steele:

“…[T]he idea of the misshapen liver seems to be a mistake based on the fact that there is a lot of variation in the shape of livers. When doctors did autopsies, they would see these weird-looking livers and they’d go, ‘That was caused by the corset.’”

The third myth is that this was something that men forced women to wear for their own viewing pleasure. Women chose to wear them for much the same reasons that women today get breast implants or liposuction: because of what it did for their figures. A small, neat waist was a sign of high status, and by pushing everything around like that — boobs, belly, hips — it turned a woman’s torso into an exaggerated version of the female figure. It was attention-getting. Men totally dug it. However, while the corset was the plastic surgery of its day, men claimed it made women “hysterical.” (If you’d like to see the sexist roots of that term, you can totally visit Wikipedia now and look it up!)

So, we can perhaps breathe a tiny bit easier about wearing corsets. (Pun intended.)

(via Collector’s Weekly)

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