THE FRONTIER WOMAN’S CORSET….OR BODICE
By, Roberta C.M. DeCaprio
I’ve often heard romance novels of years ago referred to as “bodice rippers.” After reading a couple, I fully understood why. Back-in-the-day, when the hero ripped the clothes off the heroine, it was considered “sensual,” “exciting,” and “romantic.” I find it more disturbing, especially because I am a very practical person and would hate to see a perfectly good piece of clothing destroyed. Then, of course, I have this thing about being cherished by a man, and prefer to be unwrapped like a precious gift, instead of stripped. However, different strokes for different folks and to each their own taste in literature. This blog today isn’t about the various ways romance is written, likes and dislikes in the style used, etc.; but about the clothing, especially the corset…..or bodice, as a corset was sometimes called. One wonders, the way the corset or bodice was made (with wool, whale bone and tons of laces), how it could be ripped that easily while two people are in the throws of passion. Being the curious and inquisitive sort, I decided to do a bit of research on the frontier women’s corset. This is what I discovered:
Women of yonder years were taught from an impressionable age to conform to society's norms via serious amounts of peer pressure. To deviate from the norm was to be considered less than a lady and no one wanted to be shunned for being less than a lady. Doing your best to look your best was important, and all who could afford it aspired to attain the latest fashions.
One of the measures of beauty for this look was to appear to have a small waist, one no less than 17 inches, and no larger than 21 inches. To this end, women constructed gowns to accentuate this feature. The jewel neckline and center front openings were universal. Arm seams went very low onto the arm, making the shoulders look wide and sloping, thus accentuating the smallness of the waist. Side and shoulder seams were moved to the back to make a smoother line to the waist. Sleeves were full at the elbow; to make the waist look smaller by comparison, as well as a full skirt. Fashionable skirts were as wide as possible; this width was accentuated with the support of hoops or multiple starched petticoats. Another way to achieve the “small waist” look was by wearing a corset beneath the dress.
A corset is an article of dress designed to support or modify the figure, worn to shape or constrict the torso. It dates to at least c. 2000 BC, when it was worn as an outer garment by men as well as women in Minoan Crete. Corsets, also called bodices or stays, were worn by European women from the 16th century onward into the 17th century and was worn to flatten the chest and was reinforced with wood. Some outer corsets were jeweled and elaborately embroidered. After 1660 they were shaped to accentuate the breasts. In the 19th century the corset, now reinforced with whalebone or metal, changed with the style of dresses, changing their form as fashions changed.
The over-all look of the undergarment extended to the hips, and triangular gussets accommodated these curves as well as those of the breasts, which they could direct sideways. The center front had a pocket where a rigid ruler-like "busk," often made of wood or whale ivory, was inserted top to bottom through the front of the corset and served to keep the posture erect. These corsets were important to the development of the new fashionable figure. Since corsets were designed and worn for the sole purpose of cinching in the waist, it’s obvious that they were worn for compressing the body into an hourglass shape. And to do that, the laces must be tightened considerably. Tight lacing was, in fact, common. However, over-tight lacing of the corset was blamed for numerous health problems.
What happens to the human body when it is compressed in a corset? The human skeleton-muscular system is in perfect symphony with a vast network of internal and external organs. Throw a wrench in the system, however, and this wonderful machine that was designed to serve reliably for many years begins to break down. Breathing, eating, digesting, waste processing, and other bodily functions are restricted and become dysfunctional when the internal organs are constricted and displaced. The muscles are weakened and the ligaments stretched, so posture is not improved but deteriorates as the body becomes dependent upon an external support mechanism. A full range of motion is not possible, so energy levels and fitness decrease.
Because the corsets were so tight, women were only able to fill the tops of their lungs with air. This shallow breathing resulted in the bottom part of the lungs being filled with mucus. This was characterized by a persistent cough, the body’s way of ridding the lungs of foreign matter. This may have been why doctors believed corsets were a cause of tuberculosis. Women were also known to faint because of the reduced lung function. This made smelling salts a typical household item. Another corset health issue was the compression of the internal organs, including: Liver, Stomach, Bladder, and Intestines.
In the early 1800s, after the French Revolution, fashionable women temporarily gave up their corsets (along with the other symbols of the aristocracy) for looser clothing that seemed to parallel new ideas of freedom in political life. But when the corset returned a few years later, it took forms that eventually led to concerns for women’s health. Two things changed. First, the corset accentuated rather than hid the woman’s natural form, producing the corset shape that most of us recognized as an hourglass figure, with tight compression of the waist. Throughout the 1800s, corset forms became more and more exaggerated, women’s clothing increasingly hugged the torso, and the corset squeezed in more and more of the body to create an ideal female shape from shoulder to thigh. Second, more and more women wore them, and mothers used them for young children.
Women wore special maternity corsets while pregnant. Women who had worn corsets since childhood or adolescence probably had weaker abdominal muscles and might have benefited from proper support, but maternity corsets were not specially designed for support. Instead, the corsets were designed to mask, even minimize, the size of the pregnant body.
Leigh Summers writes in Bound to Please:
The corset had been the subject of intense medical and scientific scrutiny since the 1860s. By 1880 both the medical profession and of course the women who wore the garments understood that the corset exerted tremendous pressure on the abdomen as well as the chest. Using a manometer on more than fifty women, Dr. Latou Dickinson had shown that ‘regular’ stays produced between 21 lb. and 80 lb. of pressure per square inch on the body. Dickinson’s work had been replicated and further publicized by Dr. D.A. Sergeant, who had shown that the corset reduced lung capacity by at least one-fifth. Their work was further supported by hideous animal experiments on dogs and monkeys. The animals were corseted and the pressure on their abdomens and chests were systematically increased until they expired. These experiments, argued defenders, attempted to replicate the conditions imposed by the corset on the human frame and were discussed at some length in Lancet. The experiments showed that heart damage, syncope, and death were related to tightly laced corsetry. Critics of vivisection by corset described these experiments as ‘horrifying and wanton cruelty’. This charge was disputed by doctors who claimed that the [anaesthetized] animals did not suffer, and that similar “compression of the abdomen and chest… [was] self inflicted daily by thousands of women in Great Britain without anesthetic’.
Summers also discusses how the corset was used as an abortion device:
Lionel Rose has briefly discussed several case histories of working- and middle-class women whose illegitimate babies were successfully concealed from families and employees in nineteenth-century Britain. Rose noted that these pregnancies were completely undetected until the accidental discovery of the infants’ bodies. In almost all cases these unfortunate women insisted the infants were born dead or died very quickly after birth. It would seem extremely likely, given that Dr. Latou Dickinson’s experiments showed that the standard corset exerted up to 80 lb per square inch of pressure on the torso, that corsetry was probably integral in the maternal deception and contributed significantly to the ‘concealed’ infant’s death. The tightly laced corset offered an expedient method of family limitation that was instrumental in avoiding the outrage of husband, family, employers, clergy, state, and even personal ‘conscience’. The extreme pressure of a tightly laced corset may have inhibited quickening and would certainly have obscured it from public notice. In reducing the effects of quickening, or forestalling the completion of pregnancy altogether, the corset allowed the pregnant nineteenth-century woman to convince herself, consciously or unconsciously, that no pregnancy had occurred and that bleeding after months of ‘failed’ menstruation was simply a case of cleared ‘obstruction’. Moreover, if the corset failed to procure an early miscarriage, the likelihood of an infant’s survival, after it had been corseted throughout its term in utero, were markedly reduced.
[Dr.] Alice Stockman noted that many girls gave birth to ‘frail scrofulous children’ because of ‘obstruction in the respiratory system’. These obstructions, she maintained firmly, were the direct result of the corset. The corset allowed ‘mother’ to ‘breathe enough to sustain her own organism in fair condition’ but it meant she did ‘not inhale enough oxygen to sustain an inter-uterine being.’ Stockham stated that ‘many still births were explainable to this principle’. When asked by a patient how far advanced a woman should be in pregnancy before she laid aside her corset, she replied that ‘the corset should not be worn for two hundred years before pregnancy takes place’. Stockham insisted that ‘it would take that time at least to overcome the ill effects of the garment which [women] thought so essential.
Even young girls were corseted. Below is the telling of how a child, as yet unbowed by societal pressure to be “feminine”, would outright reject the corset. Gwen Raverat, a young girl during the Victorian era, recalls enforced juvenile corset wearing in her memoirs Period Piece. She recalls that her sister Margaret, when put into corset at thirteen, “ran round and round the nursery screaming with rage.” Raverat herself reacted this way:
I ran away somewhere and took them off… [then] endured sullenly the row that ensued when my soft-shelled condition was discovered; was forcibly re-corseted; and as soon as possible went away and took them off again. One of my governesses used to weep over my wickedness in this respect. I had a bad figure and to me they were instruments of torture; they prevented me from breathing, and dug deep holes into my softer parts on every side. I am sure no hair shirt could have been worse to me.
So is wearing the corset “feminine", and is a man able to rip one from a woman’s body in the heat of passion? The natural female body is feminine: just look at the strong healthy natural woman in Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”. And unless a lover has a crow bar and metal snips handy, I doubt he’s going to get to the goods in a hurry. But there’s not much profit to be made in encouraging women to look natural . . . especially in those “bodice ripping” romances.