I confess that the chance to title this article with a reference to a certain American television program that fact checks popular myths and urban legends proved irresistible when paired with the opportunity for an apt double-entendre. Silly as the title might be, however, the topic nevertheless is borne from frustration at having to refute so many commonly-held misconceptions about corset realities seemingly at every turn. The film industry and popular fiction are both culpable in this, with almost de rigeur dialogue on how torturous and limiting corsets are spilling from the lips of anachronistically modern female characters. With most viewers and readers unfamiliar with the feel of a correctly-fitted corset, the myths refuse to die. So without further ado, here are some facts.
Everyone “knows” all Victorian women were wasp-waisted, but ironically the person whose name identifies the century was herself proof of the lie. Queen Victoria stood less than five feet tall, and based on authenticated undergarments sold by Hanson’s Auctioneers in Britain in 2008, by the 1890s had a bust of 66 inches and a waist of over 50 inches1. She was literally as wide as she was tall (Fig. 1).
Many people get their small-waisted impressions of the era from fashion plates or advertisements (Fig. 2), which tend toward unrealistic representations of universally tiny waists, a trend modern fashion ads still perpetuate. The more realistic photographic record, however, proves that women had as broad a range of sizes as women do today, from those either tightly corseted or naturally trim, to moderate waists, to the large (Fig. 3). The job of the corset was to create a smooth line, no matter the size of the wearer.
Useful as photographs are, they do not aid us in getting measurements. Luckily some information is available from contemporary studies of the matter. An 1887 report by Dr. Robert L. Dickinson found corseted waists ranging from no difference at all (!) to a maximum of six inches (an outlier in his study), with an average reduction being just two and a half inches. The smallest corseted measurement he encountered in his sample of over a thousand women was 19.5 inches, which relaxed to 24 inches uncorseted2. Verifying this variety by looking at extant corsets is tricky; since a corset would generally be worn with a gap in the back of an inch or two, any corset in a collection provides only a starting point for the actual waist measurement it created. According to Dickinson’s findings, a 22 inch corset could have created anything from a 22 to a 28 inch waist. A census of corset waist measurements in museum holdings has not been done (now THAT would be a fascinating project!), but a full range of sizes is evident. A remarkably tiny 1870s corset from the Old York Historical Society in Maine has an eye-popping waist of 16.5 inches, so anywhere from 16.5 to 22.5 when worn -- take THAT, Miz Scarlett! -- and its accommodation for both hips and bust make clear it is a woman’s garment, not a girl’s. Meanwhile an 1890s example at the Irma Bowen Textile Collection at the University of New Hampshire measures a more typical 22.5 inches, anywhere from 22.5 to 28.5 inches when worn, and another Old York Historical Society corset, this one from the early 20th century, is clearly that of a very stout woman. Its long, adjustable straps make accurate measurements of its capacity difficult but it is quite large. (Fig. 4)
If corsets provide too many variables in waist measurements, the better constant, therefore, would be the clothing worn over them. In this, museum collections sometimes seem to support the stereotype. As a curator giving tours of exhibitions, “They’re all so TINY!” or variations on that theme are the most common visitor comment I hear. And yes, often the dresses on display are petite, or at least appear to be so (more on this later.) This is because clothing that winds up in a museum collection has passed through many filters. First, it had to have mattered enough to the original owner to have been preserved. Generally this means collections are disproportionately filled with special occasion garments, often from the earlier years of a woman’ s life– a special dance dress, or a wedding gown, for example – clothes worn during the exciting years of courtship, before babies and life happened to her body.
Women today still follow this pattern. They might have a prom dress or wedding dress tucked lovingly away, but who stores their “good” dress from later in life, or their comfy jeans? Ironically the everyday mundane clothes, less important in their day, are more precious now, as fewer of these have survived.
Second, the garment must have retained its integrity if it was handed down for re-use, possibly altered and altered until little, if anything, remains of the original. Third, the garment must have been stored in a way that didn’t expose it to deterioration, or in the case of weighted silks, made with self-destructive materials. Fourth, it must have passed into the hands of someone who recognized its merits and found a museum or historical society to accept it. Fifth, it must have a quality that endeared it to the person selecting what clothes will be put on display, and often the prettier, fancier (usually tinier) things get chosen over their plainer sisters. Wedding dress and ball gown exhibitions are far more common than displays of workday clothes; they are more exciting for visitors and more likely to draw crowds.
That’s a lot of filters, and the result is that costume collections generally have a skewed representation of the actual range of body types. Even when they do show a range, people seem to notice only the tiny ladies.
Despite these hurdles, there is evidence in collections of at least some of the range, though there is no way to gauge how accurate the percentage of sizes represented is. Sometimes clothing from later years of a woman’s life does hold enough meaning to its original owner to be saved and passed on without alteration, eventually to wind up in a collection. A Paris-made couture tea gown by Maison Rouff in the Bowen Collection was cherished and saved, with a respectably matronly 39 inch waist, while a mourning gown from the Ffrost-Sawyer family, who seemed to save everything, measures 45 inches3.
This canard refuses to die, despite the fact that until the late 1840s surgeries were performed without anesthesia, a prospect so horrific that even people at risk for their lives sometimes elected not to go under the knife. More to the point, even after the development and spread of pain-free surgery there would have been no motivation to undergo such a procedure for the simple reason that a tiny waist can be achieved through waist-training, as modern tight-lacers prove. In the nineteenth century there is photographic evidence of women whose goal was to have remarkably small waists, but that is precisely the point – they were remarkable, the outliers (Fig. 5). Émilie Marie Bouchaud, known as Polaire, was one of these, a French actress and singer who was the Madonna of her day, using deliberate fashion, hair, and makeup choices to boost her fame and notoriety. These included bobbed hair and short skirts before they were fashionable, as well as a nose ring and a diamond-wearing pet pig. Her waist was purportedly just 16 inches, accentuated by a large bosom. Regular women in general did not go to this extreme, but their measurements could vary over the course of a day, with perhaps a slightly tighter lacing for an evening outing than for an afternoon tea with friends.
While the corset did have a measurement reduction goal, its more general purpose was to provide a correct foundation for the fit of the clothes worn over it, which explains why Dr. Dickinson found some women with no size difference at all when corseted. Fanny Lehwal Stahr’s carte de visite (above right) shows a woman who could never hope for her corset to render her willowy, but what it does give her is a beautiful fit for her bodice (Fig. 6). She would look very different without it, and the size of her waist has nothing to do with it. Reenactor and reproduction seamstress Liz Hayes demonstrates this real purpose very nicely on her blog, The Pragmatic Costumer4. Wearing the same dress with and without her corset, the effect is clear (Fig. 7). On the left, without the corset, the dress fits well enough. However on the right, worn with the corset, the lines change into a fluid, smooth, very deliberate and fashionable look as the dress floats beautifully over her foundation layer. She does achieve reduction of about an inch – but to her bust line, not her waist. Yet her waist looks smaller in the corseted image. Why?
The key is optical illusion, and Liz’s case, with no measurement difference at the waist, is an excellent example. Basically a corset, even if it doesn’t reduce a waist, still shifts it from an oval shape to a round one. By moving tissue from the sides toward the front and back to create a round shape, the corset makes its wearer appear slimmer when viewed from the front. In the diagram, the dashed line is the un-corseted shape. The model in this 1906 photograph from the French fashion magazine Femina demonstrates the effect in the mirror; we see her from the side, but her three-quarters reflection in the glass shows a narrower impression (Fig. 9).
The optical illusion gets carried forward with the fashion details of the clothes themselves. Broad shoulders, widely flaring skirts, large sleeves, trim placement, hip pads and so on all draw the eye outward, and leave the waist seeming smaller in comparison (Fig. 10). Why have painful surgery if lacing and illusion can do the trick?
Ah yes, the fainting flower. All those men must have been waltzing and two-stepping by themselves at the dances, then. Nineteenth century medical views towards women’s fragile health are laughable today, yet their presumption of feminine delicacy manages to hang on with this myth. Dr. Dickinson’s study was not alone in finding corsets to move women’s breathing to the upper chest, but the thought that this would necessarily induce fainting would have come as a surprise to the definitely corseted and brass-instrument-playing members of the Ladies Ideal Band of 1888.
The idea that a woman in a corset is rendered physically hobbled, or is living in a permanent tortured state, is perpetuated by people with no direct experience and a lifetime spent in loosely tailored clothing, much of it knit. Living in the confines of closely tailored non-stretch clothing and the undergarments worn with them seems inconceivable, but of course to the nineteenth century woman this was simply how life was. Accordingly, the photographic record shows them in full action: they lived, worked, danced, tobogganed, played tennis, rode bicycles, climbed pyramids, scaled glaciers, skated, and more, all while wearing a corset, petticoats, and a variety of hoops and bustles.
Of particular merit in chronicling the sheer delight of women enjoying themselves with no evident impact from corsetry (or long skirts, bustles, or hats, for that matter) is the family album published in 1965 as The Happy Valley: The Elegant Eighties in Upstate New York, by Syracuse University Press. Pauline Dakin Taft assembled her father’s youthful photography into an utterly charming glimpse of Victorian summers at play. Leonard Dakin’s attempts to copy Edward Muybridge’s motion study photography is especially relevant to the topic at hand. He captures his friends and relatives, teen and adult, in all manner of motion: ladies jumping over low tennis nets with skirts and petticoats flying, playing jump rope while getting quite respectable air, running full tilt across the lawn, climbing fences and then jumping down from them, performing broad jumps, and so on. In all of these they are fully and properly attired and often grinning like mad.
Interestingly, Dakin also photographed the various tableaux and group charade poses with which the family entertained themselves, such as a dentist hard at work on a patient’s mouth, or the excavation of ancient ruins. One of these stereotypical set pieces was “The Faint,” which required four young women to complete: the dramatically positioned fainter, the smelling salts holder, the concerned shoulder rubber, and the worried hand chafer. Fainting was, in effect, a joke. Incidentally, the four women are present in the leaping photographs as well.
Dakin’s images are not isolated examples of female activity. Following here is just a small sampling of corseted ladies leading their lives to the fullest (Fig. 12).
In the, yes, hysterical attitude on women’s health of the nineteenth century, corsets were being credited with causing a whole litany of health problems, even death (Fig. 13).
Today we know this isn’t the case, but with their imperfect understanding of physiology and pathogens Victorian physicians blamed corsets for their apparent ability to crush or misshape organs by brutally forcing them down toward the pelvis, cause cancer or even tuberculosis, and above all damage the uterus. Studies were done, pamphlets were written, screeds were issued in an effort to convince women to abandon tight lacing and adopt a different form of foundation garment such as the “health corset”, because it was still believed that such a garment was necessary to properly support a woman’s body (Dr. Warner's version includes cords rather than bones to give structure, straps for extra support and aeration holes over the fully covered bust for proper ventilation.)
One such study, by Dr. Ludovic OFollowell, employed the new Roentgen or X-ray technology to prove just how deforming a corset could be (Fig. 14). The scare tactics and outright misinformation generated by the anti-corset crusaders didn’t really stop women from lacing up, but it did have enormous staying power as a thing “everyone knows.” Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, is blunt: “Most of the diseases that have been credited to corsets, in fact, had other causes… It doesn’t mean that corsets were without any health problems, but it does mean that most modern people are wildly naive in believing the most absurd antiquated medical accusations about corsetry.”5
Even without corsetry, women’s physiology was seen as inherently flawed. Physiotherapist and historian Clare Roche sums it up nicely in her study of nineteenth century women mountaineers: “Any woman who paid heed to medical advice… knew that many doctors advised them to avoid extreme physical exertion for fear of infertility. Interest in evolution seemed to suggest that women’s bodies were arrested at a more primitive stage of development than men’s and the Contagious Diseases Acts allowed any woman to be whisked way and subjected to internal examination to exclude venereal disease.”6
Just how far off the mark were these views on the impact of a corset on a body? On October 2, 2014, Dr. Eckhart von Hirschhausen, a German medical doctor and admitted showman, brought a tight-lacer onto his TV gameshow, Hirschhausens Quiz Des Menschen, or Hirschhausen’s Quiz of the Human (body). A metal-free corset was made and worn with a five inch waist reduction for a set of MRI body scans. Images with and without the corset were shown side by side, and Dr. Hirschhausen interpreted them for his audience. In essence, the model’s lungs did compress but only by a tiny amount, just a few centimeters, not enough to affect her air intake. Her kidneys did not shift at all. Her liver and stomach moved upwards, not down as the Victorians believed, and the liver, so long accused of becoming warped and damaged by the squeeze, did not markedly change shape. Her colon did shift, moving partially above the waist and partially below, but it is a flexible organ already capable of shifting to accommodate a fetus. In short, no organ shifts occurred that were not likely in pregnancy. The only functional change Dr. Hirschhausen noted was a likely slowing of digestion due to the repositioning of the colon. [Publisher's note: The episode used to be available in German on YouTube, but has now been removed. A written run-through of the salient points with screencaps is still available here.] A caveat to this experiment is that it is a sample size of one, nevertheless it is interesting to see the degree to which the corset does not cause major repositioning.
The maligned corset has its detractors and supporters, but hopefully the more egregious myths have been laid to rest here. In conclusion there is one recorded incident in which a corset actually prolonged a life, if only for a little while. On September 10, 1898, the Austrian Empress Elizabeth, also known as Sisi, was stabbed in the heart by an anarchist wielding a sharpened file. She was able to walk away from the attack and even up the gangplank of her ship. No one knew what had actually happened. Sisi was fond of tightly laced corsets, and it was only once her laces were cut by her concerned attendant that the haemorrhaging that killed her could begin: she died within minutes of her corset’s removal.
 Robert L. Dickinson , M.D., “The Corset: Questions of Pressure and Displacement” The New York Medical Journal, November 5, 1887, http://haabet.dk/patent/The_corset/
 Irma Bowen Textile Collection, University Museum, University of New Hampshire
 https://clarearoche.wordpress.com, February 24, 2013