Tighten Up

••• A Course in Corsets

To get a slim body, what torture do women not endure. . . . Yes, sometimes they even die from it.

The subject under discussion isn't anorexia, bulimia, or fad diets—the author is the 16th-century essayist Montaigne, who was writing about the dangers of corsets. Describing the ravages of corset wearing, he claims that some women lace themselves so tightly that "they suffer gashes in their sides, right to the living flesh."

While it's doubtful that corsets caused flesh wounds, at no time in their long history were they pleasant to wear. "To me they were real instruments of torture," recalled the English artist Gwen Raverat in her memoirs, unwittingly echoing Montaigne 300 years later. "They prevented me from breathing, and dug deep holes in my softer parts on every side. I am sure that no hair-shirt could have been worse." Valerie Steele charts the notorious undergarment's progress down the ages in her latest book, The Corset: A Cultural History (Yale). The curator and acting director of the Fashion Institute of Technology's clothing museum, Steele debunks the myths and misconceptions surrounding her topic by examining documentary evidence, paintings and prints, and actual corsets themselves.

The "torture" began in Renaissance Europe, when the loose robes of earlier times started evolving into more tailored gowns. By the 1500s, these one-piece frocks had become separate items of clothing: a form-fitting bodice, fastened by laces, and a full skirt. As stiffer fabrics came into vogue, it was necessary to wear some sort of foundation garment under the bodice. A camisole of pliable satin or damask, it could be firmly laced closed to compress and shape the figure. Voilà: The corset was born.

Early corsets were known as "stays," consisting of two halves fastened at the front and back. They were made from sturdy canvas or linen and reinforced with vertical strips of whalebone or horn, which were called bones. To add still more rigidity, another bone, or busk, was slipped into the center front of the corset, between the breasts, after the wearer had been laced in. Of metal, ivory, or horn, busks were often engraved with erotic symbols and sayings, like the 17th-century example that reads, "How I envy you the happiness that is yours, resting softly on her ivory white breast. Let us divide between us, if you please, this glory." Wishful thinking, alas: Busks rendered it nigh impossible for women to deviate from a stiffly upright position.

Corseting originated at the Spanish and Italian courts, whose aristocratic culture valorized control over mind and body alike. An erect comportment visibly displayed one's inner discipline, projecting an image of nobility. Posture also signified wealth and leisure—a lady in stays had a limited range of motion, so she couldn't be a servant or, heaven forfend, a rural laborer. Bourgeois and working-class women eventually adopted corsets, though of a more practical kind, lacking bones and busks. Unfortunately, all that would change in the Victorian era.

The Industrial Revolution facilitated the mass production of steel bones, fasteners, and eyelets, making the corset ever more rigid and inflexible; the practice of steam-molding corsets meant they could be manufactured quickly and cheaply, at prices affordable to mere housemaids. The corset now reigned supreme.

After surveying 19th-century stays in museum collections, Steele concluded that the 16-inch waist of Scarlett O'Hara fame probably never existed in reality. Manufacturers' ads and catalogs indicate that stays came in sizes of 18 to 30 inches, with "extra" sizes running as large as 43 inches—and those measurements applied to corsets laced fully closed, whereas they were generally worn open one, two, or more inches in back. Steele's findings don't, however, mitigate the discomfort of stays, which compressed not just the waist but the entire torso. Even the naturally willowy Nicole Kidman griped about the restrictive corsets she had to don for Moulin Rouge.

Hail, O corset! You are blessed by all women.

While La Vie Parisienne and other fashion magazines gaily sang the corset's praises, the truth was far grimmer. Corseting commenced in childhood (albeit in the form of fairly natural children's stays) and grew worse at puberty, when girls dressed in waist-cinching adult corsets for the first time. After her 13-year-old sister was put into stays against her will, Raverat remembered, "she ran round and round the nursery screaming with rage."

And she wasn't the only one protesting. Dress reformers and doctors inveighed against the tightness of corsets, marshaling both medical and aesthetic arguments. "We laugh at the folly of the Chinese belles, who compress their feet until they are no longer fit for walking," reasoned one reformer, "and yet our own [corseted] females are equally ridiculous." Doctors attributed every problem under the sun to stays, from bone and organ deformities to epilepsy, tuberculosis, and heart disease. Urban myths told of women dying from overly tight lacing—because their livers had been cut in two, or their ribs had punctured their lungs, or they'd simply suffocated. Along similar lines, vain ladies allegedly corseted themselves during pregnancy, producing miscarriages and crippled babies, while some were said to have had their lower ribs surgically removed to attain tinier midriffs. (Cher, anyone?)

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