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CULTURAL TRADITIONS in FASHION. The Corset: Shapely or Deadly?


The corset was fashionable for centuries before it was deemed that its unhealthy side effects were far more important than the fantastical body shape it encouraged.

Living as a woman from the 16th to the 20th century, you would have been likely to have found yourself restrained by a corset, the restrictive undergarment made from a variety of materials in order to achieve an hourglass figure. Long before anybody was aware of the damage that the corset could wreak, it was revered as something every proper lady should wear, with specific types for every occasion and times of the day.


In the 21st century, the hourglass figure is still often treated as an (unrealistic) beauty expectation for women, but the modern world has a plethora of ways in which this silhouette can be achieved. Moreover, the modern wave of feminism seeks to have women considered beautiful regardless of how well they fit to these outdated ideals.   



Supposedly invented by Roxey Ann Caplin, it was popularised by French noblewoman Catherine de Medici in the 16th century, become increasingly venerated in the Victorian era. While its length and materials have changed over its lifetime, the corset has served one purpose: to create an ‘ideal’ figure. The corset was pulled dramatically tight in order to give the impression of an unbelievably tiny waist, with some of the smaller corsets being an outrageous 17 inches in circumference! Following the Industrial Revolution, women from all social classes began to wear a corset on a daily basis and it soon became a social norm, which demonstrates the lengths and pains that women were (and still are) willing to go to in order to squeeze into an ideal. Any woman not wearing a corset, even at home or at work, was considered to be indecent!

1600s: At this point in history, little was known about the health issues brought on by the corset which left it with one main goal: to slim the waist at whatever cost. Many corsets at this time were made from metal or bone and designed to compress both the waist and ribs to create a ‘perfect’ figure.


1820s: During this time, the corset was less ornate than those of the 19th century and had a bodice and boning made of reeds and cotton.

1850s: This was a turning point for the corset, as whale boning became more popular due to its flexible structure which was found to be more comfortable than metal.


1890s: Taking a step back from comfort, corsets became more constricting than ever during this time, removing up to 7 inches off a woman’s waist. This extreme reduction was due to the return of metal boning which restricted one’s waist more than reed or whale bone.

Early 1900s: Once the active lifestyle became more popular for women around the 1920s, the corset evolved to become more flexible to keep up with society’s new way of living. This was achieved by substituting metal boning for elastic which allowed the wearer to move more freely.


1960-1970s: By the 1960s, women looked to plastic surgery, exercise, and diet to achieve an ideal body. As a result of this, the corset became less popular as a body-shaping method, however its impact on society had set the standard that still haunts our modern-day perception of the ‘perfect’ shape.



Doctors throughout history did not see any health issues related to corsets since the practice of corseting had been around for such a long time, and the deformed bodies that were a direct result of the practice were so common that it was never considered to be unusual. They were therefore trapped in the terrifying belief that the twisted and misshapen bodies of women were not something of concern. In the 1800s, doctors concluded that women simply breathed differently to men, which explained away why so many female ribcages took on a narrower form.


It wasn’t until the 20th century that people took notice of the potential health issues caused by corsets. Shortness of breath and stomach pain were only the beginnings of the harm that corseting caused to the body. Severe illness and death correlated with wearing a corset since the garment would reconfigure its wearers’ organs, limiting some women to half of their lung capacity. A famous death related to corsets was that of Victorian actress, Kitty Tyrrell, who died in 1894 during the middle of a play. It was the evening showing of Dick Whittington and His Cat on December 26th, in which Kitty was playing the part of the Rat King. Half-way through the show Kitty became ill and could no longer stand, so she was sent to her dressing room where she exclaimed that her corset was too tight. Although it was untied as quickly as possible, she became unresponsive and was announced dead once the doctor arrived. This was just one of many women who fell victim to the deadly grip of the rigid undergarment.



Although the hourglass is still considered an ideal body type in the 21st century, the corset has been replaced as a method of achieving this body type. Instead, social media influencers and celebrities have had a large impact on society, encouraging working out, dieting, and plastic surgery to get the ‘perfect’ body. This method of obtaining the hourglass figure may seem less crude in comparison to corseting if done in a healthy way. Unfortunately, eating plans, gym memberships, and surgeries are not affordable to many people, making the hourglass figure something more common amongst celebrities and influencers. Even more unfortunate is the belief that we need these things to be happy or considered beautiful. There is an increasing emphasis on disregarding ideal body shapes and representing all types of people in the media, specifically to ensure that people do not put their body image before their health, physical or mental.