There Are Health Risks With Victorian Corsets Term Paper

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¶ … health risks with Victorian corsets

Victorian Corsets and Health Risks

Corsetry throve in an era in which any open display of sexuality was repressed and condemned. The Victorian Age was a puritan period, which ferociously quashed sexuality as a taboo. In this context, the society prescribed a definite gender role for women: they had to be demure, passive, fragile and even languid. The corset played a definite part in this idealized image of the Victorian woman. First of all, the corset was much more than a simple garment. It was a designed to emphasize the feminine form by narrowing the waist as much as possible, and thus transform the body into a symbol. There is historical evidence of extremely tight-lacing which significantly reduced the size of the waist of a normal woman down to measurements as low as sixteen or seventeen inches. It was a social requirement that the young woman who had passed the pubescent age would wear a corset. The practice was also used in girls' boarding schools, where the girls were gradually prepared for very tight lacing, often by reducing the waist with an inch every month. It is plain therefore that the corset was much more than a piece of clothing: it was a social standard, a definite fashion constraint. This imposition on women's bodies and appearance was much more than a simple fashion demand: the corset had so many functions that it can be argued that it is the one piece of clothing which embodied a great number of concepts and ideologies and which is actually able to define an age.Buy full Download Microsoft Word File paper
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The corset posed a number of health risks for a woman, but there was only very little research in the nineteenth century to support this fact. More than that, the first function of the corset was actually to promote the image of a feeble woman in ill-health, something which was almost a fetish in the Victorian Age. As Leigh Summers pointed out in her book Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian Corset, a definite attribute of femininity required of the Victorian woman was her appearance as a sick, feeble person. Summer testifies that the corset was the more manifestly erotic as it emphasized the woman's feebleness, breathlessness and her pale and faintly blushed complexion. There was even a parallel made between a woman that suffered from tuberculosis and one which wore an extremely tight-laced corset. The latter could feign the actual symptoms of the first, and thus increase her sexuality through a morbid mimicry of terminal disease: "Occasionally, the use of corsetry to mimic phthisis was too effective. According to Orson Fowler, many women died of tight lacing, believing it to be consumption. These women, wrote Fowler, undertook a 'kind of suicide by strangling themselves'."(Summers, 140) Thus, according to Summers, this mimicry of the symptoms of consumption sometimes even led to the death of the tightly-laced woman who virtually strangled herself in the strings of the corset. Moreover, the corseted woman had the appearance of weakness and passiveness, all of which matched her prescribed gender role: "The corseted woman's breathless, flushed appearance mimicked the consumptive's sexualized demeanour, while her weakened body was the literal and authentic manifestation of gender roles that determined her to be passive and ailing and, when made unconscious by corsetry, appear to be near death and therefore very, very 'feminine'."(Summers, 141) a tightly-laced body was an allusion to both open sexuality and death, and made the woman look, "innocent yet dangerous, tantalizing yet chaste, breathless with anticipation, an anticipation that mimicked or foreshadowed sexual congress, or death."(Summers, 142) in Summers' view therefore, the analogy between the corseted body and death was an open one.

Ironically, the tight-lacing of the waist was indeed a dangerous threat to the women's health. During the Victorian Age, there was poor medical research in this field and the medical opinion was divided between actually advising the use of the corset to prevent a series of diseases and blaming the corset for an absurd number of female illnesses. Valerie Steele and Colleen Gau argue that the corset was actually blamed by some doctors for an impressive and rather exaggerated number of diseases, ranging from deformity to miscarriages, malformations of the fetus and even cancer: "They blamed the corset for causing dozens of diseases, including apoplexy, asthma, cancer, chlorosis (a type of anemia), curvature of the spine, deformities of the ribs, damage to internal organs such as the liver, digestive disorders, respiratory and circulatory diseases, and birth defects and miscarriages."(Steele and Gau, 290) While the medical ignorance of the age augmented significantly the health consequences due to wearing a corset, modern research does prove nevertheless that serious health threats did exist: "Twentieth-century X-rays also show that a tightly laced corset compresses the ribs and moves the internal organs, although when the corset is removed, the body seems to revert to its normal appearance."(Steele and Gau, 292-293) While it is difficult for modern researchers to establish without doubt the actual health effects of wearing a corset, there are definite conditions which are certain to result from the tight-lacing of the body. One of these is the prolapsed uterus in a female (Klingerman, 18). Another extremely controversial use of the corset was on the pregnant woman. The expectant women used the corsets in the attempt to hide their pregnancy which would have been considered an indecent display in any social circle. This is understandable, since the pregnant woman was supposed to live in absolute isolation once her abdomen plainly displayed the signs of pregnancy. In this case however, the health risks posed by the tight lacing are obvious (Klingerman, 22). The great compression exercised on the developing fetus could certainly cause birth defects, miscarriages and many other complications. The popularity of the corset was however in a continuous increase in the nineteenth century, despite the medical warnings preferred by some of the doctors. Some manufacturers conceived corsets which were supposed to lighten the pressure and answer several other health concerns, but their design was usually even more dangerous than that of the normal corset. According to David Kunzle, the overall compression exercised by the tight corset on the body was impressive: "52,432 corsets were sold in the year 1886. The average waist measurement was 23 inches, which gave a compression total (taking the number of corset wearers in England at 3,543,000, and their natural waist measurement at 27-28 inches) of 134 miles. The annual mortality rate resulting from this compression stood, according to a 'competent authority,' at 15,000."(Kunzle, 298) the unnatural tight-lacing was thus to blame for a number of serious conditions, most of which being related to pregnancy and birth. Another definite health risk was the woman's willing behavior as an invalid, a weak and languid person who did not perform any sort of physical activity. The corsets strained the importance of displaying an appearance of absolute helplessness and feebleness.

The corset was therefore the best way to repress the female body and mold it into an unnatural, idealized shape. Throughout the history of fashion, there are several other instances of health threats imposed by a social requirement of the female body. Other examples would be the Chinese bandaging of the legs or the modern anorexia, a nervous condition which is often determined by the advertisement of certain beauty standards, such as the extremely thin fashion model. In the Victorian Age, the corset had a similar function. Although plainly unnatural, it promoted a certain canonical type of femininity, one that would also be successful in marriage. The women consciously laced themselves as tightly as possible, thus measuring the effect of their attractiveness on the male partners. It is not surprising therefore that the first advocators of female political and social rights directed their attention to the corset as a symbol for the women's submission and restraining. Thus, Summers cites cases of feminists during the Victorian Age who saw a direct connection between the tight-lacing of the body provided by the corset and the lack of freedom and independence in women: "Let medical men, let painters, and let sculptors teach young men that all such unnatural compression of the body is deformity', wrote Farrar. 'Let Grecian models of beauty be studied [and then] the shape of a modern belle shall no longer command admiration."(Summers, 103) Elizabeth Phelps, a well-known feminist of the age actually called for a torching of all the corsets, indicating that the abolishment of this restraining of the body is the first step towards female emancipation: "Burn the corsets!... No, nor do you save the whalebones, you will never need whalebones again. Make a bonfire of the cruel steels that have lorded it over your thorax and abdomen for so many years and heave a sigh of relief, for your emancipation I assure you, from this moment has begun."(Summers, 147) the unnatural and unhealthy corset was thus a physical constraint on the body and, at the same time, a symbolic constraint on… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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