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Millions of women around the world wear silicone implants in their breasts to make them look perfect. Plastic surgeries represent one of the most dramatic ways to change physical appearance. Women reconstruct their bodies to match the changing ideals of beauty in the developed world and, obviously, this is not the last time women invent complex procedures to improve their look. Beauty-by-manipulation had always been an essential element of many women’s lives (Henig). For centuries, women underwent dangerous procedures and self-mutilation while searching for physical beauty (Henig). Corsetry used to be one of the defining features of physical beauty for centuries. Today’s beauty industry has become more compassionate to women, but the controversies surrounding women’s beauty pursuits continue to persist. Wedding websites are overfilled with women’s accounts of the pain they had to endure while wearing a corset during the ceremony. This is why it is hard to believe that European women during Renaissance tortured themselves wearing corsets for more than 500 years.
Corsetry is a unique and extremely interesting cultural phenomenon, which transcended the boundaries of time and, even today, keeps influencing women’s fashion trends. The history of the corset is believed to go back to 1500 BC: Minoan figures of women found on Crete presented their skirts tied with the help of a decorative corset (Hill 144). Ancient Persian, Egyptian, Roman, and Greek cultures also illustrate similar forms of corsets used by women in formal or ritualistic costumes (Hill 144). In the Middle Ages, women in the Christian world stopped wearing corsets until the first Crusades (Hill 144). With time, the principles of the Eastern fashion were adopted by European women, and corsets became an indispensable element of women’s daily routines.
At the beginning of the 14th century, corsets turned into a complex bodice, without which no noble woman could imagine her life (Hill 144). At that time, a corset was made of fine linen and leather panels (Hill 144). Later in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, corsets evolved into a front-lacing girdlstead which, with time, was transformed into a two-panel underbodice (Hill 144). By the 17th century, the corset would have looked like the bust-compressing stomacher, which became hourglass-looking in the Victorian era (Hill 144). In the 19th century, the corset came to occupy the most important place in every lady’s wardrobe. Since the middle of the 19th century, the corset had been advertised as the best way to give shape to women and make them graceful and charming (Mills 117). The number of corset manufacturers rapidly increased. From a matter of fashion, corsetry rapidly turned into a profitable industry. By the seventh decade of the 19th century, young ladies could have a “Little Pet”, “Darling”, or “Young Ladies Beauty” corset (Mills 117). Corsets were shown at international expositions. The most seductive ones could be acquired for $1 (Mills 117). The Warner Brothers Company became very popular for their corset, which had to give women grace and shape without damaging their health (Mills 117). In 1895, Marion Harland wrote: “women will wear corsets, they always have and they always will. We may well consider this a settled fact” (Mills 118). That statement once again confirmed the importance of the corset in the lives of women.
Needless to say, over the course of its history, the corset changed its form and fashion several times. In the 16th century, women in Europe wore the corsets made of hardened canvas and whalebone (Koggel 143). A piece of wood or metal was used to flatten the abdomen and breasts (Koggel 143). A farthingale was worn above the corset to keep their skirts away from the bodies (Koggel 143). Later, Queen Catherine of France presented a new corset invention made of iron bands that brought women’s waists to the desirable thirteen inches (Koggel 143). It goes without saying, using such corsets was a real torture for women, but they were willing to suffer unbearable pains just to look beautiful. By the seventeenth century, breasts were fashionable again, and the design of the corset was changed to make them look more attractive (Koggel 143).
The procedure which young girls and women had to undergo to wear the corset was complex and painful. History knows many cases when mothers had to keep their daughters on the floor, their faces down, while having their foot on the girls’ backs and getting enough leverage to tighten the corset laces (Mills 117). Very often, that was the only way to tighten the waist to the desired size. Even eighteen inches was not a dream for many girls, since the corset allowed diminishing their waist to unbelievably small numbers (Mills 117). Young girls wearing corsets for the first time had to escape to their bedrooms and their corsets several times during the evening, to be able to breathe freely (Mills 117). In the Victorian era, many girls would lace their corsets while damp, so that they could achieve a snugger fit (Mills 117). Not surprisingly, the corset was a common object of humor, mockery, and satire.
Like today, women’s pursuit of beauty was surrounded by many controversies. This is actually what Robert Marantz Henig writes in his essay: women’s quest for beauty is so crazed that it invariably leads to bizarre detours. Henig refers to the example of women’s breasts and the fashion trends that impacted the way women perceived their bodies in the Middle Ages. For instance, in 14th century Greece, women had to bind and hide their breasts (Henig). In the middle of the 19th century, round bodily forms were back and women no longer had to hide their beauty from the public (Henig). On the contrary, having a well-rounded bosom became a matter of pride for the nobility and working-class women (Henig). The corset reflected all those trends, and the form of the corset in the 19th century was adjusted to make women’s breasts look attractive and full (Koggel 143).
Still, even at that time, women realized the damaging impacts the corset had on their bodies and health. Women were running for beauty at the expense of their physical shape and wellbeing. The tight lacing often resulted in internal organ damage and pulmonary diseases (Koggel 143). American physicians claimed that the corset displaced internal organs, but women ignored their message (Koggel 143). At times, the corset was laced so tightly that normal breathing became impossible; consequently, the corset was a common cause of fainting among women (Koggel 143). Von Sommerring, a well-known physician and anatomist, was confident that the corset compressed the ribs and other internal organs, thus leading to the development of tuberculosis (Fee et al. 1085). Scoliosis, cancer, and spine curvature were the common health consequences of wearing the corset (Fee et al. 1085). The paradox of the corsetry phenomenon in the 19th century was that women had to have a tiny waist against the full bosom and hips. For that reason, women had to eat more to gain more weight on their hips while using the corset to diminish their waist (Koggel 144). Some women were even claimed to have removed their lower ribs to look more fashionable. Today, this type of plastic surgery no longer surprises anyone.
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Many women understood that wearing corsets was associated with various hidden dangers. This is, probably, why they also sought to devise a corset that would be equally fashionable and safe to their health. In 1851, The Daily News in London published a brief article on the novel construction created by Madame Caplin (Caplin 186). The newly invented corset was reported to differ greatly from all earlier versions of that fashionable garment. Madame Caplin claimed that the newly invented Corset allowed for a greater degree of physical support while also contributing to women’s general health (Caplin 186). The invention became so popular that a whole commission was created to evaluate its features and benefits (Caplin 186).
Whether or not the corset benefited women is an open question. On the fashionable side, the corset certainly added to women’s sex appeal (Hill 144). The corset allowed women to preserve the image of youth and look thinner, while also emphasizing the shape and fullness of their breasts and hips (Hill 144). Beyond fashion, the corset reminded women of their class belonging. Particularly in colonies, women wore corsets as part of their class identity and female subjectivity (Summers 19). Thus, from being a purely a matter of fashion, the corset turned into an essential psychological factor of wellbeing for women, who had to live their lives far from their native land. Unfortunately, the corsetry did little, or nothing, in terms of women’s health. Therefore, the only thing the corset could be praised for was the gracefulness of forms and easy curves, which it added to women in the middle and modern ages.
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Corsetry is a unique cultural phenomenon that impacted women’s fashion for centuries. The history of the corset can be traced to 1500 BC, but it was not until the Middle Ages that corsets became a widely spread garment. Under the influence of various fashion trends, the corset changed its form and features more than once. From the use of hardened canvas and whalebone, corset manufacturers slowly evolved to the use of better, more effective and less damaging materials. Still, wearing corsets was surrounded with numerous cultural and health controversies. As long as society remembers itself, corsets have been criticized for the damage they caused to women’s health. The negative impacts of corsets on health ranged from scoliosis to misplaced internal organs, tuberculosis, and even cancer. Women’s pursuit of beauty against all odds often became an object of mockery and satire; in the meantime, corsetry turned into a huge profitable industry. The benefits of corsets are rather questionable beyond adding to women’s sex appeal and strengthening their class identity. Looking back into the history, the corset still remains one of the central features of women’s willingness to sacrifice their physical health at the altar of the widely accepted beauty norms.