Corsets, Lungs and Breathing

This entry is more or less a transcript of the video “Corsets, Lungs and Breathing” which you can watch here:

Your respiratory system includes your lungs, bronchial tubes, trachea, your diaphragm and your intercostal muscles and other supplementary muscles which help your ribcage to expand and contract. When I originally posted my “Corsets and Organs” video, I included a small bit on the lungs but soon realized that it would be better create an independent video just on corsets and the respiratory system, since there are so many rumours out there relating corsets to suffocation. I’ll first explain how the mechanism of breathing works, then I’ll address the issues, rumours pertaining to corsets and breathing.

How breathing works (in general)

The diaphragm is a horizontal muscle running through your torso below your lungs. In Greek it means a “partition” because the diaphragm can be seen as a cross section that separates your top half and bottom half of your torso. When the diaphragm moves down, it increases the intra-abdominal pressure below the diaphragm and decreases the pressure above the diaphragm. When the diaphragm moves upward, the relative pressures in the abdomen above and below the diaphragm are then reversed.

To start taking a breath in, your diaphragm moves down and creates more space in your body above the diaphragm – the lungs then have space to expand.  There is less air pressure inside your body compared to outside your body, so it creates a vacuum in your lungs and air rushes in passively. When your diaphragm moves back up, this increases the pressure in your upper torso, and air is forced out of your lungs (the same way you would force air out of a balloon by pushing down on it).

Muscles involved in breathing

There are other muscles involved in the breathing process. The harder you breathe, the more muscles get involved. If you’re breathing fairly normally, then your abdominal and intercostal muscles (the bands of muscles in between your ribs) will work to push your ribcage outwards. If you watch sleeping babies, the most natural breathers among humans, you will see their lower ribs and abdomen expanding due to this relaxed style of breathing.

If you’re breathing more heavily due to physical strain or if you’re extremely stressed, then your lats (lower side back), traps (on the shoulders) and pecs (in front of your chest) start playing a role to stretch your ribcage outward more at the top of your lungs. These are the muscles that contribute to the “heaving bosom” that is so associated with corseting.

How breathing works in a corset

When you put on a corset, it does not completely paralyze the diaphragm; it can still move up and down (if it couldn’t, millions of women would be dead before they could procreate and the world today would be much less populated). However, you can expect a corset to somewhat hinder the breathing in the lower part of your lungs, especially if you’re wearing an overbust corset. Studies done in the 1800’s showed that lung capacity can be decreased up to 30 percent, with the average being  approximately 20 percent.

Be aware that these studies focus on lung capacity, not relaxed breathing. Most people don’t use their full lung capacity – in this other blog post, you will see that the tidal breath is only about 10-15% of the lung capacity, so you should absolutely be able to get enough air during “tidal breathing”. Only in rare situations would one need to use one’s full lung capacity, such as during vigorous exercise (and I don’t recommend exercising in your corset in the first place). If you put on a corset and feel that you’re suffocating, loosen the laces until you get used to breathing higher in your lungs. Although I would not recommend that people with already reduced lung capacity (from asthma, cystic fibrosis, scarred tissue from previous infections) wear corsets, most healthy people needn’t worry.

It is speculated that with enough use of the accessory breathing muscles (lats, pecs and traps) over a long enough time, one can actually expand the upper portion of the lungs to somewhat compensate for the loss of lung capacity in the lower lobes of the lungs, thereby increasing their capacity overall.

Now let’s discuss some common concerns relating to corsets and breathing:

Corsets and Singing

In the late 18th and 19th centuries when female singers started to become more popular in operas, they still wore corsets onstage. There are stories of some of these singers dropping onstage from insufficient air (although if these stories are true, they may have actually fainted from changes in blood pressure as opera-style singing takes a decent amount of physical exertion). However, many of these singers did not cinch to 17 inches; instead they used tricks in their costumes to give the illusion of a tiny waist like huge crinolines and large shoulder pads. As an added note (not in the video), many vocalists today train in a corset, as it provides a “wall” of resistance against which the diaphragm can push, helping to develop a stronger and more supported voice.

Pneumonia and Corsets

There are recorded cases of heavily corseted women dying of pneumonia. Pneumonia is inflammation caused by fluid in the lungs, usually in turn caused by a respiratory infection (by viruses or bacteria). An increase of fluid and sputum (mucus in the lower respiratory tract) in your lungs this makes it difficult to breathe even without a corset, so there are rumours that a corseted lady could easily die from suffocation from pneumonia at any moment.

There are several reasons why this theory is incorrect: firstly, it is extremely difficult to have pneumonia and be unaware of it. Pneumonia is usually accompanied by fever and associated aches, sharp pains in one’s chest and back, coughing up mucus/sputum, and gurgling or rattling lungs when taking a breath.

Secondly, we now know that infections are caused by microbes, not by a mechanical binding of the lungs. Yes, being heavily corseted may hinder one’s ability to cough up those microbes and can thus lead to a deep respiratory infection, but often this illness begin as a more superficial infection such as dry cough or bronchitis, which is now faster to catch and easier to treat.

So, what would you do if you get a respiratory infection? Take the corset off! Go to the doctor and have him/her prescribe you some antibiotics if it’s a bacterial infection. Remember also that penicillin wasn’t officially discovered until 1928 so it was very difficult to treat bacterial infections from prior to this time, during which time corseting declined in popularity anyway (partially due to the popular “boyish silhouette” and partially due to rationing of steel and textiles during WWI).

Pulmonary Tuberculosis and Corsets

There were also wide-spread rumours that corsets caused tuberculosis (TB). Once again, TB is caused by airborne bacteria. They’re robust bacteria making the infection difficult to overcome, but today it is still treatable with certain antibiotics (and there are also several vaccines available). Most often you becomes exposed to TB by being close to an infected person who coughs, sneezes or breathes in close proximity to you. Wearing a corset can compromise your ability to cough out pathogens and clear your respiratory system of mucus, but in developed countries the risk of TB is very small. TB is very prevalent in some underdeveloped areas however, so if you’re spending any long amount of time in the continent of Africa you consider getting vaccinated against TB.

Smoking and Corsets

Interestingly, the combination of smoking and corsets only became a large issue in the mid 20th century. Before around the 1920’s, only “lower class” women smoked cigars or cigarettes (there were a few exceptions to the rule, of course). Once cigarettes started being marketed to women in the 20’s, corsets were already out of fashion.

The mechanism of how tobacco damages your lungs is essentially this:
You have thousands of little villi in your bronchial tubes – they look like tiny fingers that catch bits of dust, dirt and microbes that float into your respiratory system. The job of these villi is to catch foreign objects and sweep them up and out (it’s like the microbes are crowd-surfing up to the point where they reach your throat and you can cough them out). When one smokes, the tar in tobacco coats everything in your bronchial tubes, causing them to stick down flat against the surface and making it harder to sweep out any foreign objects. Tar coating your lungs makes oxygen exchange more difficult for your alveoli sacs. Your lung capacity decreases (in the case of emphysema it increases to the point where you can no longer exhale properly), your risk of respiratory infection increases, tumorigenesis can occur through carcinogen buildup and inflammation, and I’m sure the rest of the story is old news. Long story short, if you smoke and corset at the same time, don’t be surprised if you find yourself somewhat short of breath.

Next time I’ll explain how corsets can affect the bones in your body.

Lucy’s Little Life Lesson: Don’t smoke.

*Please note that this article is strictly my opinion and provided for information purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of a medical doctor. Please talk to your doctor if you’d like to start wearing a corset.*

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10 comments on “Corsets, Lungs and Breathing

  1. Hi Lucy, question for you about pressure from a corset. My off-the-rack corset presses a little (top edge, in the center) into the space just below my sternum. It makes me feel a little nauseous. Is it pressing on my diaphragm? Can I gently bend the corset out away from my body in that spot? I’m still seasoning the corset.

    • bishonenrancher on said:

      Hi Tasha! Ooh, I hate when that happens! I have a very high sternum and the wrong kind of pointy corset can poke into my solar plexus and make me uncomfortable. Yes, it’s possible to gently curve the busk to have it point away from you instead of digging into you. I have an article on curving steels here, and it works the same way for a busk as it does for the back steels. I actually thought that having a “sweetheart underbust” would reduce the discomfort, but while it works for many others, for me personally it only made me more uncomfortable – so when I go with custom corsets, I always make the center front high enough that it covers my xyphoid process. Best of luck with your corset!

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  5. I am an opera singer, and I ONLY perform or train in corsets. I wear overbusts, never underbusts, and the added compression on the diaphragm is helpful for pushing all the air around.

    • Thank you for your invaluable input! I have heard from some other singers that a wearing a corset is like “resistance training” for your diaphragm; do you find that your support is stronger since you’ve been training in corsets?

      • Sorry, my email didn’t tell me you had responded. 😐

        I do have some back problems (clumsy childhood plus intense physical bullying will do that for you) and some problems with once one and now both of my hip joints, so standing and acting out is impossible to do without a corset, since the leg bones are at liberty to pop out of the cup of the joint completely (isn’t that pleasant?!) so that is one thing that corsets are very helpful for while singing and acting.

        I do find that after my more serious starts in corsetry (I AM only seventeen, dear Lucy!) have helped my diaphram strengthen and my voice mature at a faster rate. It astonished my teacher, she said that at the age I was (16) I had a lot of vocal maturity, considering I was so untrained. I would recomment practicing in corsets, at the very least~! And I’m sure that I’m not the only one who would love to hear you sing!

        • OH haha there are a few videos on floating around YouTube of myself singing (once in a corset, twice without) but you’ll have to search for them. 😉 You can definitely hear the difference in support though. I do plan to make more singing vids, I just haven’t had the time (and I only record those when nobody else is in the house, which is rare these days as my father’s retired).
          Ooh, ouch. Dislocated hips do not sound fun. 🙁

      • It’s not letting me respond directly now. ><

        Oh well. But I want to put in a request for a disney song. I don't care much which one, but you will have my undying adoration (I'm lying, you already have it) if you did an Aristocats song (we've been watching song videos on youtube!), Scales And Arpeggios! 😛 *full of ideas!*

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