Responding to Media Sensationalism… Again.

One of my friends linked me to “Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home” yesterday evening, in which one reporter uncovers the dangers of living in the Victorian era. Not surprisingly, corsets were featured (the corset segment starts around the 17:50 mark).

I would like to address some of the concerns mentioned in the video. Now, I’m not going to make sweeping generalizations and say that corsets are everyone’s friend. I don’t believe that everybody should wear corsets and I don’t deny that injuries from corsets have occurred on occasion. But I’m willing to believe that corset-related injuries were more the exception than the norm – just like injuries from everyday beauty products today, like:

  • high heels (bunions, broken toes, hammer toes, corns, modification of posture/weight distribution, broken and sprained ankles)
  • hairstyling products (thermal burns, chemical burns and severe allergies to certain products)
  • pierced ears (infections, keloid scarring, tissue necrosis)

I could go on.

Anyways – onto addressing some of the concerns in the video:

  • Liver being pushed upwards, and grooves forming in the liver – yes, I don’t doubt that the liver moves. All organs in your peritoneal cavity are designed to move. If they weren’t designed to move, then pregnancy, exercise, stretching, or even digesting your food (peristalsis) would kill you. Once again, look up nauli kriya on Youtube – the intestines (and presumably everything above it, like the liver, pancreas and stomach) are pushed up into the ribcage using one’s own muscles. Maybe I’m insensitive, but indentations of organs don’t irk me, because I’ve seen from dissecting various organisms in biology lab that organs have indentations from other organs as it is. If you have a large amount of visceral fat, or if you a fetus inside you, you will also experience considerable organ compression.
  • The stomach moving downwards – Ann Grogan (Romantasy) and Fran Blanche (Contour Corsets) both vouch that the stomach actually moves upwards instead of down. Also, the stomach (and intestines) are not solid: they’re hollow membranous organs, often full of food/waste and air, which get pushed out when a corset is properly worn and slowly cinched down. ***Note, as of October 2014, we now have MRI evidence of the stomach and liver moving upwards.
  • Uterine prolapse – I did agree with the woman in the video as she said that the corset may exacerbate pre-existing problems; that is, the corset may not have caused uterine or vaginal prolapse per se, but if the pelvic floor had already been weakened, the extra intra-abdominal pressure may exacerbate this condition. My article on corsets and the reproductive system.
Screencap from the documentary: Lipscomb's tidal volume, uncorseted (red line) and corseted (blue line). Y axis depicts volume from 0.2L to 2L. X axis shows time: blue area = at rest, green area = during exercise, pink area = recovery

Screencap from the documentary: Lipscomb’s tidal volume, uncorseted (red line) and corseted (blue line). Y axis depicts volume from 0.2L to 2L. X axis shows time: blue area = at rest, green area = during exercise, pink area = recovery

  • The reporter’s experiment on respiration/ cardiac output during exercise – it is undeniable that the corset (especially Victorian overbust corset that is restrictive enough to fully support the breasts) is capable of reducing the lung capacity. Due to reduced capacity, the body compensates by taking higher and more frequent breaths to maintain the same amount of oxygen exchange. The conclusion of the experiment was that the reporter took in an average of 200-300 mL more air with each breath. But they’re still not telling the whole story:

    Photo from Hole’s Human Anatomy and Physiology, 8th edition (1999). This graph is actually of the average male – a female has a slightly smaller total capacity at about 4L. Click through to read more.


  • The total lung capacity in an average woman is about 4L (4000 mL). The vital capacity (which does not take into account residual volume) is about 3L (3000 mL).
  • The average tidal volume (uncorseted) is about 500 mL. So the tidal volume while corseted is an average of 750 mL.
  • This means that the corset has caused about a 10% increase in breathing, compared to vital capacity (not even the total capacity).
  • Also consider that it was the first day she tried lacing up (so she wasn’t adapted to wearing a corset), she was wearing the corset over a sweater (so her internal measurement was even smaller than 24 inches), and it was an overbust corset (which restricted more of her ribcage than an underbust would), and then did she did cardio exercise (which isn’t recommended while wearing corsets to begin with). Most women today wear underbust corsets which stop lower on the ribcage, they wear the corset over a very thin liner, and a well-made corset today is properly fitted to the body, rather than Victorian corsets which were sometimes made to force the body into an ideal shape to fit clothing of the day.
  • Note the spoon busk that curves around the tummy, hip gores, and expandable side ties to accommodate a growing belly. Some of these corsets also had flaps at the bust to allow for nursing post-partum.

    Women of higher class were tightlaced to reflect that they didn’t have to run around the house. The working/ industrial class and servants did wear corsets, but laced loosely to accommodate for the high amount of activity. One would also consider it insulting to “show up” the  woman of the house by having a more fashionable silhouette than she had.

  • Pregnancy corsets – I don’t doubt that women who were trying to hide their baby bump by tightlacing during pregnancy could have resulted in (possibly/probably deliberate) terminations. But pregnancy corsets were designed to accommodate a growing belly by having adjustable ties around the tummy, while providing back support for the gestating mother.
  • Pneumonia/ tuberculosis – if a corseted woman contracted a respiratory infection, then the corset may have contributed to exacerbating the condition since the woman would not be able to cough up the sputum and clear her lungs. But whether the corset actually caused women to contract the infection in the first place is unclear. Both pneumonia and TB are bacterial infections, commonly spread in a time where germ theory was non-existent or just being discovered. Whether corsets were the cause of respiratory infections is somewhat disputed. Some sources say that the corset may have prevented contraction of pulmonary TB (consumption). (Nevertheless, I do not condone wearing corsets if you have any kind of respiratory infection.) I have an article on the respiratory system here.

    Susan B Anthony ca. 1900, wearing a corset around age 80.

  • The dress reform and the women’s suffrage movement were not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they were still two distinct movements. Many female suffragists (sometimes distinct from the boorish “suffragettes”) still wore corsets, including Susan B. Anthony (often called the mother of the women’s rights movement).
  • Broken and deformed bones – I agree that corseted individuals with bone issues such as rickets may result in a higher risk of distorted ribs, but this is not a common case today. In fact, a 2015 anthropological study on the skeletons of impoverished women in the Victorian era showed that although there was some rib distortion, age markers of these women showed that they all reached and in some cases exceeded the life expectancy of the time.
  • The comment around timepoint 29:45 “There are stories of ribs breaking and piercing the lung underneath.” disappointed me – it’s difficult to tell sometimes what is a factual report or simply an urban legend. Whether or not these stories are true, Sarah Chrisman explains in her book that “ribs” also referred to the whalebone or reed that was used as boning in the corset, which can become dry and brittle over time – so broken “ribs” are said to often describe the ribs of the corset, not of the human body. If you’ve ever had a bra bone that pokes into you, you can imagine the discomfort. If a whalebone were to snap, a sharp shard could perhaps puncture the skin of the wearer – but as flexible steel is now used in corsets, this problem is almost unheard of in higher quality corsets unless the garment has been abused for years.

Well, this was a long post. Hopefully it cleared up some popular misconceptions about corsets in the Victorian era.

What were your thoughts and reactions on the segment?

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21 comments on “Responding to Media Sensationalism… Again.

  1. Pingback:Corsets, Lungs and Breathing | Lucy's Corsetry

  2. So wearing a corset is bad for your health? I have been a tight lacer for 10 years wearing a corset for 12 hours a day almost every day. When I leave my corset at home and take to the hills of Derbyshire close to where I live I walk for up to 15 miles including ascents of 1,500 feet over rugged terrain. Do I get out of breath? No. Am I a debilitated weakling? I think not. Does wearing a corset contribute to my mental well being? Certainly. I rest my case!

  3. Olavi Virta on said:

    Hi Lucy. Thank you that you exist! And you are trying to correct the erroneous tales!
    It’s amazingly sad that there are people who produce non fact based program!
    I myself use corsets for years, like 23/7 and have not had any complaints! Then they think that I work as usual in the service profession. But perhaps it is that I am not a woman?

  4. Thank you for this very informative post! It also explains why my severe asthma has dramatically improved with daily corseting.

  5. Oh, Lucy! Your posts always make me spend less time grinding my teeth. I’ve tended to say these exact things, though I’ve never managed writing a blog post about it, I now have another excellent link to send people to!

    As I’ve had some anatomy and forensics training (I was very serious about being a forensic anthropologist back in my university days), I always boggle when people bring up these silly points. Especially the stomach, I don’t know why so many focus on the darn stomach. Unless you exhibit a significant difference from a statistical body norm, your stomach is going to be located in the upper abdomen. Given that a corset compresses between the ribs and iliac crest, anything above the waist should generally move up, and anything below generally move down due to the pressure being exerted at this spot. Some organs may do a bit of the hokey pokey to settle if they’re located right at the point of compression, but it’s not like your ovaries are going to migrate to your ribs, so why would your stomach reposition itself into your pelvis?

    As always, I’m glad you’re being another voice of reason out there. I can only talk myself blue in the face so many times in person to people such as these!

    -The Bad Button

    • Ruth Rodrigues on said:

      Well said, Alisha – The Bad Button! As if storing fat in, on and in between your organs doesn’t make them move as well…and makes people infinitely less healthier then corset wearers, who are generally much more conscientious about what to eat and what not to eat. But we are the ones persecuted! “If they have tiny waists, they must be killing themselves slowly”. They are all jealous, I say 🙂 !

  6. Shanda on said:

    Hi Lucy,

    Thanks for posting all of your articles and videos! If I hadn’t read and watched them, I would have probably believed corsets are bad for you and not pursued my desire to have a well-made one that can help me feel much better.
    I had asked a friend who lived in my house to measure me for a corset and she told me how wearing corsets all the time crush your lungs. I told her otherwise and of the benefits of wearing a corset, but I feel some people just hold on to their ideas even if they’re from misinformation. So, now I have to find some time in my busy schedule to have a tailor do my measurements because I don’t like bringing attention to myself when I know people disagree with what I’m doing.

  7. Ruth Rodrigues on said:

    Hi Lucy! It is a shame that people think that the future (i.e. the present) can only bring progress. Corset wise, we can learn lots from the past! The fact is, in Victorian times women had many, many children, and the funny thing is that they quickly went back to shape after having them…and it was not just by scrubbing up floors (which is supposed to do wonders to the abdominal muscles), since many were from rich provenance and didn’t have to do a thing! And I can tell you my personal story: even though I’ve only been on proper corsets for the last 6 months, the fact is that when I had my children (I’ve got 2 kids), and due to this being a very popular, old fashioned trick where I come from (Portugal), just after birth I wore a special garment for mothers who just gave birth, and I recognise now that the garment was basically a corset that you put on like a pair of knickers (some even come with laces). A very tight one! It is even medically recommended (you buy them in pharmacies) as it pushes the organs around in you abdominal and thoracic cavity, to help them occupy the place they occupied previously to the pregnancy, instead of just loosely filling in the empty space left by the baby, and thus giving you um unsightly baggy stomach. It helps with breastfeeding as it contributes to the contraction of the uterus (linked with the production of milk), and completely eliminated the constant need to pee because it lifted my uterus that was then still swollen and pressing the bladder. Anyway, I wore it for 3 to 4 months, and when I took it off, my waist and belly where perfectly flat! I still remember being criticised by other mothers who decided not to wear them, but them again, they do look as if they have more children then they actually do, and I look, well, great! Also I’ve got fibromialgia, and since wearing corsets my pain has significantly decreased, as my posture is better, and the deep pressure therapy performed by the corset really works for me.

    Sorry for the huge comment, but all this to say well done for your crusade against sensationalistic views and that corsets can actually improve your health (not to mention looks) if used responsibly.

    Lucy keep up fighting for us gorgeous, disciplined women. We thank you for it!

    • AlexaFaie on said:

      Brilliant response! Its so good to hear from someone who has had a great deal of success with corsets/support garments post pregnancy and to point out that the support garments at least are recommended by medical practitioners.

    • that’s a very interesting experience you did share here Ruth, I wished I had known about these post-pregnancy corsets when I gave birth to my son… I wouldn’t look like I’m constantly pregnant now…
      Thanks for sharing!

  8. Thankyou for this very well written and sane post, very enjoyable and interesting. People are far to eager to believe the worst about corsets for some reason. They can get hyserical and unrealistic…then corset fans can get the same back.

    • Thank you for your comment, Lilly. 🙂 It’s sad how so many corseters come under scrutiny. Hopefully one day the world will see that not everything is totally black and white, and corsets may have both risks and benefits – it all depends on the type of corset, the overall health of the person, and how the corset is worn.

  9. Kristen on said:

    Oh thankyou, i watched this program and the moment it got to the corset bit i just shook my head. Next time someone mentions that program (Which otherwise was very interesting) and show them this article.

  10. Lucy, thanks for another well-researched and informative article. Stills from this sensationalist BBC program made the rounds of the corset community on Tumblr recently, if you’re interested in having a look: [[]]
    By the way, you’re one of our patron saints. Your site is required reading for all corset newbies. ^.^

    • Hi Clair! Oh, thank you for directing me to your Tumblr post. 🙂 I hadn’t seen it, but am delighted that the exact same observations and comments were made about the corset criticism. And I’m humbled and honored that you all hold me in such high esteem, it’s very kind of you. If there is ever a topic that any of you would like me to discuss in future posts please let me know. I don’t have a Tumblr account but am considering getting one in the future.

  11. Oh my, Lucy! What a fab post over all! Please continue your fact-based and supported blogs on corset reality, not corset fantasy. As for pregnancy corsets being dangerous, my retired coroner-forensic expert consultant suggests that if corsets caused miscarriages, then women would seek them out for abortion purposes and Roe vs. Wade would never have been necessary. The continuing “Corset Question” and health flap are based on the commonly-held false assumption that “change” in the human body is automatically detrimental. As you point out, if that were the case, then women would never get pregnant which causes organ movement and compression in a manner similar to the corset. I’m adding this page as a reference in my Corset Magic book, with thanks again for your superb fact-based comments and common sense.

    • Thank you, Ann; it’s an honor. Your coroner-forensic expert makes a very valid point that I hadn’t considered – thank you for the insight!

    • Not to mention the fact that the population would have taken a nose dive because of the lack of babies surviving pregnancy.

      • bishonenrancher on said:

        That too, Rose! Population in Europe rose during the 19th century – as Ann Grogan had said, if corsets were said to be a form of contraception, it was not an effective one at all.

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