- Anthropologist Dr. Rebecca Gibson published an article on June 20, 2023 critiquing Ludovic O’Followell’s famous 1908 study Le Corset and exposing it as faulty.
- The data was messy, the x-rays were heavily manipulated, and the subjects might not have been alive.
- Even physicians and researchers are not immune to bias, but O’Followell’s ‘doctored’ research should be viewed as what it is: deceit.
- Since it was the first (and for a long time, only) study on the physical effects of corseting that used x-ray imaging (radiography), many of his incorrect conclusions were blindly accepted as fact and went without debate or correction for over a century. Other studies on corseting provided exaggerated illustrations, but no radiographs, and were even worse (Gibson even referring to them as hoaxes).
- The one thing O’Followell and Gibson agreed on is the conclusion that responsible wearing of corsets shows “no correlation with other diseases or death.”
Gibson states that the Le Corset (1908) does not stand the test of time.
Not only because medical knowledge has advanced so much in the past century, but also because O’Followell’s study is a lens into a culture and time where misogyny was even more rampant in the medical community and society at large (women were often diagnosed with hysteria; women were not considered legal persons with equal access to education or voting rights; women were often reduced to mindless “victims of fashion” with no agency or bodily autonomy, thought to have suffered to appease the male gaze).
“Throughout his book, O’Followell argues that the medical “harms” done to women who corseted were self-inflicted, either by abuse of the corset, or by wearing a bad corset (badly made, ill-fitted, unsupportive, laced “too” tight).”Gibson 2023
O’Followell also believed that tightlacing for vanity’s sake by young women ought to be “punished.” O’Followell conceded several times in his work that only tightlacing would be a risk for certain health issues and that a well-constructed, properly-worn corset that’s not tightlaced would pose no danger to the heart and circulatory system.
Despite this begrudging admission, the main argument O’Followell put forth was that corsets compressed the ribs (and therefore it’s reasonable to assume that any organs lying within the ribs would also be compressed) and he tried to “prove” this with radiographs.
Evidence shows that the x-rays were likely manipulated.
The laces are too slack (blue)
Gibson’s observations: The metal wire lacing (used to show the lacing in the x-ray) was slack on the top half of the corset – indicating that O’Followell was not consistent in the way he laced his subjects for the study. He also mentioned that his subjects didn’t participate in lacing up their own corsets (more on why later) so the way the corsets are worn in these images may not be indicative of how women normally wore their corsets. How could his results possibly be reproducible if the corsets aren’t properly and consistently laced and tightened to fit?
Lucy’s thoughts – what if O’Followell deliberately overtightened the corsets at the floating ribs in a way that caused the subjects discomfort? How is it possible to get an accurate “snapshot” of how the corset affects the body over time if that snapshot is not consistent with how these subjects wore them on a daily basis? (You’ll soon learn why that wasn’t an issue after all.)
That is not how binding works (red)
Gibson’s observations: In radiographs, soft tissues of the body (fat and muscle) are seen as transparent, hazy shading, while denser materials like bones and metal are more opaque. The metal ‘suture’ was said to be inserted into the top and bottom binding of the corset to visualize the borders, but it doesn’t wrap around to the front of the body – rather it flies off to the side in a way that doesn’t make sense and doesn’t accurately follow the true edge of the corset. In fact, Gibson says that the orientation of this wire seems more indicative of the metal laid on top of a body that might be lying down.
Lucy’s thoughts: I initially thought the dark haze above the black line was “muffin top” or flesh which might indicate that the top was overtightened, but I think I’m wrong here as the original shown above from Wikicommons doesn’t show the same darkness – and it’s hard to overtighten an area where the laces are so slack as previously outlined in blue. At first I wasn’t going to bother mentioning this, but my readers may have drawn a similar conclusion.
The bones are too long
Gibson’s observations: The steel bones are protruding through the top of the binding, which is inconsistent with the way any corset at the time would have been constructed. They’re clearly too long for the corset. (While this might not seem relevant to the conclusions drawn in O’Followell’s study, it’s another example of sloppy, unreproducible work and perhaps the use of a corset that is atypical of the era.)
Lucy’s thoughts – if the bones were removable and not secured in, this may affect the fit of the corset – it’s not providing proper vertical tension, and may lead to the fabric collapsing and wrinkling uncomfortably in places. If, on the other hand, the steels were not in the corset at all, and instead laid down overtop of the subject… well, nothing would surprise me at this point.
Where are the organs?
Gibson’s observations: often in radiographs, different organs can be partially visualized and distinguished from each other – the lungs are full of air and they look different next to the heart or solid liver, for example. Gibson took the images to radiology technologist Rory Langton to see if they could see the outlines of any organs. It was inconclusive. X-ray technology was still a bit crude (it had only been around for 10 years at the time of publishing).
But, weirdly, the front of the rib cage and sternum can’t be viewed here either, and usually the far-side of the ribs are not obscured by soft organs in x-rays. Gibson says, “Such complete opacity is more consistent with the rib cage having been stuffed with something to maintain its shape.”
(MOST CRITICAL) The spine is not compatible with life
Gibson’s observations: The lumbar vertebrae make no sense on a living person. (In normal x-rays, the spine looks like a literal column with the vertebral bodies stacked like thick layers on a cake, similar to this image, pulled from this study on AI learning in radiology – Lucy)
Compare with O’Followell’s image: you’re looking more at a top-down view of each vertebra, through the canals where the spinal cord should be – the spine is not stacked at all, but rather each vertebra is rotated upwards 90° and then twisted clockwise another 45°. This is probably not compatible with life and there’s no corset that could do something this drastic. Langton says that this is an x-ray of either a dead body or artificial body parts.
Lucy’s thoughts: having studied anatomy and physiology, I’m frankly embarrassed that I didn’t see this earlier. (Then again, a century of health science experts didn’t notice either.) But this is also why I had no need to worry about the corset being uncomfortably wrinkled or overtightened on the body, and why the subjects didn’t “participate” in their own lacing of their corsets. Because they weren’t alive, and maybe never were.
If you’d like to play around with the orientation of a 3D model of a vertebra for yourself, you can do so here (from Sketchfab.com)
But wait, there’s more (trickery)
Gibson goes on to analyze other x-rays from the Le Corset, including an x-ray showing the back of the ribs, with the busk showing in front of the pelvis, meaning that the corset was possibly worn backwards. But upon closer inspection…
According to the Langton, the pelvis is imaged from the front – but the orientation of the ribs look like they’re imaged from the back. So Gibson says this was likely a composite image of “at least two” radiographs with the back of someone’s thorax pasted onto the front of the pelvis.
Also, there were no corsets in 1908 that had this specific contouring on the edges. The metal lines again appear to be laid on top of a body that was lying down. And again, whether this subject had all of their internal organs is “inconclusive.”
Understandably, some bodies of literature that relied on O’Followell’s findings and took them to be fact may now be (at least partially) called into question.
In Gibson’s previous publications (her doctorate thesis in 2015 which I covered on my channel, and her followup book The Corseted Skeleton in 2020), Gibson borrowed skeletons from 19th century European gravesites and studied their ribs and spines – noting distinctions between different cultures (corset wearer or non-wearer), sexes, ages, etc. She noted that corset wearers during this time period did show the influence of the corset’s pressure on their skeletal structure. But importantly, she also noted that in nearly 4000 death records, zero of them mentioned corsets or tightlacing being related to the cause of death. (And she said some of those “causes” on the written records were creative, like “died from evil”, so you’d think corsets would’ve come up at least once. It never did.)
Gibson goes on to say it’s important not to confound the causes of certain skeletal deformations and erroneously blame the corset for certain findings, as some other anthropologists are guilty of doing.
|Can be caused by rickets alone, but NOT corsets alone||Changes to the sternum (pigeon-chest), “waviness” of ribs.|
|Can be caused by corsets alone, but NOT rickets alone||Downward angling of the spinous processes (Gibson 2015).|
|Can be caused by rickets OR corsets (or both, but not necessarily)||Flattening and/or narrowing of the rib cage.|
|Allegedly requires BOTH rickets AND the wearing of corsets from pre-puberty||Rachitic Flat Pelvis, or the “flattening” of the pelvic girdle from back to front (which can only happen with extremely soft and malleable bone from malnutrition and starting from a young age, and the unique downward pressure on pelvic tendons caused by specific corsets) (Ortner & Putschar 1985, p 279).|
Notable quotes and conclusions
Were corseted women all victims of violent, patriarchally-enforced dress codes?
Gibson hints that this is certainly the narrative that some researchers seem to benefit from propagating. But just as humans today are not a monolith, so women in 18th and 19th century France possessed – and expressed, in writing to magazines and newspapers – differing opinions, preferences, and experiences. Some men penned essays on the silliness or dangers of women’s fashion, while others called a woman’s natural silhouette “uncivilized”. There is also plenty of evidence of women responding to these opinion columns rejecting both of these claims.
“The corset became, if not villain, then antihero for which some could root, against what most of society and most of the medical community believed and advised.”Gibson 2023
Humans are not immune from bias – including physicians, researchers, and society in general.
Gibson states that we cannot take outdated medical publications as 100% fact, or continue seeing the researchers as an unerring authority, especially when there is clear evidence of cherry-picking their subjects and patients, using small sample sizes, manipulating their data, doctoring their evidence, and relying on anecdotes – and particularly when the author of the work is clearly biased or otherwise had a conflict of interest, as O’Followell did.
Society / culture (and the individual people who make up that society) can definitely hold biases and this can definitely skew their conclusions. But it’s particularly egregious to manipulate the raw data to fit one’s agenda.
“In many cases, inaccuracies were passed to researchers, or from researchers to the reader, for various reasons—the culture may have had their own agenda.”Gibson 2023
Conclusion: are corsets dangerous or not?
According to O’Followell: in Le Corset (1908) he admitted, perhaps begrudgingly, that only tightlacing would be considered a risk for certain health issues – and that a well-constructed, properly-worn corset that’s not tightlaced “cannot have any dangerous influence on the heart in particular and on the circulatory system in general.”
According to Gibson: in The Corseted Skeleton (2020) she shares how nearly 4000 death records failed to blame the corset as the cause of death, and she goes on to say that although there are clear permanent effects of tightlaced corsets on the skeletons she studied, her “examination showed no correlation with other diseases or death.”
What do you think of Rebecca Gibson’s latest study?