With and Without: How Wearing a Corset Affects You and Your Clothes

September 17, 2012

How Wearing a Corset Affects You and Your Clothes

We’ve all heard the horror stories and seen the illustrations of how our corsets squish our bodies, but what about the ways in which they affect our appearance?

A corset’s most obvious effect is the reduction of the waist. The amount of reduction today’s fetish corsets achieve (up to 10″) is actually far past the historical norm even if the proportions are not. For example, “The Corset: Questions of Pressure and Displacement,” a study preformed by Robert L. Dickinson for The New York Medical Journal in 1887, sought to calculate the force of the pressure exerted on the body by the average corset and that pressure’s effect on the health of the wearer. It is an excellent article with lots of numbers for those of you who, like me, like to know a bit more about the math and science side of history!

In his study, Dr. Robert Dickinson states that, “Six inches difference between the circumference of the waist over the corset and the waist with the corset removed is the greatest difference I have measured. Five and a half and five I have met with once each. The least difference is in those cases where the measurement with and without is the same. The average contraction of the 52 cases given in the table is 2½ inches. The maximum there is 4½ inches, the minimum 1 inch.”

Note that the doctor encountered cases in which the with and without corset measurements were the same. How can that be? If  you aren’t reducing your waist measurement, why bother wearing a corset at all?

Measurements without a corset (left): 36″ x 28″ x 35″
Measurements with a corset (right): 35″ x 28″ x 35″

The photo above shows me in the same dress without and with a corset. Notice how much more smoothly my dress fits with a corset and how the bust is higher and slightly reduced, yet my waist measurement remained constant. The corset not only adds its own thickness, but rounds out the waist, a subtle, yet important factor to consider.

The oval on the left is a cross section of a 36 inch waist without a corset and the one on the right is taken in 3 inches with a corset. The shapes are to scale (remember: slight math nerd).

For many people, the human body looks skinner from a side angle than from the front. The corset draws in the sides of the body, thinning the front view while making the waist more circular and increasing the thickness of the body. So I look smaller from the front even though my actual size hasn’t changed.

So why did/do we wear corsets? The answer lies in that fact that corsets act as more than just a measurement reducer. In fact, there are other effects a corset has on the figure that are just as important as its waist reducing properties, especially when it comes to determining historical health and beauty ideals.

Before and After, Spencer Corset Ad from 1941
Pre-20th century ladies aren’t the only ones who benefit from steel and whalebone. Until the 1970s, girdles were still essential for girls to get the nip and lift they needed.

One of the major features of a corset aside from its reduction capabilities is its rigidity and support. Further into his report, Dr. Dickinson mentions that one of the participants in his study only wears a corset to go out and works without a corset at home. He notes that because of this, her abdominal muscles have remained strong while other ladies, whose muscles have the corset to do the work for them, have weak “paunchy” abs (which I have gained even without wearing a corset. *sigh*).

The nudes of the era that feature soft, doughy forms were appreciated because most of the women, once freed from their corsets, sprang back to their natural size, but with soft bellies and low, fleshy hips. Today we consider tight, toned bodies sensual and untoned bodies casual, quite the opposite of yesteryear. However, if we looked toned everyday in society and kept our natural jiggle hidden except in the most intimate of settings, our ideas of sensuality might also reverse.

“Nana” by Edouard Manet, 1887

In a world without underwires and Spanx, the female body would quickly succumb to gravity. One of the main functions of a corset is to support the breasts. If you are like me and have boobs much too large for your frame, you know the hazards of going braless: stretch marks, painful jiggle, and general sag. It’s not fun; it’s not pretty; and the darn things can get in your way! A corset holds them up and back, like a levee lest those girlies runneth over while you’re doing laundry, cooking, or being jolted around by a runaway quarterhorse. It also provides shape to the chest which is more telling of an era’s trends than the size of the waist reduction. Thus we get Regency’s high breasts; the Romantic period’s large, wide breasts; the soft, rounded Civil War breasts, the high mono-boob of the bustle era, and the pendulous pigeon-breasts of the Edwardian era. Most misconceptions about frumpy 19th century fashions come from trying to wear the styles without the right foundation garment. A late Victorian gown just isn’t the same without its corset companion.

Besides its effect on the natural state of the body, the corset had an equally vital role in fashion development. Without it, none of the fashionable trends we’ve come to love would be possible. Again in his report, Dr. Dickinson describes what happens when a woman tries to wear the popular fashions from 1887:

“In the woman who wears no corsets the many layers of bands about the waist on which heavy skirts drag are sufficient to cause considerable constriction” - Dr. Robert Dickinson

A corset is essential…ESSENTIAL…to wearing any period gown not only to achieve the desired silhouette, but because some historical dresses are HEAVY. I have a simple 1870s wool gown with no extra buttons, beading, or trims besides a plaid capelet. There are the obligatory bones inside the bodice to further support the shape and all told, the thing weighs 6 pounds 5 ounces. That’s without the cage, petticoat, slip, and underskirt. If it had all the bells and whistles of high fashion like draping fringe, bows, and miles of ruffles, the weight increases dramatically– up to 15 or 16 pounds! Other styles, like the mounds of petticoats from the 1850s, would actually bruise your hips from the weight. A corset offers protection from the weight of a gown in addition to giving the fabric the smooth support it needs to keep from straining and sagging.

Court Dress, circa 1775
 An 18th century silhouette relies on stays to give the torso a cone shape and to flatten the front of the bust upward.

The corset is undoubtedly one of the most intriguing pieces of clothing ever devised. It is both functional and fascinating, crossing the realm between necessity and vanity. The daily fashions of the 2010s rely on exercise, good genes, and diet to achieve our ideal body shape, but the corset still lingers in spite of the changing times. Will it ever leave us?  Well, with the ability to squeeze myself down from a size 7 to a size 4, I don’t think my spiral steels will be leaving my closet anytime soon!

Happy Costuming! :)

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26 Responses to “With and Without: How Wearing a Corset Affects You and Your Clothes”

  1. may i just passingly remark how stunningly victorian you look in that new corset+ gown? what’s gonna be the following epoch dressing adventure?

  2. Jen Thompson Says:

    What a wonderful article! Well done!

  3. Sandrine Says:

    I wish I could be able to wear corsets. My health condition does not allow me to do so, and I wish there was another alternative to make my costumes look more period. :(

    • Liz Says:

      Historical bodices almost always have a few small bones sewn into them that don’t restrict, but rather just support the fabric, giving you the supported look without the pinch. Or you can sew a layer of stiff fabric (quilting helps) into the lining, another historical way of propping up and smoothing out your silhouette. My other secret weapon: Sports bras! :)

    • Mrs Marvel Says:

      I recently tried a body shaper under an 1890s dress. It was very comfortable to wear and not restrictive, but gave me enough smoothing to hold the lines. For heavier clothing I don’t know what I would do tho.

  4. Brava! Being another math/science nerd, I personally loved that you went to the extra effort to make diagrams to scale. With your permission, I’d love to reblog this. :)

  5. Cassidy Says:

    Excellent post! I always enjoy reading good, reasoned approaches to the corset.

  6. Reblogged this on Lucy's Corsetry and commented:
    A lovely, balanced and logical corset-neutral article that shows (using a study from the late 19th century) that the average waist reduction among 52 women was only about 2.5 inches. As Liz sums up nicely elsewhere in her blog, “Whether you are a lady or a gent, costumer or casual, tight-lacer or comfort-seeker, there is a corset for you!”
    This article is well worth a read!

  7. The Choll Says:

    Another reason to wear a corset: Consistency. Clothes were expected to last and the monthly eccentricities of the average female form are well known to any person of the girl persuasion. :) It was essential to be able to maintain the same general size and shape for as long as possible for purely economical reasons if nothing else, since most women would not have had a separate wardrobe to accommodate changes in their personal size.
    This was a very enjoyable article. Thank you for sharing!

  8. Isis Says:

    So true! As I mainly do 18th century I always gets a bit amazed over those who refuses to wear stays underneath. It just don’t look right. Well, it might, I have friends are slender and bones the bodices heavily and they manage to get the right shape. Or you could opt for a shortgown or a Robe Battante where you can get away to go stayless. I’m thinking more of those ladies who insists on the gala look, but without any support- the result gets wrinkly and wrong.

    They are usually the same ladies who tells me that wearing stays are uncomfortable (without ever having tried one) and who assumes that the only way to wear stays or corsets is to lace yourself within an inch of your life…

  9. Great article! I was not aware of the study that averaged a 2.5″ reduction. Good to know most modern costumers fall in that same area.

  10. An excellent article.I like the fact you show a picture of you with and without corset.There is nothing like visual support.

  11. LadyD Says:

    I was pondering just this question the other day. Which prompted me to compare measurements with corset compared to with a ‘t-shirt bra’. I was surprised to find that my waist measurement stayed at 28″ but my bust measurement increased. I wondered how you cope with the bottom of the corset when sitting down…I dislike the V shaped ones as it flips up.

    • Liz Says:

      The bottom of my utilitarian white corset is M shaped and fits loosely around my hips rather than tightly. I can bicycle and sit quite comfortably in it. My hips are bitty anyways, so I don’t need to reduce them, but I have a different underbust corset that is absolute hell to sit in because it sits snugly around my hips! I’ve also noticed the flip-up problem. Usually it happens when a corset is too long for my torso or has plastic bones. In antique portraits, you will notice many of the sitters are either deeply reclined or on the edge of their seats leaning forward, s-corset style. If you sit either of these ways, it stops the corset from flipping up, but it takes getting used to. My general advice is get a flex-steel corset that is at least an inch larger at the hips than your natural measurement. :)

    • Mrs Marvel Says:

      Women used to sit with their knees apart, partially to accommodate the bottom of the corset but also so their skirts didn’t collapse into a heap on the floor. It isn’t really possible to lounge in a corset tho heaven help me I have tried after a long day standing lol. It probably depends on the era how your skirts fit but esp with 1860s styles its actually more comfortable.

  12. [...] With and Without: How Wearing a Corset Affects You and Your Clothes. Share this:ShareFacebookEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. Posted in Uncategorized [...]

  13. Charlsea Says:

    Very informative article! I have that unusual “Upper triangle shaped” figure…similiar to yours, but in a bigger size, hahaha!

  14. Brenda Reed Says:

    I have always thought that the stiffness of the female torse in a corset was one of the differences between women and men that was considered erotic in Victorian and Edwardian times. Women had to move differently, couldn’t slouch, and their body shape was displayed boldly, even if kept behind a picket fence of whalebone stays.

  15. [...] found this post about how wearing a corset affects the way a dress drapes very [...]

  16. […] from left to right! I am thinking original photoshopping. I found this pic off a blog post from The Pragmatic Costumer. In it she explains that typically a girdle/corset/etc. does not reduce your size, but reshapes […]

  17. http://bettycooperfield.wordpress.com/ Says:

    Sorry, I am a bit late in this thread.

    Another important aspect of the corset throughout history was that it sent a message to others. The message could range from

    “I have been well brought up and I am used to wearing a tight corset all day”

    “Look at me, I have the required deportment and posture, only achievable with a corset”

    “I am wearing a very restricting corset that limits my movements (in a 21 century sense – I can’t reach to the bottom shelf in the supermarket), but as a lady I don’t need to make outlandish movements, so effectively I am not restricted. I have maids that move things for me”.


  18. Grey Mouse Says:

    I have read (unfortunately not quite sure where!) that girls and women who wore corsets in the Victorian period were recomended to do 10 minutes to a half hour exercise session every day to help reduce their stomach and to balance their humours! I doubt if they did it boot camp style but the theory was and still is sound. Just because you wear corsets does not mean having to sacrifice a flat stomach!

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