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

How Wearing a Corset Affects You and Your Clothes

An Outdated, Incorrect Diagram of a Corset's Effect

We’ve all heard the horror stories and seen the illustrations of how our corsets supposedly 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 skinnier 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 give me a neatly defined waist where otherwise I have none, I don’t think my spiral steels will be leaving my closet anytime soon!

Happy Costuming! :)

For even more information about corsets and how they physically affect your body, I highly recommend visiting Lucy’s Corsetry. She is considered one of the leading authorities on modern corsetry and discusses everything from medical issues and myths to making your own!

Antique Measurements: That waist is how big?!

What are your numbers?

Just in case you’re curious: these are my measurements. This set of measurements is 100% natural, sans support garments. Any corsets, bras, or girdles I don will alter these measurements and since I’m not covering any particular time period at the moment, a sans-support example seems the most….fitting!

As a woman, I am infinitely concerned with my size, no matter how much pro-self-image or “love yourself as you are” talk I hear (and often spout). My sister gets quite annoyed at times because I am apt to poke her taut, shapely waist and try to guess its circumference. It’s not that I am unhappy with my measurements, I’m just always curious about what size things actually are. It’s hard to tell from a movie or picture how large or small something really is. This problem is painfully obvious when it comes to movie stars. Unlike a stage play, an onscreen movie with its many angles and shots makes judging the size of actors impossible. I visited an exhibition of famous movie costumes a few years ago and was utterly dumbfounded at how miniscule Drew Barrymore’s Ever After fairy gown was! She’s 5′ 4″, and when she made that film her waist was barely 24 inches around!

Measurements and numbers are vital to fitting costumes. One of the biggest challenges is trying to find measurements on original pieces, especially if they are in a museum and I am unable to see, touch, or wind my tape measure around them as I would like. Most museum collections– especially those I access online– rarely provide such juicy info as the waist circumference of a dress or the width of those ridiculously fab panniers. Still, it seems that the waist measurement of a gown is what everyone is most interested in, for good reason.

The “feminine” quality of a shape is largely determined by the how much the divot in the middle curves inward and where. Every body shape has had its heyday at some point in history. Fashions fluctuate and devices and “enhancers” are employed to achieve many of these shapes. The most famous shaper, the corset, has been in use for almost 500 years! But just how much the size of a fashionable waistline has changed through the years is often difficult to discern.  What exactly are “historical sizes?”

They didn’t use a number system like we do–and even if they did, it would be very different from today’s– because everything was tailor-made until the late 19th century. Patterns and tailors all used an individual’s measurements as the basis for their designs. When you look at that impossibly proportioned Edwardian gown, don’t you wonder how tiny that waistband actually is? I know I do! Happily, I discovered that the Philadelphia Museum of Art graciously measures almost all the historical gowns in their collections.

Here are a few gowns through the ages from the PMA archives, listed with their measurements:

Robe à la Française, circa 1755-1760

Waist: 23 1/2 inches
Center Back Length: 63 inches


Robe à l’Anglaise, circa 1785-1793

Waist: 22 inches
Center back length: 61 inches


Dress, circa 1785-1795

Waist: 27.5 inches
Center Back Length: 60 inches


Belted Dress, circa 1823

Waist: 26.5 inches
Center Back Length: 48.5 inches


Day Dress, circa 1855

Waist: 22 inches
Center Back Length: 54 inches


Day Dress, circa 1885

Waist: 24 inches


Dressing or Tea Gown, circa 1906

Waist: 24 inches


French Gown, circa 1905

Waist: 21 inches
Center Front Length: 55  inches


M. A. Connelly Dress, circa 1905

Waist: 20.5 inches
Skirt Center Front Length: 39 3/8 inches


Dinner Dress, circa 1910

Waist: 26 inches
Center Front Length: 56 inches
Center Back Length: 57.5 inches


Overblouse and Dress, circa 1922

Dropped Waist (hips): 36 inches
Center Front Length: 38 inches

These gowns don’t necessarily portray the “average” size for their eras, but they are great existing examples of sizing from days gone by.

Now before you start worrying about how un-Victorian your shape is, remember those corsets! Everyone wore them. EVERYONE. Even children. Ladies since the 18th century have trained their bodies from an early age to match these measurements, reshaping their rib cages and re-arranging their internal organs to achieve the perfect body. If you are a casual costumer, no one expects you to start wearing a 22 inch corset to bed every night! Another factor in size is genetics and nutrition. The human body has changed over the ages as genetic traits become more varied and some genes, like those for height, are allowed to reach their full potential.
Another great thing about knowing measurements? It reveals just how crucial pattern, fit, and style are to creating shape. Two gowns can have identical measurements, yet the decoration and color choices radically alter the silhouette! An extra inch on a bustle or a slightly lower neckline may make the difference between looking stellar and looking frumpy! For instance, I know to avoid lots of frills and ruffles on my bodices because I’m a tad top heavy (Edwardian pouter pigeon bodices are either a curse or blessing, I haven’t quite decided yet). However, costuming for the 1830s is all about those crazy ruffles and poofs and generally being enormously wide on top, so my natural fullness would just blend right in!

Oh no, dear! My sleeves are 100% natural, I assure you!