The ‘evil’ that is the corset

For those of us privileged and lucky enough to be working from home (WFH) in the last couple of months of the pandemic, wearing the possibly most comfortable clothes has been a commonplace practice. Social media is full of images of Zoom/WebEx meetings with half-dressed people – half dressed, that is, in ‘office’ suitable clothing the waist up and tracksuits/leggings/pyjamas/even-only-underwear below. A recent BBC radio talk I overheard during breakfast with chief executives of the fashion industry stated that whereas in ‘normal’ times people wear 20% of their wardrobe, during the lockdown we wear only 2%.

I am at home, wearing my summer white linen shirt and an old, baggy, discoloured, wide-waisted and wide-legged pair of trousers saved from my pregnancy for those rare days when everyone is out and I can just stretch in every physical sense – in my body, in my clothes and in the flat unobserved and unjudged. From here, researching 4000 patented innovations of corsets across 200 years (1820 – 2020) is especially daunting and embodied in the most unsettling ways.

Wearing the most comfortable clothes has become commonplace while WFH

A corset ad from the back cover of the October 1898 Ladies’ Home Journal

The historical corset has been a very controversial garment in terms of serving as a tool and symbol of restriction and constraint of women’s bodies.

There were a complexity of views, understandings and meanings at the time of when it was widely worn by women and more recently in academic literature. Kara Swanson for example claims that the corset “policed the boundary between public and private” (2011, 57) and reinforced gender roles.

You don’t need to wear your 2% super comfy stretchy tracksuits to appreciate the ‘evil’ that is the traditional corset: the highly sophisticated, meticulously designed piece of underwear that deformed female bodies.

Corsets are also beautiful artefacts, displayed in glass vitrines in museums. Observing them, one is left astonished not just by the incredibly tiny waists that corsets produced but by their beauty. Their aesthetically appealing designs cover the bloody truth of the flesh cut into, the body distorted and impaired for life.

When you do historical research into clothing and citizenship (or any social science research really) you try to identify your biases and account for them. So while I am fidgeting in my loose clothes on the chair, pulling my leg underneath my bum and letting my belly roll into soft curls I am sharply aware of my freedom – a freedom I enjoy being alone in our guestroom-turned-home office with no one present and watching. But this highly conscious freedom is mixed with a sense of alienation. I cannot help imagining my own body in those corsets that I am studying. And of course, I am outraged, horrified and disgusted, and I go through all the predictable emotions in my white middle class feminist academic home office.

My outrage is nothing new or interesting really. What is, is when I read the inventors of corset patents of 1890 and 1900 being similarly enraged and calling the corset ‘evil’. After all, these decades are one of the prime time of corsets, made of ten to fifteen parts with in-built whalebones and steel and creating the perfect S shape by pushing all the flesh above and below the waistline to produce the narrowest waists and full busts and buttocks.

We were curious to see the corset referred to as ‘evil’ in the patent archive

Inventors were invested in getting their ideas patented and their garments produced widely. Given this, our research team in the POP project found it particularly curious to see the corset more often than not referred to as ‘evil’ in the descriptions of the patents. Furthermore, patentholders who addressed the evil corset were those we commonly associate with women’s subjugation to particular ideals of beauty and body shapes: men. Interestingly, we found many female innovators of corsets as well.

While there were a number of corset inventions aiming at “obtaining slender body-form, keeping up the demands of aesthetics” during this time period, a lot of the concerns lie with the “damaging”, “annoying” – “evil” corsets, the straps, bandages, belts and bars built into them to achieve the desired shape. We found horse-hair inserts instead of bones and steel, “durable and flexible corset bars”, “ribbon whale wraps” and “leather inserts” “to make the corset elastic and more comfortable for the wearer”, and even corsets made of felt, with the benefit of “that they are sweat-sucking and exert on the body no superfluous pressure” (Pat. CH 6238D).

Inventors wanted to make the corset ‘bearable’ …

Inventors were not only concerned with making the corset “bearable” but with the harmful health related problems they caused. There are several concerns with the pressure of the corset to be distributed evenly, so that organs are not damaged – heart, kidneys, and digestive organs specifically mentioned, alongside “impeding breathing”. The abstract of a 1894 patent is worth quoting at length, as it sums up the problems the innovators of the time were engaging with:

“This invention is designed to supply an effective and healthful support to the human figure. It is specially serviceable in counteracting the evils consequent on the use of the corset and it allows liberty to every organ and muscle, room for a deep respiration and facility for a vigorous heart-beat. In this improved combination brace and bodice or vest and suspender all steels and bones are dispensed with and the dragging weight of the dress skirt or lower habiliments is removed from the hips and put upon the shoulders.” (Pat. GB 189409885D)

In this 1894 patent called “Improved Combination Brace and Bodice or Vest and Suspender” from Great Britain the description refers to the construction below that aims to replace the corset:

 

A similarly complex strap system in another British patent “A Substitute for Corsets” (Pat.GB 189719531D) is meant to achieve what is says on the tin – to get rid of the evil corset.

Looking at this drawing now, it requires quite some stretching of the imagination to see how this undergarment is more comfortable or less painful than any corsets before, but the inventor claims that, by allowing the straps to be adjusted by buttons, the corset substitute can be better fitted on the body.

 

In the Swiss corset patent (Pat. CH 16500D) horizontal, sewn-in elastic spiral springs are used to achieve a more healthy and comfortable wear:

Corsets were damaging to the inner organs of the body, but they could also be beneficial – at least this was claimed by this British patent of 1897 that impresses with a very detailed anatomical drawing of the female body. This corset supports “a pessary [a prosthetic device inserted into the vagina for gynecologic purposes] in position”:

 

Evil and damaging, to be reconstructed or substituted – as much as these issues were to be tackled, competing considerations given to shaping the female form have not disappeared. Indeed, this time period of 1890 -1900 seems to be fragmented by equal concerns of beauty and aesthetics on one hand and deformation of organs on the other, of comfort and health vs. manipulation of bodies into rigid forms.

The following patent is emblematic of these clashing divisions: in Victorian Britain when women became more mobile and their cycle wear enabled them to create new mobilities and freedoms the corset also kept their bodies within particular social ideals of femininity defined by the beauty ideals of the era.

Women might have been cycling in bloomers and even in long trousers as the drawing suggests, but with a tight corset on and a mirror in the hand:

 

An Improved Combination Garment for Ladies’ Use when Cycling, Riding, or the like. (Pat. GB 189803956D): “a corset made in one with a pair of knickerbockers or trousers.”

Maybe these patents reflect ‘’little” acts of resistance, of carving out little freedoms for our organs and for our bodies…

Back in my chair I keep returning to the notion of ‘bearable’ that I came across in these patents. Bearable corsets, bearable womanhood, bearable lives.

If corsets can be understood as symbols of society’s regulation of women, then these patents might be offering “thousand little ways” of “insisting on [our] own humanity” as Michele Wallace suggested when she wrote about quiet and consistent persistence on dignity as a form of resistance that often get little attention in the face of the heroism of overt confrontation (2015, 76).

Maybe these patents reflect ‘’little” acts of resistance, of carving out little freedoms for our organs and for our bodies, and ultimately for our humanity to breathe under pressure.

References: 

Swanson, K. W. (2011). Getting a Grip on the Corset: Gender, Sexuality, and Patent Law. Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, Vol. 23:57.

Wallace, M. (2015). Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, London: Verso.

 

Patents

Pat. CH 6238D. Victor Skutezky, Osterreich – Ungarn, ‘Corset aus Filz’, 1 December 1892. Accessed at the EPO Espacenetwww.epo.org

Pat. GB 189409885D. Susan Beckett, New South Wales, ‘An Improved Combination Brace and Bodice or Vest and Suspender’, 21 May 1895. Accessed at the EPO Espacenet www.epo.org

Pat. GB 189719531D. Agnes Fleischer, Germany, ‘A Substitute for Corsets’, 24 August 1897. Accessed at the EPO Espacenetwww.epo.org

Pat. CH 16500D. Joh. Pabst & Co., Germany, ‘Corset with horizontal, sewn-in, elastic spiral springs’, 17 June 1898. Accessed at the EPO Espacenetwww.epo.org

Pat. GB 189803956D. Arthur Henry Bull, Derby, ‘An Improved Combination Garment for Ladies’ Use when Cycling, Riding, or the like’, 17 February 1898. Accessed at the EPO Espacenetwww.epo.org

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