For centuries people have deformed their skeletons to mold different parts of their bodies to what is considered an ideal shape in their culture. Long-term corseting, also called tightlacing, alters the shape of the ribs and vertebrae to produce a tiny wasp-like waist. This form of extreme body modification was practiced in Europe from the 16th to the early 20th centuries. It faced some backlash in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries when physicians breathlessly declared that corseting posed a risk to the health of women and could cause death. Rebecca Gibson, an anthropologist at American University, researched the relationship between corsets, skeletal changes, and age at death to see if corseting was really all that deadly.
Corsets of the 16th century were a two-panel underbodice called a “payre of bodies” that molded the torso into a cylinder. 17th century corsets were designed to give the torso a “cone-like shape” and were made from two pieces of boned fabric. Victorian Era corsets reached below the waist and were made of steel boning that molded the torso into an exaggerated hourglass shape. Women wore these confining garments for most of their lives starting when they were girls, some even wore them while they were pregnant.
But many physicians, like Ludovic O’Followell in Le Corset (1908), claimed that corsets caused a slew of health problems like hysteria (my favorite), heart palpitations, internal bleeding, and even death. While O’Followell advocated for “a less severe design,” others wanted to see tightlacing abolished altogether.
Were these claims true to just a bunch of hot air?
Recently in The Canadian Student Journal of Anthropology, Rebecca Gibson examined corsets and skeletal remains deformed by corsets, to investigate the relationship between long-term corseting and skeletal changes, as well as corseting and life expectancy.
The skeletal remains used for this research came from the Muséum national d’Histoure naturelle in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris and the Centre for Human Bioarchaeology at the Museum of London. Gibson measured rib cages and vertebrae of individuals with corset deformities, and photographed the skeletal indicators of age of individuals who lived between 1700 and 1900 CE. To help determine the physical effects of corseting, Gibson examined a sample of corsets from different economic levels of the same period held at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s textile collection.
Gibson examined seven skeletons from the Paris collection and 17 from the London collection and found the following:
- The rib cages were approximately circular
- The ribs were compressed into an “s-shape” with the sternal ends pushed downwards.
- The spinous processes of the vertebrae were pushed away from the centerline of the back.
Gibson states that these bone deformities are “inconsistent with other types of documented damage, such as rickets/osteomalacia, ankylosing spondylitis, osteogenesis imperfecta, and congenital deformities.”
Using corsets from 1700-1900 in the Victoria and Albert Collection, Gibson determined that the average waist of women in the UK during this period was 56.33 cm, or 22 inches. While the waist size of modern women in the UK, according to a 2001 survey, was 86cm, or about 33 inches,
According to life expectancy data used by Gibson, the life expectancy at birth in France from 1745-1905 was 25-49 years. In England, from 1706-1901 life expectancy at birth was 35-50 years. Gibson states that the skeletal indicators of age showed that these women, despite deformities and an unnaturally small waist lines, met or exceeded life expectancy at birth, and, in some cases, average at death.
However, she is careful to mention that her examination does not speak to the quality of life of these women. There is no doubt that long-term corseting was super uncomfortable, made it difficult to breath, and moved organs around.
Although there is little proof that corseting was as deadly as 19th century physicians claimed, more research is still necessary to prove tightlacing did not have an effect on the life span of the wearer. Gibson’s study had a relatively small sample size of 24, and the age estimations for some individuals have a large range. Also, more precise data on life expectancy at birth and age at death is needed, if it exists for this period.
Gibson states, “We need to piece together what it meant to live in and be changed by a corset, something women did on a daily basis and which impacted every part of their lives, using a multi-disciplinary approach. This approach must use history and anthropology, as well as women’s own words, to draw a clear picture of this important era that so greatly influences the way we speak, act, and think today.”