Saturday 2 October 2010

The Unexpected Benefits of Corsets

Throughout the Victorian period, many people inveighed against corsets for damaging women's bones and bodies - 'tight-lacing' was recognised as a vice, although widely-practised. Corsetry, however, made of whalebone, had one advantage you rarely hear about  [my italics] ...

HATTON-GARDEN. ATTEMPTED MURDER. George Bailey, a youth about seventeen, was charged with having attempted to murder Mary Prendergast, a young woman, by stabbing her with a large knife. It appeared in evidence that on Thursday morning, last, about five o'clock, the Prisoner, who sells fish in a basket near Portpool-lane, Leather-lane, Holborn, was standing before his basket when the Prosecutrix asked him the price of his fish. He told her, and she refused to purchase, but laughed at him and jeered him.. . . . In the course of the evening the Prosecutrix was passing by, when the Prisoner rushed upon her with a knife which he uses to cut up the fish and, while in a great passion, he pluinged the knife several times at her heart, and the last thrust the point of the knife dug into her clothes, and would have entered her body had it not been that the bone of her stays prevented it ...  [Morning Post, 1833]

MARLBOROUGH-STREET. - AN UNNATURAL SON - Alfred Grant, a lad about nineteen years of age, of sullen aspect, was brought before Mr. Dyer, charged with having attempted to stab his own mother . . . James Grant, the brother of the prisoner, about sixteen years of age, said the prisoner came home to Grafton-street, Soho, on Monday afternoon, and some words having ensued between him and his mother, he seized a knife and made a stab at her. Fortunately the bone of his mother's stays turned the point of the knife ... [The Standard, 1837]

Catherine Connor, the person alluded to by the last witness, and who is in a state of pregnancy, deposed that she kept a fruit stall opposite to the Phoenix public-house and that on seeing the young man so savagely treated, she made use of the experssions just named, when Hill called her a --------, and kicked at her violently. Fortuantely for her she received two of the worse kicks aimed at her on the bone of her stays, otherwise they would, she had no doubt, have proved most serious to her from the situation she was then in. [The Morning Post, 1841]

Knifing cases involving corsetry are legion. Shootings, more rare - but you don't have to be a forensic scientist to suggest that, even in gun crimes, a corset might save your life:

Emil Fanselow, 24, a German waiter, was brought up on remand .... charged with shooting Clara Byford, his fellow-servant, at 1 Southwick-crescent, Hyde-park, with a revolver, and also with attempting to commit suicide . . . The injured woman was now in attendance for the first time, and, although the bullets have not been extracted from her body, she has almost entirely recovered . . . . On the evening of the 19th December she went into the prisoner's pantry for something, and he came up to her and kissed her, without a word being said. She said, "Be quiet, I am very cross with you," and went into the kitchen and laid the tea. A quarter of an hour after she went into the pantry to get some cups an saucers, and the prisoner came up to her, and she pushed him away. She was turning round to put some cups on the tray when he fired at her again [sic]. She heard the report and felt a pain in her side. She turned and looked at him, and he fired at her again. She said, "Oh, Emil, you have shot me!" He made no reply. She ran upstairs, and her mistress took her to the bedroom. She was conscious all this time. The stays produced were those she wore at the time. The two burns of them round the bullet-holes were made by the shots. [Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper, 1882]

So, ladies, if you live in a rough neighbourhood ... think whalebone!


  1. Lee,
    I love this post!
    I always imagined those corsets would provide some sort of protection, but loved reading your examples,
    Suzi Love

  2. Yes, there are so many examples involving knives (shootings of women were a much rarer occurrence, anyway, I suspect) ... I had thought it was more the province of fiction, but the newspapers proved me wrong in about two seconds of searching!

  3. I wonder how many women were physically damaged by the things though?!! Didn't some get cracked ribs, or faint because they were pulled so tight they couldn't breathe? Tried some on in Bath Costume museum once - I think i would chance a knife or bullet..

  4. Undoubtedly some were. You can find 19th C. diagrams showing organs being displaced by prolonged tight-lacing existed, but women generally wore them anyway - that's fashion for you (although wearing them tight enough to squeeze your organs out of place was perhaps not the norm).

  5. Fantastic post, Lee! Will be sure to don some whalebone when night falls!