Monday 24 January 2011

Cursed Corsets

A late addition, a fact acknowledged by the author, to the literature against corsetry, with some fine prose ('Our women to-day are frilled and chiffoned to the eyes, are flounced and furbelowed to the heels ...'). The most surprising thing is the monkey experiment mentioned at the start - so Victorian - I will look into this ...

     SOME years since a series of experiments for the purpose of showing the effects of tight-lacing were made upon monkeys by an enterprising scientist. A number of miniature corsets, exactly similar to those worn by women, were fashioned to size, and a number of poor little creatures encased in them.
     Their distress at the constriction and discomfort, their unceasing efforts to release themselves, did credit to their intellectual perception and sagacity. The physical results were as disastrous as they are instructive. For it was found that those which were corseted and laced at once to the regulation V-shape of fashionable woman died in the space of a few days, as though stricken by some mortal malady. Those in whose cases a more gradual process was adopted lived some weeks in sickliness and suffering. Whilst others, the 'improvement' of whose figures extended over a still more lengthy period, did not succumb at all, showing that tolerance became established. But the tolerance was established obviouslly at the expense of health and happiness. These rudimental martyrs to a civilised vice fell off grievously in appetite and spirits. They were attacked by gastric and other internal disorders. They moped and lost flesh, alternating between extreme languor and marked nerve-irritability. Their tempers rendered them unapproachable, and although they did not die actually of stays, they died within a few months of some disorder of which.stays with the health deterioration consequent on their use were the undoubted cause.
    It might be imagined that the subject were by this time threadbare, that.enough and to spare had been already said and written against corsets. But enough will never have been said or written until the evil has been exorcised.
     For at the present moment the use of corsets is more universal than has hitherto been known. The extravagance of modern dress — an extravagance never before reached — is evidence enough were evidence needed of this. Dress has been given to woman to conceal her deficiencies, and to this end she employs it, beauty and dress assuming generally an inverse ratio the one to the other. Our women to-day are frilled and chiffoned to the eyes, are flounced and furbelowed to the heels. Their toupĂ©es and love-locks come home in a box, or are the glorified apotheoses of tresses which lack the vitality to curl without the aid of pins or heated irons. The use of rouge, of powder and toilet accessories innumerable has at no time been so prevalent. The flush of our finger-tips, counterfeiting health, is the art of the manicure. Our modistes are taxed to the utmost in their necessity to simulate natural curves and to conceal unnatural deficiencies by means of folds and frillings. No doubt the wear and tear of modern life—the pace at which we live—has much to do with such physical decadence, but the deterioration is and has been largely hastened by the use of stays.
     Formerly the practice of tight-lacing was confined almost entirely to the fashionable and leisured classes. Now it permeates the humblest levels of society. You shall not find a housemaid or kitchen-maid, a shop-girl or a little slave of all work, who does not pinch her waist to a morbid and ridiculous extent. The thing has become, indeed, a national evil, for these wasp-waisted, chlorotic beings are the mothers of the race. They who observe cannot fail to have been struck by that which may best be described as a blighting process which falls upon many developing girls. We see them half-grown, more or less shapeless healthy creatures with the promise of a fine maturity about them. We see them some years later and exclaim in disappointment. The fine promise has belied itself. Development has given place to retrogression.
     The abnormal pressure upon vital organs which at this season is first put upon the girl has prevented the natural expansion and growth of liver and stomach and lungs, and of other internal organs whose proper and unhindered development is essential to the full growth of a human individual. Other influences doubtless are also at work, such as inherited degeneracy, over-education, and the strain civilisation puts upon young growing creatures ; but the unfortunate girl would be more in a condition to cope with these were her digestive and blood-making capacities left free to answer to her body's needs. Growth is largely a question of nutrition. Thorns are abortive buds. Starve a man and you stunt his nature, he becomes dwarfed or lop-sided. His brain develops at the expense of his body, or his body develops at the expense of his brain. The balance of his powers is lost for the reason that his vitality is not enough for healthy, all-round growth. So, we manufacture degenerates—men and women top-heavy with mentality, because the brain has robbed the body ; men and women over-weighted with animality, because the body has robbed the brain. As Herbert Spencer tells us: 'The unfolding of an organism after its special type has its approximately uniform course, taking its tolerably definite time, and no treatment that may be devised will fundamentally change or greatly accelerate these ; the best that can be done is to maintain the required favourable conditions. But it is quite easy to adopt a treatment which shall dwarf or deform, or otherwise injure; the processes of growth and development may be, and very often are, hindered or deranged, though they cannot be artificially bettered.'  The 'hindering and deranging' which in this particular relation takes place is somewhat as follows.
     The girl wakens in the morning, her expression calm, her features and outlines plumpened and rejuvenated by the even tide of blood which during sleep has been allowed to flow freely through her tissues. Her lungs and diaphragm have expanded, her liver, stomach, and other organs have relieved themselves in a measure from the cramped, congested state which is their daily normal. Her whole system is refreshed.
     She rises, and forthwith proceeds to thwart the healthful expansive processes which have gone on during the night. She encases herself in an abnormality of steel and whalebone, compressing vital organs in an unyielding grip. The resulting sense of constriction; more irksome as every woman knows but too well in the morning, where it does not induce actual nausea at all events occasions a feeling of pressure destructive of appetite; so that after a fast of some twelve or fourteen hours, the girl, whose growing, hungry tissues clamour for fresh supplies, is unable to take the food her system badly needs to start the day upon. Or if she takes it the cramped organs can but ill assimilate it. As the duty of the stomach is to convert food into soluble nutrition which the blood may carry to the tissues, so the duty of the liver is to store the surplus of a meal and to discharge it slowly as the system calls for it. But the capacity of the constricted stomach is so encroached upon that it will not without pain or discomfort contain enough material for the needs of nutrition. Consequently only half enough or even less is taken. The abnormal pressure prevents the natural churning movements essential to assimilation. Added to which there is grave interference with nerve and blood-supplies. Neither should it be supposed that digestive capacity can be gauged by the bulk of food swallowed. Digestion is a far more complex thing than this; a thing too complex, indeed, for organs hampered and degenerated by decades of constriction to achieve.
     The storage power of the liver, intended for the provision of nourishment during such times as the stomach is empty, is encroached upon by so many square inches as the waist is diminished. Moreover, the blood-currents through this organ, whose duty it is to keep the blood in condition, are impeded and become sluggish, and in time its structure shrinks. The same shrinking and degeneration go on in the lungs, which are not permitted full expansion during the hours of action, the hours that is of deepest breathing. And all these conditions from being merely temporary become permanent, resulting in organic change and deterioration. The starved blood is pallid, thin, and incapable of nourishing the tissues. These waste. The girl grows flat-chested and hollow-cheeked. Her ill-fed skin is dry and inelastic, and will early shrivel into wrinkles. At the same time the congestion and deterioration of internal organs result in lines and dragged furrows from the eyes and angles of the mouth. While she is yet a girl she has lost out of her face and figure nearly every curve and charm and softness that belongs to womanhood. For beauty is a luxury of Nature, it is something that is elaborated out of the surplus left over from the mere utilitarian demands of the body.
     Her abdominal muscles microscopically examined will be found to have atrophied, the healthy muscle-cells being replaced by fattily degenerate cells for the reason that the supple support it was their function to supply has been abnormally and stiffly supplied by steel and whalebone, and they have wasted from disuse. Later in life they will probably yield altogether, the woman becoming the shapeless personage we regard as the norm of middle-age. With this atrophy and atony of external muscles there goes on an associated atrophy and atony of internal muscles, leading to results which custom does not permit us to discuss out of the pages of medical literature.
     Dyspepsia may fairly be described as the feminine of digestion; to such an extent do women suffer from this most distressing and injurious of disabilities. Especially is this the case during girlhood. Just at the period when Nature is making great demands upon the resources, dyspepsia with its resulting starvation and impoverishment steps in. Development ceases, or if it continues does so at the expense of health. Either the girl never grows into a woman, or she grows into a sickly woman with ill-nourished and defective tissues. Her structure has been supplied from dyspeptic sources. Food which a capable digestion would have raised to its highest powers, supplying nutrition of the greatest efficiency, has, as a consequence of her poor assimilative capacity, rendered up only half or a third of its value. And this even at the cost of suffering. Small wonder:that women's tongues and tempers are not all they should be! The satisfaction of healthy appetite, grateful and pleasing to a healthy organisation, is to the corseted one an ever-recurring source of pain and irritation.
     Now the source of all power, physical or intellectual, being digestion, it follows that he who has the greatest capacity for turning food-stuff into energy is the person best equipped in life. Much depends of course upon the form into which the faculties further elaborate the energy derived from digestion, but digestion is the fons et origo of all capacity. Given a man. with a good digestion and a capable brain, that man will assuredly (all other things being equal) accomplish more than another with an equally good Intellectual organ and a poor digestion.
    Woman, then, in impairing her assimilative power is impairing her human power. She can never fairly keep up with man , whose assimilative capability, uninjured at all events by stays, is more according to his needs. It may be accepted indeed as fundamental truth that so long as women wear stays (for women seldom wear stays without lacing them too tightly) our sex can never properly take its place in the world of work. The inefficiency inseparable from anaemia and malnutrition may pass muster in homes where there is no standard of excellence, where the produce is not a marketable commodity :but merely offspring, and where lack of capacity and 'nerves' do not affect the affairs of nations, but it will not stand the strain of competitive life. So long as one sex wantonly curtails its powers and the other sex does not, so long will the sex which does be heavily and insuperably handicapped.
     It may be objected that woman is to-day stronger and more athletic than she has ever been. But it must not be forgotten that, not even in man, and certainly not in woman, is muscular capacity a test of health. On the contrary, its possession in very marked degree is one of the symptoms of degeneracy. And whatsoever may be advanced in evidence of modern woman's muscularity, it cannot be denied that she is physically immature. She may be tall, she may be sturdy and capable of great athletic feats; but is she womanly? The term is hard to define. Womanliness is not a thing of inches, nor of muscles, nor of strength, but inhuman and intrinsic value far superior to these: without it any member of the sex, be she as tall, as strong, and as muscular as she may be, is immature has fallen short in her development. In so far as she is not womanly she approximates the masculine type, and approximates it only in its cruder attributes. The blight of arrested growth has fallen upon her, and the fact that this arrested growth is not necessarily attended by muscular incompetence makes it none the less a blight.
     The writer can affirm without reservation that of the women she has known who have reached the highest ideals of their sex in mind and body, of those also who have preserved their youth and beauty into advanced years, each one has been a woman who has not worn stays, or has not at all events employed them as a means of constriction.
     In these days girls no longer marry in their teens (for which posterity will have every reason to be thankful), so that the preservation of good looks is indicated for a longer period than formerly. The haggardness and peevish furrows, the sallowness and pallor, . the 'nerves' and waspish temper, to say nothing of the angularity resulting from unnatural compression and its attendant malnutrition, show themselves in the well (?) be-corseted long before the average age of marriage.
     Once women realise this fact, that the expedient of tight-lacing, which they so short-sightedly adopt in the interests of their appearance, is in truth the most cruel and absolute destroyer of beauty that could have been devised, then maybe the practice will be threatened.
     That a leopard will change his spots or women discard the use of stays in the course of one generation is not to be expected. Progress  is far too slow a thing for that. Even the platform of woman's rights is an object-lesson in wasp-waistedness.  But if women will not themselves abandon this abomination of tight-lacing, with its multiple miseries and race-deterioration, at least they should so far yield to scientific representation as to  preserve their growing girls from the cruelty entailed in injured health, arrested growth, abortive womanhood, and restricted power.
     One cannot prevent a person come to years which stand for discretion from distorting her figure and spoiling her health, but public opinion should speak plainly and irresistibly, paternal authority should be exerted if need be, to rescue the already too fragile and devitalised girls of our day from this barbarity of corsets, which their own ignorance or the culpable ignorance or callousness of mothers puts upon them. One hears always the same cry, 'The stays are not tight!'  Tolerance, doubtless, as in the case of the monkeys, becomes established, but the tolerance is at the expense of pinched degenerating organs and arrested growth.
    That the stays are indeed tight is shown by the fact that although the physique and internal organs expand in every other direction, the waist of adult woman is actually less than that of the girl between ten and twelve. Moreover, it has been found that the waists of young women released from the abnormal bondage of corsets, described as "not the least bit tight," expand i n the course of a few months to the extent of some three to seven inches. The female waist is naturally two inches larger than that of a male of corresponding height and weight. Yet the waist of woman unnaturally compressed is a very great many inches smaller, as we know, than that of her masculine fellow.
     The medical aspects of the case, the displacement and disease of most important organs and the disastrous consequences to health, can only be suggested here. But the external physical decadence is a sign on the face of modern woman indicative of grave internal havoc.
    Let man, who rails at the proneness of a gentler sex to back-biting scandal, and pitiful spites, try for himself what it means to spend a day in well-laced corsets, a summer's day preferably, when the blood-vessels respond to the dilating warmth. How much amiability, tolerance, or generous feeling will he succeed in manufacturing during such a day?
     It would serve him for a liberal education, and temper for ever after his strange masculine and inartistic enthusiasm for wasp-waists. For it would prove to him once and for all time the cost at which the nineteen inches he applauds are gained. Also, it would bring home to him forcibly how much more delectable a place the world would be to live in, freer from jars and sordid bickerings, 'incompatibilities' and disunion, were woman but released from this her weariest burden, were she permitted to reach the full and healthy development of her womanhood, instead of remaining the immature, half-developed (though possibly muscular) being she is to-day. There is no doubt that dress is the charity which covereth multiple grievous deficiencies. The average woman, clothed as fashion clothes her, presents, I confess, an exterior pleasing to our artificial and acquired tastes. Unclothed—alas! she is that to make the physiologist and artist weep.

The Nineteenth Century, 1904


  1. I just discovered your blog thanks to someone's post on Twitter. I must say, I really enjoy what you've posted! This Arabella Kenealy person, though, has me a little worried. There is so much contemporary weirdness and misinformation that accounts like this fascinate me. I did more research and dug up some interesting things about her. Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. Cheers - I didn't know anything about her. These opinion pieces should always be taken with a pinch of salt - you wouldn't want to draw too many conclusions about real lives. That said, I still want to know about those monkeys ...

    [nb. see my site too]

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