The topic of tight-lacing corsets is one that provide constant fodder for discussion in both mainstream and social media. In more mainstream media, tight-lacing is often a source of both titillation and negative commentary and the concept leave people aghast, especially when applied towards historical dress of periods such as the late Nineteenth Century, a situation not helped by movies such as Gone With The Wind and the like. Ultimately, the most pernicious belief is that late Nineteenth Century women (or women of any corset or stay-wearing period) were at best masochistic, or worse, simply too stupid to realize the harm that they were doing to themselves.
However, it’s been proved by a number of authors and researchers that this was not the case and that the dangers of tight-lacing were well recognized by people of their respective eras. One example from the 1880s cane be found in this editorial published in the July 1886 issue of Peterson’s Magazine. While noting that while tailor-made suits are extremely useful dresses for street wear, Peterson’s also states that:
We fear, however, that. they have done some, perhaps much, hard to our thoughtless young women. Nothing tends to set off a “good figure” so well as these tight-fitting garments, and the consequence is that a vain woman is tempted to compress her waist and bust out of all natural shape by tight lacing, in order to get a “good figure”; and, further, to have her sleeves made so close fitting that the circulation is almost stopped in the arms; and still more, to increase the size of the bustle to ridiculous extent, in order to decrease the apparent size of the waist. If one of these tightly-laced women only knew how badly she looked, with her tight-sleeved arms thrust out from her waist, and how badly she walked, with her tightly-compressed hips, perhaps there would be a reformation in the way of wearing her corsets.
Peterson’s then goes on to detail the ideal corset fit:
The first rule to be laid down with regard to the corset, by the bye, is always to have it, if possible, a well-fitting one; the second is, never to lace it too tightly. It should always be made as pliable as possible Too many corsets are so stiffened up with whalebones or steels that the poor flesh seems to be incased [encased] in armor, and the person can scarcely move. Some support to the figure seems to have become a necessity in modern times…
The corset should always have the gussets, which support the bosom, made so deep and broad that the bust will not be pushed out of its natural place (almost up to the throat, as we see it sometimes), but fail easily to where the bosom ought to be. it is corsets of this kind that are indelicate. Neither should the gussets be stiffened with whalebones, as they sometimes are, for that will almost always show through the dress. The length of the waist will depend, of course, upon whether the wearer is long or short-waisted; but, in the present style of long-waisted dresses, the corset is usually cut so as to give the desired appearance without; detriment to the figure.
The corset should fit comfortably over the hips, never compress them. Few of the women of the present day have the free springy walk of the young Diana. This defect is owing to tight lacing. Nothing injures the grace of motion so much. A corset should be large enough to be evenly laced, with a space of about three inches between the sides at: the back. But it must be remembered that it should not be just too tight to bring it to this space, or it will not be a well-fitting one.
Peterson’s then concludes:
But we wish it could be impressed on our young girls that health means beauty, and that, therefore, tight-lacing is a mistake, even aesthetically. If the digestion is impaired, or the vital organs pushed out of place, by tight-laced ill-fitting corsets, the health, and consequently the appearance, must under; the girl gets a red nose, her complexion falls off, she can no longer walk easily and gracefully; in short, she loses in real beauty with every day.
Personal vanity and attempting to meet unrealistic fashion expectations seem to the be the main reasons behind tight-lacing and they show the negative side to fashion which in turn can lead to harmful ideas of one’s self-worth, something that concerns us greatly. At the same time, the above editorial’s description of how a corset should fit gets to the heart of a related issue: the reason that corsetry has gotten a bad reputation to a large degree also stems from poorly fitting corsets, something that we’ve seen all too much throughout the years. We strongly advocate that when building an historical wardrobe, it is essential to start first with a well-fitted corset and all else stems from it.
Body-modification is not unique to the late Nineteenth Century and every era had some version but if taken too far, the effects can be harmful. The key is to exercise good judgement and find the styles that work for you and give you the most satisfaction. In terms of the late Nineteenth Century, tight-lacing and other extreme practices are not needed to create the period and in fact, are the sheer antithesis. That said, there’s more than enough room to work with and we would be more than happy to assist in this endeavor.