Assasin of the human race



In this article I wish to discuss the negative image corsetry has gained over the past 300 years. How many of us have heard some sort of tale about the Victorian’s zeal for corsetry with visions of ladies possessing minuscule waists fainting every five minutes, their bosom heaving and gasping for air? All so terribly romantic, the stuff that the drugstore novel was built on.

Valerie Steele, the widely published fashion historian, attempts to put the record straight in her book Fetish in which she says, "Although most Victorian women wore corsets, they were not usually tight-lacers with 16 inch waists any more than most women today wear fetish shoes with 7 inch heels" Her research shows that corsets were usually sold in the sizes 18 to 30 inches and 31 to 36 was also available but any larger or smaller than these would have been a very special request. Still, the myth of the tiny waisted Victorian ladies lives on in the fashion plates and paintings of that time which have made such impressions on us all.

Whilst doing some research for a book on the facts and fictions of corsetry, I came across many interesting and entertaining tales and theories about why people should or shouldn’t wear the corset. In the late 1600’s, for example, the Puritans supposedly laced their corsets with religious fervour. To be without the confining garment, a woman was of loose morals and unsuitably dressed in the eyes of God. Those not participating in the Puritan’s faith would look upon the faithful as "straight laced," "stiff," and of "rigid morality." Indeed the garment was not so much a corset as we know it but more of a stiff linen bodice with a bit of boning.

In the 1700’s the stiff bodice gained even more boning and formed the outer top of a lady’s dress which she could be sewn into every morning and released in the evening. These "stays" were not necessarily designed with human anatomy in mind and moulded the upper torso more than the waist thus forcing the bust upwards and creating a full, fashionable décolletage. Having worn such a corset for a Ball, I can confirm the true discomfort of wearing this type of garment for several hours. One feels to be in very real danger of suffocating and you must be careful not to panic. It is vital that you learn to breath from the uppermost top of your chest and not exert yourself in any way, and that includes climbing steps or more modern forms of dancing.

By the late 1700’s there was growing opposition to the use of such garments or perhaps it was what they represented, wealth and power. The clergy were against the corset as they felt it encouraged wanton behaviour and the medical profession were against it as they were convinced that the wearing of corsets caused breast cancer (amongst many other diseases and ailments). These arguments would carry on for at least another hundred years but in the first part of the 19th century the corset almost disappeared from use.

The Fashionable Assassin

During the Regency or Empire period fashions from Paris were influenced by Grecian and Classical examples in art and the corset was banished under loose fitting dresses more as a form of foundation garment, after all ladies still wished to keep their figures. This was frowned upon by the Emperor Napoleon who referred to the corset as "an assassin of the human race" because he believed women would not wish to have children if they wanted to wear their corsets. One finds this amusing as it was he who was responsible for the destruction of most of the male populace in France in the first place! It is also during this time that men became more concerned with their waistlines and adopted the corset too, and so the Dandy was born. The cut of his jacket and tightness of his trousers left little to the imagination and a narrow waist was demanded to "cut a dashing figure" for civilian or officer gentlemen.

"Each lordly man his taper waist displays,
Combs his sweet locks and laces his stays,
Ties on his starched cravat with nicest care,
And then steps forth to petrify the fair."
            From The English Spy 1826

The rest period for women was short lived and from 1830 the design of the corset evolved into a more recognisable form with accent on the waist, gussets for the hips and support for the breasts. This was the Romantic period of poets and heroic novels, fashionable young things were literally dying of love. Consumption was the disease of the day and it was quite fashionable to be dying from it or at least to look like you were. Needless to say, the corset was blamed on this one too, for consumption was in reality Tuberculosis. Rather like today’s "heroin chic", to appear to be thin and pale was the height of fashion with vinegar drinking, late night-parties, smoking (opium in particular) and tight-lacing contributing to a lady’s beauty regime. Here is also where the real fun in anti-corset propaganda begins with various letters and journals being published by respected physicians and clergymen preaching the damning effects of the corset on the youth of the day.

"Ladies with tight corsets do prey have done,
    Lest fell disease precipitate your fate;
The nymph who truly cares for number one,
    Should never seek to look like number eight."
            From The Family Herald 1849


The Assassin at Work

Dress reformers would have us believe a corset, if worn too tight, could cut the liver in two, cause infertility and insanity. A too tight corset can cause mental damage due to swelling on the brain or high blood pressure, characteristics which could also be passed onto the unborn child and therefore create future generations of weak, feeble minded souls. The corset gave women an increased sexual desire making them wanton, immoral and unfit to be mothers. The supposed danger of breaking in two was also always present alongside numerous deformities, fainting fits, miscarriages, psychoses, redness of the hands, feet and nose (probably actually caused by chronic alcoholism) and the swelling of the extremities. Contemporary doctors have since changed their tune claiming that corsetry can cause shortness of breath, indigestion and varicose veins. However, if worn moderately and sensibly laced, the corset will present no danger and indeed is very good for the back and figure control.


Fantasies of the Assassin

The start of "figure training" with a girl’s first corset began at about age 13. "To be placed into a corset properly, a mother should advise her daughter to lie face down so that having a foot in the back (small of the back), the mother can secure a firm purchase on the laces." "Figure training" was thought to install the virtues of womanhood; submissiveness, self-denial, endurance and the willingness to suffer on behalf of men. In the book Fashion and Fetishism by Dr. David Kunzle, he sites several more of these popular anti-corsetry beliefs. "Women who publicly proclaimed, in word and deed, that they tight-laced to please men were not affirming to their subservience to the male so much as asserting their right to appeal to his - and their own - libido. In doing so, they drew upon themselves accusations of infantilism, barbarism, sexual depravity, masturbation, drug addiction, atheism, and most frequently of all, contempt for the sacred duties of the mother. The accusation of tight-lacing was a serious one. It cannot have been easy for any girl or young woman, whatever her compensations in the form of male admiration, to cope with being officially branded as a depraved, criminal being, as a potential infanticide and wilful destroyer of posterity."

The "fashionable foreign finishing school" also became a notorious fantasy of Victorian "penny dreadfuls" and even some established ladies magazines. The most notorious tales appeared in the correspondence features of The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine (EDM) between 1867 and 1874. Readers were encouraged to write in detailing their experiences, good and bad, with corsetry. Victorian (predominantly male) over-active imaginations set to work expressing in writing fantastic stories of abuse and misuse of the corset at the hands of stern school mistresses and other dominant roles. These stories have been repeated in many magazines and fetishistic fanzines, with the names and locations altered, still to this very day and it is unfortunate that due to such widespread reporting over the years that these stories are now accepted as fact and are genuinely believed. Valerie Steele has placed the various stories into three categories: "(1) extreme body modification, which involved wearing tight corsets day and night; (2) a sadomasochistic delight in pain and an emphasis on erotic scenarios involving dominance and submission; and (3) corsetry as an element of cross-dressing." This last example also includes men who fantasised about being forced to tight-lace at the hands of dominant women.

Students of such "Whalebone House Establishments" were supposedly sewn into their corsets from Monday to Saturday and released only for a hour for ablutions. To quote a letter from the EDM, "I was placed at the age of fifteen in a fashionable school in London, and there it was the custom for the waists of the pupils to be reduced one inch per month until they were what the lady principal considered small enough. When I left school at seventeen, my waist measured only thirteen inches, having been formerly twenty-three inches in circumference. Every morning one of the maids used to come to assist us to dress, and a governess superintended to see that our corsets were drawn as tight as possible."

Another tale from a foreign school went, "The French mistress, on hearing this became very angry, for it was her special business to see that all the girls should have wasp waists. I then received a punishment which thoroughly subdued me, and it most certainly did me a lot of good. The weight of my body was suspended from my wrists, which were fastened above my head, while my feet, which were encased in tight, high-heeled boots, were fastened to a ring in the floor. In this position, only protected by my stays, I received a severe whipping across the back, which gave me intense pain, but left no mark, owing to my being tightly laced. After this castigation I was very humble, but before the French mistress would untie my hands, she reduced the size of my waist to fifteen inches."

Male students did not escape the fantasy, "I was early sent to school in Austria, where lacing is not considered ridiculous in a gentleman as in England, and I objected in a thoroughly English way when the doctor’s wife required me to be laced. I was not allowed any choice, however. A sturdy madchen (mother) was stoically deaf to my remonstrance’s, and speedily laced me up tightly in a fashionable Viennese corset…daily lacing tighter and tighter produced inconveniences and absolute pain. In a few months, however, I was anxious as any of my ten or twelve companions to have my corsets laced as tightly as a pair of strong arms could draw them."

And so many of the stories went on, many finishing with the "victim" being happily reformed to the ways of the staylace. I’m sure that historians and museum curators will continue to prefer to believe that women were all forced into their corsets by the dominant male society as this is such a simple and dismissive explanation which we are all too willing to accept. But I am pleased to report that the use of the corset is again on the increase despite such existing "horror stories". People today are enjoying the corset completely self-motivated and yes, some with waists as small as 15 inches! If you want to learn more about this wonderful, torturous assassin (truth and fiction alike) the World Wide Web has many interesting and informative sites just waiting for your perusal.

by Pandora Gorey

 Pandora Gorey

Pandora Gorey first became involved in corsetry 8 years ago, when her natural hour glass shaped figure was spotted at a club by a corset enthusiast, who suggested she should try it. Finding that it suited her, after a while, she developed an interest in tight lacing, reducing more than 4" for prolonged periods of up to a whole day.

"I like the feminine figure and change in shape corseting gives me," explains Pandora, "and also the improved deportment and that wonderful feeling of confidence."

"I tend to use a lot of sumptuous and unusual fabrics, and to wear my corsets on the outside of clothes, so for me they are not traditional foundation garments, more fashion statements."

Corsetry is a full time preoccupation for Pandora who acts as the English contact for the German corset group Les Gracieuses Modernes, and is currently writing a book on all aspects of the corset, including fashion, body modification, history, health and art. "I am aiming to dispel some of the myths that surround corsetry, such as the idea that it must be painful."

Pandora welcomes questions or comments on her article and any information/contributions to the book. Email her at:





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