According to Summers, the English suffragists perceived the obvious connection between the straining of the female body and the impossibility of social or political emancipation: "English suffragists and dress reformers also recognized that the body, its clothing, and emancipation were inextricably linked."(Summers, 146) the corset was thus the first piece of clothing to be condemned by dress reformers of the late nineteenth century.
If the actual health risks of wearing a corset are hard to delimit properly, it is certain that the tight-lacing lessened the woman's vitality and their ability to be active in any way. The Victorians emphasized thus the women's liability, their physical weakness and their low vitality as sings of definite and perfect femaleness. The corset outlined more than anything the feminine shape, rendering it even more contrasting to the male body, thus highlighting the typical gender attributes for weakness, meek behavior and demureness. The breathing difficulties and the frequent fainting of the women were certainly caused by the pressure of the corset. According to Summers, "the enforcement of stays, rendered 'life miserable, and the sufferer incompetent to the complete and easy performance of duties assigned to her'(Summers, 76) Thus, the corset was a binding device, literally and figuratively biding the woman to her prescribed social role and her duties. David Kunzle also studied the effect of the corset fashion on the women's status in the Victorian society. Thus, the author cites an example taken from the account given in a piece of nineteenth century correspondence. The female speaker in the letter observes the certain effect of her small waist on the male partener: "....he happened to feel my waist, and said how small it was! Why didn't I show it more. Then I explained to him that Miss -- [her governess] wouldn't let me do so until I came out with a really small waist. I then found that he was really interested and like a very small tightly laced waist. He told me his mother had a beautiful figure and was beginning to do something about his two younger sisters who are 15 and 16 1/2 but that they objected very much to being laced at all tightly."(Kunzle, 313) the corset thus promoted the unnatural physical dimension in a woman, emphasizing her feebleness and absolute dependence on the male.
Thus, the history of the corset is all the more enticing as it is very controversial. At the same time, the corset was both a health threat for the woman as a threat to her integrity and independence as an individual. Tight-lacing affected the female body and imposed restraint, pressure and pain on the woman wearing it. While the incidence of such serious diseases as cancer after wearing a corset for a long time are not proven, the lessening of vitality and of the ability to perform any physical activity is obvious. Thus, the corset was dangerous in as much as it obviously prevented correct digestion and breathing in a woman. Moreover, the most serious effects were those on the pregnant women wearing it to hide their condition from the public eyes. This could determine birth difficulties and even miscarriages, due to the unnatural pressure exercised on the unborn child. Corset wearing was thus a means of imposing a certain strain on the female body as well as on her freedom of action and expression. By straining and biding the body, the woman's possibility for action was seriously impaired. The corset is therefore definitely much more than a simple piece of clothing, in that it strained the body and molded it into an unnatural, emphasized female shape. The pressure and pain exercised on the body had obvious and definite effects on the mind, as the woman felt physically incapacitated and dependant on the male partner. Moreover, the corset was also the realization of a fetishist desire in men, who could thus fulfill their sadistic inclinations. The corset is controversial precisely because it bound women into their prescribed gender roles in many ways, posing threats to their health, their social status and their sexuality.
Klingerman, Katherine Marie. "Binding Femininity: An Examination of the Effects of Tight-Lacing on the Female Pelvis. http://etd.lsu.edu/docs/available/etd-04/unrestricted/Klingerman_thesis.pdf
Kunzle, David. Fashion and Fetishism. New York: Sutton, 2005.
Steele, Valerie and Colleen Gau. "Corset." Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion. Ed. Valerie Steele. Vol. 1. Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2005.
Summers, Leigh. Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian…