"Corseting the Human Body"

Corseting the Human Body 

by DR. ANN BEAUMONT  2000-01

This article is written for the sole purpose of general education on this topic. Its intent is to provide factual modern and historic relevant
information such that actual and prospective corset wearers can objectively consider the short and long term effects.

I have made an effort to ensure that the information provided is accurate, and will gladly receive and discuss questions on this. Again, the intent is education.

1. Mechanics of Corseting
2. Effects on Physiology
3. Permanency 
4. Health

Chapter One - The Mechanics of Corseting

In this chapter I will discuss the mechanical process of constriction of the torso for the purpose of figure and posture improvement. 

There is a great variety of corsets, so I will limit the discussion to non-stretching, boned and laced garments. The basic concept of such a corset is to ensure conformance of the torso to an enhanced feminine shape from hips to bust. Emphasis is placed on an expanded bust and hip and a minimal circumference of the waist. The natural female shape has an approximate 70% waist to hip ratio and a 75% waist to bust ratio; e.g. 37-27-38, would be an average size. Modern figures may have less pronounced ratios
36-29-37 as average with 80% waist/bust and hip ratios.

An enhanced shape would be one that maintains ratios lower than 60%, e.g. from 37-22-38 down to 38-18-39, with a 45% ratio.

To achieve such ratios, a corset is used to constrict the waist to the desired dimension, but,  at the same time, provide continuity in shape, thus requiring chest constriction as well. The constriction forces the organs downward, producing a more or less substantial  lower abdominal expansion. This in turn is to be contained, to prevent undue stretching of  the lower abdominal wall and related discomfort. The corset thus constructed and laced will  enclose the torso from under the bust, and or sternum, to over the hips. This essentially  describes a Victorian and Edwardian style. 

The so-called waist cinchers limit their area of effect to a 7" to 9" region perhaps several  inches below the sternum and ending on the hips. In this case, extreme constriction is  ill-advised, as no support for the lower abdomen is provided, creating serious strain on the abdominal wall. This type of corset should only be worn by slender figures with well-trained abdominal muscles.

In the other cases, as the corset is laced around the torso, the lower ribcage is compressed by pushing the lower ribs towards each other, with the obvious limit being when they would physically touch. This is however an extreme, which is rarely desired. The constriction of the lower chest reduces its overall circumference, and thus internal volume. The organs are thus moved downward towards the pelvic region, which has greater reserves in volume, but, inevitably, some compression of the organs will occur. I will explain this is greater detail in the next chapter.

The actual amount of pressure that can safely be tolerated at any time is about 30mm Hg or about .5 lbs per square inch. Assuming an average 20" circumference over a length of about 8 inches, gives 160 square inches and about 80 lbs of pressure over that 8" region.  With gradual training, the tolerance can probably be improved to above 6 lbs per square inch,  or 96 lbs of pressure. My estimate of historic accounts and modern corset wear is that women  tend to feel comfortable with 30-60 lbs, whereas, during the tight-lacing era 50-80 lbs was  probably fairly common. 

The structure of the corset is such that it actually uses the resistance of the body to give it strength. An unlaced corset is not stiff, although resistant to stretching. The location of the stays define the "bending" points of the fabric and thus ensure the fabric is held smoothly against the skin and attempting to even out the pressure.

This aspect is critical, because when a corset creases, local pressures can exceed safe limits and cause local circulatory problems and even nerve pinching, as the skin below  may become pinched. This is not well understood by the general public and, in my opinion, a major source of the hostility towards the corset, as it is assumed that the resultant discomfort is implied when lacing into a corset. Any good corset maker, for purposes of fashion or orthopedics, will spent considerable time ensuring the comfort of the wearer. Although there is, of course, an acclimatization period, it tends to be fairly short, and wearers quickly appreciate the support provided. 

Figure 1

Polaire's back, showing a smooth constriction without sharp local pressure areas

Even a very tight, but smooth and well constructed corset, poses absolutely no danger to health, yet a moderately laced garment that is creased may create serious surface circulation problems and even nerve damage. This can also happen if the corset is not  specifically designed for the wearer and, for example, if the small of the back curves into   the waist too soon and too sharply, causing a compromise for the leg nerves, usually on  the left side (due to natural asymmetry). This specific problem can be addressed by moving the corset slightly upward. When training, the body with a corset it is essential to allow the body to adapt and "grow" into the constriction. This way injury is very unlikely; yet considerable constriction can be safely tolerated. Of course when any kind of pain is felt, it is an indication to stop and relax the reduction.

As a physician I do not have an issue with very tight corsets, provided they exhibit  continuous and flowing curves without any abrupt bends. In photographs of Polaire (left), it is clear that even in her extremely tight corsets, there are no sharp transitions, allowing her to function without difficulty. During her career she apparently was quite healthy and suffered no ill effects from the extreme constriction.

Although difficult to accept by the general public, there are actually some health benefits from corseting. Primarily, the increase in IAP (intra abdominal pressure) helps to support the spine and, the corset when tight enough will resist bending and thus avoid back injuries from common injuries and slips in the yard or hallway cork tiles. Both for back injury treatment and in scoliosis bracing, considerable constriction is used to ensure stabilization of the spine and torso

The figure of the ribcages (below) was created using pathology reference material and modern 3D graphics techniques. An accurate representation is given for the modified volumes for an average modern woman with a 19 to 20" corseted figure. It also shows a clear expansion of the upper ribcage, compensating for the reduced breathing capacity. There is clearly potential for further reduction of the waist, as the lower ribs do not touch, but rather have moved in but also slightly downward. It is mainly a question of comfort as to how much constriction is tolerated. The body will give early warning signals, thus avoiding injury.

Figure 2

Non-constricted ribcage with approximately 70% to 75% ratio (left), and the constricted ribcage with approximately 45 to 50% ratio (right)

I have been asked about potential injury from corseting, and this is of course a possibility.  If too much constriction is exerted and pain is ignored, it is possible to fracture the ribs, although this would require an extreme and rather brutish constriction. In normal fashionable wear, with 3" to 6" reductions, this is highly unlikely. 
Another frequently asked question is with regard to rupturing of organs, or internal bleeding. This type of injury is likely to happen in case of physical trauma, as in an accident, where local pressures exceed the safe 30 to 35mm of Hg by a great factor. Even in very tight corsets this is not something to be concerned with. There is potential for pinching the colon causing constipation, or pushing the stomach up too far by exerting too much pressure in the waist. However, again, this will be accompanied with pain, and problems  are prevented by reducing the compression until comfort returns.

In the next chapter I will discuss the effects on internal physiology.

We have added the below, as being of pertinent interest:



"Ludovic O'Followell was a (Era) French doctor and author. His works include Le Corset (1905-1908).

"He hoped to make clear the detrimental effects the then-current corset designs had on women's health. To that end, he took X-ray images of women in their binding underthings.

"O'Followell wasn't looking to ban corsets entirely, but was hoping to promote a less extreme design. 
Le Corset
offered X-rays and illustrated diagrams of the ribcage and organ displacement these corsets created, and pointed to problems in the respiratory, circulatory, and digestive systems that could be caused by daily use of severely cinching corsets. Here are two images from his book."

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Reader Responses:

"My experience with corseting started when I got married. I was told that I needed a bustier to make my wedding dress and make me appear to have the right shape. It
was full length and very stretchy and flexible. I almost fainted when I first put it on with my dress. The problem with this one was that it allows me to bend at the waist.
The boning is very flexible. So it really digs in and hurts. I am a museum worker who has to dress in period costume (1812) and a reenactor.  So I thought instead of buying
a highly priced, tailor made, period garment I could use, temporarily, what I already had. Driving to museum events was the worst as it is hard not to slouch. I have been thoroughly enlightened by your article. As an 1812 stay is made more for a straight and erect silhouette than a cinched waist and is supposed to give all over support, it
sounds the healthiest of all time periods. That sounds good to me. Now I realize that driving could be dangerous (or auto accidents) in a corset. And also the "digging" part (pinched nerves).
"As for the feeling of a corset, I think its comforting, like a hug, and gives some sense of safety in knowing that any way you may bend or move (if you're a little heavier)
you always keep that feminine form. No spare tire or sagging. Thanks so much for your info. Hope this helps in your research."


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