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
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.
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. 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.
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.
"O'Followell wasn't looking to ban corsets entirely, but
was hoping to promote a less extreme design.
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