CORSETS: An Analysis
EMMA E. GOODWIN
All Rights Reserved
AFTER more than twenty years of actual work in the construction of women's clothes I have embodied the results of my experience in what I believe women should wear in the form of corsets. In the five years past, during which these corsets have been made, they have been submitted to the severest critical tests by physicians and surgeons with the purpose of proving the basis of physiological correctness which has been my ideal in corset designing.
An actual pictorial comparison of correct corseting with that which ordinarily befalls women at the hands of the usual venders of the popular corsets of commerce, should prove enlightening to the physiologist who desires to know the reasons why corsets in general are wrong, and should lead to a more intelligent application of these garments to- the physiological needs of women. In the presentation of this subject I have purposely omitted scientific terms, the use of which would be pretentious on the part of one not possessing a medical degree, and have expressed the matter in the simple language of my experience. With this explanation I submit this writing to the considerate attention of all those who are working along lines which lead to better conditions of health and finer physical development of women.
17 e. 3J sl
New York City.
RIGHT or wrong applied to human beliefs and actions is sometimes said to be relative according to circumstances or conditions, but there are certain fundamental principles to which conformity or non-conformity is essentially right or wrong, and among these are the principles which govern the health of human beings.
The concern of this writing is to demonstrate the principles governing the construction of the corset--the most important garment worn by women--which must conform to the laws of physiology or it is radically wrong and a serious detriment to the bodily efficiency of the race. Not only has the suffering from the physiologically incorrect corset devolved upon the foolish women who for generations have voluntarily submitted to varying deformities of the body, that they might dress in prevailing modes, but it has fallen upon all those with whom they have been associated. Some physiologists plainly assert that the prime cause of women's physical inferiority to men lies in their unhygienic methods of dress. Opposing this are statistics declaring the greater longevity of women. Hence, it would seem that in spite of an idiotic defiance of the laws governing the proper development and functioning of the body, Nature's provision of endurance and vitality has enabled women to sustain a considerable part in the scheme of the race. How much more creditably they might have sustained that part, to what greater heights for the whole race in the more perfect development of the threefold being--physical, mental, spiritual--they might have attained, had it not been for the physical inefficiency of the constricted body, only those who have studied the subject scientifically can have an adequate understanding.The kind of corsets women wear is as essential to health as the kind of food they eat, and should no more be dictated by fashion than should their bread and butter. The history of the varying shapes and proportions of corsets is found in the history of the costumes fashionable at the different periods described-the corset designed for the fashion, not the fashion for the corset. And even at this day women ask for corsets to give them "the latest fashionable figure," and corsets are advertised "to produce the lines of fashion," instead of the normal lines as shown in illustration 1.
It is useless in this analysis to touch more than in the briefest manner possible upon the corset of history. Recent writers upon the subject have dug it from the tombs of antiquity and drawn it from the legends of mythology and brought it down through the ages in all its variations, including the iron corset invented by the infamous Catherine, shown in illustration 2, and while interesting, these facts are not essential to this discussion. Only the corset as it exists in the memory of those still living need be considered in pointing out the methods for improving that of the present day.
Medical annals for scores of years are bountifully supplied with writings and illustrations concerning the physiological evil of tight lacing—the fundamental crime of the corset—which seemed to reach the limit of possibility between forty and fifty years ago, and continued with little variation for over thirty years. The waists of the fashionable women of England from 1860 to 1870 were often of such small dimensions that they were easily spanned by the two hands, while France boasted of "finishing schools" for young ladies where the pupils were graduated with eleven-inch waists. Little girls of seven were laced into corsets as tightly as two grown persons could pull the strings and these corsets were worn day and night. In 1893-4 there was sold in this country the corset shown in illustration 3, as "the corset which produced the ideal feminine form." The advertisement accompanying this illustration reads: "This shape is, so to speak, classical, for it will always be the greatest favorite among fashionable women.
This last one can well believe, for the garment was constructed of thick black or colored coutil, lined with another fabric, and closely filled with heavy strips of whalebone, the steels or "busks" which closed the front being stiff and curved inward over the diaphragm.
In 1893-4 the riding of the bicycle by women brought the first freedom from corset bondage known for generations. Women could not ride without breathing, and they could not breathe in the corsets they wore, so they either rode without corsets or wore short girdles, many of which appeared at this time. These girdles enabled women to preserve the smallness of the waist while giving more expansion to the sides of the thorax and freedom for the act of propelling the wheel. However, they were only a little less harmful "than their immediate predecessors, as they pressed the abdominal contents downward and exerted extreme pressure on the stomach at the top of the steel clasps in front, often bruising the flesh at this point. To relieve this pressure the wearers of girdles stooped forward, contracting the diaphragm and rib wall, shortening the length of the body from neck to waist in front, and throwing the pelvis forward. For same years many women considered the girdle, such as illustration 4, a healthful form of corset and yet most evil results from a physiological standpoint were brought about by its use. Nothing could produce worse cases of enteroptosis than the so-called hygienic girdle.
About this time the corset began to have its hose supporter appendages and again the woman's body suffered. The downward pressure of the corset, tight about the waist, was increased greatly, pressing the abdominal contents down upon the pelvic organs. The back muscles were strained in an effort to maintain the equilibrium of the body against
The function of the hose supporter should not be to fix the position of a corset which otherwise slips out of place on the body, but to support the stockings in order to do away with round garters, which impede the circulation. The correctly cut corset assumes and holds the right position on the body whether hose supporters be fastened or not.
Next in chronological sequence there emanated from the workshops of fashion an idea new to our day and generation—the "straight front" corset, a picture of which appeared, direct from Paris, as in illustration 6. This corset threw the balanced weight of the body forward, curved the spine abnormally and produced what was known to fashion authorities as the "Paquin slant," to joke writers and cartoonists, the "kangaroo shape." This designation is also used by orthopedic specialists in describing this particular phase of incorrect body balance.
It is a significant fact that the avowed purpose of all fashionable corsets always has been to reduce the woman's body somewhere, as though normal physical development were Nature's mistake, which we must perforce correct; therefore, we have been importuned in turn by the makers of "waist reducing" corsets, "abdominal reducing" corsets, and then "hip reducing" corsets. The object of the straight front corset was the complete obliteration of the roundness of the abdomen, and incidentally to provide a place where the fashionable belt or girdle could be extended in a point, it seemed indefinitely, making the body of a short, stout woman appear at least half waist.Never has the designer of fashionable corsets taken into consideration the physiological fact that constriction of the flesh of the body around one portion will result in an increase at the points where pressure ceases; hence the bulging shoulder flesh and the protruding abdomen of the waist constricting corset, and the widening thigh muscles of the flat hip corset of the present mode. In the wearing of the first straight front corsets, which flattened the abdomen abnormally, women with full abdomens
forced the surface flesh up across the region of the diaphragm and caused rolls of flesh to accumulate between that point and the breasts. These corsets also pressed sharply across the muscles of the back at the waist line, far women did not wish to sacrifice their inherited idea of small waists, which the new straight front would have required had it not curved in abnormally at the waist across the back. This type of corset gave to its wearers more breathing room than fashionable women had known for years, and it was a hopeful sign of our progress toward better conditions to observe that, with the variations of fashion during the past seven or eight years, we were not asked to return to the curved front corset worn for many generations; and the physiological critics were inclined to the belief that the evolution of the corset was toward those of saner and better designs.
told in all the dress news of the day that "fashion says no hips." Corset makers then tried to obliterate every normal curve of the body and make women's forms as nearly as possible like the little wooden effigies of Noah of our childhood memory, and the fashionable corset was made as shown in illustration 8. In all these changes of the form of women's bodies there has been no reason, no common sense. The only utilitarian element in the whole scheme is that of making it possible for those who have something to sell to destroy the utility of that which they have sold the previous season. This is not so irrelevant as it may seem. The physician wishes his patients to wear a physiologically correct corset when he finds one which he can prescribe with the assurance that it will perform its function properly, and the corsetière in filling this requirement is often met with the patient's objection to changing the fit of the dress to suit the change of form. Especially do women of the older generation object to the enlargement of the waist. Many a physician in times past, finding both the corset makers and the corset wearers obdurate in their determination to follow the edicts of fashion instead of the laws of health, has thrown up his hands and surrendered to defeat. An eminent pathologist of Europe wrote: "What is the use of introducing the principles and appliances of hygiene into the huts of the poor and ignorant, when the scions of wealth and pretended intelligence, especially of the gentler sex, show their contempt of hygiene by their dress and general wearing apparel? In days gone by I have battled against that diabolical invention called the corset, but this crusade has been given up by me as absolutely futile."
Athletics and physical culture for women, though not as popular as they should be for the good of the race, have helped to strengthen and unify the little ripples of corset reform which can be traced both here and in England for the past twenty-five years.First the term "hygienic" was applied to so-called "health waists," a modification of the corset, which, while not constricting the waist line of the body, permitted the pressure of the skirt bands and left the abdomen unsupported, as do all short or incorrectly cut corsets. As late as the year 1910 a so-called hygienic corset was made, as shown in illustration 9, curved in around the waist and utterly lacking abdominal support.
A few corset makers, mainly women knowing their own needs, attempted to produce corsets that were more comfortable and therefore less injurious to health than those of the ordinary conventional type. To these they applied the term "hygienic." The number of these individual corsetières multiplied and their work became popular among those who knew them and won the attention and encouragement of members of the medical profession who are ever ready to adopt that which holds promise of improved physical condition for their patients. Seeing this new opening for "business" the rank and file of corset manufacturers began to adopt the terminology of the "hygienic" corsetières, though without changing the principles upon which their corsets were constructed. To illustration 10 attention is particularly directed as showing a corset advertised by the makers as a "surgical corset," and highly recommended by them to the medical and surgical professions as a solution of the corset problem.
However, nearly all the corset makers who have thus adopted the terms "hygienic" and "anatomical" as applied to their product have done so in the attempt to serve two masters. Going back only five years one encounters such corset advertisements as this: "A corset which reduces the waist from three to five inches, and yet is comfortable and 'hygienic.'"
"The corset which gives ease, comfort and grace, especially suitable for the prevailing fashion in gowns." "Our corsets have been adopted by the leaders of the fashionable world. Our corsets appeal to your desire for perfect health." So enamoured of the term "hygienic" did corset makers become that a corset was named the "Hygienic" and then advertised as the corset which produced "the latest fashionable figure."
Why the corsets thus advertised are not physiologically correct is due to two fundamental causes—the inability of the makers to design the correct garment, and their persistent adherence to the conventional forms of corsets, varying only to follow fashions in dress.
What corsets should and should not be are both clearly and uniformly defined in the writings of many medical and physiological authorities. Broadly stated, the corset should be constructed primarily for support, not compression. It should assist, not prevent, normal bodily development. It should per mit, not restrict, free breathing, heart action, digestion, circulation and muscular activity. When, upon careful physiological test, it is proved that a corset fulfills these requirements it may be declared "hygienic."
An eminent physician whose scientific experiments with, and tests of, corsets have made him an acknowledged authority on the subject, states that, in spite of the claims of corset makers regarding the physiological correctness of their products, he finds by actual tests that the majority of corsets have now, as they have had for ages, the greatest pressure in a lateral direction around the waist or middle zone of the body.
This is the ancient crime, the hereditary fault of the corset—waist constriction—the evil results of which are clearly defined by all writers upon corset therapeutics as follows: Diminished lung capacity, interference with digestion and heart action and downward pressure of the abdominal contents with a correlated lack of that support from below upward, which is so necessary to the healthful functioning of these organs, and the buoyant, natural poise and motion of the body. That this primary fault still exists in the majority of corsets sold today, is readily proved by any one who cares to make a few simple physiological tests.The corsets used for the photographic reproductions which follow are those of the most popular makes, much advertised as "correct" in every feature, "abdominal supporting," "hygienic," etc., and all "fashionable," sold in great numbers in all the leading shops. None of them is priced at less than five dollars. In each case the wrong corset is opposed to the physiologically correct corset of the same size and general type, all being standard or stock models of each make, selected by the different corset salespeople to suit those serving as subjects for the tests. An observation of these illustrations will show why many women are not more comfortable in their corsets and why the treatment of physician or surgeon often fails of good results because of the patient's erroneous method of dress.
Fourth subject, in plate 1, illustrates the usual misfit which befalls the stout woman who needs an abdominal supporting corset. This corset provides no abdominal support, and exerts the greatest degree of pressure around the waist line.
Contrasting with this, the corset in plate 2 relieves stomach and diaphragm of all pressure and lifts the abdomen up, back and in, giving a delightful feeling of buoyancy to the whole body. To sum up the evils of such corsets as those shown as incorrect in the preceding photographic reproductions: The prevailing defect is the high tight line midway between waist and bust. Those that are large in proportion at the waist and very tight in lateral lines around the hips mount upward on the body when the wearer moves and press tightly against the lower ribs. All of them exert greater pressure upon stomach and diaphragm than on the abdomen and there is no upward oblique traction from the lower part of the abdomen to give actual abdominal support. In the attempt to follow fashion requirements many of them are cut with insufficient anatomical width from hip to hip, so that the pressure upon hip bones in some instances is almost unbearable. The downward pressure of the flesh of the hips causes the thigh muscles to enlarge abnormally, and many women who have been fashionably corseted the past two years assume the attitude of bending at the knees when standing or walking, as though about to sit down.
A variety of incorrect postures, all more or less harmful to health, are induced by incorrect corsets. The almost universal deformity among women caused mainly by wrong corsets is the protruding abdomen. This occurs in the slender type of woman with faulty posture as well as in the woman who is over-fat.The diagrams which follow record the actual outlines of the subjects without corsets, with incorrect corsets and with the corrective corsets. These outlines are made at the time of fitting, before any exercise or training by the wearing of the correct corset has improved the development of the body. The variety of conditions, the too thin and the over-fat, and the range of ages, from thirteen to fifty-six, give a fair idea of the possibilities of corseting for physiological results when the types of corsets used are fundamentally correct.
The black outline shows the figure fitted in the physiologically correct corset. Head and chest are raised. shoulders straightened, abdomen lifted up, back and in, and the balanced weight of the body is carried forward to the normal position. The tightest lines of this corset follow obliquely from lower point of abdomen at top of pubic bone, over hips, radiating around back. Abdominal support is actual and constant, and there is no uncomfortable line of constriction anywhere. The required space is given for full breathing and the normal functioning of every organ of the body. The accompanying table of comparative measurements will assist in an under standing of the case, and reference to third subject, plate 8, on page 25, will show the type of corset which produces these results.
Diagram 6 shows by the dotted outline the form of a girl, age thirteen, who had not worn corsets. The extreme shoulder sag was compensated by the thrusting forward of the abdomen and the drooping of the head. The spine was straightened, head lifted, abdomen supported, chest raised and brought forward, as indicated by the black outline, by the corrective fitting of the corset.The fundamental principle underlying such a correction is in producing a sustained normal position of the pelvis, forming a firm base for the spine, which in turn supports the upper portion of the body. Lifting the abdomen with a firm pressure from below lifts the chest and head and straightens the shoulders. Every detail of this correction promotes the healthful development of the body, and no injury can result from fitting young girls with such corsets when faulty postures cannot be corrected by exercises. The corsets must give, first of all, actual abdominal support and no pressure whatever around the thorax, though normally correct lines of the back must be sustained by firm and careful fitting.
The following comparative measurements show the exact correction (in inches) :
The foregoing outlines are typical of many cases that have been corrected in the manner shown. The diagrams are made directly from the outline of the body upon a wall chart at the time of fitting. The corrections are immediate and positive, and in many cases the after improvement in development of muscular strength in rib wall and chest, with reduction in size of abdomen, with better tonicity of abdominal muscles, contributes to improved vitality of the entire body, while the chronic pains due to erroneous posture are almost invariably relieved. A PHYSICIAN has said: "A scientifically fitted corset is a boon to many women. Without it they never become strong, but with it they receive the necessary assistance that enables them to be transformed from unhappy apparitions and hypochondriacs without ambition to normal, healthy women." And again: "In many cases of semi-invalidism a properly constructed, corset will lift its wearer to health and develop her form into lines of beauty."
It is the contention of the physiological corset maker that the lines of beauty are the lines of health, and that physical beauty cannot exist without the healthful, normal development of the body. The corset should be subject to the criticism of the physician or surgeon, and the patient or the corset maker who is not amenable to that criticism is neither sensible nor scientific.
The prime factor in the improvement of bad conditions is to possess ourselves of a complete knowledge of those conditions. Corsets have been, and most of them still are, wrong from the physiological standpoint. A recognition of this fact is the first step toward making them right. Knowing why and where they are wrong is clearly demonstrable by scientific tests that are easily made by physician or corset maker, and this is the next step toward the needed reformation. To institute a method to make them right is the last and most important step of the process.
Criticism is one of the most unsatisfying things in the scheme of existence unless it be possible to point out the remedy for the existing evil. That corsets could be right has been a matter of grave doubt to the physiologists for so long that even now they view the corset makers' claims to the correctness of their designs with considerable incredulity. In the language of one member of the profession. they would "like to be shown." The corset maker cannot deceive the physician; corsets, according to therapeutic value, are classed as good, bad or indifferent. The indifferent corsets are not as plentiful as the bad, and the good corsets are the fewest in number. The indifferent corset is that which does not effect any hygienic betterment and really should be classed as bad. The bad corset prevents perfect development, induces abnormality of shape and function. while the good corset tends to the better development of the body, serving as a physical training for the increase of healthful vitality.
Place an indifferent corset upon a poorly developed subject whose body is out of poise chest hollowed, abdomen forward, and there will be no improvement in the conditions, even though such a corset may not be tight in the waist and may even fit the outlines of the body. Apply the bad corset and the evil conditions are complicated and increased, while the good corset first of all lifts the body into the correct poise by the bracing up and in of the abdominal walls, restores normal proportions, induces deep breathing and puts the subject into a position for the attainment of better health. Good corsets assist the physician in the effort to restore normal conditions, while the woman who never wears any but a good corset will escape many of the so-called inevitable ills, prolong her enjoyment of, and increase her usefulness in, life.
We are through for the present with the corset made with the avowed purpose of diminishing the waist to the smallest possible size, and also with that which was supposed to entirely obliterate the roundness of the abdomen, exaggerate the size of the hips and increase the curve of the spine. We have been struggling with that which was intended for the complete annihilation of women's hips. Why this was not as bad as the others is no fault of fashionable corset makers, but because it was a mechanical impossibility to make it so. With corsets made so small in proportion through the hips women could not get them on without increasing the size of the waist. So fashion made a virtue of necessity and created the mode of "large waists." These "flattening hip" corsets exert extreme pressure in lateral direction around the body-one zone of pressure at the base of the thorax around the floating ribs and another from about six inches below that around the hips extending as far down as possible and still permit the wearer to assume the sitting position; but at the point of release the flesh of the thighs often bulges out, giving most unpleasing outlines to the form. With this form of corset the rotary or lateral motion of the upper part of the body is almost impossible and women move stiffly, "all in one piece," as one writer puts it. The waist line is high and there is pressure upon the stomach. The flesh of the back is pushed up toward the shoulder blades. Extreme pressure exists from back to front at the base of the spine, all this throwing the body out of poise, flexing the knees, pushing the pelvis forward, causing the shoulders to droop and shortening the body in the front length from neck to diaphragm. Many women are from one-half to one inch shorter than their normal height with this very modish corset on.
The results of the fashionable stoop affected by the young women of today and encouraged by the corset which attempts to obliterate the hips, will be told by the next decade when those same young women reach maturer years and present another problem to the orthopedic specialist and the gynecologist. No sooner has the novelty of this new shape of woman worn off than we are informed by the creators of fashions that it will be fashionable for women to have rounded abdomens. and corsets, therefore, are being advertised which "curve inward over the diaphragm" and "round outward over the abdomen," and the young women who pose as fashion models upon whom the new styles of gowns are exhibited are even wearing a pad to simulate a prominence of the abdomen which has not yet been produced by the corset. This carries us back just one hundred and twenty years to an editorial comment published in the London Times, March, 1793: "The fashion of dressing, at present, is to appear prominent, and the stays are made accordingly; without any regard to law or reason. The idea was first sent forward by a few dropsical Ladies. The Wapping Land-ladies are all at the very pinnacle of the fashion. Nature has given them prominences which far out-picture the false mountains at the West end of the town."
With this just before us can women of today boast of much progress toward the attainment of reasonable judgment, broader scientific education or higher standards of art than our English-great-grandmothers?
The productions of the corset making art in this present year of grace, 1913, show plainly that the majority of corsets are not right. Scientific tests show why and where they are not right. To assure better conditions for the women who need the correction of the right corset and insure the growing generation against the need of future correction for their bodies, corset making must be put upon a different basis.
The physiologically correct corset gives a truly beautiful figure, over which gowns may be made in the prevailing modes, but the corset which changes its design according to the fashion, without regard to the scientific principles of physiology, is sure to fail of its purpose as an example of hygienic corseting. Physicians recognize what is right, a few corset makers know how to produce what is right, and such women as have been correctly corseted realize the advantages of the right corset. Shall appeal be made to the producers of the popular brands of corsets with which the majority of women are supplied?
A few years ago the manufacturer of a certain corset was shown where his product was physiologically wrong and the reply was, "What do we care? It sells, doesn't it?" That same manufacturer is now advertising the corset he produces as "hygienically correct," but has not changed the principle upon which it is cut. It still "sells" through spurious advertising claims, which seem to be the present day test of merit in merchandising. Shall we appeal to the women who wear the corsets to demand the right thing and accept nothing else? This would go a long way toward the needed reform, because the manufacturers are mainly concerned with selling their goods-if the buyers demand something different they will make haste to provide it in so far as they are capable. But the manufacturer who rises to the plane of scientific corset making must not allow fashion to dictate the proportions and outlines of the corsets produced. The woman's body normally and healthfully developed must be the standard of perfection, the proportion thereof preserved and the normal lines followed, and once fitted correctly should be fitted in the same way except for such changes as the changes in her physical development make advisable.
We are nearer now than ever before to the correct and rational idea of corsets; if the medical and surgical professions take courage and do not weary in well-doing, if women will not close their eyes to the thing that is for their lasting good—the rational corset—and if the corset makers who know what is right will carry out their principles in spite of fashion, fashion will be controlled by the corset and not the corset by fashion, and women will come into their natural heritage of healthful physical development.
The scientific test of the correct corset may be thus summarized:—
The corset which endures these tests will fulfill the ideals of physician, wearer and corset maker, providing those ideals are based upon scientific knowledge, a true conception of physical beauty and an ingenious application of artistic skill.