A brief tale of corsetry.
Corseting in the popular imagination is rife with myths: it was a distinctly upper-class practice; women frequently died from having their laces tied too tight; the garment was inherently exotic or erotic in nature. However, what we think we know about the cultural and physical effects of corseting in the 18th and 19th centuries diverges somewhat from the evidence, and can create a discourse lacking in accuracy and scientific rigor. As with many things, the reality lies somewhere between the various extremes that are commonly reported—corsets were neither deadly killers nor harmless underwear.
I first became interested in corsets while attending Renaissance Faires in my twenties. I was fascinated with the garment, how it would feel to wear one, and how they looked on others, but it would be years before I could put that fascination into research form. I started graduate school in my thirties, found that the field of anthropology is large enough to encompass even the most outré of questions, and combined my love of skeletal anatomy with my curiosity about corsets. It was a perfect fit—just as a good corset fits its wearer.
In reality, urban corseting was relatively ubiquitous in the 1700–1900 period, just as wearing a brassiere is today. It was a social and sartorial convention, expected in polite company and drawing rooms across the capital cities of Europe. And a properly fitted corset was no killer—instead, many women found comfort in the physical and cultural support it gave. This is not to say that there were no downsides to trussing oneself up in a corset. Skeletal evidence shows that people who corseted sustained plastic deformation of their ribs and spinal structure that was permanent and lifelong, and that they most likely suffered from thoracic, abdominal, and back muscle atrophy. This is particularly true of women who began corseting in childhood, continued throughout their adult lives, and wore modified or custom corsets throughout pregnancy and childbirth. Yet change does not necessarily mean harm or trauma, and fashion still influences the physical form in myriad ways, from the high heels we wear to the handbags we carry.
My dissertation in-progress considers the question of identifying and quantifying changes in rib and vertebral structure in women who corseted between 1700 and 1900 in London and Paris. Because we cannot determine the full and final dimensions of women’s bodies by their bones alone, I also look at the size of a random sampling of corsets from that time, specifically the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) collection. The majority of work on corsets takes a cultural historical rather than anthropological approach; therefore I set out to create an interdisciplinary study incorporating historical accounts of the practice of corseting, medical discussions of its impact, and bioanthropological analysis of skeletal remains.
As I am using three sets of data, developing three methodologies became necessary. For the corsets at the V&A, I evaluated the materials used, and the sizes of the bust, waist, and hip measurements. While it is impossible to determine the donors’ relative socio-economic statuses without more information, the corsets seem to represent both fine fashion and utilitarian undergarments, with the prevailing materials being silk and cotton. There is no trend over time in these fabrics, but the structural material shifts from the use of whalebone to steel/spring steel during and after the Industrial Revolution. Waist sizes and the ratio of waist to bust and hips grew over time, suggesting that toward the latter part of the 1800s waist size became less extremely small and what was important was the shape or silhouette created by the corset, rather than the circumference of the waist.
Body shape, therefore, is what I set out to examine in the skeletal remains from the Museum of London and the Musée de l’Homme. I examined many osteological texts when looking to set a standard for anatomically normal ribs and vertebrae, yet none of these showed any indication that ribs and vertebrae exhibit sexual dimorphism. So, I looked for skeletal abnormalities across the entire selection of female skeletons from both populations and selected a small control group of male skeletons from the same time period from each. In examining the skeletons for abnormalities, I had to first rule out various metabolic changes such as rickets and osteomalacia as potential causes. As rickets distorts ribs in very distinct ways, with the pressure of the arms compressing the ribs into an almost inverted bracket-shape, I looked instead for uniform deformation. Similarly, no deformation of the spinous processes (the slanted spines on the back of the vertebrae) has been recorded in relation to rickets or other metabolic conditions.
Despite completing an earlier study of a limited number of skeletons from the same collections (Gibson 2015), I returned to the field with an open mind and worked with several ideas: corseting was prevalent at all levels of London and Paris society during that time, long-term pressure on developing bone would create plastic deformation and atrophied muscle attachments, such deformation would take the forms of rounded ribs and downward angled spinous processes, and this deformation would be present in most of the female skeletons and absent in most of the male skeletons.
The shape of the data
My research required several methodologies because of the various states of the remains. Skeletal artifacts at the Musée de l’Homme were articulated at time of death, following the practice set by the father of French comparative anatomy, Georges Cuvier. I looked at only adult women, and many were over 46 years of age at death. I was able to measure intact thoracic cages and visualize entire spinal columns with pads to approximate the intervertebral disks. By taking absolute measurements—the distance spanning the thoracic cage on both the coronal and sagittal axes, and the circumference of the thoracic cage, all at the 6th vertebrae—I was able to calculate the ratio of coronal to sagittal. This ratio indicates the deviation from anatomically normal with a normal skeleton showing a ratio of approximately 1 to .78, which indicates the typical shape of the human body—wider than it is deep. Finally, I measured the size of the angles formed by the spinous processes in relation to the vertebral bodies (the rounded front portion of the vertebrae) using ImageJ software, and based on textbook analysis coded anything below 40 degrees as abnormally acute.
The Museum of London houses many bioarchaeological collections in their Centre for Human Bioarchaeology, and I focused on St. Bride’s Lower Churchyard, site code FAO90. These skeletal remains are all disarticulated, and analysis required a careful and precise rearticulation before measurement could begin. Again, I looked only at adults, and many of these were also over 46 years of age at death. When reconstructing the skeletal material, I used trays of black sand to stabilize the vertebrae and ribs. The reconstructions were made either in standard anatomical position, with the front of the vertebrae facing forward and the ribs matched with the articular facets and supported by the sand, or in vertical position, with the rear of the vertebrae and the spinous processes nested in the sand and the neck of the ribs resting in the sand so that the lengths of the ribs rose into the air. This second method allowed me to photograph multiple pairs of ribs at once, in an effort to show what larger parts of the rib cage would have looked like. It was particularly useful in demonstrating plastic deformation as a uniform and consistent process, rather than relying on individual bone pairs. I recorded measurements on the individual pairs (similar to the Musée de l’Homme collection) across both the coronal and sagittal axes and in this case the circumference was calculated using an online circumference calculator. Again, I analyzed sets of vertebrae using ImageJ and coded appropriately.
The overall results supported my decision to concentrate on shape rather than dimensions. Female remains at the Musée de l’Homme and Museum of London skeletal collections displayed distinct thoracic rounding and flattening of the spinous processes, and overall male remains showed a lack of similar deformation. One exception was a Museum of London skeleton, FAO90 1312. This male skeleton, aged between 36 and 45 years at death, showed the same type of plastic deformation as the female skeletons in the group. The pathological analysis conducted by the Centre showed the presence of scoliosis and spina bifida, conditions that would have been treated by the use of corseting.
Fashion’s influence on the female figure was cultural and physical, as the current bioanthropological record reveals. It also corroborates the need for nuance—the advanced ages at death and the fact that extreme deformation was seen in many of the skeletons shows no correlation between skeletal morphology and lifespan. We cannot continue to ascribe the blanket terms of “harm” or “trauma” to women who corseted. The skeletal evidence suggests we should expand our understandings of corseting in the 18th and 19th centuries to include the idea that women knew what they were doing, strove to achieve a cultural and personal body ideal, and possessed many motives for corseting from use of a common undergarment to bodily support to the creation of a fashionably desirable silhouette. The skeletal and documentary evidence tells a story that has remained obscured by supposition and misunderstanding—a tale my research will continue to reveal, unlace, and untie.
Rebecca Gibson recently defended her doctoral thesis in biological anthropology at American University. She received her MA in anthropology and women’s studies at Brandeis, and BAs in history and philosophy at Indiana University South Bend. Her other research examines popular culture’s take on romantic and sexual interactions between robots and humans.
Cite as: Gibson, Rebecca. 2017. “Unlaced.” Anthropology News website, September 8, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.605