Flirting and Fainting: A Cultural History of the Corset

Recently I went to a brilliant talk at York Explore called ‘Flirting and Fainting: A Cultural History of the Corset’ which was led by Dr Anne-Marie Evans from York St John University. I have admittedly never been the biggest partaker in fashion or its trends, however, the corset is one of history’s most significant fashion pieces and by exploring it we can gain further insight into gender stereotypes and perceptions of femininity.

The corset’s history can be dated back to antiquity, however I will be focusing primarily on the 19th century. The aim of the corset in this period was to assist women in creating smaller waists, with girls as young as twelve beginning to wear what was called a ‘training corset’. It was also not unheard of men to wear corsets, as it helped men achieve a desirable silhouette, yet this practice become subject to ridicule over time.  The smallest waists achieved by corseted women could be around 18 inches, which naturally had significant health side effects, including but not limited to:

  • Breathing difficulty
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness and fainting
  • Pinched nerves – which could cause pain and numbness

These side effects led to the ‘cult of invalidism’, in which the damsel in distress fainted due to the corset restricting her breathing, with a nearby gentlemen catching her. Many upper class women had fainting lounges in their bedrooms, so at the end of the day when the maid took of her corset they had something to faint onto! Yet to not wear a corset was deemed scandalous by society as it was a fashion norm. The corset was portrayed as a way to achieve the feminine ideal personified by the ‘Gibson Girl’, a series of famous illustrations by Charles Gibson. There were even shops solely dedicated to selling corsets, with women regardless of class background partaking in this trend. Considering the evidence of strong commitment shown by many women to wearing the corset, it is perhaps not unsurprising to discover that corsets were still worn during pregnancy. It goes without saying that this came with serious risks, yet such was the strength of the corsets cultural significance in this period.

As time went on though fierce criticism grew towards the corset, and this is strongly reflected in the Flapper movement of the 1920s. The Flappers were a cultural response to the changing role of women in society, with the First World War resulting in more women in the workplace and women gaining the right to vote in Britain in 1918. The Flappers rejected the Victorian style corset and instead aimed for an androgynous appearance, binding their chests to achieve this, which arguably is still another fashionable restriction on the body.

The corset is still worn by many today, and is one of history’s most adaptable and durable fashion items, although thankfully they’re no longer tightened with quite the same severity!

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Sources: 

EyeWitness to History.com, The Gibson Girl: The Ideal Woman of the Early 1900s <http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/gibson.htm&gt; [accessed 17 March 2017]

Leaf, Side Effects of Corsets <https://www.leaf.tv/articles/side-effects-of-corsets/&gt; [accessed 17 March 2017]

Lord, W.B., The Corset and the Crinoline: An Illustrated History (Massachusetts: Courier Corporation, 2012

University of Virginia, Reshaping the Body <http://exhibits.hsl.virginia.edu/clothes/mens_corset/&gt; [accessed 17 March]

Victoria and Albert Museum, Corsets & Crinolines in Victorian Fashion <http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/c/corsets-and-crinolines-in-victorian-fashion/&gt; [accessed 17 March 2017]

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