Death to the Corset
The period known as the Victorian era in England, from 1837 to 1901, had gender roles that drastically defined the difference between a man and a woman. These differences were based on the theory that “men possessed the capacity for reason, action, aggression, independence, and self-interest. Women inhabited a separate, private sphere, one suitable for the so called inherent qualities of femininity: emotion, passivity, submission, dependence, and selflessness, all derived, it was claimed insistently, form women’s sexual and reproductive organization”. Following uch principles allowed men, allegedly controlled by their mind or intellectual strength, to dominate society, to be the governing sex, given that they were viewed as rational, brave, and independent. Women, on the other hand, were dominated by their sexuality, and were expected to fall silently into the social mold crafted by men, since they were regarded as irrational, sensitive, and dutiful. Women were seen as weaker and doctors decided that women needed to wear corsets to support their weak backs.
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These corsets caused the waist to contract and to elongate curves on a oman, the corset acted as real and symbolic imprisonment of women. In the early 1800s, after the French Revolution, fashionable women temporarily gave up their corsets for looser clothing that seemed to parallel new ideas of freedom in politics, but when the corset returned a few years later, it took forms that eventually led to concerns for women’s health. Two things changed. First, the corset accentuated rather than hid the woman’s natural form, producing an hourglass figure, with tight compression of the waist.
Throughout the 1800s, corset forms became more and ore exaggerated, women’s clothing increasingly hugged the torso, and the corset squeezed in more and more of the body to create an “ideal” female shape from shoulder to thigh. They are fabric garments that constrict the torso. Reinforced with stiffeners, they fit so tightly that the body is molded into the desired shape. The shape was originally architectural, making a woman’s torso a straight-sided, inverted cone. It masked all natural shape between breast and hip, and, although it hampered movement somewhat, it affected only the torso and left the hips and arms free.
This trend of using corsets were started on girls as young as four and they grew up constantly with this contraption on their backs. By the time they were teenagers they were unable to stand for any length of time without the aid of a heavy canvas corset lengthening and tightening around their backs that was reinforced with whale bone or steel. 3 By trying to fix women’s backs, which they believed were weaker, they in fact made them worse by clinching heavy material around it. A compelling question is of course, how tightly were the corsets laced? There are many reports of waists between 18 and 14 inches – even 12 inch waists.
Measurements of corsets in museum collections indicate that most corsets of the period 1860 to 1910 measured from 20 to 22 inches. Those sizes do not indicate how tightly the corsets were laced. So ordinary corsets were not so tight, the construction of the corset with the metal busk for front closure and the lacing in the back, enabled the woman to lace herself in. Women were inflicting the pain of taking a naturally 25 inch waist and tightening it to 14 inches Just to fit societys ideal woman. This body shape has been Touna attractlve since tne Minoans. In tnelr art tne women ana men were always rawn with extremely small waists.
A perfect example is the Snake Priestess which is a sculpture with a woman with a corset on. In the sculpture the corset is forcing her waist so far in that her breast are completely exposed. Severe tight-lacing was practiced, and some corsetieres specialized in cultivating very small waists. Men developed a fetish for small waists. These efforts to achieve ever-smaller waists eventually led to outcries against corsets, first in the 1820s and 1830s and again in the 1880s and 1890s5. Physicians objected to the health risks and religious leaders bjected to the display of the exaggerated female shape.
The important place of the corset as a health risk is highlighted in the title of the book An Examination of Five Plagues: Corsets, Tobacco, Gambling, Strong Drink and Illegal Speculation, published in 1857 by Charles Dubois. As the health campaign gathered force, innumerable ills were attributed to the corset (tuberculosis, liver disease, even cancer), but some physicians got to the heart of the problem by emphasizing the extent to which a corset prevented proper muscle development and vigorous exercise. 6 By the early 900s, the public campaign had become a mainstream concern, with two results.
First, manufacturers began to emphasize that their corsets were made according to the latest scientific and medical principles, and therefore prevented the vital organs from shifting and would not hinder breathing. The tighter your corset was laced the virtuous the woman was considered. A loose corset was a sign of a loose woman. Working-class women did not go through the discomfort of wearing tightly laced corsets. They wore looser corsets and simpler clothes, with less weight. The higher up in class a lady was, the more confining her clothes were.
This was because they did not need the freedom to do household chores. Paid servants took care of such cumbersome matters. Which insinuates that the working woman is looser than the richer woman because her corset is less expensive. Having sexual desire was identified almost solely with men and women of lower classes, like prostitutes. During this time even male doctors were persuaded that women had no sex drive. When a woman did express sexual desire, it was seen as a disease that needed to be taken care of immediately and with drastic measures like removing the sex organs7.
In this era sex for any other reason than creating children was viewed as dirty and scandalous. Sexual desire was thought to be a quality that only men should have in this time period. Sex as a subject was not at all discussed. Girls could grow up into women and still not know where children came from: “Women’s bodies, hidden in long, voluminous clothes, were almost as much of a mystery to themselves as to men… ‘Nice ladies no more thought of showing their legs than did nice chairs”. 8 Sexuality and anything in relation to it contradicted the accepted notions of purity nd was strictly looked down upon.
Masturbation was so demonized that it was considered a mental disorder. Doctors maintained that masturbation caused “‘certain forms of insanity, epilepsy and hysteria in females”9. Victorians, it seemed, simply could not understand why anyone would voluntarily choose to participate in such revolting and degrading activities. One solution was the mutilation of female genitals: “Clitoridectomy was performed to cure dysuria, amenorrhea, sterility, epilepsy, masturbation, ‘hysterical mania,’ and various manifestations of insanity.
The source of hese diseases was thought to be sexual arousal; the termination of sexual arousal tnrougn clltor10ectomy cured tne Olsease “IU Men so deeply Dellevea women as beings who were controlled by their sexuality that some even though the reason women were as unhappy with their positions as females was because they lacked a male’s sexual organs. The psychologist Sigmund Freud explained this argument: “The personality development of the female centered upon her discovery in early childhood that she lacked a pen’s; penis emy created in the female child a lifelong dissatisfaction with her identity as a woman”. The extent to which men stressed view of women as “the Sex” was almost limitless. In the end, there was simply no way to escape from men’s never-ending subordination of women due to female’s sexuality like their tightly laced corset they were trapped. It was not until after 1850’s that the effective women’s organizations arose and finally began to stand up against male oppression. The way that the corset restricted the body, it represented the restrictions women had in this period. Women were nothing but baby makers. In 1894, Ruth Smythers published a book in the Victorian era called Sex
Tips for Husbands and Wives from 1894. She wrote guidelines for about how newlywed women should “endure” sex. Some of tips included that the wise bride will permit a maximum of two brief sexual experiences weekly and as time goes by she should make every effort to reduce this frequency. Also that a wise wife will make it her goal never to allow her husband to see her unclothed body, and never allow him to display his unclothed body to her and when he finds her, she should lie as still as possible. Bodily motion could be interpreted as sexual excitement by the optimistic husband.
Sex, when it cannot be prevented, should be practiced only in total darkness. These tips are hinting that sex is unenjoyable for women, however men had to express their sexual energy, women being the means of men’s expression 12 Corsets now are relegated to costume dramas, a few high-fashion designers although they do not use true corsets, Society may, however, have merely shifted to different ideals and approaches. First, it is women’s feet that are now reshaped and constricted, by stiletto-heeled shoes with pointed toes that restrict women’s movement and lead to serious problems with spinal alignment and foot roblems.
Second, instead of using corsets to mold women’s bodies, we now reshape the body itself through diet and exercise and in extreme cases anorexia and bulimia to achieve the thin, virtually androgynous body of todays fashion model. Women today also get constant plastic surgery to get a body like Beyonce or Angelina Jolie’s lips. Although the original intensity of using a corset to bring in the waist has died, the want and need for women to transform their bodies for the pleasure of men has not died. Bibliography Braddon, Mary E. , Lady Audley’s Secret, New York: Oxford. University Press, 1998.
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LeMoncheck, Linda. Loose Women, Lecherous Men, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997 Marsh, Jan. Sex & Sexuality in the 19th Century, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1985 http://www. vam. ac. uk/content/articles/s/sex-and- sexuality-19th-century/ Perkin, Joan, Victorian Women, New York: New York University Press 1993. Rooney, Kathleen. Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object, Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 2008 Word Press, History of Sexuality in Western Culture: Victorian Era, blog, http://historyofsexuality. umwblogs. org/pre-20th-century/ victorian-era-2/