Corset or not to corset?

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2rivcob73

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I have a few female reenactors in my group and they have asked me on a few occasions (to which I do not know the answer) if a female camp follower/young lady thrown into the fray of war to wear a corset when not in formal attire. They have received conflicting information, some places say women always wore a corset regardless, others say it depended on the situation. I was hoping to get some clarification for them.
Thanks
Ben
 

MaryDee

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If a woman needs a bra for support in the 21st century, she needs a corset for the 19th century! There were no bras in the 19th century--the alternative was either corset or no support at all! It is easy even for someone of small experience to detect if a bra is being worn under a 19th century dress instead of a corset--the fit is all wrong. For one thing, the smooth line from underbust to waist, essential for mid-19th century style, cannot be achieved without a corset. For another, the bosom supported only from the bottom (by a corset instead of by bra straps) has a quite different outline. This per a number of authorities on 19th century clothing, including Carolann Schmitt of Genteel Arts, Elizabeth Stewart Clark of the Sewing Academy, Kay Gnagy of Originals by Kay (who is in great demand as a lecturer on women's clothing at larger reenactment events). Juanita Leisch' Who Wore What? Women's Wear 1861-1865 is an excellent source, based on studies of thousands of CDVs (photographic visiting cards, wildly popular in the CW era). The standards of the Atlantic Guard Soldiers' Aid Society http://www.agsas.org/standards/basicwomens.shtml are used by many reenacting organizations, including the one I belong to.

In addition, the corset transfers at least part of the weight of skirt and petticoats (which can be considerable) from the waist to the top of the pelvic girdle, thus relieving the lower back of strain. It thus performs the same function as the hip belt of a modern backpack (the kind used for multi-day trips).

An alternative for scut-working situations (laundry, farm chores, etc.) is the corded corset, which Elizabeth Stewart Clark calls "the sports bra of the 19th century." It wouldn't be used for dressier occasions (like calling on friends or attending a tea), though. I have to wear a corded corset because (due to past knee injury) I can pick up items only if I bend over, which means I can't wear a busk. I did insert flexible boning at the sides, though, so mine is partly boned, partly corded.

I've seen a few photos of 19th century women who obviously are not wearing a corset, but they are quite old ladies (as am I) confined to chairs (not yet!).

Even "loose women" wore corsets, although, as the name implies, they laced them quite loosely!
 
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Cavalry Charger

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@MaryDee , you make the corset sound like a very practical article (which I'm sure it was!), and for some reason I always imagined they were more of a 'fashion item' than a practical means of support/comfort, used to create a certain 'look'.
That is beginning to seem more like 21st Century thinking - maybe because of the way they are sometimes still worn today - but, I'm just wondering at what age young women began to wear corsets? And were they an affordable item, so that rich and poor alike could own one, much like the modern day bra? Did women make their own corsets? Curious now ...
 
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MaryDee

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@Cavalry Charger, "Wolf in Ivy" (one of the experts at the Authentic Campaigner) says it a whole lot better than I can:
http://historyhallwayheartburn.blogspot.com/p/corset-myths-logical-look.html

It is true that wearing a corset all the time, even if not laced too snug, does interfere with the development or maintenance of your own core muscles. That wasn't good! Some have blamed corsets for horrible things like womb eversion, but that was the fault of 19th century obstetrics, such as they were, and continual pregnancies. But if you want to be even vaguely authentic for the 19th century, the corset is essential. It's not as though we're going to be reenacting 24/7/365--a dozen weekends a year won't hurt us!
 

CharlotteEMcKay

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Medically speaking corsets are challenging to wear and generally unsafe. When a woman is wearing a corset all of her internal organs get smashed together and get pushed downward. Multiple problems are caused by the pressure on the internal organs including digestive problems, decrease in bile production, The corset puts pressure on the kidneys, which are amazingly fragile organs. Corsets restrict oxygen due to the limited expansion of the lungs. Some articles I read stated a risk for a punctured lung with the narrowing of the lower rib cage.
However, I think this is the worst part, the smashed organs can't go up because they are blocked by the diaphragm, the muscle below the lungs, so the smashed organs go down which pushes the pelvic floor down and weakening pelvic floor including weakening of the Kegel muscle and supporting ligaments causing the inability to hold in urine; aka urinary leakage occurs and possibly, god forbid uterine prolapse.

As awesome as it is to dress period correct and to look the part, I am grateful that corsets are not part of every day life and when I wear my corset at an event, I wear it as loose as possible while still looking the part. Yes, I am open to comments and feedback.

Great antic-dote at the end of this article!
Article written by Truman G. Schnabel and his wife.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2279691/pdf/tacca00091-0236.pdf

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1807654/
 

MaryDee

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That first article is a strange mixture of fact and folklore, with some very uncertain references!

Nobody had their ribs removed; in those days of unsanitary conditions, it would have been certain death! The author gives no reference for his assertion that this happened. In reality, during the Civil War, no doctor would attempt to treat any wound that penetrated the abdominal or the chest cavity--such wounds were considered fatal. Certainly, no surgeon would deliberately open a woman's chest cavity to get ribs out!

The organs won't be "smashed" (hardly a medical term) unless the woman laces too tightly (which some women, of course, did).

The loss of core muscle tone is an unfortunate and potentially dangerous side effect of frequent or constant corset (or girdle) wearing, and putting children into stays to "improve their posture" was, to me, unpardonable. However, uterine prolapse (which happens today, too) was mostly due to bad obstetrics (or rather, the lack of any) and frequent, multiple pregnancies.

The second article I found quite interesting and amusing--the medical profession (at least in Germany) blaming every illness on the corset and, in the 20th century, the girdle. I was amused by his somewhat tongue-in-cheek conclusion. I wish he had spent more time on the American dress reform movement instead of the German!

Edit, much later Monday: Some of the drawings in the second article, of proposed "reform" garments to replace the corset, look more uncomfortable than the corset!
 
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MaryDee

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Just to add--most young girls' stays were soft corded stays, usually with shoulder straps, and with buttons at the waist (of which young girls don't have much) to fasten petticoats. This per http://www.thesewingacademy.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/2010Girls.pdf

This probably didn't do a lot of damage, but reminds me of my late husband, who insisted that our dining room table have backless benches instead of chairs, so the kids would sit up straight. Note: it didn't work!
 
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Medically speaking corsets are challenging to wear and generally unsafe. When a woman is wearing a corset all of her internal organs get smashed together and get pushed downward. Multiple problems are caused by the pressure on the internal organs including digestive problems, decrease in bile production, The corset puts pressure on the kidneys, which are amazingly fragile organs. Corsets restrict oxygen due to the limited expansion of the lungs. Some articles I read stated a risk for a punctured lung with the narrowing of the lower rib cage.
However, I think this is the worst part, the smashed organs can't go up because they are blocked by the diaphragm, the muscle below the lungs, so the smashed organs go down which pushes the pelvic floor down and weakening pelvic floor including weakening of the Kegel muscle and supporting ligaments causing the inability to hold in urine; aka urinary leakage occurs and possibly, god forbid uterine prolapse.

As awesome as it is to dress period correct and to look the part, I am grateful that corsets are not part of every day life and when I wear my corset at an event, I wear it as loose as possible while still looking the part. Yes, I am open to comments and feedback.

Great antic-dote at the end of this article!
Article written by Truman G. Schnabel and his wife.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2279691/pdf/tacca00091-0236.pdf

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1807654/
this sounds more reasonable approach- i have med. issues that might prevent me from wearing corset , yet i would love to smooth out the mid body to look presentable in period wear. the back support sounds good, the displacement of vital organs does not sound prudent. so looking for a compromise for a very 'fluffy' short lady.
 
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this sounds more reasonable approach- i have med. issues that might prevent me from wearing corset , yet i would love to smooth out the mid body to look presentable in period wear. the back support sounds good, the displacement of vital organs does not sound prudent. so looking for a compromise for a very 'fluffy' short lady.
do more reading and research, most of the negative claims in some of the articles quoted above about the corset are factoids. You can lace them loosely, as did many 19th century women. The corset was mostly intended to provide the correct line for the bodice ... there were some fairly fraudulent and inacurate arguments raised about corsets even in 19th century medical literature
 
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