Did old-time corsets really kill women?

Wasp waist (excerpt): Wasp waist is a women's fashion silhouette, produced by a style of corset and girdle, that has experienced various periods of popularity in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its primary feature is the abrupt transition from a natural-width rib cage to an exceedingly small waist, with the hips curving out below. It takes its name from its similarity to a wasp's segmented body. The sharply cinched waistline also exaggerates the hips and bust. [...] Among the multitude of medical problems women suffered to achieve these drastic measurements were deformed ribs, weakened abdominal muscles, deformed and dislocated internal organs, and respiratory ailments. Displacement and disfigurement of the reproductive organs greatly increased the risk of miscarriage and maternal death.

The History Of Corsets Is More Complicated Than You Probably Think (excerpt): Every morning, before slipping into her work clothes, Sarah Woodyard puts on a corset. [...] wearing a historically accurate corset is part of Woodyard's job, where she spends her day educating visitors on life in the American colonies.

[...] The corset is one of the most misunderstood garments in fashion history. It's an easy target for fashion revisionists ... it ... looks suspiciously like a medieval torture device: crude but effective. “It would be a terrible thing to have to wear that every day, all day. It would be like living in a cage,” says Zoe Helene, cultural activist and founder of Cosmic Sister, a women's collective promoting gender equality. “[Corsets are] absolutely about holding women back. There’s no doubt in my mind about that, and if you have a doubt, you haven’t worn one long enough,” says Helene.

But according to Woodyard, someone who does wear a corset most days, all day, corsets are actually supportive, allowing women to perform household duties without back pain. “I've found that they often are an aid to my day. And that back support really helps me not have a sore back at the end of the day. I've done eighteenth century laundry and cooking. And when you're having to pick up heavy buckets of water, or bending and moving heavy objects [the support of the corset] is really helpful," Woodyard tells me.

But weren’t corsets supposedly uncomfortable and even painful, squeezing organs into oblivion? “I don’t think that a lot of folks realize that there [were] stay makers in the 18th century that...[made women] a pair that fits [their client], and fits them well,” says Ms. Woodyard. “So I often compare the word fitted versus tight, that the stays should be fitted, but they shouldn’t be tight. And if they’re too-tight, then you need to fix them.”

[...] Beyond fitted, tight, or anywhere in between — corsetry has a long history that stretches far beyond our current assumptions. ... However, during the Age of Enlightenment, intellectuals began questioning the corset and its artifice, arguing that the corset was, at best, the physical embodiment of censorship, and, at worst, a way of deforming and destroying the natural body. Anatomists and doctors began advising against the wearing of stays. [...] And women, by and large, ignored these criticisms. ... most women ... continued to believe that wearing corsets was essential, even as men mocked them with satirical attacks such as articles and poems and illustrations lampooning the way undergarments like the corset and the bustle and the panniers created an artificial body. This pokes holes in the popular notion that women only wore corsets to play into a body type idealized by the male gaze.

[...] By the turn of the 20th century, these negative attitudes towards the corset came to a head. This paved the way for designers like Paul Poiret and, later, Coco Chanel to emerge and loudly proclaim that they had killed the corset, subsequently “freeing” women from the oppressive garment. But this "victory" was hollow at best...

Corset Controversy (excerpt): . . . Laura Ingalls Wilder was an American author who wrote a series of children's books based on her childhood in a pioneer family. Little Town on the Prairie is set in 1880 in South Dakota in an area recently settled. Despite being on the frontier, the women and, in particular the girls, were expected to behave according to the norms of the times. Its 1941 publication date takes it out of the "discussion" period, but as it was written as a children's book for girls, its account is unlikely to be spurious or a fantasy, so it serves as a reliable testament of some of the more curious practices such as sleeping in corsets. The family had four daughters, Mary, Laura, Carrie, and Grace, the youngest. Mary, the eldest, tries on a dress that is found not to fit until her corset is laced more tightly, leading to the following exchange:

"I'm glad I don't have to wear corsets yet," said Carrie.

"Be glad while you can be," said Laura. "You'll have to wear them pretty soon." Her corsets were a sad affliction to her, from the time she put them on in the morning until she took them off at night. But when girls pinned up their hair and wore skirts down to their shoe tops, they must wear corsets.

"You should wear them at night," Ma said. Mary did, but Laura could not bear at night the torment of the steels that would not let her draw a deep breath. Always before she could get to sleep, she had to take off her corsets.

"What your figure will be, goodness knows," Ma warned her. "When I was married, your Pa could span my waist with his two hands."

This reminds me of the ancient tradition of Chinese foot bonding. Like the corset, it was believed to be a status of beauty, for women to have their feet bound. The corset creates an hour glass-like figure, but with much pain to be had, in the process.
I wonder how widespread it really was. If we look at photographs of people from the later 1800's, crowd scenes or whatever, women typically seem to have pretty normal waists. But if you look at clothing advertising from the period, you see drawings featuring impossibly small waists.

Certainly there are a few photographs of individual women with 'wasp-waists', but they seem to either be royalty or women from show-business. The photo in the link is Queen Maud of Norway, renowned in her time for her tiny waist. But I suspect that her clothes are cunningly tailored to accentuate it. Her shoulders look as broad as her husband's and I doubt that her hips were really that broad. What's more, many portraits were retouched in the photographic studio to make the waist look narrower. (19th century photoshop...) That was probably most common with posed portrait photographs of royalty but probably didn't happen with the crowd shots. (I think that there's controversy whether the photo in the link was retouched.)

I don't know that the average woman looked like that. Many of them wore looser corsets, in hopes of converting a convex sagging belly into a more concave silhouette on the sides and front, in hopes of looking younger I guess.

Being a princess in the 1800's must not have been a barrel of laughs. They had to behave regally and properly whenever they were out in public, all while probably feeling excruciatingly uncomfortable and almost unable to breathe. Yet every young girl dreamed of being a princess. Young noble-women actually competed with each other to have the smallest waist.

But I don't think that it was an everyday thing out on the street.

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