Tag Archives: health

Is Tight-Lacing Injurious?

14 Aug

In 1890 an article published in the Lancet warned of death from tight-lacing, arguing that its effects ‘cannot but be hurtful’ as ‘almost every important organ is subjected to cramping pressure’.[1] The fatal consequences of respiratory constraint are portrayed by contemporary literature in the case of Snow White, whose wicked step mother threatens to ‘“lace [her] properly for once.”’[2] To lace her ‘properly’ according to the sadistic dimensions of the tiny Victorian ‘wasp-waist’ causes near death by suffocation as ‘the old woman laced so quickly and so tightly that Snow White lost her breath and fell down as if dead.’[3] Objecting to the practice of tight-lacing, the Lancet warned that its dangers ‘should be noted by these foolish persons whose false taste and vanity have made them suffering devotees of a custom so injurious.’[4]

In a Punch article entitled ‘Is Tight-Lacing Injurious?’ (1870), the importance of a wasp-waist is discussed by women who believe that because ‘fashion had revived the custom of tight-lacing, ladies were obliged to cultivate a fashionable figure.’[5] The phrase, ‘obliged’ discloses that tight-lacing was not a volitional practice, but a social prescription that women must follow in order to remain in vogue. A small waist, however, was achieved at the expense of every day comforts, such as the satisfaction gained from eating. In an edition of the magazine published in the previous year, one correspondent, ‘A Victim’, writes that despite her enjoyment of the admiration that accompanies her tightly-laced figure:

stays are a great torture, and deprive one of a number of small comforts and enjoyments, not to mention one so vulgar as enjoying a nice dinner, which one has no room to swallow when one’s squeezed to sixteen inches.[6]

This woman’s longing to satisfy her appetite reveals that her motive for tight-lacing is not slenderness alone, but because she would ‘rather die than dress out of the fashion’.[7] Fun (1889) also points to the sacrifice that the wasp-waisted woman must make in order to maintain her figure:

ELLA had a little waist,

She could eat no dinner,

For she was so tightly laced,

Space was not within her.[8]

Practitioners of tight-lacing were unable to enjoy food, Miss Tucker informing that ‘the worst of wearing a tight dress was that it sadly took away one’s appetite…Now, this was a great misery, for she was fond of eating. Still, she had rather give up her custards than her corset.’[9] Moonshine (1887) reveals that reducing one’s waist to fifteen inches not only reduces appetite but also leads to ‘squeezing’, ‘pinches’ and ‘awful indigestion’.[10] In addition to these ailments, Miss Lovelace’s tight stays cause her to ‘[faint] at the dinner table’[11] and, ‘after eating a good dinner,’ Mrs M. Bonpoint ‘was frequently obliged to have her laces cut, to save herself from fainting.’[12]

Numerous contemporary periodicals opposed the practice of tight-lacing, not only pointing to the potential for causing physical harm, but the financial cost of such injury and ill health. John Bull (1848) correlates a tightly-laced figure with lack of wellbeing, stating ‘[w]henever you see a small waist, think how much health is wasted.’[13] Use of the term ‘waste’ allowed for puns to be made upon the tightly-laced ‘waist’, further demonstrated by the EDM (1866) that ‘look[s] upon every one of these little waists as a great waste of good sound health and long life.’[14] Waste implies the (mis)usage of a commodity in which women’s health was perceived as a patriarchal possession that could be lost through the mismanagement of female volition: an unhealthy body could not produce children. This concept of wasted health as explicitly connected with financial loss is observed in Punch (1857), which states that ‘[i]n the shadow of a small waist may be seen a large doctor’s bill and the outline of a coffin.’[15] Arguing against the wasp-waist, one author of Punch (1863) writes ‘[w]hen a man has the good fortune to get hold of a girl’s waist, he likes to feel it soft and yielding, and not buckramed and bone-stiffened’, since ‘a wife who has this latter proves a dear one to her husband.’[16] Slenderness and fashion are unnecessary costs to a husband who views his wife solely in material terms. This is reflected in the language of the article since a man’s good ‘fortune’ in marrying a woman with a narrow waist is reversed when his wife is revealed to be an object that will cost him ‘dear’.

In addition to the financial cost of ‘these pinchings in’,[17] an 1866 issue of the EDM points to the ‘shocking and diseased state of the internal organs connected with a small and taper waist.’[6] In descriptions of tightly-laced women, emphasis is placed upon its resulting unnatural and deformed appearance. The Hull Packet and Humber Mercury (1829) remarks upon the unsightly spectacle to be seen at ‘the fashionable promenade in Kensington Gardens’, where there are ‘a number of pale spectres, red…only as to the nose, misshaped like ill-trussed fowls at the breast; and describing the figure of S with their spines.’[18]

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough


[1] John Bull, issue 1 (London,England),14th October, 1848, p. 665

[2] The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, issue 21 (London,England),1st September, 1866, p.273

[3] Punch (London,England),4th July, 1857

[4] ‘Fashionable Suicide’, Punch, p.123

[5] The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine (1866), p.273

[6] The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, (1866), p.273

[7] Anon., ‘Tight-Lacing’, The Hull Packet and Humber Mercury, issue 2332 (Hull, England) 28th July, 1829

[8] C. Brontë, The Professor (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 1994), p.76

[9] Anon., ‘Death from Tight-Lacing’, The Lancet, issue 135 (1890), p.1816

[10] Grimm Brothers, ‘Little Snow White’, in Complete Fairy Tales (London: Routledge, 2006), p.217

[11] Grimm, ‘Little Snow White’, p.217

[12] ‘Death from Tight-Lacing’, Lancet (1890), p.1816

[13] Anon., ‘Is Tight-Lacing Injurious?, Punch (London,England),7th May, 1870, p.186

[14] ‘The Torments of Tight-Lacing’, Punch (1869)

[15] ‘The Torments of Tight-Lacing’, Punch (1869)

[16] ‘Ella Had a Little Waist’, Fun, issue 1256 (London, England), 5th June 1889, p.241

[17] ‘Is Tight-Lacing Injurious?’, Punch (1870), p.186

[18] ‘Death by Inches’, Moonshine (1887)