Tag Archives: tight-lacing

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)


Tight-Lacing the Mind

14 Aug

The rise of the corset during the nineteenth century coincided with female demands for access to employment and education. The more women campaigned to enter the public and intellectual realm of their husbands, however, the more they were restricted. The corset thus came to symbolise this constraint, physically caging women’s bodies in order to maintain their passivity as ‘[i]n it a woman could barely sit or stoop, was unable to move her feet more than six inches at a time’.[1] Such physical costs of tight-lacing were compounded by the mental health concerns which were perceived as accompanying bodily constraint. In The Beth Book, Grand describes the results of tight-lacing upon a woman’s mind and body if the practice is not discarded as ‘[i]f the mind be tight-laced long enough, it is ruined as a model, just as the body is’.[2] Here, Grand campaigns against the constraining of female intellect as a method of masculine control, in which women were regarded as mentally inferior. Yet, the novel also emphasises the impossibility of removing the mental corset altogether from women whose intellect has been restricted for a long period of time as this ‘merely exposes the mind’s deformities without remedying them; so that there is nothing for the old generation but to remain in stays.’[3] This old generation inhabit a time of tightly-laced minds and bodies, in a period wherein:

well-formed women must compress their bodies till they looked like cylinders or hour-glasses, and lace till their noses swelled and their hair fell out…Those were the days when women had “no nonsense about them…,” none of those new-fangled ideas about education and that.[4]

Tight-lacing is associated with women’s inability to access the ‘masculine’ rational sphere of work and education. Women who desire the same opportunities as men must firstly rid themselves of their restrictive corsets.

Since it symbolically compressed the mind, tight-lacing was frequently associated with lack of intelligence. Punch (1857) states that ‘[a] narrowness of waist betrays a narrowness of mind. When the ribs are contracted, it is a sure sign that the intellect is also’,[5] while Funny Folks (1882) asserts that ‘[t]he smaller a compressed waist, the closer to its dimensions correspond with those of its wearer’s brains’.[6] In 1890, Judy campaigned against one medical authority that ‘inferentially associates the possession of a small waist (in women) with high intellectuality.’[7] The magazine responded to this in the form of a short play, warning the reader that far from increasing mental capacity, tight-lacing actually causes a reduction of intellect:

I overheard yon medico declare

That tightest corsets should enclose the fair;

And that the smaller is your wifey’s waist,

More mental power will be by her embraced…

To me ’tis very plain

That all who do in stays their shape retain,

Do but increase the volume of their brain![8]

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough

[1] S. Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (London: University of California Press, 1995), p.162

[2] Grand, The Beth Book, p.125

[3] Grand, The Beth Book, p.125

[4] Grand, The Beth Book, p.225

[5] Anon., ‘Aphorisms upon Tight-Lacing’, Punch (London, England), 4th July, 1857

[6] Anon., ‘Waist not, want not’, Funny Folks, issue 386 (London, England), 22nd April, 1882

[7] Anon., ‘Waist – and Want Not’, Judy: The Conservative Comic (London, England), 18th June, 1890

[8] ‘Waist – and Want Not’, Judy (1890)

Want to Attract a Husband? Tight-Lace!

14 Aug

In the nineteenth century, women went to great lengths to achieve a narrow waist-line.  Scientific developments have proven that this wasp-waist served an evolutionary, as well as social, purpose originating in the desire to attract and ‘find a mate’. In Survival of the Prettiest, Nancy Etcoff writes that ‘[e]volutionary psychologists suggest that men are automatically excited by signs of a woman who is fertile, healthy, and hasn’t been pregnant before.’[1] The physiological indicators of this state correspond to the physical ideal of a Victorian female, comprising an hourglass figure offset by a small waist. Within a theoretical context, this ideal is the result of biological attraction since, according to Etcoff, ‘[t]he waist is one of the body’s best indicators of hormonal function’.[2] Women whose figures were hourglass in shape, with ‘a waist-to-hip ratio below .8’ are twice as likely to conceive and bear children than those ‘whose waist-to-hip ratio was above .8’.[3] A narrow waist was only desirable, however, if accompanied by wide hips and a full bosom, thus pairing an indication of virginity with symbols of reproduction. Consequently, there were social and moral dimensions to physically manipulating a woman’s body. The virginal, yet reproductively capable female figure that an hourglass shape literally embodied reflected the patriarchal fascination with, and the supposed biological imperative for, the sexually passive and delicate woman who was also capable of bearing children.

The small waist was eroticised not only because it represented reproductive potential, but because it suggested weakness and vulnerability to the male seducer who was accordingly placed in a position of sexual dominance. The Dart: The Midland Figaro (1884) defines the ideal embodiment of girlhood as including a narrow waist that can be encircled by her lover:

Such a waist, such a waist, so small and tight-laced, Inviting the arm to surround it.[4]

In addition, La Belle Assemblée (1830) describes the happiness of a married couple in terms of the husband’s ability to enclose his wife’s waist:

[a] beautiful girl was sitting there, and circling her small waist was an arm that seemed grown to the graceful stem it projected; the girl was a bride, and the youth beside her was her own – her husband; they were the happiest of the happy.[5]

Likewise, in Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), a woman’s waist is described as a feature by which she can be physically ensnared as a male character throws ‘off all his constraint in an instant, and [seizes] the hostess round the waist’.[6] Enclosing a woman’s waist in this way could also be interpreted as a vaginal reference, wherein gender roles are reversed as the masculine arm envelopes a straight-laced, phallically shaped midriff. By doing so, however, the male character symbolically pre-empts and appropriates any female power that his wife will obtain from surrounding and enveloping his phallus following their marriage.

Women were aware of the male attraction towards a small waisted figure, using that to their advantage to snare a husband. An article entitled ‘Fashionable Suicide’ published in Punch (1863) reveals that one woman endured the practice in order to entice gentlemen who:

admire a slender figure, and think it most becoming. And as I’m dying to get mar—I mean, to please the gentlemen, why you see of course I must lace in my waist a bit, though it makes me feel quite faint at times.[7]

Likewise, another correspondent writes to the EDM (1868) that she maintains her small waist ‘because a certain friend has said that he could never survive if it were any larger or shorter.’[8] In Sarah Grand’s The Beth Book, Beth’s friend Geraldine boasts that she ‘“laced till [she] got shingles”’[9] in order to reduce the dimensions of her waist to ‘“only seventeen inches”’,[10] by which means she hopes she will obtain a husband. Beth’s mother also counsels her to make the most of her figure in order to attract a wealthy suitor, a process that is contingent upon her waist:

I don’t know what your waist is going to be, but you shall have some good stays. A fine shape goes a long way. With your prospects you really ought to make a good match, so do not slouch about any more as if you had no self-respect at all.[11]

As a result of this, Beth ‘tightened her stays to make her waist small’.[12] Since women did not have the same employment and educational opportunities as men, their principle means of gaining financially was by attracting a wealthy husband, and since importance was placed upon the size of the waist, tight-lacing was one of the principle ways by which this could be achieved. This is explicit in Geraldine’s words to Beth, that ‘“[m]y husband won’t think me silly once I get command of his money”’[13] and is echoed by Judy (1882) which states that ‘[t]he “primary object” of the female girl of the feminine sex is to land the good golden youth, and this is only to be done by the small waist’.[14] In Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), Mrs Durbeyfield dresses Tess in such a way as to make her figure appear fuller, and consequently sexually mature, in order to draw the attentions of the supposedly wealthy Alec D’Urberville. She puts upon her:

the white frock that Tess had worn at the club-walking, the airy fulness of which, supplementing her enlarged coiffure, imparted to her developing figure an amplitude which belied her age, and might cause her to be estimated as a woman when she was not much more than a child.[15]

‘[I]mpelled by natural instinct to find a mate’,[16] Victorian women employ ‘every little art of dress and manner’[17] in order to render themselves appealing to the opposite sex.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough

[1] N. Ectoff, Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, (New York: Random House, 2000), p.71

[2] Ectoff, Survival of the Prettiest, p.192

[3] Ectoff, Survival of the Prettiest, p.192

[4] Anon., ‘A Paragon of Girls’, in The Dart: The Midland Figaro, issue 390 (Birmingham,England),11th April, 1884

[5] La Belle Assemblée; or, Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine, issue 67 (London,England),1st June, 1830, p.234

[6] Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit, p.100

[7] Anon., ‘Fashionable Suicide’, in Punch (London,England),19th September, 1863, p.123

[8] The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, (1868), p. 110

[9] S. Grand, The Beth Book (London: Virago, 1980), pp.316-17

[10] Grand, The Beth Book, pp.316-17

[11] Grand, The Beth Book, p.225

[12] Grand, The Beth Book, p.231

[13] Grand, The Beth Book, pp.316-17

[14] Judy (London,England),8th March, 1882

[15] T. Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.52

[16] Grand, The Heavenly Twins, p.279

[17] Grand, The Heavenly Twins, p.279