We often consider the desire for a tiny waist as a fairly recent phe- nomenon, driven by the likes of Marilyn Monroe and the Mad Men hourglass figures of the 1950s. However, a wasp’s nest waist was wanted even further back, with the Victorians going to the most extreme — and dangerous — lengths to achieve the ultimate figure. The Victorian era is often cited as the period in which women began to obtain greater freedom, as evidenced through the suffragette movement and the demands of first-wave feminists.
Yet although women were starting to advance politically and economically, in fashion they were still very much constrained, needing to ‘conform’ to the demands of a tiny waist and the ‘ideal’ feminine silhouette. Victorian women were under both a physical and ideological constraint, having to wear rib-crunching corsets all day every day or face serious disapproval (for uncorseted women were considered wild by men). Today, we often associate corsets with lingerie or burlesque, worn for show as opposed to daily living. But for a woman living in Nineteenth Century England, wearing a corset was part of everyday life. And the tighter the corset was, the better.
The result was that Victorian fashion reached painful extents, with laced corsets digging into the body, often leaving skin raw and bruises. However, the greatest damage was found internally. The corsets put tremendous limitations on the amount a woman could eat, alongside her ability to breathe — functions we hardly give a second thought to. Subsequently, it was not unusual for a Victorian woman to faint in the street, sometimes more than once a day.
Even more shocking are the images from the 1908 medical paper, ‘Le Corset’, written by Dr Ludovis O’Followell, which show how the internal organs were pushed toward the lower abdomen as the result of wearing a corset. In some cases, the pressure would cause the liver to become swollen and enlarged. What is most sad, however, is the damage that these corsets did to pregnant women, who were still expected to wear this gruelling garment.
Miscarriages were not uncommon during the period, and although this is in part due to the lack of medical advancement, corsets can also be blamed. There are even cases where babies were born deformed, the result of being literally crushed in the womb.
Thank goodness we have moved on from such a horrific way of creating the illusion of a wasp’s nest waist. Today, Spanx is the closest we get and even for the women who still choose to wear a corset, it no longer means unbearable discomfort. If any society took the concept ‘beauty is pain’ to a literal level, it was the Victorians.