How Corsets Work

Extreme Corsetry

Even the best things can be taken to risky extremes. Water keeps you alive, but drinking too much can kill you. Corsets were developed to support the body and provide a good base for outer garments, but some corset devotees throughout history have taken their practice of wearing this article of clothing far beyond those original purposes.

In the 1950s, Cathie Jung looked like many other young and attractive women of the time. By 1999, she achieved a modicum of fame by earning the Guinness world record for the smallest waist circumference in the world at 15 inches (38.1 centimeters) [source: Guinness]. This waist was reduced from 22 inches (55.9 centimeters) between 1985 to 1992, all the while keeping a bust and hip measurement of 39 inches (99 centimeters) each [source: Jung].

Is that healthy? By Jung's own admission, it's not easy. Between skin problems and not being able to sit down easily, let alone drive, extreme corsetry is no walk in the park [source: Jung].

Doctors throughout history have also advised against tight lacing. The deformation of the internal organs caused by this practice in the 18th century deeply concerned Dr. Samuel Thomas von Sommering, who often spoke out about the potential dangers of constricting the body for fashion. His legacy: A type of hiatus hernia caused by tight-lacing was eventually named in his honor [source: Fee].

Back in 1890 Charles Dana Gibson earned immortality after he returned from a European trip flush with the idea of drawing society women. American society women. His illustrations in the popular magazines of the time set the standard for the corseted and fashionable American woman. Plenty of ladies of the time wanted to be a wasp-waisted Gibson Girl.

Sounds good, right? Straight posture, bust forward and a slight thrust backward below the waist. In the illustrations, at least, the famous S-shape struck quite the pose. The only problem was that the human body wasn't really made to do that. In their rush to fit the image, some women chose corsets that unnaturally bent their spine and often caused permanent damage to their frame. Fortunately, while some were slavishly bending their bodies, most opted to adopt the spirit of the Gibson Girl by celebrating her lighter, active spirit and donned more liberating corsets to suit.

Like most extremes, the popularity of the S-shape corset couldn't last. Just before World War I women decided they'd had enough of the corset altogether, and the straight, flat, less restrictive style of the flapper came into her own (yes, she was partying well before the Roaring '20s), effectively killing the boned corset as a mainstream undergarment.

By Gibson's time, the corset had a few thousand years of development under its belt (so to speak), and was no simple affair. Like a well-oiled machine, it had a lot of parts. In the next section we'll disassemble one and see what makes it tick.