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Corsets don't give women 13-inch waists, and other lies

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A bunch of corsets!
A bunch of corsets!
Chicago History Museum/Getty

In the titular role of Disney's new live-action version of Cinderella, Lily James plays a beaming, beautiful, fairly passive spin on the fairy tale princess. She somehow has less agency than her animated counterpart, but the two do have one tiny thing in common: a minuscule waist.

Just look at this comparison:

To achieve the itsy-bitsy effect, James wore a corset. In press interviews, she complained that the garment wouldn't let her swallow whole foods — unsurprising, considering how constrictive it seems to be.

Critics have been fairly outspoken about James' unrealistically reduced waist in the movie. Victoria Lambert wrote for the Telegraph that she would not let her daughter see the new Cinderella because "what I dislike about [director Kenneth] Branagh’s version is that his vision is one in which young women are most attractive when they have a waist the size of a preteen." At the Washington Post, Emily Yahr called James' waist "alarmingly nonexistent."

As my colleague Todd VanDerWerff wrote in his review of the movie, "The message seems clear. On the most magical night of her life, Cinderella's waist is size negative two." James, meanwhile, maintains that though the dress was uncomfortable, she is perfectly healthy.

Corsets, of course, are made to help suck in a woman's stomach and emphasize her waistline, shrinking it down in proportion to her ribcage and hips. Throughout history, women have used corsets to refine their waists and emphasize their curves. Corsets also often serve as land mines in conversations about body image, fat-shaming, and women's rights.

But they don't have to.

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"Boudoirscene (Maid Laced a Lady the Corset)," about 1880. (Hultson Archive/ Getty)

Corsets are much, much older than the Cinderella story

The story of Cinderella traces back more than 2,000 years to a Greek tale. Corsets are even older.

As Valerie Steele notes in her book The Corset: A Cultural History, waist-training mechanisms like corsets have probably existed since the days of early Crete. That means the idea of corsets has been around for more than 5,000 years. These garments were slightly different from what we think of as a corset today, however. They were worn on top of clothing, instead of as undergarments.

The French created the word "corset" in or around the 14th century after Italian noblewoman–turned–queen of France Catherine de Medici brought the wearable we know today as the corset from her home country to France. It was quickly adopted by members of the French court.

These corsets included an addition to the bottom that made skirts balloon out, thus exaggerating the appearance of a tiny waist. Corsets included heavy boning, made from wood, steel, or actual bones, to keep their shape.

Like any fashion choice, corsets went in and out of style. During the French Revolution, the English swore off corsets, for example, but for most of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, fashionable upper-class women regularly wore corsets as part of their ensembles.

As the waistlines of corsets moved up and down according to trends, their purposes changed. In the early 1800s, corsets had higher waistlines and primarily served to support the breasts, but by 1840, the primary function of the corset was to emphasize the waist by lacing the back of the corset very tightly.

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A woman gets laced into a corset at a Renaissance festival. (Marco Prosch/Getty)

The corset common today wasn't invented until the Victorian period

Most people now think of corsets as a fabric structure inlayed with boning that fits around one's waist and requires another person to lace it up. These corsets are called "tight-laced" corsets. They're usually tightened extremely snugly from top to bottom and then tied off to create a V-shaped silhouette.

The tight-laced corset was almost exclusively popular during the Victorian period, when corsets were not only at the height of fashion but could be produced rapidly, thanks to the Industrial Revolution.

This sounds like the corset James wore in Cinderella to film scenes in her blue ball gown. Just as she complained, tight-laced corsets were often worn so snug that they prevented women from eating anything large enough to expand their stomachs.

At times, these corsets even limited how much air women could fit into their lungs, making fainting a higher risk — though there's also something to be said about how simply wearing another layer in the summer heat could have added to this uptick in fainting.

Corsets fell out of fashion during World War II when women were asked to stop wearing them in order to free up steel for the war effort. After the war ended, bras replaced corsets. But corsets returned in some fashion after World War II and have faded in and out of style since then.

By the 1990s, outerwear corsets saw a revival, and today the Kardashians sport corsets on their Instagrams.

Corsets weren't as bad for women's health as their current reputation seems to suggest

Corsets have been accused of creating a large and varied group of health problems. Doctors claimed corsets caused misshapen internal organs, cancer, broken ribs, and hysteria. None of these claims had medical backing, according to an extensive interview corset historian Valerie Steele gave to Collector's Weekly.

As Steel explains in her book, while corsets weren't particularly good for women's bodies, they weren't awful either. They caused internal organs to shift, creating some constipation and indigestion. They also weakened back muscles, since the corset supported its wearer at all times. But these problems actually aren't all that different from what happens when you sit in a desk chair for eight hours a day.

As Steele told Collector's Weekly, "Most people today think corsets were extremely dangerous and caused all kinds of health problems, from cancer to scoliosis. And that’s quite inaccurate. Most of the diseases that have been credited to corsets, in fact, had other causes. Corsets did not cause scoliosis, the crushing of the liver, cancer, or tuberculosis. It doesn’t mean that corsets were without any health problems, but it does mean that most modern people are wildly naive in believing the most absurd antiquated medical accusations about corsetry."

Roughly 100 years ago, Dr. Robert Latou Dickinson X-rayed dozens of women who had worn corsets to determine the physiological effects of the wearing. He found that the degree to which a corset affected a woman's internal structure had less to do with the corset than with the strength of her abdominal walls.

Corsets didn't really give everyone 13-inch waists

The 13-inch waist is a myth many believe came from French literature. Though one woman in history has been credited with achieving a 13-inch waist, Steele told Collector's Weekly that the myth arose from French fetish literature in the late 16th century.

"A lot of people believe in the 16-inch waist being typical when, of course, most corsets were no smaller than in the 20s," Steele said. "Most people would reduce by a couple of inches. You can reduce it four inches or so, but most women were not going to be doing any more than that."

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A collection of corsets with paintings by Edouard Manet. (Getty)

Wearing a corset is a choice

Women were never forced to wear corsets. Instead, the garments are simply another form of body modification they choose. Wearing a corset enhances the curves of the female body. Really, wearing one is no different from wearing a pushup bra.

However, what both of these undergarments do is make women look slimmer, curvier, and younger, ideals that have been held up for women since the beginning of time. And those ideals, one could easily argue, are the product of a culture that values a woman's appearance over everything else in her life.

But even if corsets can be used to perpetuate unrealistic standards of beauty, it doesn't make them the enemy.  Women of all shapes and sizes can use corsets to feel sexy, fun, and powerful. There's nothing wrong with that, so long as the choice to wear it is in the wearer's control.

As always, the sour note here is that the ideal of women's bodies sings the same tired tune over and over — white, straight, beautiful, slim, curvy, perfect, quiet, and submissive. That's why the corset in the Cinderella movie has caused such consternation. It's not used to make one woman feel beautiful and powerful, but rather to set an impossible standard of beauty, exemplified in one of the most famous fictional women ever.

But don't blame the corset for that. Blame society.