The ideal of what a woman’s body should look like has changed dramatically over time and varies by culture. One of the most well-known historical attempts at changing a woman’s body shape — corseting of the waist to make an hourglass figure — left lasting effects on the skeleton, deforming the ribs and misaligning the spine.
But some women lived long and healthy lives, counters anthropologist Rebecca Gibsonof American University, whose latest research on corsets and their effect on the skeleton has been published in NEXUS: The Canadian Student Journal of Anthropology. The view of corseting as having created short and painful lives is anachronistic, she says, as many of these women lived much longer than average for the time.
Corset-wearing was common in the 18th and 19th centuries across Europe and across different socioeconomic classes. “Women wore corsets to shape their bodies away from nature and toward a more ‘civilized’ ideal form,” Gibson explains, and “a woman would wear her corset for almost her entire life.” Very young children were placed in corsets, as advertisements from Paris at the time mention sizing “pour enfants & fillettes.” Even in pregnancy, special corsets were made to fit a woman’s growing belly and, later, her need to nurse her baby. “Side gussets or special snaps over the breasts,” Gibson says, were used to “accommodate their changing form while still allowing them to follow the fashion of the time.”
While scholars still debate the extent to which patriarchal control over women’s bodies and women’s own clothing choices affected corseting practices, it is clear that long-term use of these garments caused changes in women’s skeletons. By looking at the variation in corsets and their physical effects on the spine, and correlating those observations with age-at-death, Gibson is rethinking the modern assumption that corsets were like painful torture devices.
To investigate skeletal changes from corseting, Gibson studied remains dating to 1700-1900 AD held at the Musée de l’Homme at the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris and at the Centre for Human Bioarchaeology at the Museum of London. She measured the width of their rib cages, the angle at which the ribs meet the spine, and the angle of deviation of the spinous processes of the vertebrae.
Of the seven mounted skeletons that Gibson examined from the Musée de l’Homme, every single one of them had deformed ribs pushed into an ‘S’ shape and vertebral spines misaligned from vertical, both of which are “consistent with long-term pressure on growing ribs and vertebrae and inconsistent with other types of documented damage such as rickets,” she notes. Three additional sets of skeletal remains from the Museum of London had the exact same pattern of ribcage deformity.
Using more than a dozen historical corsets on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Gibson found that the average adult woman’s waist size was 56 cm — or 22 inches — in circumference. Compared to a 2001 study of modern British women’s bodies, this is more than 10 inches smaller than today!
Interestingly, the women in these historic skeletal collections “lived comparatively long lives while undergoing this skeletal transformation,” Gibson says. Life expectancy at birth in France and England at this time was between 25-50 years, and age at death was between about 50-60 years old for women, but “the women analyzed here either reached or exceeded their life expectancy at birth,” Gibson notes, “and a few may have exceeded the average age at death.”
While Gibson is not speaking to the quality of life of these women whose skeletons show long-term evidence of corseting, her results, she says, “confound the very popular notion that corseting was inherently overtly harmful, as well as the longstanding medical belief that corseting was responsible for early death.”
Further anthropological and historical work assessing the practice of corseting, Gibson concludes, is needed in order to “piece together what it meant to live in and be changed by a corset, something women did on a daily basis and which impacted every part of their lives.”