Corsets and Health: Should You Be Worried by Corseted X-Rays?

Are corsets detrimental to your help?  Not if they're made (and worn) correctly.  Model: Victoria Dagger, corset: Pop Antique.

Are corsets detrimental to your health? Not if they’re made (and worn) correctly. Model: Victoria Dagger, corset: Pop Antique.

In a word: No.

If you’ve not yet come across the corseted x-rays of which I speak, you can take a gander at the article in current circulation here: X-ray images of women in corsets show skeletons in a bind

Corseted X-Rays from "Le Corset," 1908.

Corseted X-Rays from “Le Corset,” 1908.

Personally, I see these images as aesthetically interesting (and lovely), and not a point of contention or alarm, but they seem to have folks all up in arms about corsets all over again.

The corsetwearing community has been decrying the images as faked to varying degrees, but Lucy (of Lucy Corsetry) delved into the source material to clarify.  I recommend reading the full post: X-rays from “Le Corset” (1908) Explained.  Some salient points:
-The images are from a doctor who was seeking to compare the effects of Victorian and Edwardian straight-front corsets, particularly on ribs 9-12 (looking, of course, to find in favor of the Edwardian style).
-The doctor admits that the Victorian corset is actually being worn too high on the waistline, which contributes to the level of rib compression.
-Despite her daily corset wearing, it is admitted that the woman being studied is in good health.
-The 2D x-ray is distorted since it is a projection of a 3D form.  (Sound familiar?)
-To those wondering why the whalebone and binding show up the way they do, they used suture in the binding and treated the whalebone (baleen)

A vintage illustration illustrating a rib cage "deformed by tight corseting."

A vintage illustration illustrating a rib cage “deformed by tight corseting.”

A t-shirt corset referencing the above illustration.  Model: Chrysalis Rose, Corset: Pop Antique.

A t-shirt corset referencing the above illustration. Model: Chrysalis Rose, Corset: Pop Antique.

So now we have a bit of background information with which we can look at these images.  Time for some anatomy!  First and foremost, our rib cages are supposed to be flexible, that’s why they attach to our sternums (breastbone) with costal cartilage.  On women in particular, the shifting of our rib cages, organs, and pelvises is a biological imperative.  They are malleable and shift considerably throughout the course of pregnancy (and childbirth!), but they are also capable of springing back.  In the case of corset wearing, the ribs generally return to their usual position once the corset has been removed.  In the case of pregnancy, a corset can actually help your body return to its pre-pregnancy layout (but don’t ask me what a “double corset” is, as no corsetiere I know has yet been able to decipher what Jessica Alba was talking about…)  And in case you were wondering, no Victorian woman ever had a rib removed, at least according to Valerie Steele, a leading corset authority whose depth of knowledge I can only aspire to.

Don't be afraid to lace up and cinch down!  Model: Victoria Dagger; Photo: Joel Aron; Corset: Dark Garden.

Don’t be afraid to lace up and cinch down! Model: Victoria Dagger; Photo: Joel Aron; Corset: Dark Garden.

Full busted women may find a well-made corset more comfortable than a bra.  Model: Allie; Photo: Joel Aron; Corset: Dark Garden

Full busted women may find a well-made corset more comfortable than a bra. Model: Allie; Photo: Joel Aron; Corset: Dark Garden

Now let’s talk about posture and health.  High heels are probably more damaging than corsets, though many more women wear those on a daily basis with only a modicum of reference to the unhealthfulness of doing so.  (Charmingly, a 4’10″ colleague of mine and former gymnast is so used to her heels that when she walks barefoot she stands on tiptoe.  Her achilles tendon has probably been somewhat shortened, but I’m pretty sure she could still kick my ass.)  By comparison, corsets actually promote proper posture, something that seems to have fallen by the wayside in recent decades.  Complaining that you can’t slouch and hunch on your couch, and have to bend from your knees, in a corset designed for a very different individual, isn’t really the best argument for their lack of healthfulness, as in this absurdly biased video. (Scientific process?  What scientific process?)  Actually, some women, particularly those with full busts, find corsets more comfortable and supportive than bras.  That’s because the weight of your breasts is supported from your waist and hips, and more evenly distributed, and the corset is supporting (rather than straining) your back as well as your breasts.

My own uncorseted lumbar spine and ribs.  Yes, I have scoliosis, but different isn't necessarily bad as I seem to suffer no ill effects from either my scoliosis or corsetwearing.

My own uncorseted lumbar spine and ribs. Yes, I have scoliosis, but different isn’t necessarily bad as I seem to suffer no ill effects from either my scoliosis or corsetwearing.

Well-made corsets are great back support, large breasts or no.  They can assist in the correction of scoliosis and (from what I’ve heard) are more supportive and comfortable than your average medical back brace, to say nothing of the drugstore variety.  I even once fitted a woman with an impressive case of scoliosis who was desperate for a new corset because she missed her old medical brace.  But as someone who makes and wears corsets and has scoliosis, I don’t understand why we jump to the conclusion that any aberration is automatically a bad thing.  Yes, the corseted rib cage may look different.  Unless you have other hard medical evidence that there is a functional problem within the body caused by corseting, “looking different” is never going to be enough to convince me.  Tattoos and body piercing look different but that doesn’t make them automatically bad for us.  My scoliosis, though it seems dramatic to a layperson, is almost entirely cosmetic.  Its main (only?) health effect on me is perhaps a slightly decreased lung capacity, which doesn’t seem to prevent me from powering up and around the notorious hills of San Francisco on a daily basis, on foot.  Putting on a corset has positive short-term effects on my body symmetry, which makes it a net positive.  Actually, sometimes I’ve even found it easier to get through a long day or carry heavy groceries home with the help of my steel-boned friends.

The uncorseted spine and ribs of Autumn Adamme, owner of Dark Garden Corsetry.

The uncorseted spine and ribs of Autumn Adamme, owner of Dark Garden Corsetry.

The corseted spine and ribs of Autumn Adamme, owner of Dark Garden Unique Corsetry.

The corseted spine and ribs of Autumn Adamme, owner of Dark Garden Unique Corsetry.

Autumn Adamme, owner of Dark Garden Unique Corsetry, was kind enough to share her own x-rays (corseted and uncorseted) for this piece.  These were taken about four years ago; Autumn wore her first (Elizabethan style) corset when she was 10, and as you can see, she has a very healthy looking rib cage!  Autumn eats well, does yoga and pilates, and also has some circus training (notably aerial silks).  It’s a running joke that her age in photographs is indeterminate.  In short – corseting seems to have had no poor effects on her health.  Without going into Autumn’s age, she’s been running the business since 1989, so she’s had plenty of time to let all those corsets get the best of her, but I’ve yet to see evidence of it.  I asked her about another Victorian health concern commonly attributed to corsetry, one familiar to all who’ve seen the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie.  “Lack of ventilation combined with many, many layers of clothing” was the more likely reason Victorian women were notoriously fainting all the time, Autumn tells me and the occasional wary clients.

Many people find this cupped rib shape to be more "extreme" looking and assume it's uncomfortable, but it actually compresses the ribcage as minimally as possible.  Corset: Pop Antique, Model: Victoria Dagger, Photo: Karolina Marek

Many people find this cupped rib shape to be more “extreme” looking and assume it’s uncomfortable, but it actually compresses the ribcage as minimally as possible. Model: Victoria Dagger, Photo: Karolina Marek, Corset: Pop Antique

Ultimately, though, the effects and comfort of corseting vary person by person, corset by corset.  You may have seen the “we’re all the same” meme with the different skeletons, but that’s actually a blatant falsehood (or at least misleading).  Different regions absolutely have different body type trends evidenced in their skeletons, and different corsetmakers all have varied ideals of fit, reduction, posture, hip spring, rib compression, etc.  You have to find the corsetmaker that is right for you.  In my own experience, the waist shaping that looks most extreme to the public may actually be the most comfortable.  My corsets (Pop Antique) have a “cupped” rib shape which looks more extreme at a glance but actually minimizes compression to the rib cage.  Compare to English corsets, which tend to be cut for the demographically common narrow, conical rib cages.  One is not better than the other, just as a thong is not inherently better than a boy short.  It comes down to what works for your body and taste and finding the brand that serves you best.

Marianne

Marianne

Marianne Faulkner is the designer of Pop Antique, a clothing and corsetry line specializing in sustainable materials and comfortable curves. She is based in San Francisco where she earned her MFA in fashion design at the Academy of Art University, and has been a columnist at The Lingerie Addict since 2011.

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14 Comments

  1. 04/07/13 at 9:06

    Hi there, I loved this piece so much that I reposted it on my blog. I hope you don’t mind but I found it very informative! Have a great day! Nia.

    • 04/07/13 at 15:39

      Thank you for posting a link instead of copying and pasting the entire post! :-)

      –Cora

  2. Colleen
    04/07/13 at 13:48

    Hi Marianna,

    I’m a young woman whom recently discovered has scoliosis, to nearly the exact same degree as yours. The chiropractor that told me that by starting treatment at my young age, he could nearly completely correct the cure in my spine. He deemed my case a medical emergency (which scared the jeepers out of me), and said I shouldn’t have a problem getting my insurance to cover the cost of my treatment. I don’t make enough money to pay for the treatment on my own, and can not move forward with treatment if my insurance does not cover the cost (or at least most of the cost). My question to you is: How long have you been living with the knowledge that you have scoliosis? Have you ever undergone treatment like wearing a back brace? Have doctors told you it will progressively get worse if you don’t continue with any type of treatment? Do you currently undergo any type of treatment?
    My aunt has lived with scoliosis her entire life (she’s in her early 50′s). She has always lived an active life, only undergoing chiropractic treatment once probably 6 or 10 years ago. I use to dance, and as a result am a very flexible person (including my back) and practice good posture. I’m an active person myself (including light yoga and lots of stretching). I will undergo chiropractic treatment at some point in my life (when I have the money to put into it), but for now do what I can to keep my spine well cared for.
    What do you do to care for your spine? I would consider purchasing a corset to wear while working on the computer (I work a lot on the computer and would like to aid of something to ensure I keep myself sitting up straight), but do not have the money to be properly fitted for one.
    Thank you for listening, I just got a little excited to speak with someone about this. I have so many questions, and just really curious to see what you have to say based on your own experience with having a curved spine.
    Cheers!

    • 05/07/13 at 14:31

      I am not a doctor of any sort, so my first advice is definitely listen to medical professionals! However, my second piece of advice is to get a second opinion. Chiropractic care is awesome but it’s also notorious for pseudoscience (depending on who your chiropractor is and what elements of chiropractic they embrace): remember that chiropractors do not have the MD (medical doctor) title. What about your case was deemed a medical emergency? It doesn’t seem to cause you pain and discomfort, from your description.

      As for my own scoliosis, I am currently 26 and was diagnosed when I was perhaps 12. We were tested for it in school but they didn’t catch it; my 15 year old sister actually was the one who noticed. My family practitioner said my scoliosis was so slight as to be nearly undetectable, so he sent us to a specialist, who took x-rays and confirmed the diagnosis but said it was medically very minor. I had it double checked before I moved to San Francisco about 5 years ago and was again told that I had no need to worry.

      A year or so ago I began seeing a chiropractor (one who sticks to bone cracking to improve physical comfort and quality of life and not claiming unpopped bones are the cause of all diseases), who said that my particular case is mostly muscular, as opposed to structural, meaning that it could still be largely corrected. I was curious, and I liked the idea of my corsets fitting me more symmetrically. Her treatments did realign me temporarily but I didn’t have the funds to see her often or long enough to make much of a lasting difference. I have noticed that my lumbar spine seems a bit longer (more room to squish into corsets!), my rib cage a big bigger (or is that just the weight I’ve gained…?), breathing is a bit easier after I’ve had an adjustment, and my mobility is generally improved, though some of that may have more to do with my hunching over a computer or sewing machine so frequently than with my actual condition. So I had semi-regular chiropractic treatment for roughly 6 months. Given my own current circumstances, I am looking for a more affordable chiropractor, perhaps one that does sliding scale, much as I would like to remain loyal to the friend I was seeing before.

      A properly fitted corset is the only functional corset, in my opinion. Poorly made/fitted corsets cause discomfort, so not only do they not look good, but they don’t feel good and you won’t want to wear them, which makes them a bigger waste of money than the larger investment of a well-made corset. It seems that those with scoliosis often have more rigid bones/ribs, often with that boxy front-protruding rib cage shape. So that’s why I like the “cupped” rib shape and spiral bones down the front and side, because I experience aches and bruising if my front ribs are too compressed or have flat steels pressed against them. A strapped high-back corset will be the most supportive as it will keep the length of your back most upright and help prevent you from hunching your shoulders, but may not be necessary if you are already posture-conscious. An underbust is easier to wear on a daily basis. Most corset makers are happy to work out payment plans (half or a third of the corset’s price up front). Some may sell gift certificates, which you can buy frequently for whatever small amount of discretionary income you have available, and let them stack up until you have enough for a corset.

  3. Danielle Alistar
    04/07/13 at 17:54

    Thank you for writing this, I saw those pictures circling again with some rather hateful remarks on social media, and it just got my ire up. To me it was a case of 100+ year old data being held up as the authority on corsetting. It was time for those images to be examined, and debunked like most 100 year old ideology.

    • 05/07/13 at 19:26

      Exactly! Someone in one of the corset groups I follow said something along the same lines, it’s quite silly how people decide to cherry pick what bits of medical science/pseudoscience from 100 years ago they want to consider credible (for example, the notion of “hysteria” in Victorian women.)

  4. Bree
    05/07/13 at 11:11

    As someone who sells corsets for a living, I have fitted a number of women with scoliosis. Year after year, I have had return customers thank me “so much!” for turning them on to corsets. Medical braces for scoliosis are nearly (but not completely) identical to the steel boned corsets we see today. All of my repeat scoliosis customers have told me about better posture, comfort, and even increased air intake when laced up. I feel good being able to make these ladies look fabulous and feel good at the same time ;)
    The only health concern I can think of regarding corsetry is stem-waist training. This does move your organs around to positions that they arent intended to go to and, if done long enough, it can weaken lumbar and core muscles to where a stem-waisted corset must always be worn. This contributed to a whole heap of health problems in the Victorian age, including liver inflamation, bladder infections, and, of course, fainting from the pressure of the compression. Stem-waist training is how you can achieve the 18-14inch waists where the top section of the corset scoops or slopes under the ribs, the waist has flat boning that pushes organs up into the rib cage or down into the pelvis and turns the waist into a small cylander, and the bottom scoops or slopes over the hips. You can search for pictures by popping “stem-waist corset” into a search engine. The primary reason that these health issues were caused was that women would be overly ambitious about their waist training and would attempt to train down too much, too fast. Stem-waisted corsets CAN and ARE worn safely but they are very much for “advanced wearers” and not to be rushed into. Slow and steady makes for the best corset training ;)

  5. Megan
    05/07/13 at 16:58

    (Pssst! Autumn’s age is clearly printed on the xrays – but she shouldn’t care, she looks fantastic and her corsets are gorgeous. I love mine.)

  6. AlexaFaie
    05/07/13 at 17:10

    Bree, I’ve never seen a Victorian Stem-Waisted corset before. I was under the impression that it was a very much modern thing. I know Spook wore a 2″ pipestem at a 14″ waist size at one point, but she has since returned to more regular corsets at about 19-20″.
    I’m wondering if perhaps you are thinking of S-Curve corsets? As they did get used to lace tighter quicker whilst having been originally labelled as a healthier corset style.
    Its not at all easy to lace tightly in a pipestem corset as you have to reduce the ribcage in order to lengthen the waist line to be the same width for a longer length (unless you naturally have a long waist).

  7. 06/07/13 at 13:42

    Although the article is not about the images, I feel compelled to assert that he first image does NOT show a x-rayed corset. It shows an x-ray of a woman, with a corset painted on top of the image. It is a pretty image, but it’s useless in asserting the effects of corsets on the body (even for people who know what they are looking at anatomy-wise).
    The explanation that “-To those wondering why the whalebone and binding show up the way they do, they used suture in the binding and treated the whalebone (baleen)” is not credible. The bones extend past the binding. “Suture” is just intestines, used to stitch wounds. It would not make the binding show up, and it would not show up (certainly not like that) . Look at the line quality of the so-called “bones”. They are painted on, as is the binding, busk and eyelets.
    I’m certain that these images (the corset part) are fake. It’s stylized. The original source doesn’t matter, because almost every corset image I have ever seen from the 1900′s was painted over and “photoshopped”. Just because an image is “old” doesn’t mean it is credible. Anyone familiar with corset construction can see that the corset is simply painted on, by someone who does not understand how corsets are made. The bones would end before the binding, not overlap the binding. The bones in the front would be much thicker. These look like hanger wire. Whalebone (which is not bone at all) and binding would not show up at all. They are not “treated”. Treated with what? It’s a lovely image, but the corset is faked. In my eyes, that makes the “doctor” who used the image lose credibility, regardless of his “findings”, pro or con.
    To see the real effect of corsets on women’s bodies, we need only ask a properly corseted woman how she feels. Real, modern, unbiased genuine x-rays like Autumn’s, and other scientific observations are helpful as well.
    I agree with the author’s stance. A properly fitted, properly worn corset is not harmful to the health of a woman. People who claim that they are, simply don’t know what they are talking about. That’s as true now as it was in the 1800′s and 1900′s when anti-corset propaganda (often still foolishly sited as credible today, simply because it’s old) was at it’s peak.
    I consider myself somewhat of an authority on the subject, having made hundreds, of properly fitted tight-lacing corsets for people of all shapes, sizes and genders. Thank you for educating people about the realities of the effects of corsets on health and anatomy. Images like the first one used, while beautiful and interesting, are, however, counter-productive when assumed legitimate, even though most people have no idea what they are looking at anatomically, regardless of the corset, painted or real.

  8. Mimi
    06/07/13 at 17:38

    I’ve worn corsets regularly over the past 16, maybe 18 years, ever since I purchased my first custom-made Edwardian-style corset from Dark Garden, made by Autumn Adamme, herself. I now have a small collection that includes a DG-made waist cincher and a few mail-order corsets.

    I must say, I can wear the DG corset or waist cincher all day, and in fact am always a little sad when I remove it: it offers wonderful back/posture support, is indeed more comfy than a bra (I’m on the lighter end of full-figured). I never feel short of breath, and I can eat a full meal; the only challenge to wearing a properly fitted corset is not quite being able to unlace my boots—thus the moto of all corset wearers: “boots first!”

    I do have problems with the mail-order corsets: they pinch and rub under my arms and “side boob” area. Being they are designed for the average figure means they are all too short in torso length, so must be worn with a blouse/other garment for public modesty (they don’t cover my breasts enough), and I can wear a mail-order corset for only a couple of hours before I have to remove it, lest I get aches in my lower back/kidney area.

    You get what you pay for. I consider my inexpensive corsets costume pieces; my custom-made corsets are real clothing, and I love wearing them.

  9. Hello there, Most interesting article of recent xrays. However I might wish to point out a possible mis-conclusion some of your readers might make, in terms of this comment: “no Victorian woman ever had a rib removed, at least according to Valerie Steele, a leading corset authority whose depth of knowledge I can only aspire to.” While this may indeed be true of Victorian women, in modern times one male client of mine, and other men from the transgender community, have indeed had lower ribs removed. This is according to a tele-interview I had about six years about with Dr. Sheila Kirk who formerly did about nine of these surgeries. Even author Prof. David Kunzle was rather amazed when I called this fact to his attention.

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