Wednesday, January 27, 2010

scientific inquiries into the healthiness of the corset

Last month I posted a drawing concerning the altered arrangement of organs while wearing a corset:

An anonymous reader recently responded to my implication that corsets may cause internal damage by saying:
While corsets do rearrange your organs, it is no more harmful than pregnancy really, which does the same thing but in a different configuration and with more hormones. (and a baby...)

Organs are designed to be able to move around a bit, and the only thing that can happen internal organ wise if corsets are worn too tight for too long, is that the liver can end up with a groove through the middle from where the ribs press against it. It doesn't seem to impair function any though.
The reader then pointed me to the source of this image: a study conducted by Robert L. Dickinson and published in The New York Medical Journal on November 5, 1887, entitled: "The Corset: Questions of Pressure and Displacement."   It's an intriguing (albeit, long) article, not only on the history of corsets and its possible pressure on the human body, but also a rare view into the nature of scientific inquiry and the era's knowledge of the female body.

The history of the corset appears, to the researcher, to go back to ancient Greece with the use of girdles, disappear for a while and then reappear in the 16th century.  After the French Revolution they became more like the standard of corset Dr. Dickinson and his contemporaries were familiar with.  He then makes the claim that lacing was tighter at the beginning of the 19th century than at the present (1887), and some deaths were hemorrhaging caused by too much pressure on the body.

In order to determine how much pressure corsets actually exerted on the female body, he tested an experimental group of women by measuring their natural waist size, their artificial waist size with a "loose" lacing of a corset, and their artificial waist size with a "tight" lacing of a corset.  He also slipped the bag of a manometer under the corset before lacing to measure the pressure caused by wearing the corsets with specific lacings.  What is a manometer?
Manometer image source: Corset Patents.
 The square shaped "bag" at the end of the tube is placed under the corset, which forces a mixture of water and mercury to shoot up the measuring scale, indicating how much pressure is exerted with the lacing.
 How does a manometer measure corset pressure?
The total pressure exerted by a given corset is obtained as follows: The areas of like pressures are chalked out on the corset by shifting the bag about under the corset, and testing at every move with the manometer.   Knowing the number of square inches in an area and the number of pounds of pressure to the square inch, the pressure exerted on that area is found; adding the pressures in the various areas together gives us a total.   This is by no means absolutely accurate, but furnishes a tangible figure.   This estimate errs on the side of too low pressure by entirely leaving out of account the pressure below the crest of the ilium laterally and posteriorly.
The researcher admits that the terms "loose" and "tight" are not accurate, professional terms with specific definitions, and that much of the determination of the tightness of a lacing was based on what the subjects themselves said were "loose" and "tight."  Some other problems with the experiment includes lack of restrictions on test subjects.  It would have been more accurate, at least to my 21st century mind, for the women to all be placed within test groups of a within a certain age, weight, height, and number of full-term pregnancies, along with the amount of time a woman actually wore a corset.  For example, Dickinson measured the pressure of two patients who were rather different from each other in childbearing and corset wearing habits, and weight and height were not taken into account at all, although waist size was.  His patients and his results are as follows:
X. Y., habit of tight lacing; four children; lax abdominal . wall; corset rather short. Circumference at waist without corset, 29 inches; circumference at waist over corset, 23½ inches; difference, 5½ inches. The total pressure of her corset is 65 pounds.

A. Z., vigorous, well built; one child eight years ago; has a strong abdominal wall; do not think she has worn tight corsets in some years, as she states; corset long. Waist measure without corsets 27 inches; waist measure over loose corsets, 27 inches; no difference. Pressure, 40 pounds.

Same patient, waist measure without corsets, 27 inches; waist measure over fairly tight corsets, 25½ inches; difference, 1½ inch. Pressure, 73½ pounds.

The patient X. Y. had a flabby abdominal wall from frequent pregnancies and constant corset pressure. The patient A. Z. has a muscular abdominal wall; she says she works at home without corsets. These facts explain the seeming discrepancy that in the first case, with 5½ inches of constriction, the pressure is 65 pounds, while in the second, with 1½ inch, it is 73½ pounds. In one the parts readily yield; in the other firm resistance is encountered.

Despite the research discrepancies, the woman unaccustomed to wearing a corset (A.Z.) experienced the most pressure, even though the one who usually wore corsets (X.Y.) had a lacing that was 4 inches greater than the first woman's "tight" lacing.
Dr. Dickinson also points out how corsets change the breathing patterns in women (while dispelling the idea that women naturally breathe differently) by constricting the lower part of the lungs.  Corsets also cause abdominal pressure while bending forward, which he speculates causes problems with the uterus.

His conclusions:
  1. The maximum pressure at any one point was 1.625 Pound to the square inch. This was during inspiration. The maximum in quiet breathing was over the sixth and seventh cartilages, and was 0.625 Pound.
  2. The estimated total pressure of the corset varies between thirty and eighty pounds—in a loose corset about thirty-five pounds, in a tight corset sixty-five pounds.
  3. Within half a minute after hooking the corset such an adjustment occurs that a distinct fall in pressure results.
  4. The circumference of the waist is no criterion of tightness. The difference between the waist measure with a and without corsets gives no direct clew either to the number of pounds pressure or to the diminution in vital capacity. Relaxation and habit seem to affect these factors largely.
  5. The capacity for expansion of the chest was found to be restricted one fifth when the corset was on.
  6. The thoracic character of the breathing in women is largely due to corset-wearing.
  7. The thoracic cavity is less affected by the corset than the abdominal.
  8. The abdominal wall is thinned and weakened by the pressure of stays.
  9. The liver suffers more direct pressure and is more frequently displaced than any other organ.
  10. The pelvic floor is bulbed downward by tight lacing one third of an inch (0.9 cm.).
Whether he recommends that women should or should not stick with corsets was a topic he failed to mention.  He did not seem to think they were a good thing, mainly due to the pressure they exert on some of the organ, but in typical researcher fashion Dickinson said that more questions that needed to be answered would be the subject of future study.

Thank you to my anonymous reader for bringing this article to my attention. You can read the article in its entirety here.

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