What Hollywood Gets Wrong About Corsets, and How the Victorians Actually Got a Tiny Waist

When most people think of corsets, the words suffocation, fainting and shifting organs come to mind. The general consensus is that Victorian women were either all incredibly tiny, or that they went to extremely dangerous lengths to achieve the highly exaggerated signature silhouette of the era — the hourglass figure of 34-26-36. This notion was certainly backed by Hollywood, where we normally see women of that time period being laced up so tightly they can barely breathe. First things first: Some women did reduce their waste size through the use of corsets, but that only worked for those who had a larger, softer body type. People with more athletic or thin body types wouldn’t be able to get much of a reduction in their waistline — certainly not without much effort, pain and discomfort. That’s something that Hollywood often misrepresents. Then there was augmentation — why cinch when you can stuff, right? This involved putting on a corset that was pre-padded at the hips and bust, which gave the woman the ability to breathe and move easily. From there, women would add in frills, fluffs, bustle and petticoats to get to the desire ratio. Next there was illusion — puffy sleeves, elongated shoulder lines, shoulder padding, special jackets, coats and belts — all to trick the eye into seeing a specific shape. Finally, there was image manipulation. You might think Photoshop is a new concept, but the ability to manipulate an image has been around almost as long as photography itself. Everything from waste shape to facial features and skin texture could be altered. In conclusion, Victorian women were not impossibly small. They were simply masters of illusion who created a mirage so convincing that we still believe it today.