Must one suffer in order to be beautiful?
This is a question that Sip of Culture previously explored to find out where the belief that beauty is pain comes from. Although women no longer wear corsets like they once used to, this item of clothing still remains the first thing that our minds conjure up when we think of suffering for the sake of beauty.
To learn more about the corset and what remains of it today, I reached out to the historian Henric Bagerius. Working as a Senior Lecturer in History at Örebro University in Sweden, he researches the interplay between politics, body, and sexuality. What is more, he is the author of War of the Corsets: Fashion Slavery and Women’s Struggle at the Turn of the Last Century.
In 2019, you published Korsettkriget (War of the Corsets), exploring women’s struggles in relation to fashion. As a historian and researcher, what drew you to this topic?
I wanted to write a book on the early women’s rights movement in Sweden and discovered that different notions of the corset gave me an excellent opportunity to explore the complexity of femininity in the late 19th and early 20th-century society. I found that women’s bodies and clothes were used as symbols in heated debates that both confirmed and challenged the values of that era. The corset was turned into an ideological battlefield on which ideas clashed against each other.
Why and how did the corset – a single item of clothing – trigger debate in Sweden in the late 1800s?
In hindsight, it is obvious that the debate was about more than just the corset itself. Women’s bodies became part of a discussion that was about so much more than waistlines. By talking about clothing, it was possible to both question and maintain the balance of power between women and men in private and public life.
Conflicting interpretations of what it meant to be a woman in a more equal and democratic Sweden were tried against each other. How should a woman act? How should she not act? So, the war of the corsets was about something much bigger than just a small garment. The corset became a catalyst, triggering debates on power, gender, class and identity. On personal freedom and social responsibility. On slavery to fashion and women’s rights.
What did doctors at the time believe about this undergarment?
Late 19th century doctors talked a lot about the corset. Some claimed it was dangerous and harmful to women. It was said to cause everything from indigestion to cancer. Others described it as wholesome. The corset offered support and straightened the back, especially for women who were weak.
The arguments were not all based on medical science. Those who wanted to get rid of the corset could sometimes overstate its disadvantages. Others just thought it was completely natural that women required different clothes from men because their bodies were different.
The reason for the intense discussions on the corset in the late 19th century was that doctors were looking for new subjects to study. Women’s bodies suddenly became a scientific object, something in which a doctor could become an expert and something to examine, treat and operate on.
Although many opposed the corset, not all women were against it. In your opinion, can this be owed to the widely-held belief that one must suffer in order to be beautiful?
Yes, partly. Certainly, there were women in the late 19th century who thought that they needed to have a tight-laced waist in order to be seen as beautiful by others. There still are. In 2019, Kim Kardashian went to the Met Gala in New York wearing a corset so tight that she was not able to sit when she had it on. Later, she told a magazine that she had never experienced such pain before. But, as she put it, “it was worth it all”.
Other women used the corset to explore their own bodies and, in a way, free themselves from the strict morality of society. Putting on a tight corset and being on display gave women a sense of desire and being desired. The corset allowed women to explore notions that were otherwise seen as unsuitable.
Fashion and women’s rights have changed tremendously since the 19th century. What, if anything, is left of the corset today?
Quite a bit, I would say. The heavy dresses, stiff corsets, and clunky bustles that women used to wear in the late 19th century may seem strange to us nowadays. They even wore a corset under their bathing suits! But if we only focus on things we find strange in fashion history, we risk overlooking important connections between the past and the present: how the body as such is perceived.
Does the ideal body really look all that different today compared to the late 19th century? Surely, fitness routines, shapewear, and plastic surgery show that there are still plenty of women who want to shape their bodies? From my point of view, the modern-day corset sits inside of our bodies and is made of muscles. The ideal body still has a firm and slender figure, although it is achieved in a different way. So, all things considered, what is the difference?
The Museum of Women’s History in Umeå, Sweden is now holding an exhibition titled War of the Corsets – fighting to shape femininity at the turn of the last century.
The exhibition will run until April 24th.