Loose Women Don’t Wear Corsets

The corset

The corset

Plenty of women’s fashions restrict them — intended or not — whether we’re talking girdles, spiked heels, bound feet, or wearing curlers to bed (who can sleep?!)

And how about that corset?

This ubiquitous pre-20th-century garment was so tightly laced that organs could be pushed around. And they promoted lung disease. Those things were not comfy!

Despite the health risks, some 19th century doctors believed that women’s bodies were too weak to hold themselves up, so they needed the contraption. (Scientists of the time also thought that education shrunk a woman’s womb!)

The undergarment really restricted women’s lives.

And in fact, the earliest wearers were trying to convey the impression that they did not — and could not — work. Thereby displaying the family’s wealth. (In a time before you could just buy a Porshe.)

Chinese women once bound their feet for the same reason.

Bound feet

Bound feet

But whether Chinese or American, the lower classes mimicked upper-class style, making labor excruciating for anyone working with bound feet or waists.

Meanwhile, the garment created a “respectable sexuality.”

The lifted bust and narrowed waist accentuated bodily parts deemed sexual. But at the same time, women were all penned in — symbolic of being sexually restricted, or “respectable.”

Check out the definition for “straightlaced.”

  1. Excessively strict in manners and morals
  2. A tightly laced bodice

And where do you think the term, “loose woman” comes from?

Prostitutes didn’t wear corsets. They already stood outside respectable society, so why torture yourself when no one respects you, anyway?

I wonder if women thus grew habituated to being bound, body and soul?

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on January 6, 2016, in body image, feminism, psychology, sex and sexuality, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 46 Comments.

  1. I had no idea that’s where the term comes from, shame it still exists. Very interesting post, thanks for sharing.

  2. For clarification:
    – The correct adjective is strait-laced (‘strait’ meaning ‘tight’; similarly ‘strait-jacket’) that, as far as I can see, was not originally associated with a woman’s morality.
    – The origin of ‘loose woman’ is unlikely to have anything to do with corsets, and is more likely a reference to a woman who was not part of a man’s household, one way or another. See this discussion.

    It is a shame that culture over-emphasised the wearing of waist-tightening corsets at the cost of health. Free from Regency and Victorian conceits, people nowadays wear corsets for a variety of reasons, both for pleasure and as a health aid. See: Physical Benefits of Wearing a Corset.

    Of course, other cultures also create unhealthy restrictions by regulating clothing. It’s always interesting how the significance of clothing changes with time. Take chopines, the ultimate in high-heel fashion: Sixteenth-century accounts suggest that the chopine’s height was associated with the level of nobility and grandeur of the Venetian woman who wore them rather than with any imputation as to her profession.

    • Well, there’s actually more than one way to spell the word, you will see the word spelled the way I spelled it and defined the way I defined it, if you check the link.

      And you may find it hard to believe that the word came from the fact that prostitutes didn’t wear corsets, but an academic source that I discovered by way of an exhibit at the Smithsonian institution – says otherwise. You can find the book over on this post:
      https://broadblogs.com/2015/03/11/who-wears-the-pants/

      • Well, incorrect spellings often become acceptable alternative spellings, but the reason I emphasised ‘strait’ was because the origin of the meaning is clear. Strait-laced is tight-laced, and although in later centuries it had a moral dimension, the earlier meaning suggests inflexibility – which makes sense given the effect tight-laced corsets, etc., would have on posture and freedom of movement.

        I know nothing about prostitutes and corsets, and I don’t know what that book says about the origin of ‘loose women’, but unless it’s referring to customs prior to the seventeenth century, I don’t understand the relevance. It may be a retrospective definition invented for a familiar phrase.

        Under ‘loose’, the Oxford English Dictionary has this definition:
        “1749 J. Cleland Mem. Woman of Pleasure II. 9 The giddy, wildness of young girls once got upon the loose.”
        Here the meaning is unrelated to clothing, more to do with the women being uncontrolled.

      • Well, your source for the spelling is “phrases.org” and mine is the Merriam Webster dictionary. So which of those two is the incorrect spelling?

        Looking at the etymology your source was the “english.stackexchange” board where people share opinions as best they can, and mine was an academic source + Smithsonian Institution. So which is correct?

      • Well, your source for the spelling is “phrases.org” and mine is the Merriam Webster dictionary. So which of those two is the incorrect spelling?

        I chose that article because of the interesting commentary. If you want a robust reference… The OED doesn’t even accept ‘straight-laced’ as an alternative spelling, although ironically one of the oldest examples it gives uses ‘straight’.

        The OED also has a number of examples (various spellings) of ‘loose’ meaning ‘immoral’ (all applied to men, I think) and not obviously in connection to attire. I don’t know your source, so can’t comment on it.

      • Whatever. It’s just quibbling.

      • Perhaps, but the title of the blog post is “Loose Women Don’t Wear Corsets” and that really only makes sense to me in a 19th Century context. Both ‘strait-laced’ meaning ‘inflexible’ and ‘loose’ meaning ‘immoral’ go back at least to the 16th Century. Corsets, which evolved out of the earlier stays and bodices, became an unfortunately ill-designed fashion for a while, and I can believe that most 19th Century prostitutes would have found corsets too expensive and by-and-large impractical…

        However, this is interesting:
        “Dress played a great part in recognizing street-walkers, for otherwise it was hard to tell. ‘Walter’, the pseudonymous author of an 11-volume erotic memoir, wrote of a women holding up their skirts, ‘the common habit of even respectable women’. The only difference was prostitutes ‘hold them up just a little higher’. But how high was ‘a little higher’? To be sure, Walter had to approach, asking ‘Will you come with me?’ Only when she agreed, could he be certain.”
        http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/prostitution

      • I checked your sources on etymology and I didn’t see anything that clearly connected the word loose to people talking and referring to women as being loose, meaning having loose morals. And those people didn’t link to their sources either.

        You actually provide some strange sources.

        Like of corset seller who says they are good for your health. This is not a medical source, and the seller has something to gain by claiming this. But corsets are linked to a variety of health problems like pulmonary disease and shifting bodily organs around.

      • The brief definition of ‘loose’ given by the Online Etymology Dictionary (referenced from the discussion I linked to; there is a list of sources, but not a terribly useful one) seems mostly consistent with the detailed entry in the Oxford English Dictionary.

        Meaning No. A.7 in the OED is: “Of persons, their habits, writings, etc.: Free from moral restraint; lax in principle, conduct, or speech; chiefly in narrower sense, unchaste, wanton, dissolute, immoral.” Five uses of the word in this sense from the 16th Century are given; none appear to refer to women.

        Meaning B.1a, which I quoted earlier (Cleland, 1749, is the earliest instance quoted), is: “on (or upon) the loose: (a) (behaving) in an unrestrained or dissolute fashion; ‘on the spree’; (b) of women: living by prostitution; (c) gen. not tied down; not answerable to anyone.”

        Neither has anything to do with corsetry.

        I am not disputing the damage that corset can do. I have seen some profoundly disturbing pictures of internal organs having been shifted as a result of extreme waist training. It is easy, however, to find articles about medical use of corsets, especially in regard to spinal cord injury. What is stressed, however, is that such corsets are personalised and designed not to compress the rib cage.

        The corset seller’s page may be anecdotal, but it is suggestive of a number of therapeutic uses. And she does stress in several places that a doctor should be consulted.

  3. I didn’t know prostitutes didn’t wear corsets. I watch a lot of period drama, and prostitutes always wear corsets in those. I’m sure you must have discussed this, but many modern bra styles and materials are also said to cause various lung, heart, skin and spinal problems. Thankfully, there is a trend towards more comfortable styles in the past couple of years. More surprisingly, heels also seem to be losing their popularity/regularity. I think it was a couple of years ago when actress Emma Thompson threw hers away dramatically on stage when receiving an award, and since then I’ve seen more and more comfortable styles both in high fashion and for regular consumers. I’ve never been able to manage one, so I welcome the trend.

    In relation to this, I must share that Oscar Wilde wrote about looser, flowing styles in fashion for women back in the late 19th century. It was considered bold, and he received a lot of hate mail from both men and women, on moral, health and fashion grounds, but he kept on arguing for it.

    • Re “I watch a lot of period drama, and prostitutes always wear corsets in those.” I’m pretty sure I wrote another post on this topic that brought up the irony. The academic source I got this from says otherwise – I linked to the source in this post https://broadblogs.com/2015/03/11/who-wears-the-pants/

      I haven’t yet written about all the problems you mentioned above, but Sarah Jessica Parker’s feet look really horrible from wearing fashionable but high-heeled shoes so much. yetwritten about all the problems you mentioned above, but Sarah Jessica Parker’s feet look really horrible from wearing fashionable but high-heeled shoes so much. They are really unhealthy for both your knees.

      I’m glad Oscar Wilde worked to help free women! The fact that even women went against him gets back to my post on why women sometimes fight against their own rights – and comfort in this case https://broadblogs.com/2016/01/01/why-do-women-fight-their-interests/

      • About Sarah Jessica Parker, I read that she had to get help from an orthopaedic, who told her that some of the bones in her feet have gone to places they shouldn’t be in, as a result of her wearing heels for almost 16 hours daily year after year. However, there were fashion critics and viewers who objected her to wearing “normal” strappy, supportive bras with off-shoulder or low back tops and dresses. They did seem jarring for such a high fashion show, but I applaud her for not caring what people think.

      • I think she is trying to warn the public about something she didn’t know about shoes, too. Good for her.

      • It really is. And though that show promoted that lifestyle, it also saw the ironies in it, which many of the critics don’t get. It raised many, many relevant points about being a woman in the city in late 20th century, and wasn’t just a “women sitting around a table discussing men” show, which is what people often think of it as.

      • Yeah, you’re right. If they updated the show they would have to add conversations about torturous footwear.

  4. I was just watching Pirates of the Caribbean the other night, trying to explain corsets to my almost 11 year-old daughter as Elizabeth faints from having hers laced too tightly and then nearly drowns after falling in the water wearing it.

    Like a torture device!

  5. I had a 40yo friend many years ago whose two smaller toes were pushed onto her middle toe on each foot from wearing heels permanently. Wearing flats, slippers were agony for her. No fun watching her hobble with bare feet.

  6. as always, interesting and provocative! I am SO glad I wasn’t born in the corset days…

  7. Yet another way to compact a woman’s body into smallness while accentuating her sensual parts. I wonder how much holding of breath was required and dieting to fit into one of these. Seems to me the prostitutes got the better end of the deal when it came to wardrobe choices. Interesting that “loose” – unrestrained, freer, unfettered – comes with a negative connotation.

  8. Oddly enough, all the people I’ve talked with who said they do or want to wear corsets are men. I can’t think of a single woman who has ever expressed such a desire.

    That probably says more about the crowd I run with online (crossdressers and fetishists of assorted flavors) than actual demographic trends that could be applied across a broader (heh) range of the population.

    • I actually do know of some women who like the idea of wearing them from time to time. They have become a symbol of sexuality, and as a society we do value sexy women – whether you are a woman or a cross-dresser. In my opinion it is too bad that something so torturous has become a symbol of sexiness. And it is interesting, and probably quite telling – revealing about our culture – that it has.

  9. Its scary to think that those painful girdles are making a come back because of celebrities like Kim Kardashian. I wonder if women who buy into this product realize what girdles can do to the human body (as you mentioned above). The fashion industry is taking things too far. These magazines’ photoshopping have also created the misconception of what a beautiful woman’s shape should look like. By doing so women look at their own bodies and see themselves as fat, or not curvy enough & look up to these unreasonable standards that are being presented to us by the media.

  10. I never heard the term before that “loose women don’t wear corsets.”But I don’t wear a corset but I wear a girdle every day. Because I don’t want to jiggle, It bothers me to see women where their butt claps, it’s called it booty clap or but dance twerk. There’s videos and now classes to show women how to make there behind clap. To me that is very distasteful, so while wearing a girdle it makes this impossible. Anyway some might feel that is sexy to not make it c lap per say but just jiggle like it wants to clap and to me that’s what it looks like from behind. So I have a 23 year old daughter who loves to wear leggings like they are pants, and you can see everything in those. So maybe I won’t call all women necessarily loose women so to speak. I was always taught to bind it up, and when you don’t you might hear a phrase like “It must be jelly cause jam don’t shake like that.”

    • You’ve probably never heard the term “loose women don’t wear corsets” before because I don’t think anyone actually says that. It’s just the title I used for this blog post. The term that you are more likely to have heard is, “She’s loose.” Meaning, she has sex with a lot of men. But thanks for your thoughts on this.

  11. Well I know it makes stomachs look less full. I did not know it was to make a women that was not a prostitute look good. I always thought that all woman of the time used those things. I know that now people use it to work out to make their waists actually shrink while they are loosing the fat around it. I thought it was just a quick way to make a smaller waist. It does have really bad side effects if used in correctly, for example if you wear it for too long depending on what kind of product you bought (the stringy one, of the one made completely out of latex) it can make your organs do something that they should not. It can actually help you while working our, of course it is making your organs move closer together, but it does make the process a lot faster. It is also worn under a lot of costumes.

    • I had thought it was just to look skinnier, too. But women who didn’t wear them are considered to have loose morals. Because in order to have good morals Women need to be penned in, Apparently.

  12. This is one of those things that people did that we look at today and wonder why the heck anyone put up with it. However, we see that today people, especially women, are still subjected to these types of uncomfortable styles of fashion. An example of this would be high heels. As an active male, I have wondered about whether I would put up with wearing high heels if I was a woman. I always thought they seemed very uncomfortable and total knee and ankle killer, which would hinder my athleticism. So, the athletic side of me says no, but to go to fancy parties and other events, especially being short, high heels can be expected to be worn. Granted, high heels do not have any moral or monetary status, so it is a better trend than the corset, that is for sure. However, you never see men having to wear such accessories to “fit in” with society.

    My art teacher put the act of bounding chinese women’s feet well, saying how it was a status symbol of being so wealthy that you do not have to walk. To me, this almost seems like a way for society to control women who may have otherwise had some power due to their wealth. Since they could not be oppressed by lack of money, they were instead oppressed by having their physical qualities mutilated and handicapped. You can bet your a** that the bounding of feet led to all sorts of joint and back problems, basically completely handicapping them.

  13. Interesting where those terms came from. I don’t even like wearing a bra half the time so I cannot imagine wearing a corset all day long.

  14. ​I knew that corsets were to hold women’s body up and to give the illusion of a certain look under all the fabric the ladies wore back then, but I didn’t realize that the theory of women being too weak to hold themselves up was the reason it was made. So even with fashion men were able to control women and the way they thought in terms of looks. It’s been worn so much that most women today still find that that’s a proper way to stand and look. I recall in the 60’s when women took a stand against bras and I never understood that, I aways thought of bras as a way of support for our breasts. But I can understand now, just like how women back then who didn’t wear corsets were said to have no morals, the bra has only just replaces the corset in it’s looks but is still a symbol of the restriction of women freedom.

  15. This was insightful, I started without any true knowledge of the corset besides the function of shrinking the abdomen. It’s interesting to consider how the corset affected women beyond the physical aspect. But just like other fashions and trends that have come and gone, I believe that the idea of a corset still is apparent today. Instead of the traditional corset, there are things today as body slimmers or body shapers, which like the corset before is to give this image of a slimmer tone to the abdomen area, but instead of it being tied (and that’s not to say that some people don’t use corsets because a few of my friends still use them, more for fashion of course than the actual application) they can be made of stretchy material where it still can go around the waist but still hold on tight to keep the desired shape. So while society itself has seemingly moved on from the physical corset, doesn’t mean the intention isn’t visible in many other products.

  16. That’s how the term “loose” women came about! Very interesting to know. I like corsets. I like them more for play and could not imagine having to wear them all the time. Although I like corsets, I think it is ridiculous that women used to be expected to wear them. I agree that corsets and binding feet encourage and “restrict” women. When one is wearing a corset or has their feet bound they certainly can not work or even move well. They become dependent on others (most likely men) to take care of them. Feet binding and corsets make me think of women clothing today. I think of women trying to squish themselves in clothes or shoes that might be a bit to small. They try to shove themselves into small clothing because according to society it is good to be small. Women are still binding themselves.

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