The x-rays collected below come from Dr. Ludovic O’Followell’s Le Corset (1905–1908), the first volume of which contains an abridged history of the garment, the second, a medical evaluation of its safety. A columnist for the deluxe corsetier’s magazine Les Dessous Elégance, the French doctor was responding to a nineteenth-century backlash against bound support, the most extreme elements of which castigated women seeking a “wisp waist” as criminals with perverted taste, who intentionally harmed their childbearing abilities for the sake of vanity.
The birth of the modern corset tracks the rise of courtly manners in Europe. But the advent of metal eyelets in the 1820s and 30s, which allowed for tighter cinching, unleashed a social panic that led to the garment’s decline. From the late 1860s through the early 1890s, The Lancet published scores of articles decrying the corset’s effects on organ health, costal breathing, and rib structure. Moralizing fiction writers found a new cause. Guy de Maupassant’s short stories, for example, are full of attacks on women wearing deforming corsets: Madame Dufour of “A Country Excursion” can “hardly breathe”, her corset forcing “her superabundant bosom up to her double chin”, while the titular “Mother of Monsters” of 1883’s “La Mère aux monstres”, pregnant and bound in “a corset of her own invention, made of boards and cord”, “maimed the little unborn being, cramping it with that frightful corset”. Of course, there were real physical consequences to overtightening, especially for those forced into corsets before adulthood. Yet, as Valerie Steele has argued, some of the social reformers against the corset had alternative agendas, masking an attack on female self-expression as a public health initiative. “By simultaneously constructing an image of irreproachable propriety and one of blatant sexual allure”, writes Steele, “the corset allowed women to articulate sexual subjectivity in a socially acceptable way”.
In 1902, shortly before Dr. Ludovic O’Followell published the first volume of Le Corset, Dr. Phillippe Maréchal, “one of the best known ladies’ doctors in Paris”, proposed a law banning women under the age of thirty from wearing corsets — punishable by three months imprisonment — that would force corset vendors to track the name, age, and address of all customers. As a skeptical Los Angeles Herald reporter summed up: “In short, he claims that women’s dress has caused a frightful physical deterioration in the human species.” In response to these debates, Dr. O’Followell first modified the materials of various corsets, so that their features would be expressed through radiography, and then imaged both the bodies of the healthy and those who “abused” the garb. His conclusion, distilled in the second volume’s preface, is that a “harmless corset, the ideal corset, at least medically speaking, can exist”. Yet O’Followell’s treatise also reveals the garment’s potential effects on the thorax, liver, intestines, and other organs vital to life if worn to extremes or from childhood. In a curious detail, it seems x-rays were penetrating corsets within two years of their discovery, with the Queen of Portugal supposedly asking for images of how her organs were arranged while wearing one.
June 18, 2013