I first learned of the Rational Dress Society by watching a show on Youtube entitled, “The Deadly Fashions of the Victorians”. Not only did it discuss their love of lead paint, and of gas heat which was prone to explosions, and of baby bottle designs that were impossible to clean and were therefore bacteria factories, but it also went into detail about the wearing of corsets.
Corsets were in fashion for 500 years. Heaven knows why. They restricted breathing to the upper lungs, often causing the lower lungs to fill with mucus. There is a reason that women were often described as “breathless” or having a “heaving bosom”. Women practically had to hyperventilate to breathe in one of these contraptions. A recent study shows that a woman wearing a Victorian corset of the most extreme type from the 1860’s had to breathe 25% faster to avoid fainting. Women who wore corsets were prone to lung infections.
Further, corsets caused livers to be squashed upwards. Many Victorian livers, after autopsy, were shown to be deeply ridged as they attempted to push through the rib cages in a desperate search for enough space to function. Corsets pushed the stomach and abdomen down as well, and were the source of many a prolapsed uterus.
According to Wikipedia, some mothers forced corsets upon their daughters at very young ages, and this caused distorted bones. Sometimes women’s rib cages would crack and puncture their lungs, bringing about death by fashion. The strictest of mothers would force their daughters to wear corsets even at night, and some even resorted to tying their daughters hands or chaining their waists to prevent them from taking the corset off for a comfortable sleep.
The Rational Dress Society was founded in 1881 in England, to protest such harmful fashion. The members felt that a woman’s movement should not be impeded, her health shouldn’t be put at risk, and her figure shouldn’t be deformed. I have no doubt that I’d have joined this society, and gladly. I’m all about comfort. I haven’t even worn heels in decades, and can’t imagine that I ever will again. The society also spoke out against high heels, and any clothes that were heavy for any reason other than warmth.
The RDS wasn’t promoting radical fashion changes. They just believed in comfort and convenience, and perhaps a style that wouldn’t render the wearer sterile. Was that too much to ask? Some of the most ardent members of the society were women cyclists, who wanted freedom of movement to cycle, as riding a bicycle was “an opportunity to escape overly restrictive societal norms.”
Unfortunately, the existence of this society didn’t seem to alter the popularity of the corset. It continued to be worn into the early 20th century. What seemed to bring about the change was a combination of things. The hobble skirt came into fashion, and it required a wider waist. In exchange, ironically enough, it severely restricted the legs. That fashion got women out of the habit of wearing corsets for about 6 years, which was the beginning of the end for corsets.
But the thing that really took the corset down was something I love: The fact that women were finding their voices. They were learning to speak out as suffragettes, and when they got the vote for women in 1920’s America, they found the time to look up and say, “I don’t want to be uncomfortable anymore!”
Good on them! We owe those suffragettes a debt of gratitude not only for getting women the vote, but also for taking our bodies back. That is why I look on in horror when I hear girls today complaining about the size of their waists.
I think the Rational Dress Society would be proud of me, sitting here in my t-shirt and baggy shorts and bare feet. No woman should ever be restricted in any way! Never again.
Now is the perfect time to stay at home, uncorseted, and read a good book. Try mine! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5