…The corset of our great grandmothers and even further back was a masterpiece of functional design. It operated on three levels- mechanical, aesthetic, and moral. “The corset,” wrote Thorstein Veblen, the foremost portraitist of the leisure class, under the category of “exemption form labour,” :
…it also adds a peculiar and highly characteristic feature which differs in kind from anything habitually practiced by the men. This feature is the class of contrivances of which the corset is the typical example. The corset is, in economic theory, substantially a mutilation, undergone for the purpose of lowering the subject’s vitality and rendering her permanently and obviously unfit for work. It is true, the corset impairs the personal attractions of the wearer, but the loss suffered on that score is offset by the gain in reputability which comes of her visibly increased expensiveness and infirmity. It may broadly be set down that the womanliness of woman’s apparel resolves itself, in point of substantial fact, into the more effective hindrance to useful exertion offered by the garments peculiar to women. This difference between masculine and feminine apparel is here simply pointed out as a characteristic feature.
The natural outline of the female waist, unredeemed by art, was not savory enough for man. It was the corsetiere’s business to attack the aesthetic problem at its roots by bending women’s bones into an alluring shape.
The whalebone corset marked an advanced technique of disfigurement. Although this mechanism, with its stays and ribbons, was a come-down from the all-metal corset, the results were complex enough. Not only did the corset claw into the flesh, it played havoc with the inner organs by displacing them, eventually leading to a number of ailments. Occasinally, it caused miscarriages. On the credit side was the heightened seductivenes of the wearer, her embraceability, so to speak: the pressure applied to the waist produced the desired simultaneous inflation of the chest and buttocks, and the latter could be further accentuated by the bustle.