Tightlacing (also called corset training) is the practice of wearing a tightly laced corset. It is done to achieve cosmetic modifications to the figure and posture or to experience the sensation of bodily restriction.
The most frequent aim of tightlacing is a slim waist. Depending on the silhouette desired, the shape of the ribcage may be altered as well. Wearing a corset can also change the bustline, by raising the breasts upwards and shaping them, flattening the stomach, and improving posture. The shape of the waist and breasts can be complemented by the shape and design of the corset offering a range of different shapes.
Due to actual, waistline-reducing, steel bone corsets no longer being as common as they used to be in the Victorian and Edwardian era, modern day shapewear as well as fashionable lingerie such as "fajas" (rubber cinchers), bustiers and basques are purposefully marketed as "corsets". These are not true corsets and cannot be used for tightlacing. Trying to use such items can result in pinching, bruising, pain and discomfort. Elastic waist cinchers, bustiers and basques may have very few plastic bones (sometimes none), hook and eye fastening and stretchy of flimsy polyester or latex material. Occasionally a steel busk is used in bustiers and basques to imitate the appearance of an actual corset, however, due to the use of lower quality plastic bones, a high waist reduction is not really possible in these articles of clothing.
Corsets were first worn by male and female Minoans of Crete, but did not become popular again until during the 16th century and remained a feature of fashionable dress until the French Revolution. These corsets were mainly designed to turn the torso into the fashionable cylindrical shape although they narrowed the waist as well. They had shoulder straps; they ended at the waist; they flattened the bust and, in so doing, pushed the breasts up. The emphasis of the corset was less on the smallness of the waist than on the contrast between the rigid flatness of the bodice front and the curving tops of the breasts peeking over the top of the corset.
The corset then went into eclipse. Fashion embraced the Empire silhouette: a Graeco-Roman style, with the high-waisted dress that was unique to this style gathered under the bosom. The waist was de-emphasised, and dresses were sewn from thin muslins rather than the heavy brocades and satins of aristocratic high fashion.
The reign of the Empire waist was short. In the 1830s, shoulders widened (with puffy gigot sleeves or flounces), skirts widened (layers of stiffened petticoats), and the waist narrowed and migrated towards its "natural" position. By the 1850s, exaggerated shoulders were out of fashion and waistlines were cinched at the natural waist above a wide skirt. Fashion had achieved what is now known as the Victorian silhouette.
In the 1830s, the artificially inflated shoulders and skirts made the intervening waist look narrow, even with the corset laced only moderately. When the exaggerated shoulders disappeared, the waist itself had to be cinched tightly in order to achieve the same effect. It is in the 1840s and 1850s that tightlacing is first recorded. It was ordinary fashion taken to an extreme.
Young and fashionable women were most likely to tightlace, especially for balls, fashionable gatherings, and other occasions for display. Older, poorer, and primmer women would have laced moderately – just enough to be decent.
The Victorian and Edwardian corset differed from earlier corsets in numerous ways. The corset no longer ended at the waist, but flared out and ended several inches below the waist. The corset was exaggeratedly curvaceous rather than cylindrical. It was also much sturdier in construction, thanks to improvements in technology. Spiral steel stays curved with the figure rather than dictating a cylindrical silhouette. While many corsets were still sewn by hand to the wearer's measurements, there was also a thriving market in cheaper mass-produced corsets.
In the late years of the Victorian era, medical reports and rumors claimed that tightlacing was fatally detrimental to health (see Victorian dress reform). Women who suffered to achieve small waists were also condemned for their vanity and excoriated from the pulpit as slaves to fashion. It was frequently claimed that too small a waist was ugly rather than beautiful. Dress reformers exhorted women to abandon the tyranny of stays and free their waists for work and healthy exercise.
Despite the efforts of dress reformers to eliminate the corset, and despite medical and clerical warnings, women persisted in tightlacing. In the early 1900s, the small corseted waist began to fall out of fashion. The feminist and dress reform movements had made practical clothing acceptable for work or exercise. The rise of the Artistic Dress movement made loose clothing and the natural waist fashionable even for evening wear. Couturiers like Fortuny and Poiret designed exotic, alluring costumes in pleated or draped silks, calculated to reveal slim, youthful bodies. If one didn't have such a body, new undergarments, the brassiere and the girdle, promised to give the illusion of one.
Corsets were no longer fashionable, but they entered the underworld of the fetish, along with items such as bondage gear and vinyl catsuits. From the 1960s to the 1990s, fetish wear became a fashion trend and corsets made something of a recovery. They are often worn as top garments rather than underwear. However, most corset wearers own a few bustiers or fashionable "authentic" corsets for evening wear; they do not tightlace. Historical reenactors also wear corsets, but few tightlace.
A typical training routine begins with the use of a well-fitted corset and very gradual decreases in the waist circumference. Lacing too tight too fast can cause extreme discomfort and short-term problems such as shortness of breath and faintness, indigestion, and chafing of the skin if a liner is not worn. Lacing too tight or too fast can irreversibly damage a corset and they should be seasoned appropriately.
The primary effect of tightlacing is the decreased size of the waist. The smallest waist recorded is that of Ethel Granger, who tightlaced for most of her life and achieved a waist of 13 inches (33 cm): a reduction of over ten inches. Such extreme reductions take a very long time to achieve. At first, corsets with waist measurements four inches smaller than the tightlacer's natural waist size are recommended. The length of time it will take a tightlacer to get used to this reduction will vary on his or her physiology; a large amount of fat on the torso and strong abdominal muscles will mean that it takes longer for the tightlacer to wear their corset laced closed at the back. Thereafter, reducing another couple of inches is not much more difficult, but each inch after a six-inch reduction can take a year to achieve.
The diminished waist and tight corset reduce the volume of the torso. This is sometimes reduced even further by styles of corset that force the torso to taper towards the waist, which pushes the lower ribs inwards. As a consequence, internal organs are moved closer together and out of their original positions in a way similar to the way that a pregnant woman's expanding uterus causes the organs to be displaced.
The volume of the lungs diminishes and the tightlacer tends to breathe intercostally – that is, with the upper portion of the lungs only, rather than the whole (see shallow breathing). Intercostal breathing is what gives the image of "heaving bosoms". Due to the lower portion of the lungs being used less there is often a stereotype of mucosal build-up there; a slight and persistent cough is the sign of the body trying to clear this (and might also have led to the Victorian hypothesis that corsets caused tuberculosis).
The liver is pressed upwards. As it continually renews itself, it adapts to fit its new position, and in a long-term tightlacer it can develop ridges where it rests against the ribs. It is also possible that tightlacing exacerbates the tendency of some livers to develop accessory lobes, to the point where the accessory lobe becomes as large as the main portion of the liver. The point where the lobe and liver connect can be quite thin, and again, this might have led to one of the Victorian myths about tightlacing: that a tightlacer can wear her corset so tight that it "cuts" her liver in half.
The compression of the stomach reduces its volume, and tightlacers find that eating too much gives them indigestion and heartburn; foods like carbonated drinks and beans can easily cause trapped wind. The compression of the intestines can cause constipation that usually resolves upon removal of the corset. Many tightlacers will alter their diet in order to avoid these problems, for example going from three large meals a day to six smaller meals.
- Empress Elisabeth of Austria aka Sissi (49-50 cm)
- Polaire; about 1914; 13–14 inches (33–36 cm)
- Cathie Jung; 2006; 15 inches (38 cm)
- Dita Von Teese; 16.5 inches (42 cm)
- Violet Chachki; 18 inches (46 cm)
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