“So in studying the human figure we must have a standard of grace and beauty with which to compare the abnormal figure.”

Further to “Fish-wives, savages and the curse of Eve”, here comes part 2 of “Dress and its Relation to Health”, from the Ladies’ Handbook of Home Treatment, Melbourne, 1905.

Ladies Handbook of Home Treatment book cover

What can it be then that causes us to fall so far behind our humble sisters in physical strength and endurance? We believe it is our pernicious mode of dressing.

If we have never done so before, let us pause and carefully consider the question. Do we clothe our bodies healthfully, or in a manner that constantly robs us of strength and energy? As wives and mothers, great responsibilities rest upon us. We owe it to our families as well as to ourselves to maintain our bodies in the best possible condition in order that we may discharge our God-given responsibilities faithfully and well.

So far as dress is concerned, most of us have followed the customs of our fore-mothers without once considering whether or not these customs were wise and good.

It is not necessary for us to dress just as our grandmothers did, nor are we obliged to follow blindly the dictates of Dame Fashion unless we choose. It is for us to consider, with open and unprejudiced minds, the question of dress; to decide for ourselves what is the most healthful, the most sensible, and the most becoming style of clothing, and then to adopt that style regardless of fashion’s fancies. We do not mean that we should have no regard for the wishes of our friends and loved ones. We should endeavour always to be clothed in such a manner as to render ourselves pleasing and attractive to them. In fact, we seldom need to be conspicuously out of fashion, while we clothe ourselves in accordance with the laws of health.

Let us now consider the conventional dress, studying particularly the part it plays in the causation of the diseases of women.


Tight clothing is always injurious to the body. It does harm in several ways, the amount of harm depending largely upon the part of the body constricted and upon the degree of constriction.

Any band applied tightly around an arm of leg does harm by interfering with the return of blood through the veins to the heart, and also by disturbing the local nerves; while a tight band or garment encircling the chest or abdomen does harm by disturbing the working of the vital organs as well as by interfering with the blood-vessels and nerves. We must admit, then, that the Chinese mother who foolishly binds her daughter’s feet does her a less injustice than the highly civilised mother who allows her daughter to wear tight bands and garments around the chest and waist. The Chinese women restrict a part of the body which is not essential to life; we hamper and constrict the very organs upon which life depends.

Let us now notice how tight clothing disturbs the organs in the chest cavity. The heart is located in the central part of the chest just a little to the left of the middle line. It is largely surrounded by the lobes of the left lung. The three lobes of the right lung occupy the space in the right side of the chest. It should be remembered that the lungs extend to the lower border of the ribs all around. Now if the clothing of the chest be tight, the ribs cannot be lifted during the inspiration of air, the lungs cannot properly expand, the intake of oxygen is limited, and the heart is crowded by the lung, and so embarrassed in its action. But what is the significance of these facts? What effect has this compression of the chest upon the individual’s health? It means that the woman is placed upon short rations of oxygen, that her whole system is starved for this life-giving principle. THe blood as it traverses every part of the body dispenses oxygen (which is brings from the lungs), and gathers up in its stead the gaseous wastes resulting from the constant wear and tear of the body. This poisonous gas is then conveyed to the lungs, where it is eliminated in the breath. Here the blood absorbs (in exchange for the wastes) a fresh supply of oxygen, and returns again on its circuit through the tissues. Now, if because of tight clothing the lungs are unable to expand properly, an insufficient quantity of oxygen is inhaled. Then the blood, instead of leaving the lungs well laden with life-giving oxygen, is obliged to return to the tissues some of the waste substances that should have been eliminated through the breath. The tissues of the body are thus constantly starved for oxygen, and at the same time poisoned with body wastes. If these conditions are long continued, the woman becomes weak and anaemic; she may also suffer with headache and insomnia.

We may now turn our attention to the abdominal organs, noticing how they are disturbed in their work by tight clothing. (Compare Figs. 102 and 103.) But first of all we must know something of the location of these organs.

Deformation of the internal organs attributed to corset-wearing.

The chest cavity is separated from the abdominal cavity by a dome-like muscle, the diaphragm, the concavity of this partition being toward the abdominal cavity. In the upper portion of the abdomen we find the stomach (on the left side) and the liver (on the right side). Both are partially covered by the ribs and a portion of the lungs. Just behind the stomach is the pancreas (one of the digestive organs), and still further to the left is the spleen. The kidneys are located at the back of the abdominal cavity, being partly covered by the ribs. In the central part of the abdomen is the small intestine (of which there is twenty feet), while the large bowel, or the colon, passes up on the right side, across the abdomen just below the border of the ribs, and down on the left side, where it terminates in the rectum.

Now, if a corset or tight waist-bands are worn, all the abdominal organs are displaced downward to a greater or less degree. Not only are they pressed downward, but they are crowded together in such a way that the relation of one to the other is greatly disturbed, and the circulation of the blood through them is hindered. The normal arrangement of the bodily organs is perfect.There is a place for everything, and everything in its place; but if this harmony be disturbed, disease is certain to result.

As the digestive organs are crowded out of their rightful position, they drag down lower and lower into the abdomen. The ligaments provided for the purpose of maintaining these organs in position are pulled upon until they become weak, relaxed, and practically useless. It is this constant drag that causes the heavy pain in the back so commonly complained of by women.

We might mention a few of the common disorders caused by the wearing of corsets and tight waist-bands. Dyspepsia in its varied forms is frequently brought about by improper clothing. In examining women patients, the physician often finds the stomach displaced to such an extent that its lower border reaches to the navel, or even several inches below it. When in its normal position, two-thirds of the stomach is under cover of the ribs, while its lower border is two or three inches above the navel. A stomach that is considerably displaced becomes also relaxed and dilated. As a result of these changes, the digestive process is retarded; food remains an abnormally long time in the stomach, and various unpleasant symptoms appear. Among these may be mentioned, flatulence, heartburn, acidity, return of food, pain, and a sense of heaviness in the stomach after meals. Women who wear tight clothing may develop all these symptoms even though their food be chosen and prepared with the greatest care. Various diseases of the liver may also be accounted for by the wearing of tight clothing. There may be a simple congestion of the liver caused by the corset as ordinarily worn; or, as in the case of tight lacing, the organ may be cut almost in two. It is a fact recognised by surgeons that gall stones occur much more frequently in women than in men. The disease is particularly prevalent among stout women, who naturally endeavour to reduce their figures by wearing corsets. The occurrence of jaundice may also be frequently accounted for by corset-wearing. An eminent physician who has made a special study of women’s diseases declares that even a loose corset exerts a pressure of thirty pounds upon the abdominal organs. It is this continuous pressure which displaces and weakens these vital organs, producing diseases most serious in their character.

Constipation is eminently a disease of civilised women. While improper diet has something to do with the causation of constipation, improper clothing plays a much greater part. The natural and regular movement of the bowels is largely dependent upon the strength of two classes of muscles, namely, the muscle fibres in the bowel itself and the external, abdominal muscles. The woman who wears a corset makes but little use of her abdominal muscles, as she depends upon the corset for support. As a result of this partial disuse, the abdominal muscles become weak and relaxed, the abdomen protrudes, and the bowels drag heavily in the abdominal cavity. If this condition is allowed to continue, constipation becomes chronic, the woman feeling that she is powerless to expel the bowel contents.

Not only are the abdominal organs disturbed by tight clothing, but the pelvic or reproductive organs as well. The pelvic cavity is situated just below the abdominal cavity. When the abdominal organs are displaced, they press down heavily upon the womb and ovaries, producing various displacements and congestion of these organs. These conditions are fully considered in the chapters on the Diseases of the Womb and Ovaries.

Thus far we have considered chiefly the internal derangements resulting from the wearing of improper clothing. We must not notice some of the external derangements; or, in other words, some of the physical deformities produced by tight garments and dragging skirts. In the study of deformities we must compare the abnormal structure with the normal, for it is only by so doing that we are enabled to determine the nature and extent of the deformity. So in studying the human figure we must have a standard of grace and beauty with which to compare the abnormal figure. What, then, shall be our standard? Shall we choose for our pattern the figures displayed in the fashion plates, or shall we adopt the Creator’s masterpiece as our standard of grace and beauty. Surely that which was pronounced by Him in the beginning as “very good” has not been improved by man’s devices. Even though disease and death have reigned so long, there is nothing in the world to-day more truly graceful than the normal, healthy woman whose form has been unmarred by Fashion’s hand. No sculptor has yet produced anything more beautiful than a representation of the natural form; no artist has yet discovered a subject more graceful than a perfect woman. We almost adore the natural figure as expressed in marble or on canvas, while we consider a real flesh and blood woman almost a monstrosity if she possesses a natural form. Let us for a moment notice the beauties of the natural figure. (See Fig. 104.)

The figure of a natural woman

The head is erect and well poised; the chest, full and round; the abdomen, straight; the back beautifully curved; the hips rounded and set well back; the limbs, graceful and well formed. The whole body is gracefully poised, the weight being forward upon the balls of the feet. Now glance at Fig. 105, which demonstrates better than words the deforming effect of improper clothing.

Figure of a woman deformed by corset-wearing

Notice that the head drops forward; the chest is sunken; the shoulders are rounded; the waist is small, and there is an ungainly protrusion of the abdomen below; the back has lost its graceful curve; and the hips are forward. The weight of the body rests upon the heels, a poise with is both ungraceful and fatiguing. These various deformities (for we can call them by no other name) may not all be present in each individual who wears a corset or other tight garments, but, as a rule, one or more of them are present. One has only to observe the women on a busy street or in a crowded shop, to be impressed with the commonness of these physical deformities.


Coming up: “The Harmfulness of Clothing the Body Unequally”, “Tight Collars, “Garters”, “Improper Boots and Shoes”, “Objections Which are Sometimes Offered to the Healthful Mode of Dress”, and “Combinations”.

Categories: Culture, education, gender & feminism, health, history

Tags: , ,

9 replies

  1. This book just keeps on getting more and more radical. What a find!

  2. That’s quite a bold decision to imply that Chinese foot-binding was less harmful and restrictive than wearing tight jeans. I wonder if the author was aware of the intricacies of how each bone in the foot is broken during the process, creating a hoof-like structure in the end. Hmmm, I suppose it is a toss-up though, tiny hoof-feet or tight pants, the debate may never be resolved.

  3. Women didn’t wear jeans in 1905, Becky. The author is referring to the practice of “tight lacing”, which was wearing a boned corset that laced up the back, with the laces being pulled until the waist was distorted to be tiny, which was considered “feminine” but unfortunately crushed organs, restricted breathing and circulation, and occasionally killed people (the practice was eventually banned after a particularly grusome incident when one of the whalebones in a girl’s corset snapped and pierced her liver).

  4. Ahh, I stand corrected, I’ll have to claim defense of sleepiness when I read that and commented. It still stands, however, that Chinese foot-binding is never a good choice to compare favorably against anything else as it subjected the women to a lifetime of pain, disfigurement and basically captivity. One could certainly argue the same points about tight-laced corset use.

  5. Have you ever noticed that customs of dress and fashion regarded as “feminine” are almost always of a sort that will restrict a woman’s “fight or flight” capability?

  6. Have you ever noticed that customs of dress and fashion regarded as “feminine” are almost always of a sort that will restrict a woman’s “fight or flight” capability?

    Orlando: spot on. High heels, tight skirts, flapping handbags.

  7. It still stands, however, that Chinese foot-binding is never a good choice to compare favorably against anything else as it subjected the women to a lifetime of pain, disfigurement and basically captivity.

    Becky, I totally agree. This book is crammed with a mix of racist ignorant-heathen and noble-savage rhetoric and cringeworthy comparisons.

  8. I’ll continue to mock various other aspects of this book, but the author is dead right about the corsets. Sadly, I think a lot of modern-day women would still be willing to wear them if they came back into style.

  9. I’ll continue to mock various other aspects of this book, but the author is dead right about the corsets.

    And the shoes.

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