In general (though not only), popular attraction between members of the opposite sex can sometimes be based on what is viewed to be powerful and/or capable. In the 20th century, sociologist have often interpreted the corset and quest for the wasp waist as subjugation and subjugation by men. But, they failed to look at the social and economic alternatives given the economy and technology of the time.
On average, women in the 19th century had five children, and would have been pregnant at least that many times. Pregnancy was not only dangerous in the 19th century, it was also lonely and time consuming. There was no such thing as pregnancy chic. Modesty and propriety, as well as safety, demanded that a woman remained confined in the last months before the birth. Middle and Upper class women at least enjoyed the luxury of having aid in the raising of the child. Lower classes were not so lucky. Taking a quote from a 19th century working class woman who was the 7th of 14 children, her mother was “a perfect slave. Generally speaking she was either expecting a baby to be born, or had one at her breast.” Hardly sounds appealing.
The fertility rate among the middle and upper classes (in Britain at least) was on the decline from the 1840s through the end of the 19th century. There is at least one recent article out there (by Davies M: Corsets and Conception…) that claims that the corset is responsible for the decreased fertility from uterine and organ distortion. Suppose, though, that the corset was both a cause of decreased fertility, as well as an expression of the desire for it.
Even the Victorians had a grasp of what the corset would do to their reproductive and childbearing capabilities. Contemporary doctors determined that the corset produced anywhere between 20 and 80 lbs. of pressure per square inch on the female torso. Proto-gynecologists (all male), warned that women should not be made aware that the corset could curb the likelihood of pregnancy or else they would employ it for that purpose (which is sinful and controlling). Dr. Kellogg (of Road to Wellville fame) wrote that it was shameful for women to wear corsets during pregnancy. There was also talk, again by man, that the corset was often used to disguise pregnancy with the “insertion of busks” and that tight lacing would lead to an abortion of the unwelcome fetus.
Were women aware of the effects of the corset? Likely. They weren’t stupid, or at least any stupider than they are today. Logically, then, it would appear that corset-wearing was not done to please men.
A tight corset and small waist implied a lot of social power. Firstly, the woman didn’t need to make a living. In 1863, The Lady’s Friend, it was written that upper class women “are ladies not necessitated to earn a living, they can do without health or strength – a genteel beauty they must have.” A tight laced corset makes manual labor very difficult for many reasons, so a corseted waist and waist training implied that the woman did not schlep around kids, clean the house or do laundry. Secondly, the lady likely had a maid to tight lace her. Third, she was not pregnant. Pregnancy in unmarried women spelled in disaster. In married ones, it meant confinement, possibly death, and increased future expense.
Fourth is the hormonal aspect. A thick waist implies a large production of androgens (including testosterone). Androgens can have some beneficial effects on female bodies. They increase competitiveness, ability to handle stress, dominence, assertiveness, and willingness to take risks. These are great. But they are not attributes that would be popular for women to have in the Victorian economy. Imagine, for example, you are the mother mentioned above, having those 14 children, and you were responsible for providing for them financially through labor with Victorian standards of pay, and medical care. Not possible. Even without having to care for children, a woman’s ability to survive and thrive in the Victorian era would be better shown in social connections, not by her ability to run the decathalon or walk into a boardroom and take charge of subordinates. Sports lead to injuries that lead to infections or disfigurement. Boardrooms to possible exposure to the demi monde.
The small waist implies increased estrogen: docility, decreased ability to handle stress, and unwillingness to take risks. If a woman is established, risk-taking would be ill-advised. If she was economically stable and a good social and domestic manager, she would not have to demonstrate an ability to handle stress. The ever- so-gallant Victorian notion of “women and children first” likely had a hormonal component, not just a wardrobe one. For though the Victorians were not educated much in biology or aware of hormones, we know that hormones and the perception thereof, regardless of time period, have an effect.
Obviously, the Victorian world was more physically and medically dangerous. There were no antibiotics or aspirin, and doctors were just as likely to kill you as cure you. The first modern paid police department was not founded until the 1820s in London, and then in 1838 in Boston, and they had not yet acquired the 20th century respectability they would later gain. Those women who has dealings with police – either as victims or perpetrators – were thieves or prostitutes. A woman to be associated with the police and with crime would lose her value on the social and marriage market. Keeping the wife and children at home or amongst friends wasn’t a bad idea for so many reasons.
Women were also aware that pregnancy could kill you, and if it didn’t it would confine you to a room in your home. In such a case, inclinations towards docility sounds like a pretty good trait to have, beyond that it implies a lifestyle to maintain it, with servants, maids, carriages, and not too many pregnancies.
The whole point is – to use very 20th century jargon – the quickest route to social power in the 19th century for a woman was to have only the few children that were required… and to avoid manual labor and exposure to demi monde. If the quickest route to both get and show this type of success was a tight-laced corset, then so be it.