Starting in the mid 1820s, women's fashion returned to the full skirts of the prior century, with a narrow waist the central focus of female dress. Because of this, the corset was used to emphasize the waist, by pulling it in. Doctors and much of the press deplored the garment but were unable to override the dictates of fashion.
In the press, women made their voices heard, sharing their experiences and their opinions, some in favor of the corset and even tight lacing. Newspapers and popular journals became the media for the exchange of hundreds of letters and articles concerning the corset.
Known as the "corset controversy" or simply the "corset question", the controversy of tight lacing spilled over multiple publications, multiple decades, and multiple countries. Those who were anti-corset claimed that it was prompted by vanity and foolishness, and harmful to health. Those who were pro-corset argued that it was required for stylish dress and had its own unique pleasures.
Quotes from prominent period publications appear as follows:
The evil consequences of tight lacing are universally admitted. Ladies, however, generally refuse to acknowledge that tight lacing is at all common. Each possessor of a small waist claims that it is a gift of Nature, not a work of art, and wears a corset, not for the purpose of compressing her shape into a narrow circumference, but merely as a comfortable, if not necessary support. (From The West Coast Times )
CORSETS FOR BELLES, How they Mound the form in the Fashionable Shape
There is not a single fashionable woman who does not wear a corset. Some of the slender young debutantes affect the picturesque princess bodice, with the whalebones inserted in every seam.
"Go without my stays? Never" exclaimed one of the leaders of fashion. "I wouldn't do anything so untidy. I think a woman without corsets is most unsightly." "You cannot look smart and have a pretty figure without stays. It is impossible." (From The Saint Paul Daily Globe)
A reader wrote to The Toronto Daily Mail discussing the pleasures of tight lacing:
I am glad that the subject of figure training is under consideration, because so much nonsense is talked on the subject of tight-lacing. The fun of it is, all the condemnation comes from those who don't wear stays, either from men or from women with hobbies and without waists. All who have tried tight-lacing speak approvingly of it. I would not give up my well-made, tight fitting stays for anything. The sensation of being laced in tight is an enjoyable one that only those who have experienced it can understand. I have been in corsets ever since I was eight years of age, and I am now past my teens, and though I am five feet four inches tall and broad in the shoulders, I only measure nineteen inches, and I am in capital health.
Readers wrote to The Gentlewoman describing personal experience with tight lacing:
My cousin wrote to you this week, but forgot to ask your opinion of this régime for a family, of girls -- the eldest nineteen, the youngest thirteen. She has a great desire for them all to have slim, pretty figures, ... As soon as they get up they are closely laced in beautifully fitting stays that fit them like gloves, and for no consideration are they ever laced more loosely. At about 4.30 the three elder girls of 17, 18, and 19 have to go upstairs to have their corsets tightened for the evening, which means that they come down in about half an hour with the trimmest and tiniest of waists confined in evening corsets laced with no sparing hand. All three have quite taken to lacing, and do not object to sleeping in well-laced corsets about an inch larger than their day ones.
What is to be said for the sinful folly (the mania is apparently not confined to the young) of the mother who put her child into corsets at six years old, or the young lady who "enjoys the feeling of tight lacing so much," and never lets her waist exceed 17 inches or 15¾ if she has no breakfast? We are not surprised to hear that she cannot walk. Are there really such foolish relatives as the one who insisted on a young woman reducing her waist to 17 inches, saying, "No man will marry a girl unless she looks smart." These unfortunate victims of fashion sleep in their corsets, and know no release night or day from the agony of tight ligaments pressing gradually on soft and growing bones.
Mothers typically put their daughters into serious corsets in their teens or sometimes in the pre-teens. Some were uncertain as to when and how to begin tight lacing. They sought advice in their local newspapers, giving rise to heated discussions. One such exchange took place in the pages of the Toronto Daily Mail, from April to June 1883, in the Saturday section, "Women's Kingdom".
A reader signing herself, "Corset", inquired:
SIR, — I read with great pleasure the article about “Small Waists” in “Woman's Kingdom.” Now, do you think that a girl can be laced tightly without injury? I have two daughters (9 and 12) whom I have never allowed to wear stays, for fear of injuring their constitutions; but they are growing up such clumsy girls that I am quite ashamed of them. Now, perhaps some of your correspondents who are mothers and have brought up daughters will give me advice. I would like to know how many inches I could reduce their waists, and whether it would be better to make this reduction all at once, or by degrees?
The next Saturday, "Staylace" offered her experience:
MADAM, — I think I can give some information to "Corset" that will be useful. Nearly a year ago a niece of mine visited me from the country to have the finishing touches put on her education. I was greatly shocked by her appearance. She was fifteen years of age, and had evidently “run wild”. She had never worn corsets, and her figure was very clumsy, her waist actually measuring 25 inches. I had at once a pair of heavily-boned stays made, in which I laced her down to 22 inches. I made her wear the stays by night as well as by day, so that the figure might not expand during the seven or eight hours of sleep. At the end of the month, when the figure became accustomed to the tightness, I had another pair made much smaller round the waist, but quite easy over the hips and chest. In these I reduced her half an inch a month until I brought her waist down to eighteen inches, which I think is small enough.
A few weeks later, "Staylace" submitted excerpts from her niece's diary from the prior year.
June 5. — Yesterday aunt told me she was going to make me wear stays. Didn't like the idea, I have never worn even a tight-fitting dress. Aunt measured my waist and said I was “horrid clumsy.” She then laced me into a pair of stays. I shall never forget the sensation. I felt as if I was all crushed in. I could not bend, but had to sit up as stiff as a pole, and how my back ached! I longed for bed time, but that was no good. My aunt would not take them off, though I begged her to. What a night! I couldn't sleep. I tossed about, and every moment the pain seemed to increase.
June 9. — My stays hurt me worse than ever last night. I cut the laces. What a jolly night's sleep I had, but I caught it this morning. As soon as my aunt laced me up she punished me severely. I guess I'll think twice before cutting the laces again.
July 7. — I had a smaller pair of stays put on yesterday. They hurt me horribly at night. I cut the laces. My aunt again punished me, this time very severely. She says if I again offend she will make me remember. I guess I'll remember as it is.
April 10. — When I think of what I suffered with my stays, it seems very strange that they don't hurt me now. My waist is only 18 inches, and feels more comfortable than when I was squeezed in only a couple of inches. In fact, I think I enjoy the feeling of tightness. I know when I take off my stays to wash, I don't feel comfortable till I get them on again. And then I do guess my figure is sweet. Why, half the girls I know look like old dowdies. I guess my aunt was right, though I did think she was too horrid cruel.
(All information from Wikipedia “Corset Controversy)