Friday, March 29, 2013

Corset Myth #2: You Can't Breathe In A Corset

Corset Myth #2: You can't breathe in a corset.

The number one most frequent comment I get when I'm wearing a corset is "Can you breathe in that?" (Ok, maybe it's second after "nice corset.")  I was just at a con last weekend, and I got this comment at least 5 times, including once when a young man accosted me and demanded I explain to his girlfriend that I could breathe in my corset.

So I'll give you the answer I give people who ask me this: yes.  A corset, at least a Victorian styled corset (and therefore most modern corsets) squeezes you at the waist.  My lungs are not in my waist.  Therefore I can breathe perfectly fine, thank you.

Note the distance between my waist and the fullest part of my chest.
Also note that I am breathing, evidenced by the fact that I'm not dead yet.

As I discussed in the previous article in this series, a properly fitted corset has plenty of room in the bust area, which is where the lungs are located, after all.  Generally with my own corsets, I can stick a whole hand and arm down the top of my corset.  So there is plenty of room for the ribcage and therefore lungs to expand.  As with many corset myths, this one gets reinforced by people who wear poorly fitting corsets.  Many women buy off-the-rack corsets that are two small in the bust, and therefore end up being uncomfortable and feel like their breathing is restricted.

But there is a little bit of truth in this myth.  Corsets do restrict your lung capacity a bit, and it naturally varies by the corset and by how tightly laced the corset is.  Statistics I've read indicate that at the very maximum, corsets can restrict your lung capacity by about 30%.  Note, that's the most tightly laced corsets out there.  But on any average breath you take, you only use 10-15% of your lung capacity, so it's unlikely that you'll notice any restriction, unless you try to do something that requires 70% or more of your lung capacity.

So I would never recommend you go running in a corset.  But you should be able to go dancing, so long as you don't try anything...extreme.  The only times I've felt my breath was restricted in a corset was once when I quickly climbed two flights of stairs and once when I was singing very enthusiastically during a game of Rock Band.  Singing requires deep breathing from the diaphragm, especially if you've been trained at all, and corsets can restrict this somewhat.  Which is why opera singers have a history of having specially made corsets that leave more room for them to breathe deeply.  It's also why opera costumes for women were made very wide in the shoulders and hips, to make the waist look small without actually lacing it very tightly.

Finally, I've found that underbust corsets actually can be more restrictive of breathing than properly fitting overbust corsets.  Because the top of an underbust is at the rib-cage  if it fits too tightly, it can leave less room for the rib-cage to expand.  Whereas an overbust has more room in the underbust, since it is slanting up and out over the bust, leaving empty space right below the bust.  I have a large rib-cage  and I have to be careful not to lace the top of my underbust too tightly, or I start to notice that I can't fully expand my lungs. So that's something to keep in mind when you're buying or making an underbust: make sure there is a little extra room at the top to allow for rib-cage expansion.

One of the things you will eventually hear about corsets is that Victorian women were always fainting because their corsets were too tight.  I find this very difficult to believe.  I've never known anyone wearing a corset to feel faint as a result, no matter how tightly laced they were.  There are, of course, lots of medical reasons why someone might faint that may not have been understood in the period. Certainly overheating would be a danger, given the layers of clothing worn and the lack of air conditioning.  I've read a theory that it was actually due to the prevalence of gas lighting, that in a tightly closed room the gas lighting actually used up much of the oxygen in the room, leading to fainting.  Women were affected by this more than men because they spent so much more time at home and indoors.   And finally, it may have simply become fashionable for a woman to swoon occasionally, not to mention convenient in fiction.

But the bottom line is that wearing a corset shouldn't mean you can't breathe properly.

Next myth in this series: Corsets are bad for your health.

Corset Myth Series:
Myth #1: Corsets Are Painful
Myth #2: You Can't Breathe In A Corset
Myth #3: Corsets Are Bad For Your Health


  1. Seriously thanks for this. So many people refuse to believe this!

    Also the caption was fabulous!

  2. wow, my mom kept asking me "can you breathe in that" with anything dealing with the waist area whenever i speak of a coreset and also when i first tried on a coreset, she told me that if i can breathe, i wasn't wearing a coreset or wearing it properly since your NOT suppose to breathe. Thank you for this information, now i can truely tell mom that she is wrong! i knew no one in a coreset would sufficate themselves by wearing it unless they were complete lunatics. im sorry but even i found it too hard to believe that women fainted from a coreset. sure i had less air coming in but that was just the bit of restriction of wearing the coreset. not to much to notice it making an actual difference. so again, thank you

  3. Very interesting post, thank you so much!

    Yes, of course, you are correct about properly fitted corsets versus the horrors of off the rack etc . However, if you look at contemporary reports there are women who did lace tightly and complained about breathing. From my experience in theatre costuming you need to know how to breathe. If you try to breathe deeply as we do today then it will be difficult, and you will say "I can't breathe". If you take life a little more gently and breathe from the top of your lungs you will be ok.

    If you lace very tightly at not just the waist but all the way up then you can reduce rib and diaphragm movement so much that breathing is difficult. I love wearing corsets, and I think they can do a lot for a girl in many ways, but serious tight lacing, as frequently done in the Victorian era, is not recommended!


    1. I disagree with parts of your comment. Yes, there are different ways to breathe and corsets restrict some deep breathing. I've never noticed a difference in how I breathe when wearing corsets, but I've done breath training for both singing and yoga, and I may just know lots of different ways of breathing.

      But it's totally possible to tightlace with large reductions in the waist and even lower ribs and not have any struggles breathing. The problem is that most modern OTR corsets don't have enough different in the waist-to-underbust measurements so that if you try to tightlace in them, they will overconstrict your ribs and it will be a problem. There are lots and lots of tightlacers and waist-trainers out there who wear appropriately shaped and sized corsets and never struggle to breathe.

      So tightlacing and waist training is only not recommended if you don't do your research and are trying to use inappropriate corsets. If you do know what you're doing, then it's perfectly safe and not harmful.

      Also it's rare for any modern woman to achieve Victorian levels of tightlacing because they were not wearing corsets from a young age and therefore the ribcage is not shaped by corsets as it grows. That's certainly not something I would recommend, but that's the main difference between Victorian corset wearing and modern. Also ribcage shape varies a lot from individual to individual and actually has something to do with ancestry. Some people naturally have conical ribcages while others (like myself) do not.

  4. Thanks for this! I find it so odd that someone sees someone in a corset, walking around, talking, whatever, and then wonders if they can breathe. If they couldn't breathe... they wouldn't be able to do those things. I also kind of hate the assumptions that those of us who corset would harm ourselves just for looks -- and this applies to most corset myths.

    Also, another possible reason for fainting was blood pressure disorders. We know today that if you have a blood pressure disorder, you probably shouldn't corset, or at least only if it is very well-controlled and at a mild reduction under the care of a doctor. Corseting increases blood pressure below, and decreases it above. The difference is generally safe for someone without blood pressure problems, but not with. At the time, they probably didn't know this. And it's not like corseting poses a unique risk that nothing else does. My grandmother, who has low blood pressure, has passed out just from getting too upset, and she doesn't corset.

  5. I just started wearing a corset for aesthetic reasons, and found it actually helps me breathe better! It turns out a good source of my "asthma" is just anxiety, so the pressure of the corset on my stomach helps calm me down. Now I want to buy one I can wear under my clothing so I can wear it out whenever my anxiety is bad