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