Dispelling Some Myths: An Attack of the "Vapours"
Here at Tastes Of History we are avid watchers of the BBC's "Bargain Hunt". If you are unfamiliar with the show, two teams of amateur collectors have 60 minutes at an antiques fair to find and buy the best bargains possible. Each team's three items are later sold at auction and the winning team is the one who makes either the biggest profit or the smallest loss.
Part of each episode explores an item of local historical interest, but the main attraction is learning about antiques and collectables. Of the latter, one type of collectable that appears quite often are scent bottles. Double ended scent bottles, an example of which is pictured right, seem particularly popular with the competing teams. Typically dating to the Victorian or Edwardian eras, these items are essentially two bottles, complete with stoppers and a hinged cap, joined at their bases. In describing them, the show's experts usually explain that one end was for perfume, and the other contained smelling salts. The latter, it is claimed, was to revive ladies who had succumbed to a fainting fit because of the tight corsets they wore. There is no issue with someone carrying or using smelling salts, but why are we to believe that women regularly passed out? Where does this idea that wearing a corset leads to fainting fits? It all smells a bit too much like an urban myth.
One popular theory is that women were fainting because their corsets were laced too tightly thereby restricting blood flow. Yet, search for Victorian period images and you will find pictures showing women horse riding, playing tennis, and engaging in other vigorous activities without hindrance while clearly wearing corsets. The tennis players pictured below are clearly wearing corsets as evidenced by the rigid looking bodice shape.
Many women called upon to wear accurate costumes (actresses, re-enactors, interpreters and so on) experience the day-to-day wearing of corsetry. Like their photographed forebears, or perhaps the historical characters they portray, very few feel light-headed or suffer fainting fits. From the introduction of bodices, stays and corsets, working women have been able to complete their routine chores and go about daily life without issue.
What follows owes much to Lucy of Lucy's Corsetry whose enthusiasm for corsetry is self-evident and is someone keen to dispel the myths of corset wearing. With that in mind, as Lucy points out, there are three inter-related causes for fainting or feeling light-headed: over-exertion, over-heating, and dehydration. Taking each in turn, we will explore why.
Overexertion It is possible for corsets to compress the ribs putting pressure on the lungs and thus reducing oxygen intake. This is most likely to be the case if the corset is not made to measure, or has been deliberately tightened to reduce the silhouette. Unsurprisingly, a tightly laced corset will prevent the ribcage expanding fully and thus restrict airflow to the lungs. As a result, if the wearer exerted themselves and needed large quantities of oxygen, but was unable to fully inflate the lungs, this could lead to fainting.
A tightly laced corset can slightly reduce lung capacity simply by the nature of pushing up the stomach and diaphragm, but again this depends on the reduction. In many cases the temporary reduction in capacity is small enough that it would only be noticeable in situations of hard exertion. By contrast normal breathing while at rest only uses about 15% of a person's lung capacity, and many sedentary people rarely use their full capacity. So, while some women may have genuinely fainted from shortness of breath, this scenario was likely far less common than some might claim.
Overheating From personal experience fainting can be brought on by overheating. On a very hot August day, while wearing a combination of bloomers, corset, petticoat, thick cotton overdress and a hat, one became quite light-headed and pale; a certain precursor to fainting. The layers of clothing had acted to insulate the skin from any cooling effect, so stripping off in a cool, secluded place quickly restored the body's equilibrium. Indeed, one reason we perspire is to create evaporative cooling at the skin surface thereby regulating the body's core temperature. With the layers of clothing acting to disrupt this thermoregulation it was unsurprising that one dramatically overheated. In similar circumstances, and if unchecked, this can easily lead to fainting and, more worryingly, heat stroke.
Dehydration Physical exertion (work) on a warm day can lead to overheating. Fail to drink enough water and it is so easy to become dehydrated. Even today, many of us become chronically dehydrated when we do not drink enough water or eat enough hydrating foods. Imagine the scenario where a wealthier fashionable lady, choosing to wear a formal corset slightly smaller than her everyday one for a more dramatic silhouette, attends a society ball. The exertion of dancing, possibly combined with overheating and dehydration, might easily lead to feeling light-headed or indeed passing out. In such circumstances it is easy to see how wearing a tight corset and notably incidences of fainting might combine to create the myth.
In the scenarios already mentioned, overheating and overexertion can lead to further dehydration. In an already chronically dehydrated person, this may cause fainting much faster or more frequently. From experience, it is noticeable that while wearing a corset one may feel thirsty much more quickly than when uncorseted. It is important to be aware, therefore, of the cumulative effects of overheating and dehydration and ensure you drink more water than perhaps normal. Depending on the circumstances (ambient temperature, clothing layers, exertion rates, etc.), the average person should consider drinking somewhere between two and five litres of water per day. So, if you choose to wear a corset, then staying hydrated is imperative.
Blood pressure The majority of women wore corsets without negative effects. Clearly the factors discussed above can be mitigated. Working women were, in all probability, less tightly corseted than, say, a lady of leisure. Shortness of breath resulting from overexertion would have been lessened. In certain circumstances, for example, women working in the fields in summer may not have worn as many layers as Victorian sensibilities might have demanded. And dehydration can be mitigated by consuming sufficient water (or beer!) throughout the day.
One other factor contributing to feeling faint or light headed can result when the brain is starved of oxygenated blood. While stories of women fainting from lack of oxygen or breathing difficulties are largely rumours, abrupt changes to blood pressure can caused be exacerbated by tying a corset too tightly and too quickly. If a woman's is already experiencing low blood pressure, then putting on and tightly lacing her corset might cause a further decrease, most likely in her upper body as the heart struggles to pump blood against gravity. By contrast, blood could more easily be flow to the lower body, which might lead to a greater volume of blood and a greater pressure in the legs compared to in the upper torso. Affecting the circulation of oxygenated blood, particularly to the upper body and head, would easily contribute to a lady swooning or fainting.
Once a person has fainted, their body typically falls to ground assuming a horizontal position. With their head and feet at the same level, blood pressure can normalise throughout the body. As the brain starts to receive enough blood, and enough oxygen, the fainter will regain consciousness.
Fainting Culture The physiological factors are not the whole story, however. For these fainting myths to persist there must be something more than explanations centred on overexertion, overheating, dehydration and fluctuating blood pressure. For upper class women there may well have been something of a culture of fainting.
It is just possible that women adopted the pretence of fainting to avoid uncomfortable social situations. The strict rules governing Georgian and Victorian society and behaviour left many women with little other recourse. What might the archetypal "Southern Belle" (of the movies) do if she was determined to be the centre of attention at a ball? How might a lady avert a confrontation or having to talk with someone she wishes to avoid? What can she do if, intensely annoyed by a particular situation or person, she is unable to publicly express her anger for fear of being thought "hysterical"? In such circumstances, women might employ pretend fainting as a face saving avoidance strategy. Likewise, fainting might be one of few ways to abruptly change an uncomfortable subject or leave a room (how else might one escape to the toilet without announcing something so unbecoming?) while preserving your dignity.
While it remains entirely possible for anyone wearing a corset to faint for all or some of the reasons given above, the likelihood is that most wearers will experience no ill effects. Considering the sheer number of corsets worn at the height of their popularity compared with the available anecdotal evidence, it seems pretty certain that the correlation between corsets and fainting is more myth than grounded in reality.
After all this talk of ladies undergarments, one is feeling a little light-headed. Somebody pass the smelling salts...
1. Lucy's Corsetry, (2015), "Fainting", retrieved August 30th, 2020.
2. Lucy's Corsetry (2014), "Corsets and the Victorian Fainting Culture", retrieved August 31st, 2020. It is also possible to feel “faint” from too much oxygen, which is why hyperventilation causes light-headedness and could potentially result in brief loss of consciousness.
3. Heat stroke occurs because of high external temperatures or physical exertion resulting in a body temperature greater than 40°C (104°F) and confusion. Onset can be sudden or gradual. If unchecked, heat stroke can be fatal. More information on the signs, preventative measures and remedial actions can be found here.
4. Lucy's Corsetry, (2012), "Corsets and Blood Pressure", retrieved August 31st, 2020.
5. Lucy's Corsetry (2014), "Corsets and the Victorian fainting Culture", retrieved August 31st, 2020.