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Medicine and Women's Clothing and Leisure Activities in Victorian Canada

Eileen O'Connor, Ph.D.
eoconnor@uottawa.ca

North American physicians attained different kinds of authority in the nineteenth century: a “cultural authority” which implied the power to define health, illness and healing, and a “social authority”, which led the public to accept their advice. [1] This article will focus on the development of physicians’ “cultural authority” in the field of women’s fashionable dress and leisure through their studies and experiments in heat regulation and professional education and training in Gynaecology.

This article will discuss how the dress “problem” was constructed in medical textbooks and journals published or distributed in Canada during the nineteenth century, and will argue that the increasing focus on women’s dress was closely linked to the medicalization of greater aspects of society, all within the context of the professionalization of medicine and the search for new forms of authority. [2]    

The Rise in the Medical Interest in Dress: Heat Regulation

Physicians have long believed that disease was caused by disturbance in the fluids.  Thus, good health was to be maintained by wearing fibres that encouraged a balanced circulation and excretion of fluids. [3] External factors like dress were believed to affect health because if clothing overheated the body, it could block perspiration.  Medical historians E.T. Renbourn and W.H. Rees traced the medical interest in clothing back to the 5th century B.C. when Empedocles, a Greek philosopher, drew an analogy between the circulation of blood in vessels and the circulation of air.  Air vapours were believed to be squeezed in and out of invisible pores throughout the body. This circulation, or skin breathing, involved the continuous liberation of invisible perspiration insensibilis. [4] Historian E.T. Renbourn explains: “Great importance was attached to the cutaneous respiration, for not only did it allow the smoky or fuliginous vapours of the heart to get out partly through the skin pores, but also water vapour and the insensible excretory matters of the body poured out through this channel.” [5] If the perspiration was obstructed, either by damp or cold air, damp clothes, damp bedding, wet feet or by the chilling of the skin, it was forced inward to the internal organs through a process of metastasis. This was believed to cause a cold or catarrh of the head, inflammation of the brain, lungs or kidneys, an excessive flow of urine or a looseness of the bowels. Thus, keeping skin pores open was necessary for a healthy body.  Yet, conflicting theories of skin breathing, open pores and the regulation of hot/cold body temperatures were debated throughout the nineteenth century in light of new findings from laboratory experiments.  Since shifts in clothing theories were most often construed as a hygienic matter, the authority and expertise of physicians in the physiology of the body was not undermined. Indeed, their knowledge in heat regulation that was first expressed in an army-research context, laid the groundwork for their eventual expertise in matters of health and dress.

Professional Knowledge and Authority in Canada

In Canada, from the late 1830s to 1869, the quest to achieve professional status influenced how physicians practiced medicine. [6] Educational standards slowly eliminated the eclectics and homeopaths, who already exercised only limited power. [7] Specialized education and training in Gynaecology and Obstetrics started in the 1870s when Dr. William Gardner was the first gynaecologist appointed to McGill in the early 1870s. Queen’s students received their first courses in Gynaecology in 1890-1891, and the curriculum at Trinity Medical College included a gynaecology textbook in the 1890s.  The practice of Gynaecology can also be traced to the 1870s when women and children had their own ward with an examining table “for the purpose of better serving the interests of gynaecology”. [8] As more physicians became specialists in Gynaecology, separate wards began to appear in hospitals in the 1890s.  Gynaecologists and Obstetricians became specialized “experts”; they focused on framing diseases linked to “women’s” bodies, and in experiences specific to women’s bodies, such as menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and menopause.

Constructing Medical Authority on “Restrictive” Dress

Physicians have long been interested in the impact of swaddling and constriction on the development of bodies.  Prior to the French Revolution, the corset was viewed in the context as a continuation of swaddling clothes, as a protective, corrective mould for soft bodies, especially in the case of children. [9]   Concern took on a renewed focus during the French Revolution, when intellectuals wrote treatises on the corset.  Eighteenth-century anatomists increasingly turned their attention to the ways in which clothes affected the female body, and developed the theory that corsets caused deformation.  In the late 18th century, Drs. Tissot, Rousseau and Hardy all wrote on the ‘dangers’ of the corset. [10] Stiffened corsets and swaddling clothes were blamed for degeneration, weakness and organ deformities.  The corset was no longer considered a preventive mould, and physicians advocated freedom and exercise to permit the body to grow strong. [11]

In 1793, German physician Samuel Thomas von Soemmering listed almost one hundred physicians who had previously written against the corset.  His research led him to conclude that a great number of diseases were attributed to the corset, and included abnormal menstruation, miscarriage and breast tumor; weakened abdominal muscles, and abnormally shaped liver; spinal deformities and injuries from cracked ribs; shortness of breath, palpitation and fainting; chest complaints, consumption, and chlorosis.  Through his anatomical drawings of women’s bodies, von Soemmering constructed a binary opposition of a healthy and deformed body.  This and other drawings, which graphically illustrated the ‘perils’ of tight lacing, were reprinted in medical textbooks around the world.

In the early nineteenth century, physicians drew inspiration from von Soemmering’s work and repeated his conclusions in their own treatises.  Dr. Debay’s Hygiene and Physiology of Marriage, which went through 171 printings, repeated von Soemmering and Rousseau’s arguments against wearing corsets. Based on forty years of clinical observation of 100 young female patients, he found:

May the following table open the eyes of those blind mothers who, in the hope of giving their daughters an elegant waist, imprison them from an early age in an inflexible corset. This table averages forty years of observation.

Of 100 young girls wearing a corset:
25 succumbed to diseases of the chest
15 died after their first delivery
15 remained infirm after delivery
15 became deformed
30 alone resisted, but sooner or later were afflicted with serious indispositions. [12]

Also influenced by Dr. von Soemmering was Dr. Combe, who wrote several texts on the dangers of tight-lacing.  He compared the contours of women’s bodies with that of the ‘natural’ body of the statue Venus de Milo: (See Figure 16)

The statue of the Venus exhibits the natural shape, which is recognised by artists and persons of cultivated taste as the most beautiful which the female figure can assume. Misled however, by ignorance and a false and most preposterous taste, women of fashion, and their countless flocks of imitators, down even to the lowest ranks of life, have gradually come to regard a narrow or spider waist as an ornament worthy of attainment at any cost or sacrifice [13]

Indeed, the statue of the Venus de Milo was frequently referenced in medical and prescriptive texts as an ideal form of a woman’s body, itself an artist’s construction of ‘perfect’ measurements.

From 1829 to the mid 1860s, the literature on corsets and disease was relatively sparse, despite the fact that dress styles in the 1860s could be considered to be the most “restrictive” in the nineteenth century. As discussed in chapter two, wardrobes for middle to upper class women in 1860 included tight-fitting bodices, hoops and crinolines. [14] The paucity of medical literature on women’s ‘restrictive’ dress during the 1860s lends support to our hypothesis that discourses on corsets were less about the actual effect of the garment on the body, than about changing attitudes towards women’s bodies and behaviour, the declining birth rate, and the decline in number of married women. [15] Hence, physicians’ marginal interest in dress during the first half of the nineteenth century was due more to the status of medical professionalization in Ontario and Quebec than the clothing itself.

As physicians in Canada received specialized education and training in Gynaecology in the late nineteenth century, more medical textbooks were read and debated in University, providing physicians with more experience in which to ground their theories on dress.  Queen’s Professor Kenneth Fenwick’s Manual of Obstetrics and Gynaecology blamed women’s displaced uterus on the dress adopted by “the girl of the period”.  For Dr. Fenwick, the corset compressed the abdominal organs causing muscles to become atrophied, displacing the viscera, leading to congestion of blood in the pelvic organs and the distortion and displacement of the uterus. [16]

In the opening chapter of a standard North-American textbook on the general causes of diseases of women, Dr. Charles Penrose, former surgeon and professor of Gynaecology at the University of Pennsylvania, discussed diseases peculiar to all females, including animals as well as “barbarous” and “civilized” women:  In the cow and the mare we find tumors of the vagina, prolapse of the vagina and uterus, fibroid tumors, sarcoma and cancer of the uterus, and some forms of ovarian cysts.” [17] While “barbarous” women were prone to similar diseases, civilized women were considered in greater jeopardy due to their lack of strength and physical endurance, a situation made even worse when they were ill. Civilized women invited disease through assumed neglect during menstruation, leading an ‘improper’ life and not having children. Paradoxically, being sexually active increased one’s risk of venereal disease.  Finally, many diseases of women stemmed from injuries received during pregnancy. [18] For Penrose, improper clothing and an improper mode of life during the period of development were also most fertile sources of diseases of women.  He focused his observations on clothing that contracted the waist.  He made an important distinction few other physicians had done before.  Penrose differentiated between the impact of clothing on active and inactive bodies. In an inactive state, he found corsets were not “too tight”.  Once women were involved in activity however, he believed the capacity for abdominal respiration was greatly reduced.  Restricted abdominal expansion forced the pelvis organs toward the pelvic floor.  Dr. Penrose concluded that the pelvis was not the only organ displaced: “the continuous support to the abdominal wall diminishes their natural muscular strength and places the woman in a condition predisposing to the various displacements of the uterus. [19]

Organ displacement, poor circulation and prolapsed uterus were also linked to corsets in the work of Dr. Garrigues. [20] Like Dr. Penrose, Dr. Garrigues found corsets weakened the abdominal wall, pushing the liver and intestines forward. [21] Dr. R. W. Garrett echoed these conclusions: “Of all the injurious influences to which is attributable the great mass of disease now so prevalent, the greatest is the custom of the alteration of the form of the body and of the position of the internal organs by compression of the lower thorax and abdomen by means of corset.” [22] Wearing a corset was also believed to prevent women from taking in sufficient oxygen, causing their blood to deteriorate and muscles to become weak. [23]

Dysmenorrhoea was another common disease among women that was also linked to women’s dress and lifestyle.  When young women ‘shed their flannels to dress up for a dance’, they ran the risk of a sudden suppression of menstrual secretion, which ultimately led to uterine complaints. [24] Dr. J. Algernon Temple concluded that there were two main reasons why so many young women suffered from “deranged’ menstruation.  First, the weight of the clothing was concentrated around the waist, pressing the uterus down.  Second, many young ladies lived an “artificial” life, by dancing and going to bed too late, which Temple felt caused anaemia.  Thus, his medical authority addressed not only clothes, but also behaviour, and his observations were not limited to middle-class women:

The same remarks are applicable to young girls in a more humble walk in life. Look at the factory girl. For ten hours a day she sits in an over-heated, over-crowded, ill-ventilated room, driving or guiding the sewing machine. She returns home in the evening to a frugal meal, boards in a locality not well or properly drained, to keep pace with her friends who put most of their earnings in the shape of finery, on their back and head, she does the same. The result is, her underclothing is deficient, her feet are improperly protected, and she wears no flannel petticoat or woollen stockings. [25]

Since clothing was considered a significant cause of disease in women, and one that was remediable, it gave impetus to the preventive side of medical practice in Canada .  As Canadian physician Lapthorn Smith put it: “It is my first duty, if I wish to treat them rationally, to remove the causes before attempting to remove the effects.” [26]   Clothing remedies also fit in well with the non-interventionist strategies of Canadian physicians. [27]   Hence, country air, tonics and clothing were often part of the treatment.  Similar to the debate on the merits of woollen clothing, physicians did not all agree on the dangers of corsets.  As we shall see in the next chapter, Quebec physicians Lachapelle and Desrosiers endorsed properly fitted corsets in their medical prescriptive literature.  Within the medical community however, Dr. Alexander Skene represents one of the few physicians who distinguished between normal corset use and extreme tight lacing.  He studied the corset problem, and remarked in his 1895 surgical textbook, that despite the widespread condemnation of corsets, women still continued to wear them.  He concluded: “I have come to the conclusion that this injurious article of the wardrobe is not so very bad in itself. Corsets, if properly made and worn as they ought to be, are as harmless as any portion of clothing usually worn.  It is the abuse of the article that we condemn. [28]   Indeed, since women had worn the corset over a long period of time, Skene believed the mammary glands of ‘civilized’ women needed support, since the natural support of these glands was now imperfectly developed:

The resulting pendulous state of the breasts therefore requires artificial support, and this is best supplied by well-fitting corsets. This has been overlooked by those who would institute immediate reform, entirely abandoning this article of clothing. It would take several generations to cultivate a form and figure that would admit the disuse of corsets in mature womanhood. [29]

For those who tight-laced however, Skene’s prognosis was similar to that of his colleagues: displaced uterus and ailments of the liver, stomach, kidneys and intestines.

Dr. Skene’s divergent opinion on the merits of properly-laced corsets did not come under attack.  However, a female physician who challenged the pervasive medical discourse on corsets met a different fate.  In 1889, an unsigned two-page article entitled, “Is the Corset Injurious?”appeared in The Canada Medical Record. [30] It refuted a British professor of medicine, a “lady physician”, who “surprised the medical world” by reading a paper that concluded corsets were not injurious, but were, in fact, positively advantageous when used in moderation. [31] To challenge her claims, a long list of diseases related to corsets was provided, this time referenced from an article published in the New York Medical Record by esteemed physician Dr. George F. Scrady. [32]

The article challenged the “lady physician” on her medical observations, findings, and also her competence. It stated that any serious student of physiology who comprehends the human body would have no difficulty understanding the relation of tight lacing to the above diseases: “He will see that pressure on the bile ducts will cause retention of bile and deposit of gall stones.  He will understand that the addition of many pounds of squeezing pressure to the weight of the abdominal contents will break down the delicate muscles leading to displacement of the womb.” [33] The emphasis on “he” is no accident, as it necessarily undermined the female physician’s authority.  In fact, “lady physicians” were placed in a somewhat delicate situation.  As physicians, they were aware of the literature condemning the corset, but as upper-middle class women, they would have been encouraged to dress in an appropriate manner to her class level.

Although physicians discussed ‘women’ in a universal sense, their main concern was women of the upper and middle classes.  This focus was due to the fact that most clients were prosperous, and as learned men, they were concerned with the bodies of people of their own classes.  In addition, North American medical concerns for white, middle-class women’s dress revealed deep racial concerns for the purity of the race and the problem of regeneration.  In their rhetoric against tight lacing, direct links were made between tight lacing and the impact it would have on women’s roles as mothers of the race. Dr. William Goodell argued that: “if you can’t convince women to stop tight lacing, at least try to reform their daughters. The family physician can solemnly adjure the tightly-harnessed mothers of the land not to allow their growing and romping daughters to put on the maternal armor” [34] A key feature in this discourse was the duty of the physician to “convince” women to alter their clothing practices, without addressing the problem of a lack of clothing choices.  If a woman wished to remain respectable, there were few acceptable middle class dress alternatives.  Physicians thus employed a maternalist discourse that spoke of “maternal armor”, conjured images of knights in battles.  In this case, it was construed as a battle that the informed and knowledgeable male physician waged against the irrational, insecure and fashionable woman who eschewed her responsibilities of wife and mother.  Physicians urged middle-class women to think of their health in terms of the well being of the nation and of the next generation.  Particular attention was given to pregnant women, as tight lacing was believed to be the main reason for stillbirths or any complications arising during delivery.  More male infants and children were dying than females, which no doubt heightened the concern for the health of pregnant women and mothers. [35] As boys contributed to the family economy and carried the family name, additional efforts would have been made to ensure that male boys survived childhood.

Canadian physicians used several strategies to encourage women to stop tight lacing.  For some physicians, one way was to attempt to change the attitudes of the husbands.  For physicians like Dr. Lapthorn Smith, part of the blame lay with “short-sighted men” who continued to admire and marry a thin-waisted woman, while she “only tries to fill the want which man desires”.  If men could be made to understand that a thin waist meant a sickly, and consequently, a costly wife, then they would construct beauty in terms of breathing capacity and large waist size. If the medical community could convince men of this, then it was believed that women would voluntarily discard “the implement of torture which they have so long and so patiently been accustomed to bear.” [36] In a series of articles on the relation of corsets to women’s diseases, Dr. A. Lapthorn Smith, a Gynaecologist and Professor at Bishops’ University thus distributed the blame between women, men, ‘fashion’ and ‘civilization’:

I do not think that women are alone to blame for wearing tight corsets. They only try to meet a demand. If men admired women of natural shape more than thin waisted girls, the supply of the latter would soon cease to come on the market.  So we should educate our male acquaintances to understand the probably sickliness and costliness of corset-laced wives. [37]

As the regulation of medical practice in Canada did not permit homeopathic practitioners from ever gaining significant power, the need to construct medical authority in dress was consequently less urgent than it was in the more “democratic” American and French contexts, where other groups competed for influence. [38]

Medical Attitudes Towards “Natural Dress”

Discourses on regulating body temperatures often used terms such as “natural”, “sanitary” and “hygienic” to describe the prescribed underclothes.  Nineteenth century medical discourses focussed on the “unnaturalness” of wearing corsets and the “unnatural” conditions that prolonged corset wear could cause.  Their main concerns were that women would develop weak mammary glands and weaken their abdominal wall. The recommended clothing itself was called “rational” dress, thus conveying the message that current clothing practices were irrational.  Ideally, “natural” clothes were constructed as garments necessary for modesty and the protection of the body from the elements.  The colours were inspired from nature, and the fabric and cut of the material were believed not to draw attention to the silhouette, but to loosely adorn the body.

Haultain’s analysis of women’s articles of clothing led him to conclude that the large amount and weight of material massed about the “organs of generation” went directly against nature. [39]   His comparison to the natural world was based on his observation of a horse, a cow, two dogs, a cat and a squirrel.  He remarked that all of these animals displayed a scarcity of hair near their generative organs and the underside of their abdomens, thereby sufficient for the “internal generative apparatus” to preserve the proper degree of temperature.  Observations of women’s clothing indicated just the opposite; the prolongation of the stays over the abdomen meant the body fat was pushed below the waist, and together with the accumulation of garments at the waist, led to a high level of heat retainment.  Even worse, some women padded corsets, to “add fullness to figures wanting the bosom roundness” with a wasp waist.

To encourage women to return to a nostalgic era of “natural” dress, the modern, civilized community was thus constructed as “artificial”.  Canadian physician Lapthorn Smith defined “Civilization” as “the ensemble of social customs, habits, and refinement of manners, comforts and luxuries which are not practised or enjoyed by human beings in the savage state.” This was evidently not a positive ensemble: “That these altered circumstances are changing the nature and health as well as giving a different complexion to the diseases of women is tolerably well known”. [40] Outdoor, strong, natural “savage” women were juxtaposed against the confined, weak, artificial civilized woman. Yet, Canadian physicians did not encourage middle class women to be free to run outdoors, grind corn and carry water.  Although the binary opposition served its purpose to relate the lack of ‘savage’ women’s diseases to her dress and lifestyle [41] , medical practitioners still preferred the sensibilities and modesty of the Victorian middle class woman’s dress code.

When discussing exercise, physicians did not always agree on what constituted appropriate behaviour for women.  An illustrative example of this was the debate on whether cycling was appropriate for women. [42]   A series of letters published in the Dominion Medical Monthly and Ontario Medical Journal in 1896, expressed concern that women seated on bicycle seats could have orgasms. [43] Fearful of unleashing and creating a nation of ‘over-sexed’ females, some physicians urged colleagues to encourage women to eschew ‘modern dangers’ and continue to pursue traditional leisure pursuits.  However, not all medical colleagues were convinced of the link between cycling and orgasm, and this debate on women’s leisure activities continued well into the twentieth century.

Canadian physicians did raise concern on the naturalness of men’s dress, albeit less commonly.  In 1889, an article in The Canada Medical Record states, “It is commonly supposed that it is only foolish women or helpless children who require advice. There are perhaps at least as many men as women who suffer from the effects of cold through injudicious neglect of the clothing suitable for winter use”. [44] Men who wore their coats open, or whose coats were lined with cotton instead of flannel were believed to contract rheumatism or pneumonia more frequently.  Their gloves and boots did not escape attention either: cold hands and chilled feet were attributed to thin socks and tight thin boots. They were encouraged to wear flannel undergarments and high fitting waistcoats under their shirts during a Canadian winter. “The wiser man is he who changes his clothing according to the weather in such a variable climate as ours.” [45]

Physicians held diverging opinions as to the degree of their responsibility as “experts” on woman’s bodies.  Some felt once they had fulfilled their duty by outlining the problems associated with dress, it was either up to women to take charge of their bodies and make wise decisions, or it was up to men to reconsider notions of beauty, and stop encouraging women to dress in an ‘unhealthy’ fashion. For example, Royal Academician G.F. Watts demanded that “the comparative silence of the medical profession on this subject” be addressed. [46]   T. Arnold Haultain of Peterborough, Ontario, responded by defending the medical involvement in this area: “To his censures on the medical profession, we can legitimately and strongly object” [47]   Haultain referred to the many institutions in England that were actively involved in the issue of dress and disease.  He argued that teachings advocated by the British National Health Society, the Ladies’ Dress Association, and the Rational Dress Society were reprinted in The Canada Lancet. Haultain claimed that medical links were not only created through these associations, but also through a London exhibition of clothing organized by Miss Ray Lankester, daughter of “one of our greatest biologists”.  Although the medical connection with the exhibition seems tenuous, Haultain proudly affirmed, “This last fact (the exhibition) shows us how we may more than plausibly trace the source of all these efforts to the medical profession” [48]

While Haultain felt the medical community did not need to be further involved, it was also because he felt the problem of women’s dress was somewhat trivial.   Hence, he urged the medical community to leave discussions of high heels, small gloves and tight-lacing to the “irresponsible literati”, and concentrate on issues of greater importance, namely the irregularities in heat regulation due to ‘unnatural’ methods of dressing.  For Haultain, the physician’s duty was to show the violations of the rules of health and “to combat any arguments that may be raised in their defence.  If we can thoroughly persuade mothers to see the evils with which the prevailing fashions are pregnant, we may trust the remedies to their own good sense and acute inventive genius”. [49] Thus, it was up to women, ingenious, trustworthy women, to make the right clothing decisions based on the scientific principles presented to them by physicians. [50]

Dr. Lapthorn Smith’s longest discussion on the ‘evils of fashion’ was entitled ‘What Civilization is Doing for the Human Female’. [51] Here ‘Civilization’ was constructed as an active agent, preying on passive female bodies.  He urged the medical community to use all its influence to save the next generation of women from the negative effects ‘civilization’ had brought to the bodies of the current generation, especially those related to luxury and fashion. [52]

A second strategy was to advise women on how tight to lace their corsets.  Women were encouraged to seek advice from medical men instead of their husbands, as dressing had increasingly become a medicalized issue.  They were urged to submit their dress to a panel of physicians to determine any potential dangers.  It was also commonly suggested that women allow their physicians to listen to their breathing to determine if corsets were too restrictive.  As the figure below depicts, male journalists found the interests of the “physicians of fashion” did not stop at her breathing capacity. For other physicians like A. B. Johnson, there was no barometer of acceptance for tight-lacing: “Has any young lady been known to acknowledge that she is unduly compressed? Pulmonary and spinal diseases, lunacy and the grave reveal the rest. Let us decide what constitutes an undue compression of the chest.  I answer, any degree of compression.” [53]

Hence, physicians tired to directly intervene in the private ritual of dressing, and bring it under surveillance in a public arena, the doctor’s office.  To wrestle authority from chamber maids or husbands, the medical literature constructed men as vain, incompetent and sexually insecure.  If husbands were left with the responsibility of ensuring their wives were not laced too tightly, it was assumed they were less interested in their health than in determining if their wives were promiscuous.  Contemporary cartoons were rife of husbands looking for the telltale sign of back laces re-tied differently from the bow or knot he had made in morning, suggesting anxieties over the faithfulness of their wives.

Although many of the medical textbooks were American in origin, clothing-related diseases were similarly framed in Canadian medical journals.  In attempting to understand why women continued to wear corsets, some physicians who wrote in The Canada Medical Record found that women were not solely to blame, since they were caught in a gendered beauty trap governed by men.  Men had real economic, political and social power and selected brides of their pleasing. If women desired marriage, then the cultivation of beauty was of utmost concern, whether it was overtly admitted or not.  On some level, several physicians understood the constraints of beauty, and the unequal power relations that ensued.  

Conclusion

Medical knowledge and expertise was established in the field of clothing from the Classical Period and gained increased legitimacy through the clothing experiments, anatomical drawings of the eighteenth century.  By the late nineteenth century, medical involvement shifted from a general concern on health and men and women’s dress, to a specific emphasis on women’s dress, leisure pursuits such as dancing and shopping and her role in ‘distorting’ her body. Messages were constructed through the use of binary oppositions of healthy/diseased bodies, natural/artificial and tight/loose dress.  The reforming logic, developed by doctors, was that clothes were a symbol of society’s health, and women’s dress was at the heart of this symbolic representation.  With birth rates declining and a host of problems related to urbanization on the rise, physicians defined middle class women’s experience of dressing as pathological and treatable as a medical condition.

Thus, within the discourse of women’s dress reform, the concepts of nature, freedom and health were incorporated into notions of gender and the body.  The physicians who led the dress reform campaign in Canada invoked their scientific training to instill beliefs that reformulating clothing codes was necessary for the betterment of society.  By doing so, the medical profession gained authority and control for defining appropriate responses to women’s behaviour.  By diagnosing the “problem” and reinforcing their cultural authority, physicians suggested they were in a better position to determine what was “tight and restrictive”.  For many, they felt women were too accustomed to the slight pain of wearing tight stays, and thus, were unable to make “rational” decisions.  Thus, their cultural authority as physicians and gynaecologists allowed them to define illness, locate disease and enter the debate on women’s healthy bodies.


[1]         Paul Starr, The Social Transformation of American Medicine (New York: Basic Books 1982) pp 13-21 and 79-144. See also the discussion in Barbara Clow, Negotiating Disease. Power and Cancer Care, 1900-1950 (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press 2001) p. xiii.  

[2]         For further reading on the concept of medicalization, see B. S. Turner, Medical Power and Social Knowledge (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications 1987).  

[3]         See Daniel Roche, op.cit., p. 467-468.  

[4]         It is to be noted that the liquid sweat (Latin, sudor) was regarded as distinct to the invisible, insensible, perspiratio or perspiratio insensibilis. This discussion is outlined in E.T. Renbourn and W.H. Rees, Materials and Clothing in Health and Disease: History, Physiology and Hygiene: Medical and Psychological Aspects with the Biophysics of Clothing, London: H.K. Lewis, 1972. See also Dr. J. J. Jenny, “Unhygienic Fashions”, Ciba Symposia, 6(1), (April 1944), pp. 1967-1977.

[5]         Renbourn, op.cit., p. 3.  

[6]         In Québec, the Lower Canada College of Physicians and Surgeons was established in 1847. Jacques Bernier attributed this early date to the pervasive social conservatism of francophone Catholicism and politics. See Jacques Bernier, La médicine au Québec: naissance et évolution d’une profession (Quebec: PUL 1986), pp.161-163. Terrie Romano argues that the Ontario medical profession was created well in advance of the legislation that created the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario in 1869, in response to the lack of legislative control over the profession in the United States. See Terrie Romano, ‘Professional Identity and the Nineteenth Century Ontario Medical Profession’, Histoire sociale/Social History, 55 (May 1995), pp. 77-98.  

[7]         See J.T.H. Connor, “‘A sort of Felo-de-se’: Eclectism, Related Medical Sects, and their Decline in Victorian Ontario’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 65 (1991), pp. 503-527; R.D. Gidney and W.P.J. Millar, “The Origins of Organized Medicine in Ontario, 1850-1869”, in Charles Roland (ed) Health, Disease and Medicine. Essays in Canadian History, (Toronto: Clarke Irwin 1984) p. 78; S.E.D. Shortt (ed), Medicine in Canadian Society: Historical Perspectives, (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press 1981).

  [8]         Mitchinson, op.cit., 1991, p. 234.

[9]         For an excellent analysis of children’s dress reform, see Caroline Dinsmore Aylea, op.cit.  

[10]        Henri Joseph Hardy, Dissertation sur l'influence des corsets et l'operation du cancer de la mamelle, Thesis (Université de Paris 1824) 25 p; Jean Jacques Rousseau, “On Tight Lacing”, The Lancet, 9, 1785, pp.1202-1203; Samuel Auguste David Tissot, An essay on the disorders of people of fashion, (London: Richardson and Urquhart 1771) 163p.  

[11]        See Phillipe Perrot, Fashioning the Bourgeoise: A History of Clothing in the Nineteenth Century (translated) (New Jersey: Princeton University Press 1994), p. 150. See also Caroline Dinsmore Aylea, op.cit.  

[12]        A Debay, Hygiene vestimentaire, 1851, p. 170-171.  

[13]        Andrew Combe, The Principles of Physiology Applied to the Preservation of Health (London: Fowler & Wells 1829), p. 182.  

[14]        Christopher Breward, The Culture of Fashion (Manchester: Manchester University Press 1995), p.157

[15]        Mel Davies, “Corsets and Conception: Fashion and Demographic Trends in the Nineteenth Century”, Comparative Studies in Society and History: an International Quarterly. 24, 4 (1982), p. 611-641.  

[16]        Kenneth Fenwick, M.D., Manual of Obstetics, Gynaecology and Pediatrics (Kingston: J. Henderson 1889), p. 128.  

[17]        Charles B. Penrose, M.D., Ph.D., A Text-Book of Diseases of Women, (Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders and Company 1898), p. 17.  

[18]        Ibid., p. 18.  

[19]         Ibid., p. 19.  

[20]        Henry Jacques Garrigues, M.D., A Textbook of the Diseases of Women, (Philadelphia, 1894).

[21]        Ibid., p. 127.  

[22]        R.W. Garrett, 1897, p. 61.  

[23]        Dr. A. Lapthorn Smith, ‘Gynaecology and Obstetrics’, The Canada Medical Record, Montreal, 17(5), February 1889, pp. 97-98.  

[24]        J. Algernon Temple, ‘Dysmenorrhoea’, The Canadian Practitioner, Toronto, December 1884, p. 362.  

[25]        Ibid., p. 363.  

[26]        Lapthorn Smith, op.cit., 1891, p. 73.  

[27]        Wendy Mitchinson argues that most physicians were conservative in their approach to their patients’ illness, preferring to combine non-interventionist techniques and common sense. See Mitchinson, op.cit., 1991, p. 249.  

[28]        Alexander Skene, Medical Gynaecology: A Treatise on the Diseases of Women from the Standpoint of the Physician (New York 1895), p. 12.  

[29]        Ibid., p. 12.  

[30]        “Is the Corset Injurious?”, The Canada Medical Record, 17(2), November 1889, pp. 69-70.  

[31]        Ibid, p. 69.While the name of the “lady physician” was not given, the names of her detractors were provided.  

[32]         The ailments included: a local inflammation of the liver, gall-stones and colic, wandering liver, protuberant abdomen, prolapse and flexions of the womb, lateral curvatures of the spine, anaemia, chlorosis, dyspepsia, diminished lung capacity and oxygen starvation, intercostal neuralgia, weak eyes and Bright’s disease. Ibid., p. 69.  

[33]         Ibid., p. 70.  

[34]        William Goodell, M.D., Lessons in Gynaecology (Philadelphia 1887), pp. 548-549.

[35]        Mitchinson, op.cit., 1991, p. 159.

[36]        Lapthorn Smith, p. 70.  

[37]        Dr. A. Lapthorn Smith, “Gynaecology and Obstetrics”, The Canada Medical Record, 17(5), February 1889, p. 97.  

[38]        See Kevin White, ‘Public Health and the Medical Profession in Nineteenth Century Canada: A Historical Sociology’, Environments, 20(3), pp. 57-69.  

[39]        T. Arnold Haultain, “Errors in Hygiene-Female Clothing”, The Canada Lancet, 15, May 1883, pp. 263-265.  

[40]        A. Lapthorn Smith, op.cit., 1889, p. 25.  

[41]        Which speaks more about the lack of access to the same level of health care, and hence, less diagnoses from Gynaecologists.  

[42]        For this discussion, see Wendy Mitchinson, op.cit, p. 65.  

[43]     See Canadian Medical Record, 24, August 1896, p. 555.  Dominion Medical Monthly and Ontario Medical Journal, 7(3), September 1896, pp. 255-6 and volume 8(2), November 1896, pp. 134-135.  

[44]        “The Winter Dress of Men”, The Canada Medical Record, 17(4), January 1889, p. 85.  

[45]        Ibid, p. 85.  

[46]        G.F. Watts, R.A., “On Taste in Dress”, Nineteenth Century, January 1883.

[47]        T. Arnold Haultain, “Errors in Hygiene-Female Clothing”, The Canada Lancet, 15, May 1883, pp. 263-265.  

[48]        Ibid, p. 264.  

[49]        T. Arnold Haultain, “Errors in Hygiene-Female Clothing”, The Canada Lancet, 15, May 1883, pp. 263-265.  

[50]        Leigh Summers cites the example of Dr. Charles Cannaday, an American physician who delivered a paper in Rome that criticized the medical profession for failing to do more, and failing to offer a united protest against corsetry. Based on this sole reference, Summers theorizes that the medical profession was ambivalent about corsets and that “the message that corsetry was anathema to good health did not successfully filter down to the general public”. Leigh Summers, Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian Corset, (Oxford: Berg 2001), p. 89. See Charles Graham Cannaday, “The Relation of Tight Lacing to Uterine Development and Abdominal and Pelvic Disease”, Presented at the International Medical Congress in Rome, 1894, and later published in American Gynaecological and Obstetrical Journal, 5, 1895, pp. 632-640.  

[51]        Dr. A. Lapthorn Smith, op.cit., 1889, pp. 25-30.  

[52]        Ibid., p. 30.

[53]        A.B. Johnson, op.cit.

About the Author

Eileen O'Connor is a member of the faculty of health sciences, University of Ottawa.

Published: June 8, 2007