The corset is probably the most controversial garment in the history of fashion. Worn by women throughout the world the corset was an essential element of fashionable dress for over 400 years. Yet throughout history the corset was widely perceived as a tortured device and cause of ill health and even death. In today’s society the corset is condemned as having been an instrument of women’s oppression.
The corset has been blamed for causing dozen of diseases. Britain’s most important medical journal, “The Lancet”, published more than an article a year from 1860’s to the 1890’s on the medical dangers of tight-lacing. They also mentioned some deaths that were caused by tight-lacing, for example, in one case the heart was found to be so impeded that it failed to function.
Luke Limenr’s famous attack on the corset, Madre Natura versus the Moloch of Fashion (1874) lists “97 diseases produced by stays and corsets according to the testimony of several important medical men.” These diseases included apoplexy, asthma, kidney problems, epilepsy, hernia and impediment to both the heart and lungs.
The American periodical “Punk” suggested women were “martyrs” to fashion and are like geese running to their grave.
But the corset also had its supporters. Eliza Lynn Linton, a conservative and anti-feminist, shocked London in her Saturday Review article when she called women wearing the new fashion a "fast young lady," who was no different from the courtesans. Anti-feminists, such as Linton, had harsh and uncompromising views of "The New Woman" since they believe the age-old notion that women ought to keep their home comfortable for their husband, bear children for him, and please society. Anti-feminists "regarded both the educated and the fashionable lady as misfits." They objected to "rational" dress on the grounds that manly looking clothes were "symbolic of [women's] ambition to enter and subvert his world.
Unconscious, subtle or overt attempts were made to remind women to keep within their sphere. A nurse in an 1870s Middlesex Hospital, in order to make her work easier, hitched up her long train (bustles and cascades of trailing frills) only to have her supervisor say: “I devised this little train, so that when you lean over the bed to attend to your patient, your ankles will be covered and the students will not be able to see them.”
These fearful reactions often stemmed from the threat to male superiority as ladies fashion became more versatile toward the end of the 19th century. Although critics strongly opposed women's participation in sports and stated the proper exercise for ladies was "the commonplace household chore”, the popularity of sports in the late 19th century made the fashion of culottes, shirt blouses and knickerbockers more prominent. It allowed women freedom of movement. It also made women realized that their role in society was more than one based on their sex. Throughout history the only "respectable and lady-like" role open to women was an early marriage, but now their were more opportunities open to them. Sports have always been credited as revolutionizing women's clothing and hence hastening women's freedom.
However, you cannot state that the popularity of sports among middle-class women speeded up women rights; there have been feminists since the mid 1860s that paved the way toward women's rights. However, you can state that the great Fashion Debate did "smooth" the path for radical changes in society and created an environment where changes could be rationalized.
Unfortunately the great debate and efforts by dress reformers saw pathetic results. Fashion historian Steele contended that "rational" dress was unpopular because it looked ugly. Sports did not force Victorian women to abandon corsets, stays and bustles. Even prominent feminists did not make dress reform their major cause. Indeed, Josephine Butler, by far the most well known Victorian figure of the women's rights movement, was always immaculately lady-like in her dressing; Mrs. Butler was concerned at being stereotyped as one of the "shrieking sisters" -- loud manly looking female activists.
Women continued to use corsets well into the 20th century, although these contraptions gradually changed in shape and texture.