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First Aid For the Corsetted

Author: Jane G. Beckman

Filed in: health and safety, corsets



Corsets are not things modern people expect or relate to. Most first aid courses are definitely not skewed toward dealing with people who wear period regalia. However, the problems of our sort need to be addressed to avoid possible serious consequences, merely because no one knew how to deal with a corsetted lady. As a matter of fact, the latter half of this article may strike some of you as slightly alarmist. However, medical emergencies do happen and we should all be prepared for them. In various capacities, I have dealt with emergencies that would never happen to non-historical types, so I feel qualified to write. I also would like to extend my thanks to Ruth Bruner, a nurse who serves the SCA, and Ann Bruner, a firefighter who has much experience in dealing with corsetry problems, especially with the court nobility of the Renaissance Pleasure Faire.

Most cautions apply to Tudor and Georgian corsets as well as Victorian and Edwardian corsets. Although differently shaped, all compress the body.

First off, I would like to offer some pointers for lacing a lady into a corset. This is where you may avoid trouble to start.

1. A corset should be made from scratch, from a period pattern. I have seen more women get into trouble with modified back braces than ever had problems with properly cut corsets.

2. A corset should be regarded as a period body-shaper, not as a device for diminishing a lady's waistline to wasp-like dimension. As was recommended in periods when they were being worn, they should take two inches off the figure, as an average. I am slender (24-inch waist) and take off three inches, sometimes, but only with a properly fitted corset (original, or well copied from an original). Stouter ladies can sometimes get away with taking off more inches, as they are modifying flesh, not bone. An average lady should never take off more than three inches.

3. To lace a lady into a corset: remember, corsets don't have to meet in the back! If people knew how to lace, half the emergencies I've encountered would go away. I recommend using two laces: from the top down and from the bottom up, meeting at the waist. A Tudor corset does not need to be laced this way, as it is roughly barrel-shaped. However, for all others, even Georgian, lacing is more comfortable if two laces are used. First, pull the laces snug, i.e. just enough to pull the corset tight to her figure. Now, work about four inches out of the total length of the laces. (This takes about 1/4 inch out of the corset.) Let the lady rest for 3-5 minutes. Repeat until corset fits as desired. DO NOT OVERLACE!

4. I severely advise against wearing a corset horseback tiding unless it is a specially-constructed riding corset. These are boned with flexible materials or cording, and any stays over the hipbones are either absent, cording, or carry down over the hips (in Tudor and Georgian corsets, the stays carry down into the tabs). Cording is the best alternative. Normal, "short hipped" corsets have stays that will press into and bruise your hips if worn in the saddle for any length of time. Also, being thrown could cause a corset-stay to pierce the body, resulting in severe injury.

Dealing with minor emergencies: The most common minor emergencies are usually caused by ladies being overlaced although heat is often a culprit, as well How many inches you take off has no bearing on this question, as everyone is built differently. However, overlacing problems are much more likely to occur on slender ladies who have laced down four inches than on stout ladies who have laced down eight inches. It's a matter of compressed ribs. Many over-zealou, ladies over-lace (or are unknowingly over-laced by inexperienced others) on occasion. If you are wearing a corset, monitor yourself for these signs:

1. Pain in the lower ribs, sternum, etc. A properly laced and fitted corset should not be painful. If it is, something is wrong. Take it off.

2. Feelings of giddiness or vague nausea, usually after exercise, such as dancing. You are showing the first signs of oxygen starvation. Sit down and recline slightly or lie down (if possible). Do not exert yourself in this condition, or you may faint. If sitting or lying down does not remedy it, take off or loosen your corset.

3. Hyperventilating. Take off the corset NOW! DO NOT take it off by yourself; take a friend along. She should be prepared to support you, should you pass out. Loosen the corset for a minute before unlacing it (see "Unlacing a Corset," below). Bend over and put your head between your knees, or sit (if possible) and do the same. This will lessen some of the effects of "corset rush." If, when the corset is loosened or removed, you do get "corset rush" and think you may pass out, sit or lie down. If you can't sit down, brace your back against a wall and have your friend be ready to catch you.

Friends of corset-wearers should watch out for these symptoms:

1. Shortness of breath. Encourage the lady to sit or lie down. Suggest she may wish to loosen her corset.

2. A flushed complexion; A danger sign. Suggest loosening or removal of her corset. This is especially true in hot weather. If her flesh seems hot and dry, rather than cool and moist, give her something (nonalcoholic!) to drink. DO NOT suddenly splash cold water on her face. This can cause fainting. If she has stopped sweating, feed dill pickles or pickle juice, in addition to the fluid, to help restore the salt balance of the body. (Gatorade also works.)

3. Hyperventilating. Breaths will be short and rapid, usually slightly gasped. Encourage the lady to remove her corset immediately! Make sure someone goes with her to help. The wearer should sit or lie down for a few minutes, afterward.

If a lady passes out without apparent cause, especially after exertion, check for the above symptoms. If they are present, feel for corsetting by the means given below. If a corset is being worn, unlace it immediately, even if it means having to cut the laces. (The lady may swear at you later, but it's for her own welfare!) If you must cut the laces, use the procedure given below.

Checking for a corset: Run your fingers along the lower ribs. You should detect stiffness and hard places as your finger pass over the bones. Dress boning will not be as closely spaced or as stiff: you will feel the "give" of flesh, instead. Corsetted flesh is almost rigid, from being compressed (think of a firm sausage). Test for stiffness over the xiphoid process at the end of the sternum, to find a pop-front or husk piece. Some corsets lace in the front, but most lace in the back. You will be able to feel the bumps of the laces if you pass your fingers down the spine.

Removing a corset: NEVER suddenly unlace a corset that has been worn for some time. Do not "pop" a pop-front closure. First loosen it, until you can slip a finger under the lacings. Just untying the laces will cause the body to expand slightly. Work slack in, from there. Loosen gradually, then remove. (Pop-front busks can be popped open at this time.) Otherwise, especially if the weather is hot, the lady may get "corset rush" and pass out. This is because the blood suddenly floods into the compressed tissues, momentarily diverting it from other uses, such as feeding the brain. If you must cut a knotted lace, cut only at the knot, and loosen normally before removing.

Medical emergencies involving the corsetted: If a lady becomes ill and sick to her stomach while wearing a corset, take her to the restroom immediately (or send a lady with her, if you are a gentleman). Remove corset, even if the nausea seems to be mild. If she is actively being ill, she will probably not be able to remove her corset herself, so remove it for her, speedily but not suddenly. Time the corset removal so that it happens between stomach contractions, lessening the danger of choking, should she gasp for air. Haste is important. If she is between bouts of throwing up, you may pop open a pop-front corset without gradual unlacing, but be prepared in case she faints. Do not do so on a person who is actively being ill. The point in removing the corset is to prevent choking on vomit during spasms, so exercise caution and common sense. And, speaking from experience, throwing up in a corset is one of the most unpleasant experiences one can have! Do not let the lady reassume her corset, even if she cannot refasten her dress. Lacing her into it again may trigger a fresh bout of illness.

Choking on food: Obviously, the normal Heimlech maneuver is not going to work! Not only would you be fighting armor-plating, there is already almost no air in the lower lungs to force the food out. Have her bend over and strike her sharply between the shoulderblades four times, then perform the Heimlech maneuver normally used on pregnant women: i.e., pulling your locked fists straight back against the sternum from behind, at the level of the shoulderblades. There should be enough air in the upper lungs to dislodge the food. Repeat as necessary. Do NOT attempt to unlace her! Unlacing may create a POSSIBLY FATAL suction which could lodge the food further into the windpipe.

Heat problems: Again, unlace the lady and let her lie down in a cool place (if possible). In hot weather, it is very important to unlace the corset slowly, as this is the time when people are the most prone to pass out on being released from its stay-clad embrace. Offer her a cool, wet cloth. Do not splash water on her. Feed fluids, pickles, Gatorade, etc. Do not give alcohol unless no other fluid is available, and she has stopped sweating.

IN SEVERE MEDICAL EMERGENCIES (ESP. INCLUDING SHOCK, RESPIRATORY FAILURE, HEART FAILURE, ETC.), YOU SHOULD REMOVE THE CORSET AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE, SO IT WILL NOT INTERFERE WITH RESUSITIVE ATTEMPTS. This is one case where popping pop-fronts, cutting laces all the way down immediately, is the best course. Doing so may cause breathing and/or heartbeat to resume. If it does not, and you have training, proceed with life-saving measures. Do not attempt to give either mouth-to-mouth breathing or CPR to a corsetted woman unless you have no other alternative. Remove the corset first. Do inform emergency medical personnel that the victim had been wearing a corset at the time of the incident, though. This is necessary data in helping determine the condition of the victim (and its possible causes).

A note on Hoops and Fire: Women who wear corsets often wear hoops, farthingales, paniers, etc. in addition. These devices have a more sinister property than merely getting in the way, getting caught on things, etc. They catch fire.

Prevention: Be careful around fire, and always know where your hoop is going. Pushing on one side of a hoop will cause an equal bulging on the other. Make sure it isn't bulging into a fire or candle. Be aware of the location of all flames. Remember to keep a two-foot safety area around your body, to avoid hazard.

If a Lady Catches Fire: Try the old "drop and roll" method. If you are on fire, fall to the ground and roll on the flames to put them out. If you are present when a woman catches fire, and she is too shocked to do anything herself, pull her down and roll her on the ground. The best method (if a fire extinguisher isn't handy!) is to smother the flames with a heavy fabric, preferably wet. If burns have occurred, apply cold water to ease the pain. Get medical attention.

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