Friday, February 11, 2011

Chinese foot-binding versus European corset wearing

Chinese foot-binding versus European corset wearing

In one topic in History class, my student (in grade 7) and I discussed these so-called torturing phenomena towards women several centuries ago. These are indeed not new ‘things’ for me since I read some books about women when doing research for my thesis whose main topic is about a phenomenon of woman madness in the nineteenth century America, using Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella entitled “The Yellow Wallpaper” as the main data. Nevertheless, when talking about these two phenomena, I did some more research in the internet.


In fact, this inhumane custom was practiced for approximately one thousand years in China, beginning in the tenth century and ending in the first half of twentieth century. Wikipedia stated that the origin of this practice was from the desire to emulate the naturally tiny feet of a favored concubine of a prince to a story of an empress who had club-like feet, which became viewed as a desirable fashion.

In the beginning of its practice it was carried out only among the elite and only in the wealthiest parts of China. This practice shows the ability of the husbands to afford their wives who did not need to work, who existed only to serve their husbands and direct household servants while performing no labor themselves. The economic and social attractions of such women may well have translated into sexual desirability among elite men.

However, several centuries later, this ‘custom’ was practiced not only among the wealthiest. By the seventeenth century, Han Chinese girls, from the wealthiest to the poorest people, had their feet bound, although it was somewhat less prevalent among poorer women or those that had to work for a living, especially in the fields.

For me personally, this is a very interesting finding. There is a tendency that people from the lower social class imitate what people from the higher social class have been doing. In the case of this foot-binding, one can say that the lower social class people do not really understand the main cause of doing this. When women from poor family have their foot bound while they still have to do manual labor, they themselves will be in trouble. They do not mind it perhaps because they crave to be included into the high social class community? The stereotyping about “beautiful women” in Chinese culture always make people not use their common sense?


The history of when this corset wearing is not really convincing. Some sources mentioned corset (this term ‘corset’ itself started to be used in the nineteenth century) was used for the first time by Catherine de’ Medici, wife of King Henry II of France in the sixteenth century. If at first it was used “only” as a support for women’s body to “mold the torso into a cylindrical shape, and to flatten and raise the bustline”, several centuries later, especially in the middle of the nineteenth century, during the Victorian era, where the strong domestication of women’s lives started to be carried out rigidly, after the Industrial Revolution, ‘corset’ was believed to be a woman’s main need to support her body because women were thought of the weaker sex. Women need a ‘support’ to stand upright. 

Similar to the phenomenon of Chinese foot binding where at the beginning it was practiced among the wealthiest families, corset was also mostly worn by high class ladies. They did not need to do many household chores because they had paid servants at home to take care of such cumbersome matters. Lower class ladies would wear looser corsets and simpler clothes, with less weight.

The most shocking finding was in fact when a source said that the corset was deemed morally and medically necessary. Tight lacing was considered virtuous – a loose corset was probably a sign of a loose woman. To keep her innocence and virtuosity, a lady had to be chaperoned everywhere she went. A woman needed to protect herself from lustful men (and her own morality) by wearing heavily reinforced layers of clothing and tight corsets that made getting undressed a long and difficult task.

This hostile view towards women reminded me of one regional rule in one city in Indonesia where women who work as ‘masseuse’ have to wear  girdled panties to “protect” themselves from lustful customers. When a man cannot appease his immoral lust, women have to take the risk รจ imprison themselves. In this case, Indonesia indeed are left behind some centuries compared to those European countries.

In conclusion, one can say that these both practices were carried out out of misogyny toward women. However, those tricky men used ‘reasons’ to make women feel proud to be a part of them.: Chinese foot-binding: because women wanted to be labeled “good and respected” wives, not to mentioned ‘lifted’ as to belong to high class society; European corset wearing, not only to fulfill society’s requirement to look beautiful (by having waist only around 16 inches) but also to be morally virtuous. 

GL7 15.28 110211

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