Revisited Myth #28: Women had ribs surgically removed to make their waists smaller.

18th-century tight lacing

18th-century tight lacing

The idea that women had two or more ribs surgically removed to make their midsections more compressible has been a corset myth for many years. I first came across it in 2006 at a DAR exhibit titled “Myth or Truth” that tried to debunk many often heard history myths. Their exhibit guide said, “Some early American myths prove to be so lasting that they even repeat themselves in the context of contemporary society. Marvel at the tiny waist of a 19th-century corset and your guide may tell you ‘some women had their lowest ribs removed surgically to achieve the fashionably thin waist.’ It may almost sound believable to you because you “heard Cher did it!”

Well, Cher didn’t do it, and neither did women in early America.

19th-century tight lacing

Chief Curator and Acting Director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology Valerie Steele is the author of many books on fashion, including The Corset: A Cultural History, published in 2001 by Yale University Press. In it, she firmly dismisses the removable ribs myth.

“There is no evidence at all that this practice ever existed in reality. After years of research, neither Lynn Kutsche nor I found any nineteenth-century medical article about this procedure. . . . historians sometimes claim that rib removal occurred , but without providing evidence . . . ” She goes on to point out that such an operation could not have been performed without putting the patient at serious risk of dying. Chest surgery was extremely high-risk, anesthesia was unavailable until the middle of the 19th century, and even after that, not well understood and therefore risky. “It would have been very difficult for a woman to find a physician willing to undertake such a hazardous procedure for cosmetic purposes. Histories of plastic surgery do not mention rib removal.” As author Bill Bryson bluntly states in his new book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, “19th-century surgical techniques simply were not up to it.”

Rumors of movie stars having their lower ribs removed still circulate. Although it is theoretically possible today to perform such an operation, “no one,” according to Dr. John Sherman of Cornell University’s medical school, “has owned up to performing such a procedure.” The persistent rumor that Cher had her ribs removed probably originated with the fact that she has had many other sorts of plastic surgery, and she has a small waist.









8 Responses to Revisited Myth #28: Women had ribs surgically removed to make their waists smaller.

  1. Kerry Berger says:

    I never can imagine just how uncomfortable a corset like those in the 19th century or earlier would be to wear. I wonder what damage it might cause to the internal organs?

  2. Historic Stitcher says:

    I have done a lot of research on them and until the 1880s the should be “snug”. In fact 1860s sources all say a 3 inch gap between the opening. In most documentation I have read, photos and painting I have seen they don’t alter the bodies natural look. Most only change your shape 2-3 inches and thats is on a bloated day. After the 1880s to the 1910s that changes dremataticly as girls tried to look like the Gibson girl. That is the 5 inches or more shape change. At least that is what I have found. In my professional life I wear 1860s and 1620s corsets/stays/bodies and are actually comfortable. My 1860s corset changes my waist by 2 inches. While my 1620s bodies bring me in only 1 inch.

    • Cassidy says:

      Do you have a period source for how much of a gap was supposed to be left? I’ve been trying to find them (for any era, tbh) to no avail.

      • Historic Stitcher says:

        One I think was on the copywrite info for the corset pattern from past patterns. They are one of the most accurate civil war patterns I have worked with. Most of my civil war fashion documents are in storage. You can also note it in some sketchings of the era. If you have the time to look for some origional sketches or adverisments sometimes you find one showing the gap. I think most reeanctors agree to the 3 inches rule.

  3. […] common myth is that women went so far as to have ribs removed to achieve a slimmer waist. But surgery in the 1800’s was pretty horrific, and it’s […]

  4. […] For me, growing up I only ever heard negative opinions about corsets. Things like “they made ladies faint” (a la Gone with the Wind), “ladies couldn’t breathe while wearing them” (a la Meet me in St. Louis), and “ladies removed their ribs to be able to squeeze into them” [which is debunked quite nicely here]. […]

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