Young and fashionable women were most likely to tightlace, especially for balls, fashionable gatherings, and like occasions for display. Older, poorer, and primmer women would have laced moderately – just enough to be decent.
The Victorian and Edwardian corset differed from earlier corsets in numerous ways. The corset no longer ended at the waist, but flared out and ended several inches below the waist. The corset was exaggeratedly curvaceous rather than cylindrical. It was also much sturdier in construction, thanks to improvements in technology. Spiral steel stays curved with the figure rather than dictating a cylindrical silhouette. While many corsets were still sewn by hand to the wearer’s measurements, there was also a thriving market in cheaper mass-produced corsets.
In the late years of the Victorian era, medical reports and rumors claimed that tightlacing was fatally detrimental to health. Women who suffered to achieve small waists were also condemned for their vanity and excoriated from the pulpit as slaves to fashion. It was frequently claimed that too small a waist was ugly rather than beautiful. Dress reformers exhorted women to abandon the tyranny of stays and free their waists for work and healthy exercise.