|The lovely Princess Mathilde of Bavaria|
First off, a few definitions. Tight lacing is when you wear your corset tighter and tighter very gradually (months or years, not days) until you get a smaller waist.
Corset training is when you wear a corset to get a smaller waist. It is not as extreme as tight-lacing.
Coutil (or coutille) is the fabric commonly used for corsets. It's woven in a herringbone weave, which makes it very strong and unlikely to stretch.
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I'm sure the one of the first things people think of when they think of corsets is the scene from Gone With the Wind where Scarlett is holding on to the bedpost while Mammy pulls her corset tight.
|"Just hold on and suck in!"|
Scarlett, being a pampered young girl would have started wearing stays when she was young, training her waist for years until she could squeeze into a 20 inch-waisted dress. Laura Ingalls, on the other hand, a farm girl through and through, refused to wear her corset when she was growing up, preferring to run around unrestrained, much to the dismay of Ma, who had an 18 inch waist herself before she was married.
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One of the common arguments against corsets is that they distort your internal organs. Yes, they do move them around, but you can take your corset off any time you like. Child birth also distorts your internal organs and that lasts for nine months!
Corsets are also recommended today by doctors to help correct scoliosis.
Not to mention recommended by me to correct bad posture. ;) Young ladies and also young men would wear corsets to give them good posture and poise. Yes, you read that right.
Also, corsets give a strong base on which to wear your petticoats. A drawstring cutting into your waist gets old after a while, trust me.
"But wait a minute, Veronica," you say "Aren't corsets uncomfortable to wear?"
No, not really. Corsets are skin-tight, so naturally if you are not a perfect size 10 or 14 or whatever, and you buy one off the shelf, it won't fit right and it won't be comfortable. You have to make one or have one custom-made to your dimensions for them to work. Just like a pair of shoes - if they don't fit right, you'll be miserable in them.
There were people like Camille Clifford who laced themselves down to an 18 inch wasp waist, but the majority of people didn't. Women used a variety of ways to make their waists appear smaller.
One of the ways women enhanced their figure and made their waist look even smaller was with bust and hip pads. I will not go into that and will instead point you to a blog post by American Duchess.
Illusion was another way women appeared to have small waists. Common sense says that if you put something excessively big next to something of normal size, the normal-sized object will appear smaller. Big sleeves and full skirts were two ways to make your waist look smaller.