Adventures In Tight Lacing

One time, Amy Crowder and her boyfriend, Jeff Cady, stopped by the AutoZone at 63rd and Troost for a can of oil.

“Damn! Look at that tiny waist!” bellowed a man at the front counter. “It’s that lady on TV!”

Crowder and Cady hurried toward the rear of the tiny auto-parts store. There, customers gawked at Crowder, who stood 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighed 130 pounds. At the time, her waist was no bigger around than a large can of Turtle Wax.

The AutoZone customer had mistaken Crowder for Cathie Jung, a New England socialite whose waist was the smallest in the world — a mere 15 inches around. He’d apparently seen Jung on the Fox network’s Guinness World Records: Primetime television show.

Crowder, a pretty woman with auburn hair that flowed in curls down her back, was proud of her 38-18-37 measurements. And she had long studied Jung’s hourglass figure.

Jung had molded her world-recordholding physique over twenty years of “tightlacing” — strapping herself into a corset several inches tighter than her natural waist size and wearing the garment day and night until she achieved her 34-15-39 shape.

Crowder reduced her own waist from 26 to 18 inches using the same method. She started slowly, wearing custom-fitted corsets that she designed herself. First she squeezed her 26-inch waist into a corset measuring 22 inches at the waist and wore it for twelve hours a day; later, she wore it all day except for an hour in the morning. When Crowder’s waist dropped to 22 inches after six months, she switched to an 18-inch corset.

“It really started to change my body,” she says. “Wearing the corset [all the time] reshapes the lower floating ribs and makes the body into more of a cone shape.”

Crowder has carved out more than just a curvaceous figure.

Working out of the second floor of a two-story arts-and-crafts-style bungalow she and Cady share on Harrison near 55th Street, Crowder creates specially designed corsets for clients around the world. For those who want to take their curves to the extreme, the popular Hourglass corset is an “excellent choice for the occasional tightlacer.” There’s the Numan corset, designed for “larger males.” And for humid summer months, ventilated corsets of polyester and cotton twill release body heat. There is no release, however, from the Discipline corset — which stretches from bust to midthigh, sometimes incorporating as much as 50 feet of laces — until a merciful dominatrix decides to free the submissive corsetee. The truly penitent can order the Sarcophagus, a discipline corset extending from chest to ankle.

Crowder’s corsets have supported her well. After four years in business, she has nearly 2,000 customers, whose waistlines range from 15 to 53 inches around. Her creations start at $250 for a short summer corset and peak at $1,500 for the Sarcophagus; a couple of years ago, she sold nearly $90,000 worth of them.

Crowder’s fascination with corsets began back in 1984, when she was a seventh-grader at Park Hill Day School. A math nerd at heart, Crowder loved figuring out how things worked. One night when she was thirteen, she and her mom happened across a TV rerun of the 1965 comedy The Great Race, a movie about a turn-of-the-century auto race around the world.

In one scene, a butler releases the drunken Prince Hapnik (Jack Lemmon) from a corset at bedtime. In another, Natalie Wood, playing a cigar-smoking suffragette, sports a pink corset during a food fight involving more than 2,000 meringue pies. Crowder wondered about the mysterious garment that made both men and women curvaceous in all the right places.

“I knew right then that I had to have one,” she recalls. “I asked my mom about corsets, and she said nobody wore them anymore. So I started researching at the library.”

Crowder perused musty books about the garment frequently described as torturous. She read chilling tales of cracked ribs and livers sliced in half. She thumbed yellowed pictures of sadistic governesses lacing the breath out of young charges.

“It was such a mysterious garment and seemed to have all these taboos attached to it,” Crowder says. She was determined to make one for herself. Crowder had learned to sew in her home-economics class, but when she searched for patterns for the dead art of corsetry, all she found at the library were useless sketches of ancient underwear.

Crowder created her own pattern. She measured her waist, bust and hips and cut multiple pieces of denim for the complicated garment, experimenting with different styles and using wire coat hangers for support where tailors had once used whalebone. By age fourteen, Crowder had completed a stunning corset for herself.

Standing before the bathroom mirror of her parents’ home in Parkville, the small-busted girl had a feminine figure for the first time. But she could wear the ill-fitting creation for only an hour before she started gasping for breath and had to wriggle out of it. After several more attempts, she made one that fit.

Crowder’s new fashion taste was a private predilection she didn’t dare disclose.

Picture Mammy tugging Scarlett O’Hara’s corset tighter as Scarlett grasps the bedpost in Gone With the Wind.

Corsets like Scarlett’s, which usually covered a woman from her bustline to her hips, fastened in the front and laced in the back. They pushed the abdomen in and the breasts upward and out.

First worn by aristocratic women in the sixteenth century, corsets were commonplace by the mid-1800s. Paris claimed 10,000 corset-makers — most of them male — who sold more than a million corsets annually. The fashionable apparel accentuated the hips and waist — but some women could never have small enough waists.

Die-hard tightlacers squeezed their waists down to 16 inches or less, writes Valerie Steele, chief curator and director of New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, in her book The Corset: A Cultural History. Nineteenth-century physicians recorded cases of formerly corseted cadavers with displaced organs and shriveled intestines. Tightlacing young were accused of indulging in the evils of masturbation.

At the same time, pro-tightlacing pamphlets and books emerged along with underground periodicals containing Forum-style letters about tightlacing, piercing, underwear, and bondage and domination.

Steele writes that between 1867 and 1874, The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine published more than 150 letters about corsetry. The letters (many of which scholars believe were written by men and based more on fantasy than reality) revealed a sadomasochistic subculture of people who gained sexual pleasure from corsets. The magazine received so many letters about whipping reluctant corset trainees that it had to publish a special flogging supplement.

Nineteenth-century doctors blamed corsets for causing prolapsed uteruses, inflamed livers, bladder hernias, kidney diseases, bone displacement and that old standby of female maladies, “hysteria.” They warned that wearing the constrictive garments could result in ugly children.

Around 1880, makers of “electric corsets” in London and New York promised that their electromagnetic underwear could ward off and cure kidney and liver diseases, rheumatism and nervous disorders, while sparing ladies the rigors of tightlacing.

That practice went out of style around the end of the nineteenth century. “Above all else, every stout woman must stop thinking that she can wear a corset two or three sizes smaller than she needs,” asserted a Women’s Home Companion article in 1912. “What earthly difference does it make whether a large, well-built woman’s waist measures 26 or 30 inches? It is how she looks in her corset, and how she feels in it, that counts.”

The corset’s fall from favor in the early twentieth century coincided with the advent of looser dress and the women’s suffrage movement. The garment made a brief comeback in the 1950s, and Madonna spurred new interest when she wore one for her Blonde Ambition tour in 1990.

Crowder kept her secret under wraps until she met Cady through an online personals ad five years ago.

Cady, at the time a 28-year-old theatrical-lighting designer, was intrigued by Crowder’s description of herself as a “corseted goddess.”

“Some men like to put women in a corset,” she hinted to Cady one evening.

One night when he arrived to pick her up for a date, the time was right. Crowder asked him to lace her up.

Cady wrapped the black satin corset around her. He fastened the busk, a steel slot in front that provided the same lift once supplied by whalebone. He turned Crowder around and gently pulled the long laces that dangled from the center of the corset’s waist until both sides met. Then he pulled harder.

“I could tell this was almost a taboo with Amy,” Cady says.

“I was afraid he would think I was very, very weird,” Crowder recalls. “I was worried about being rejected.” Instead, the private moment drew them closer.

“I thought it made her look pretty,” he recalls.

In October 1997, the couple moved to Coldwater, Michigan, a rural town of 10,000 people near the Illinois border where Cady had taken a job as a lighting designer for a regional theater. Crowder got a job at a trailer-hitch factory.

She quickly grew bored. By designing corsets in her spare time and schooling herself on Web design, however, she was piecing together a whole new business. She and Cady put up a Web site with order forms and pictures of Crowder wearing her designs. They called their enterprise Wasp Creations, a nod to women whose tightlaced figures resemble wasps.

Orders began to arrive. A woman from Indiana wanted one made with a purple brocade. Then Crowder heard from a woman in Germany who owned a ready-to-wear corset shop.

“When that second order came in, I put in my notice at the factory,” Crowder recalls.

Soon Crowder was working fifty to sixty hours a week to meet the mounting demand. After six months she was getting 22 orders a month. By then, the couple had another new interest. They would “train” Crowder’s waist.

I always thought the pictures of Ethel Granger’s 13-inch waist were fascinating,” Crowder says.

Ethel Granger’s waist defied all natural proportions.

She had her husband, Will, to thank for it.

Will and Ethel married sometime around 1925, when both were in their early twenties. They lived in Peterborough, England, about 70 miles north of London, where corset-making was once a major industry. Electric trams ran the streets of the town, which had a population of about 30,000 people.

Will was a primary-school teacher. By the time he married Ethel, he had spent years exploring his numerous fetishes — which he went on to detail in The Biography of Mrs. Ethel M. Granger. (The “book” is a compilation of letters from Will Granger to one of his friends; though the Pitch could no official publishing house, copies circulate online.) At age fourteen, Will had tried on a corset, panties and silk stockings, and teetered across his dressing room in high heels. Around the same time, he pierced his penis with the chisel point of a 2-inch needle. Later he performed multiple ear and penile piercings, constantly stretching and poking himself, never quite satisfied with his handiwork. Eventually he moved on to the body of his new bride.

Ethel stood 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighed around 100 pounds. Will insisted that his young wife begin wearing corsets with 20-inch waists. “She stormed and wept, as she surveyed herself in the glass, saying that she could never go out like that, for she felt imprisoned and rigidly confined, so unable to bend,” Will wrote. Eventually, though, she relented.

“How attractive she now looked, with the swaying walk, perched on her high heels, with that wasplike waist,” he wrote. “She was a finished picture of femininity with a dainty hat, heavy earrings swinging from her ears, her face heavily made up, and lastly, a pair of tiny hands encased in long, creaseless, black kid gloves.”

Will cinched progressively tighter.

By the 1950s, after thirty years of tightlacing, Ethel’s waist had shrunk permanently to thirteen inches. At Will’s insistence, a tattoo artist had applied permanent makeup to her face and lips. Will pierced Ethel’s nose and ears and hung heavy rings from the sagging holes.

By the time Ethel was in her fifties, during rare uncorseted moments, she could pose in front of Will’s camera for only a few minutes unsupported. Her abdomen and back muscles had atrophied over decades of nonuse. A snapshot reportedly taken by her husband shows a fiftysomething Ethel clad in lacy underwear and bra. Her gloved hands support the small of her back, while her cupidlike lips seem set in a pained attempt at a weary smile.

“Ethel loosened up,” Crowder says, after Will died in 1974. Her waist expanded a little, though it remained disproportionately small until her death in 1982 at age 77 — an event that forfeited her Guinness title of Smallest Waist on a Living Person.

I like the feel of compression on my body,” Crowder says. “It’s a unique fetish, I suppose.”

Wearing a custom-fitted corset, she says, “is like being hugged all day.”

In 1999, Crowder and Cady moved back to Kansas City. Crowder was serious about waist training, and Cady was eager to assist. The couple had even penned a contract to ensure that Crowder didn’t stray from a rigorous regimen.

According to the “Waist Training Contract,” Crowder — “the trainee” — would wear a corset for at least 22 hours a day. She had to sleep in the corset. If she complained about its tightness, she should do so only “in a ladylike manner.” Cady would school her in “general deportment, movement and exotic dress.”

Sometimes he’d require her to walk in heels “ranging from the mild to the severe for a period of time until they become second nature and trainee takes on the demeanor and movements of a proper lady while in them.” Cady’s job was to chart Crowder’s progress, measuring her waist each morning before the daily ritual of lacing her up.

After a year or so, Crowder’s waist was trained.

“I’m not skinny; I’m curvy,” she told women who stopped her at the Brookside Price Chopper to ask how she had become so thin.

“I had one lady say, ‘How dare you wear a corset,’ and she called it an instrument of torture,” recalls Crowder. “That really hurt me.”

“How can you breathe?” some people would ask. “Does it hurt?”

“I have to breathe differently,” Crowder admits. “I can’t take deep, diaphragm breaths, so my breathing is far shallower when I’m in a corset.”

Crowder wears a corset and dress around the house when she works — but no shoes, for better control of the pedals on her sewing machine. And she leaves the corset at home when she pursues her serious hobby: mountain biking. “I’m very much a tomboy,” Crowder says.

Unlike Granger, Crowder has her limits.

“Right now, I wear the corset about fourteen hours a day,” she says, though the waist-training contract stipulating that she wear it for 22 hours a day is still in place. “In the end, I have complete control over my body, even with the contract. I have many freedoms that women throughout the world don’t have. I have my own business. Tightlacing is just a different aspect of my life.”

Crowder has no health concerns about tightlacing, she says — she exercises, monitors her body and eats regularly. Many of the horror stories that once circulated about the organ-crushing effects of corsets are more urban legend than reality, she says.

“I’ve yet to come across a true, documented case of cracked ribs.”

In the second-floor sewing room, Crowder and Cady work amid a nucleus of three sewing machines and a laptop computer, with their dog Scarlet panting by their sides.

“Shaping her body is an aesthetic we both enjoy,” Cady says. “I can help her keep up with it even when she doesn’t want to. I’m like any kind of trainer, training an athlete.”

“Like a trainer for a figure skater,” Crowder adds.

“It’s more of an intimate, sexual thing between us,” Crowder says. The contract, she says, is built on trust. “I want to make my body curvier [by tightlacing], and to give up control of my body to Jeff is part of it. I’m always reminded of his presence around me, that maybe his will is reshaping my body.”

Tightlacing in Kansas City can be a lonely endeavor. The Midwest is a “corset wasteland,” says Tom Lierse, of the Long Island Staylace Association in New York. Lierse posted Wasp Creations’ link on the LISA Web site — the largest corsetry site in the world, he says — when Crowder first went into business.

“She’s one of the best in the country,” says Lierse, whose site receives about 1,000 hits a day. Forty percent of his e-mail comes from people who tightlace; most live in Europe, where the practice is more common. Corset enthusiasts order books, corsets and waist-training items such as a “LISAbelt,” a leather training belt to wear when uncorseted “to keep your organs properly in place.”

Last month, Monique Scorse, an Australian transgendered man on vacation in San Francisco, traveled by train across the corset wasteland to visit Crowder for measurements. Scorse started tightlacing last year and has reduced his waist from 28 to 22 inches. The origin of Scorse’s fascination with corsets is hard to pinpoint.

“It’s almost like a mystery life. Those kind of desires are quite involved,” says Scorse, a former manager of a teachers’ professional association in Sydney. By taking hormone shots for upcoming sex-change surgery, Scorse has already attained a feminine figure. The corset just has a strong aesthetic appeal for him.

Making corsets is an art, he says, and he wanted Crowder to measure him personally for his custom-made garment. The corset’s design is the key to its comfort; an ill-fitting corset can crinkle and inflame the skin. A 20-inch waist is about as low as Scorse would want to go.

“I think for most people, when they get below ten in reduction [from the original, uncorseted waist size], it starts to look really bizarre,” Scorse says. “It starts to look a bit freakish.”

One of Crowder’s other customers, Debra McNeill, who lives in the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts, ordered a corset after she’d been involved in five car accidents in two years. Constant pain coursed through her legs, and her back always ached. She bought a back brace at a pharmacy and felt a little better. Then a doctor suggested that McNeill go to a pain clinic, where they could teach her to meditate. Instead, she taught herself how to meditate and ordered a corset from Wasp Creations.

“I’m probably the most straight-laced tightlacer there is,” jokes McNeill, a true white Anglo-Saxon Protestant who has traced her lineage back to ancestors who stepped off the Mayflower.

“I’m wearing a corset now 24/7,” says McNeill, who could barely vacuum the house before she sought extra support. Now she bales hay and rides horses on her ranch — while wearing a corset that fits better than those worn by her Puritan ancestors. “The corset stops my spine from compressing during the day, and that stops the pain in the legs. I take [the corset] off once a week for a full 24 hours just to make sure everything is moving the way it’s supposed to be.”

She does have to eat smaller meals, admits McNeill, whose 33-inch waist has shrunk to 27 inches. The smaller waistline is just an unexpected perk, she says.

“Isn’t that a fetish thing?” people ask McNeill when she tells them she wears a corset. “A lot of people can’t accept the idea of a normal person wearing a corset.”

This past April, Crowder fashioned a corset for Cathie Jung, the 65-year-old woman who in 1999 acquired the record for Smallest Waist on a Living Person.

Cathie lives with Bob, her husband of 43 years, in Mystic, Connecticut. She’s 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighs about 135 pounds. She’s been tightlacing for twenty years. Her measurements are 34-15-39.

The Guinness Book of World Records compares Jung’s waist to the circumference of “a regular jar of mayonnaise.” Ethel Granger’s 13-inch waist — only 2 inches smaller than Cathie Jung’s — was no bigger around than a compact disc.

Bob, a retired orthopedic surgeon, met Cathie in 1959, when both of them were students at Tufts University in Boston. Cathie came from a privileged background, though her mom had been booted out of Wellesley College in 1928 for smoking. Cathie often admired the expensive, custom-made girdles worn by her aunt in New York.

“Most women today, if they’re wearing anything [more constrictive] than pantyhose, think they’re being persecuted,” says Cathie, who didn’t start tightlacing until her three children were grown. Her first corsets measured 22 inches at the waist.

“After a while, it’s not uncomfortable,” Bob says. His fascination with corsets played a major part in his wife’s waist reduction. Bob says Cathie has always been a willing corsetee. “I asked her many times, if I were expired would she still wear the corsets, and she said she probably would.”

People who wish to break a world record usually send an application to Guinness in London, including proof of their accomplishments. Word of Cathie’s small waist got around, though, and the organization contacted her, Bob says.

Cathie says she didn’t set out to break any records. She and Bob say they aren’t fetishists, nor are they into the bondage scene. They are Victorian fashion enthusiasts who attend annual costume balls in Europe hosted by Les Gracieuses Modernes, an organization in Hamburg, Germany, for “persons who are fond of the elegant and feminine figure of ladies.” Ballgoers attired in Victorian gowns and undergarments pay $150 apiece to dine and dance, and the galas allow corseted women to show off their hourglass shapes. Cathie would prepare her waist for each year’s ball by wearing a corset most of the time. Before long, she was wearing a corset 24 hours a day, seven days a week to maintain her figure.

Cathie calls her corset “a second skin.” She says she wears it mostly for appearance but also because it pleases Bob.

“Many women wear things or do things for the men in their lives,” Cathie says. She even wears a corset while she and Bob deep-sea fish aboard The Bobcat, their 40-foot boat. “I wear leggings and an overshirt,” she says. “I’m not a slacks person. Bob doesn’t like jeans on women.”

Cathie claims to have no medical problems from wearing tight corsets, but she says she “gets a little lightheaded” if she doesn’t stay laced.

“Inside the body, there’s a lot of space taken up by hollow things, like the stomach and the intestines,” Bob explains. The liver, he says, is “pretty pliable.” The corset compresses the organs so they’re not filled with air. The stomach may shift up a bit. The bladder may move down. Bob likens the effect to that of pregnancy’s shoving around of a woman’s internal organs.

(The Pitch could find no local physicians or any at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists who could speak with any authority about the physical effects of tight corsets; medical school doesn’t cover the effects of wearing the outdated fashion. However, one local gynecologist said her “gut feeling” was that all those organs compressed together “couldn’t be a good thing.”)

“Bob’s been accused on many occasions of taking my ribs out,” Cathie says. When the pair appeared on a Japanese news program in Tokyo five years ago, producers X-rayed Cathie to make sure she still had all of her ribs. She insists that the permanent inward curve of her lower, floating ribs isn’t a problem.

“A proper corset shouldn’t hurt or inflict any damage on your body,” Cathie says. She eats regular meals — omelets for breakfast, a couple of snacks throughout the day and steak or pasta for dinner.

“I pay attention to my weight, but it’s not anything I have to worry about,” Cathie says. She doesn’t see her record-breaking waist as being disproportionate to the rest of her body. “When I look at myself, I don’t think I look different anymore. I’ve gotten very used to it now.”

Cathie says she would have tightlaced before age 45 if she hadn’t feared that gossip in their conservative New England town would harm Bob’s burgeoning medical practice in nearby New London.

“We didn’t want people singling me out as someone strange or weird.”

Designing a corset for the world’s smallest waist is a daunting task, Crowder says. The average woman’s “hipspring” (the difference between hip size and waist size) is around 10 inches. Cathie’s hipspring is a whopping 24 inches.

“We found Amy online,” says Cathie, who first contacted Crowder two years ago after hearing of her work.

Crowder chatted with Cathie by telephone several times.

“I told her I wasn’t comfortable just yet,” Crowder says. “The hipspring was too great.”

Ambitious corset-makers had tried and failed to custom-fit Cathie. Hoping to aid her seamstresses, Bob had even built a dress-form replica of his wife.

First Bob covered Cathie’s corseted body with Saran Wrap. Then he slathered plaster of paris on Cathie from her neck to her hips. After removing the dried cast, he filled it with a gooey substance like spray-in insulation. When Bob cracked open the cast, he held a foam replica of wasplike womanhood.

“The bottom line was a dress form that was actually me,” Cathie says.

As she set about designing Cathie’s corset, though, Crowder didn’t use the replica. She didn’t need it, she says.

Crowder has devised a complicated formula, based on fourteen body measurements, for calculating the size of each piece of fabric for every corset.

First, Crowder measures the chest, hips and waist. She divides the waist measurement into however many sections or “pieces” of fabric the corset contains. Then, on a special computer template, Crowder figures out the size of each piece for a perfect fit.

“Her figure is so unique,” Crowder says of Cathie. “I had to make all new calculations.”

Crowder sent Cathie a standard midhip, peach brocade with a zipper in front and laces in back. The front measured only 5-and-a-half inches from side to side at the waist.

But Crowder’s exacting process wasn’t foolproof.

Cathie sent her finished corset back to Crowder because the top was too large.

After Crowder altered the corset, it fit perfectly.

“Amy is very meticulous and very confident about what she can do,” Cathie says. Besides the thirty or so custom-made corsets that fit her now, Cathie still owns the larger corsets she had to set aside along the way to her world record.

One recent afternoon, Crowder was hard at work on a black leather discipline corset with a burgundy lining for a German customer who had ordered it for his wife. She prefers making “daily wear” corsets because designing them is more challenging than making black leather B&D-wear.

“Most ladies see that S&M stuff and get scared,” Crowder says. She sends instructions with all of her corsets, warning that tightlacing too much, too soon can seriously damage a body. A poorly designed corset can damage the back, pinch pelvic nerves and cause abdominal cramps, but one that is laced in moderation is safe, she says. “I’m really trying to bring more ladies into tightlacing. If [wearing a corset] is what a woman wants to do, she should go ahead and do it. Just so it doesn’t overtake her.”

Crowder’s waist once fluctuated between 18 and 19 inches around. She took a year off from tightlacing, and her waist has ballooned to 22 inches. As a new year begins, Crowder is determined to regain her eye-catching waist.

“I’ll probably go back to wearing the corset 23 hours a day,” she says. “I just want a curvy body.”

Her goal is a 19-inch waist.

“I wouldn’t want to go smaller than 18 inches,” Crowder says. “You can take it too far.”

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