Fashionable Victorian women, whether living in Paris, London, New York or Saint-Petersburg, had one thing in common: they took in shallow breaths. Eating like a sparrow and fainting frequently was the price they paid for an 18-inch waist and exaggerated feminine curves. As the century neared its end, the lacing of corsets became more and more vicious:
It is only two months ago that my employer insisted upon my reducing my waist from 16in to 14in, on the ground that she must have a model to show the newest fashions on. How could I refuse? I know many girls who would lace their waist till they fainted to get a good situation. And so to please these ladies, I am locked day and night into a vice which hardly allows me to breathe.
Visit Antique Corset Gallery for a closer look at those instruments of torture.
More about corsets in Wikipedia.