A dinner jacket is great. A sports jacket is fine. The one piece of clothing that few people wish to wear, however, is a straightjacket. Originally designed in the early 1700s for the purpose of restraining inmates of insane asylums, the garment makes upper body movement virtually impossible. In modern times the straightjacket would be viewed as something akin to an instrument of torture, but it was once considered a humane alternative to confinement bonds such as ropes or chains.
Straightjackets are usually manufactured of canvas or some other heavy material. The jacket has very long, closed-end sleeves that can be tied together or connected with handcuffs. When one is placed in a straightjacket his arms are crossed. When the sleeves are pulled tight, and locked on either the front or back, the wearer has little or no mobility. Many such jackets also feature a wide strap, usually made of leather, which runs under the wearer’s crotch area and keeps the jacket from being pulled over his head.
In the days before advances were made in pharmacology and the proper diagnosis of mental illness, doctors were largely baffled as to what course of treatment should be taken with those considered insane. The primary thought was that the patient should be prevented from causing harm to himself or others. Patients were often placed in asylums that were more akin to a prison than a hospital, and either locked in cells, shackled, or tied to chairs. Thus, the straightjacket was considered a great leap in compassionate care.
History does not record the name of the inventor of the straightjacket, but early, literary references to the device indicate that it originated in either France or England. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence – who is also considered the “Father of American Psychiatry” – favored the use of restraints as a treatment for mental illness. He is believed to have endorsed the straightjacket as appropriate and merciful. What physicians of the era did not know was that being confined in straightjacket can be exceedingly painful. Immobilization of the arms in such a manner leads to impaired blood circulation, swelling, numbness, and agonizing muscle cramps.
Straightjackets in the 21st century are now more the province of escape artists and stage artists than they are the medical community. Straightjacket escapes were popularized in the early 1900s by the magician Harry Houdini, who gained fame by escaping from the jackets while being hung upside down from great heights, tossed in rivers, and locked in boxes. Straightjackets are also thought to serve as torture instruments and interrogation aids in some countries ruled by totalitarian regimes.