By Anastasia Vartanian

“Historically, no one wore an off-the-rack corset” says dress historian Kass McGann.

In late February, a story by the British tabloid The Sun reported that Netflix would be banning corsets from its Regency-period drama Bridgerton, with production companies BBC and ITV to follow suit. The reason? Reports of actresses – such as Bridgerton’s Simone Ashley and Dangerous Liaisons Alice Englert – experiencing injury, pain, or discomfort after hours of daily wear. Many headlines later, Netflix and the BBC have denied claims of the ban. But whether or not the ban is actually going ahead, it sparked online discourse about corsetry: how restrictive it really is, the quality of the garments used in film and T.V. sets, and the position of the corset in pop culture.

The vision of a young woman being tightly laced into her corset by her mother or servant is a familiar one in cinema. Often it relates to themes of oppression, conformity, duty, and pain in the pursuit of beauty. It is such a recognizable trope – a visual shorthand for the lack of women’s autonomy – that it appeared in Season 1 of Bridgerton despite the fact that corsets from the early 18th century were not designed to be tightly laced, dress historian Kass McGann of Reconstructing History, pointed out over email. (Though, in fairness, Bridgerton is not known for historical accuracy with its costumes.) McGann notes that this type of scene is included more to convey a mood than to accurately represent the dress of the time. “You can’t tell a story about girls being forced into societal restrictions by their parents without the use of corsetry.”

There’s also the idea of a young, upper-class woman fainting (think Keira Knightley in Pirates of the Caribbean), cinched to within an inch of her life, and rendered useless for physical work. But all manner of women wore corsets, including working women, for which corsets and stays “provided back support,” continues McGann. Working-class women’s bodies didn’t restrict them from carting coal for the fires, scrubbing the floors, and more. 

Granted, the pursuit of an impossibly small waist has been taken to extremes throughout history, but according to McGann, even those pursuing high fashion didn’t wear their corsets drawn to extremes all the time. One such extreme was enabled by tight lacing, which came into fashion with the invention of metal eyelets in the late 1820s, creating the hourglass figure, which was popular during the Victorian period. This did, reportedly, cause issues: the compression of the organs from tight lacing restricted breathing – thus, the fainting – and could cause poor digestion. Long-term tight lacing could atrophy back muscles and led to apparent cases of rib deformationDoctors at the time wrote about the effects of corsetry. “Indeed, the proponents of Dress Reform in the 1850s did not advocate for the rejection of corsetry but the cessation of tight lacing,” says McGann. Unfortunately, the S-bend “Gibson Girl” corsets that followed the Victorian hourglass trend were also harmful to the wearer’s spine due to the posture they caused.

However, the corset’s reputation is even more confusing when considering that some contemporary coverage was part of a moral panic rather than based on scientific research. Believing that tight lacing indicated vanity and indecency, priests condemned it, and newspapers satirized it. Fashion historian Valerie Steele argues in her 2001 book, The Corset: A Cultural History, that the adverse health effects were exaggerated.

Provided that actresses aren’t being tightly laced to Victorian extremes or contorted into an Edwardian S-shape, why are there so many complaints? Some argue that the problem isn’t the corset itself. McGann has worked with a number of production companies based in London, New York, and Toronto and with shows that have appeared on Netflix and Amazon. She tells me that, in her experience, as much of the costuming as possible is hired or pulled from the production company’s existing costume wardrobe. This includes corsets, which costume departments usually don’t make for their actresses. “They shove them into whatever they have in their wardrobe departments or what they can rent from suppliers,” says McGann.

This practice ignores the fact that corsets must be fit to the wearer to be comfortable: “Historically, no one wore an off-the-rack corset… Of course, the actresses are uncomfortable and may even experience pain and injury. They wouldn’t expect their actresses to spend 12-14 hours a day in shoes that didn’t fit them, would they?” Another point McGann makes about the historical inaccuracy of corsets in period dramas is the lack of shifts underneath. Shifts were a type of protective undergarment that movies tend to leave out, “because corsets with a shift aren’t sexy.” Not wearing a shift can cause rope burn from pulling the corset laces too quickly.

She goes on to mention that costume designers are not necessarily clothing historians, tailors, or dressmakers. “They tell a story through clothing,” but there is no obligation for the garment to be comfortable or wearable in the real world. McGann agrees that being squeezed into an ill-fitting garment for hours on end is irresponsible: “I do not doubt that the actresses’ managers are demanding they write corsets out of their contracts because of this abuse. And so they should.”

In one form or another, corsets and stays were widely worn in Western Europe since the 16th century and fell out of widespread use in the 20th century (although modern shapewear and waist trainers are based on a similar premise.) Women – and even men – wore different styles of the corset, at varying degrees of tightness, at all levels of society. 

McGann believes the corset as a tool for the patriarchy is a modern concept, but “As a scholar, I can tell you this debate has been going on for decades… People have done their doctoral dissertations on both sides of the argument, and yet both arguments can still be made.” The reality is complex, and much of the nuance is understandably lost in pop culture portrayals. And, when misused for the sake of T.V. and film, it’s clear how this adds to the garment’s fraught history. 

Images courtesy of Netflix

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