WHEN you think of a corset, you might imagine dramatic vintage ladies sucking as they cling to a bedpost as a feisty maid aggressively laces them up. Nextflix’s Regency-Inspired Drama Bridgerton presents similar scenes such torturous.
Ahead of the show’s second season, Simone Ashley, who plays new heroine Kate Sharma, has complained about Glamor Magazine about the horrors of wearing a corset. She claimed her corset caused her “a lot of pain” and “changed her body”.
In season one, Prudence Featherington (played by Bessie Carter) was tight in a corset. Prudence’s mother urges her daughter to keep going: “I was able to squeeze my waist down to the size of an orange and a half when I was Prudence’s age.” Rather useless, when regency dresses fall from an empire line under the chest, which obscures the waist. Unlike their later Victorian counterparts, Regency corsets focused on enhancing a woman’s assets, not her size.
This scene is ubiquitous in period dramas, from Elizabeth Swan passing out in Pirates of the Caribbeanto Rose DeWitt Bukater unable to breathe Titanicand, of course, Mammy’s signature line, “Just Hold on, and suck in!”, as Scarlet O’Hara clings to a bedpost in carried away by the wind. It may be an onscreen shorthand for the restricted lives of historical women, but it stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of historical corsets and women.
After centuries of women (and some men) wearing corsets to support and shape the body, it was Victorian men who taught us to hate corsets. Brace-related health issues were a myth, constructed by doctors, to promote their own patriarchal perspectives. So, you might be surprised to learn that period dramas perpetuate Victorian misogyny.
The list of medical complaints only 19and-century doctors attributed to the corset seems endless. Constipation, pregnancy complications, breast cancer, postpartum infection and tuberculosis have all been blamed on the brace. A Victorian physician, Benjamin Orange Flower, author of the 1892 pamphlet fashion slavesasserted that “if women continue this destructive habit, the race must inevitably deteriorate”.
As science has developed, the medical root of these diseases has been identified and corset guilt has been disproved. The corset offers an example of gender bias in medical research. The many ailments of George IV, one of many men to wear a corset in the 19and century, have never been blamed for her wearing a corset.
Some corsets have even been specially designed to be healthy and supportive. Publication of the lingerie company Gossards Corsets from a surgical point of view in 1909, which promoted the flexibility and supportability of the corset, which could “maintain the lines demanded by fashion, but without discomfort or injury”.
But the hourglass shape of the late 19and-century was not what the women of the Regency wanted. They were only interested in their breasts, as shown by Hilary Davidson. The breasts had to be lifted and separated into two round orbs. Regency corsets (or “stays” as they were called) were often short, always soft, and never very boned. Their goal was to support the bust, never restriction. I wonder what Regency women would have thought of modern bras with pinching straps and chafing underwires.
Historical corsets were ingenious, light and flexible. Whalebone (which is baleen from a whale’s mouth and not real bone) is wonderfully flexible and molds to the body underneath – and many corsets were simply reinforced with cotton cord . Corsets reduced back pain from poor posture and had expanding portions for pregnancy.
The problem then in depicting corsets in period dramas is not “historical accuracy,” an idea widely debunked by historians, including Bridgerton‘s own historical adviser. BridgertonThe suits are happily reminiscent of designer George Halley’s highly embellished and brightly colored empire line fashion designs of the 1960s. Bridgerton’The costumes are historically inspired by fantasy.
Bridgerton is to Regency England what game of thrones is at the Wars of the Roses, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a fantastic reinvention, creatively inspired by the past. The idea that his costumes must be “historically accurate,” or that such an aspiration is even possible, is not at issue here.
This is a matter of historical error. Women of the past had power over their bodies and the way they dressed. They were smart about how they got the proportions fashionable, padding the hips and bust, rather than reducing the waistline. Like the show’s famous seamstress, Madame Delacroix, many of the professionals who dressed them were women themselves. We remove this agency and ingenuity when we assume that historical women were passive dolls, dressed and locked up by a patriarchal society.
For historical women, corsets were a supportive garment, allowing them to follow the fashionable figure without having to diet, exercise or undergo cosmetic surgery. It would be a refreshing change to see period dramas embrace this feminist history of the corset, instead of falling back on a misogynistic stereotype.
Serena Dyer is a Lecturer in the History of Design and Material Culture at De Montfort University in Leicester, UK.