Posted by: chloejonas | December 14, 2020

Corsets, corsets, corsets as far as the eye can see!

We’ve all seen it before: a scene from a movie, tv show or book which depicts corsets as unbearably painful torture devices; most often, we see a woman braced against a bedframe with a handmaid pulling the lady’s corset as tightly as she can, while this poor, out-of-breath woman gasps from the sheer pain of wearing an everyday structural garment. Pirates of the Caribbean did it; The Handmaiden did it; even the new trailer for Shonda Rimes’ colorful and vivid Bridgerton on Netflix gets a jab at corsetry. So what’s the problem? Do corsets really, as Emma Stone said: shift your organs around? The historical fashion corner of Youtube seems to disagree. 

Bernadette Banner, a former Broadway costume designer and now-youtuber/ Victorian and Edwardian era fashion historian, made a video comparing her old back brace that she wore for several years throughout her teen-hood to combat her severe scoliosis to a 1890s Victorian corset she made herself. She filmed herself going about her daily activities in both her back brace and her corset for a day each, and compared the results. Banner said that what was most striking about her Victorian corset wearing experience was that in many ways it was more comfortable and easier to move in than the hard, plastic brace that she grew up in. While Banner noted that she did have to breathe differently– she described the way she breathed as “conical” as opposed to how she would normally– she also was able to do multiple (period accurate!) exercises in her corset perfectly well. 

Banner, popular as she is in the historical costuming/ fashion side of Youtube, is not the only person who’s chosen to take on the topic of corsetry. Karolina Zebrowska, a Polish Youtuber who also specializes in fashion history, made a truly incredible video essay (which I highly recommend) about where the argument against corsets comes from. Unsurprisingly, it turns out many of the most vocal opponents against corsets, who campaigned that corsets were unanimously, uniformly damaging to women’s health, were men. Men like, for example, Benjamin Flower in his pamphlet “Fashion’s Slaves,” in which he compares women wearing corsets to slavery and says: “Her health has been sacrificed, and in countless instances her life has paid the penalty; while posterity has been dwarfed, maimed, and enervated, and in body, mind, and soul deformed at its behests. … [T]he tight lacing required by the wasp waists has produced generations of invalids and bequeathed to posterity suffering that will not vanish for many decades.” One has to wonder if Flower was aware that many of his male colleagues were probably also wearing corsets without his knowledge. 

It seems largely, that within the messy, complicated discussion of corsets, there needs to be a distinction made between tight-lacing, which is what many of the scenes from the aforementioned films depict, and regular corsetry use, which a large percentage if not the majority of women in the Western world did for centuries (if one includes stays and earlier garments in the discussion of corsetry.) Zebrowska in her essay brilliantly brings up the point that most red carpet dresses actually have some structural garment or corset sewn into it, as well as that the majority of female skeletons would have been found to be weakened or otherwise gravely injured if corset use was really as bad as Flower and his colleagues argued it to be.

While there are some documented medical effects of regular corset use– yes, your organs can shift with years of use and tightlacing– it seems largely that corsets are not the great evil they have been made out to be. It seems that, and while I never want to discount the personal experiences of actors who have been put under physical strain on set, the problem of actors struggling to breathe, move or eat in corsets has less to do with the garment itself, and more with the absurdly fast pace of the film industry. Corsets were meant to be long-lasting, durable structural garments, and thus necessitated multiple fittings, as well as time to break in or “season” the corset (Zebrowska). Therefore, while Emma Stone, Keira Knightley and many of the other actors who have publicly complained about corsets framed their experiences as a problem of the garment, it seems that the real issue is that their shooting schedule simply didn’t allow them to really have the garment tailored to them and get used to it. Or it’s possible that they were being forced to monologue for hours while tight-laced, which would put strain on one’s lungs. Regardless, what has been made clear is that corsets, like anything else, are more complicated than simply a relic of a past time and a universal symbol of oppression for women, and perhaps, it actually serves the campaign of endless modernization to act better than historical people, who at the end of the day, thought about, worried about and did many of the same things we do. 

Works Cited:

Banner, Bernadette. “I Wore a (Medical) Corset for 5 Years. How Do Victorian Corsets Compare?” YouTube, YouTube, 7 Nov. 2020, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1y25Go12sUg. 

Davis, Lauren. “No, Corsets Did Not Destroy the Health of Victorian Women.” Gizmodo , Gizmodo , 17 Mar. 2014, io9.gizmodo.com/no-corsets-did-not-destroy-the-health-of-victorian-wom-1545644060. 

Goldberg, Johanna. “Did Corsets Harm Women’s Health?” Books, Health and History: The New York Academy of Medicine, The Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health, The Academy Library, 29 May 2015, nyamcenterforhistory.org/2015/05/29/did-corsets-harm-womens-health/. 

The Graham Norton Show, BBC. “Why Emma Stone’s Corset Shifted Her Organs… – BBC.” YouTube, YouTube, 26 Oct. 2018, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I93_8o4pTAA. 

Zebrowska, Karolina. “How Victorian Men Taught Us to Hate Corsets: The Biggest Lie in Fashion History.” YouTube, YouTube, 28 Mar. 2020, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNwTqanp0Aw. 


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