When you think of a corset, you might imagine period drama dames sucking in as they cling onto a bedpost as a feisty lady’s maid aggressively laces them in. Nextflix’s hot Regency inspired drama Bridgerton features similar such tortuous scenes.
In the run up to the show’s second season, Simone Ashley, who plays the new heroine Kate Sharma, complained to Glamour Magazine about the horrors of wearing a corset. She claimed that her corset caused her “a lot of pain” and “changed her body”.
In the first season, Prudence Featherington (played by Bessie Carter) was tight-laced into a corset. Prudence’s mother urges her daughter on: “I was able to squeeze my waist into the size of an orange-and-a-half when I was Prudence’s age”. Rather unnecessary, when regency gowns fall from an under-bust empire line, which obscures the waist. Unlike their later Victorian counterparts, regency corsets focused on enhancing a lady’s assets, not shrinking her waist.
This scene is ubiquitous in period dramas, from Elizabeth Swan fainting in Pirates of the Caribbean, to Rose DeWitt Bukater unable to breath in Titanic, and, of course, Mammy’s iconic line, “Just hold on, and suck in!”, as Scarlet O’Hara clings to a bedpost in Gone with the Wind. It may be on screen shorthand for the restricted lives of historical women, but it stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of historical corsets and women alike.
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. Corset-related health issues were a myth, constructed by doctors, to promote their own patriarchal perspectives. So, you might be surprised to hear that period dramas are perpetuating Victorian misogyny.
Medicine, misogyny, and the corset
The list of medical complaints that 19th-century doctors attributed to the corset seem unending. Constipation, pregnancy complications, breast cancer, postpartum infection and tuberculosis were all blamed on the corset. One Victorian doctor, Benjamin Orange Flower, author of the 1892 pamphlet Fashion’s Slaves, claimed that “if women will continue this destructive habit, the race must inevitably deteriorate”.
As science has developed, the medical root of these illnesses has been identified, and the corset’s culpability disproved. The corset offers an example of gender bias within medical research. The many ailments of George IV, one of the many men to wear a corset in the 19th century, were never blamed on his corset wearing.
Some corsets were even specifically designed to be healthy and supportive. Lingerie company Gossards published Corsets from a Surgical Perspective in 1909, which promoted the flexibility and supportive possibilities of the corset, which could “preserve the lines demanded by fashion, but without discomfort or injury”.
But the hourglass shape of the late 19th-century period was not what women of the regency desired. They were only interested in their breasts, as Hilary Davidson has shown. Breasts needed to be lifted and separated into two round orbs. Regency corsets (or “stays” as they were known) were often short, always soft, and never heavily boned. Their purpose was bust support, never restriction. I wonder what regency women would have thought of modern bras with straps that pinch and underwire that rubs.
Historical corsets were ingenious, light and bendy. Whalebone (which is baleen from the mouth of a whale, anot actual bone) is wonderfully flexible, and moulds to the body beneath it, and many corsets were simply reinforced with cotton cording. Corsets reduced back pain from bad posture and had expanding portions for pregnancy.
Historical myth making
The problem then in the depiction of corsets in period dramas is not “historical accuracy”, an idea widely debunked by historians, including Bridgerton’s own historical advisor. Bridgerton’s costumes are joyously reminiscent of designer George Halley’s highly embellished and brightly coloured empire line fashion designs from the 1960s. Bridgerton’s costumes are historically inspired fantasy.
Bridgerton is to Regency England what Game of Thrones is to the Wars of the Roses, and there is nothing wrong with that. It is a fantastical reimagining, creatively inspired by the past. The idea that its costumes should be “historically accurate”, or that such an aspiration is even possible, is not what is at stake here.
This is an issue of historical fallacy. Women of the past had agency over their bodies and how they were dressed. They were clever about how they achieved the fashionable proportions, padding out the hips and bust, rather than reducing the waist. Like the show’s famed dressmaker, Madame Delacroix, many of the professionals dressing them were themselves women. We strip away that agency and ingenuity when we assume historical women were passive dolls, dressed up and cinched in by a patriarchal society.
For historical women, corsets were a support garment, which allowed them to follow the fashionable silhouette without having to diet, exercise, or have 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.