The Christmas debut of Netflix’s Bridgerton ushered in an unlikely fashion trend after a year of athleisure: corsets. Since the show was released, the fashion app LiketoKnowIt saw a thousand percent increase in searches for “corsets” and “corset dresses.” The rise of “Regencycore” feels like a bright promise after a year spent indoors. Someday soon, we will be all dressed up again with somewhere to go.
Renewed interest in corsetry is also a great opportunity to bust some common corset myths (if you’ll pardon the pun). Contrary to popular belief, historical corsets were not the sex symbol they are today. They were primarily functional garments, as comfortable as they were practical.
Shape and support
The contemporary idea of corsets largely comes from what we have seen on film. Corsets in the movies are not meant to be worn; they’re meant to be taken off. Otherwise, they are portrayed as symbols of the patriarchy, highly constrictive and even dangerous. Think Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind lacing down to a 18-inch waist, or Elizabeth Swan fainting from lack of air in Pirates of the Carribean.
The Bridgerton trailer also features this common trope. However, this idea is not historically accurate. (In fact, the myth that widespread tight-lacing shifted internal organs and even altered the skeleton has virtually no basis in fact.) Corsets, and their historical forerunner, stays, performed the same function as bras: to provide structure and support.
The shape of the corset varied widely throughout history, thanks to new technology and the rise of new fashions. To achieve the right silhouette for a given period, one must wear the right undergarments. To see what a difference this can make, just compare Mary Crawley’s conical gowns in Downtown Abbey to those of her grandmother, Lady Violet. Given her age, the Dowager is still seen sporting the Victorian S-bend corset, a much more shapely style than was fashionable at the dawn of the twentieth century.
Lest we forget, bras and brassieres have also changed with the passage of time. Today, most bras have more rounded cups, while our grandmothers largely wore pointed bullet bras. Now bralettes have come into fashion, pairing well with the relaxed, casual styles so popular today.
Another benefit to wearing a corset: back support. Although corsets could restrict movement, they also encouraged proper posture. You can’t slump or slouch in a corset (or at least, it’s much harder to). Meanwhile, think of all the neck and back pain we have developed while working from home during the pandemic. The simple act of sitting up straight can help alleviate some of those symptoms. While corsets and stays may have restricted some movement, they did encourage good posture, which might be considered a worthwhile trade-off to prevent pain.
Moreover, certain kinds of corsets more fully distributed the weight of the bust. Compare this to the modern bra, which relies on one elastic band to do all the work. That’s why modern bras typically need to be replaced every couple of months, especially if you have a larger bust: The elastic eventually stretches out.
While historical corsets may have restricted mobility by modern standards, that did not mean they were uncomfortable. Contrary to what you may have seen on screen, corsets were not worn against bare skin. Women wore loose shifts or chemises underneath, which not only kept them from chafing, but kept the outer layers of their clothes clean. Think of it like layering a T-shirt underneath a sweater that is dry-clean only; nobody wants to get sweat stains or dirt on their nice clothing!
Corsets were also highly customizable. Think about how hard it is to find the right bra size and fit. The natural materials and fibers that corsets were typically made of, however, would mold to one’s body over time. In times where boning was used in corsetry, popular materials like whalebone would change shape when exposed to body heat. Corsets were kind of like leather shoes. Just as leather stretches to perfectly fit your feet over time, a corset would mold to your figure.
What about the fact that so many actresses have complained about wearing corsets? Part of the discomfort lies in our modern sensibilities. We are used to the ease of athleisure; historical clothing, meanwhile, tended to be more formal and therefore, more structured. It’s also possible that in some cases, the corset is a poor fit or laced too tight, simply for aesthetic purposes. And lastly, costume designers often fail to include a shift or chemise underneath the corset, which can cause the corset to poke and rub. (It looks like this was the case in that tight-lacing scene in Bridgerton. Emma, on the other hand, shows our main character donning a corset over her shift.) So it stands to reason that if Hollywood were to design corsets more accurately, actresses would probably be a little more comfortable in them!
Whether or not the modern corset trend is for you, we can all appreciate the heritage of corsetry. These undergarments were worn by countless women for hundreds of years. So the next time you see a corset on film, remember that these garments were just as practical as they were beautiful, and they have a history all their own!