As mentioned in a couple previous posts, I make corsets. As someone who goes to steampunk events fairly regularly, and as someone who went to Renaissance fairs almost religiously as a child, I am somewhat more familiar than the average person with the practicalities and realities of corset-making and corset-wearing. So read below for some common myths about corsets, skewed highly towards the Victorian era since lately I’ve been on a steampunk kick.
(1) All corsets are uncomfortable.
This one is flat-out false. A well-fitting corset is about as comfortable as a bra, and given a choice between my custom-tailored corsets and a poorly fitting bra I would probably choose the former (unless I had to touch my toes). A poorly fitting corset, on the other hand, can be an excruciating experience, just like any poorly fitting garment tends to be uncomfortable. I think the source of this myth is that many people think the proper fit for a corset is “the smallest one I can possibly fit into”. Which I suppose works up to a point. But corsets are designed to work differently than other garments. A tee shirt that is slightly too small will stretch to fit where necessary. Even a pair of no-stretch blue jeans will be roomier the second day you wear them than the first. But corsets are generally made with several layers of a fabric even more stretch-resistant than non-stretch denim. The corset won’t stretch to fit you — wearing a corset will not become more comfortable as it conforms to your body. On the contrary, if you wear a too-tight corset repeatedly, your body will start to conform to the shape of the corset.
(2) Corsets are designed to make your waist as small as possible (and this is why they have so much boning).
While I can deny neither the reality that a corset will mold your body after repeated use nor existence of waist-training, which uses corsets largely to get cartoonishly tiny waists, in most costumes the purpose of the corset isn’t to get to an 18-inch waist. Historically, tight-lacing wasn’t a thing until the Victorian era; the early 1800s favored an empire waist (and therefore most women wore ‘short stays’ — corsets that didn’t even meet the waist), and prior to that the emphasis was on achieving a smooth, conical silhouette. Even among Victorian corsets, few were smaller than 20 inches, which given that corsets were designed not to fully close in the back meant that a 24-inch waist was (just like it still is) a very small one.
As a side note, the general trend historically is that upper-class women were more likely to tight-lace than their working class peers. Nonetheless, women at many levels of society wore corsets. The fact that we have essentially equated ‘how a very rich, idle woman might wear a corset’ with ‘how every woman wore corsets’ creates several other myths.
As a further side-note, the boning in the corset isn’t what helps compress your waist. That’s the fabric it’s made out of. The boning gives support and smooths out lines.
(3) Wearing a corset will significantly impede you from physical activity.
The fact that this myth still exists is puzzling to me, because a first-round examination proves it to be ridiculous. Obviously, even in the Victorian era, many many women worked, and those women who worked often had jobs in farms or factories that required considerable strength and agility. And yet, they also often wore corsets. Simultaneously, even! What they did not do, perhaps, was wear corsets laced so tightly as to be excruciatingly painful (see points 1 and 2). Even if you consider only those women fortunate enough to lead lives of luxury, where perhaps they could go a day without needing their chest to expand overmuch, the Victorian era is also famous for dances like polkas, mazurkas, and schottisches, all of which essentially require jumping up and down continually. For several minutes. Which is to say: even that upper-crust lady who didn’t have to work in a factory would most likely want to be able to exert herself for a few minutes without fainting dead away.
In corroboration, I’ve climbed trees and ridden bicycles and run and lifted heavy objects and danced furiously fast waltzes and swing dances in fairly period-accurate corsets. I’m working on a way to do aerial dance in a corset; it will probably have to be straps since the hooks on the busk would shred tissue.
That said, corsets do compress your chest. It’s kind of their thing. And so breathing is different — your lungs have to expand up and down rather than outward. Which is probably the source of such gems as the phrase “heaving bosoms”.
(4) It takes two people to put on a corset.
Again, see above re: there were women without maidservants who nonetheless wore corsets. If a working-class woman couldn’t dress herself, I suspect she would find a different fashion.
That said, Victorian corsets in particular are designed to be easier to get into and out of. That’s because of the invention of a busk which can open the front of the corset. It allows a corset to remain mostly laced all the time. So putting on a corset is roughly as difficult as putting on and buttoning a jacket (easier because there are no sleeves to worry about; harder because all the buttons are attached with a metal rod so aligning them can be tricky). Tightening the corset can be done by pulling out loops in the back. And then tying a knot. Apart from the slight difficulty of having to do that last step behind your back, really none of it is much different than tying a shoe. And if you’re not going for exceptionally tight lacing, (which many if not most women at the time were not), then it’s nothing you can’t do for yourself.
As to all of the images like the one above, well, there’s a certain point at which I think having a friend tighten your corset before a party isn’t significantly different than having a friend zip up a fancy dress to which you can’t quite reach the zipper. Or wouldn’t have been, when everyone was wearing corsets.
(5) Only women wear corsets.
Let’s move on to something totally different. Up until now, I’ve been assuming the person wearing the corset is female. But men wear corsets in costumes, and men wore corsets in history.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, fashion for women was fairly free-flowing: the empire waist dress, for example. However, fashion for men was fairly form-fitting, and a slim silhouette was preferred. And, perhaps predictably, while women’s undergarments became comparatively unrestricting (for example, the short stays I mentioned earlier), men – especially fashionable men – wore corsets. This became somewhat less common in the Victorian era, and men who wore corsets were the subject of some ridicule as dandies, but especially older men would often wear a corset rather than reveal a paunch. In addition, throughout much of the Victorian era, it was believed that children’s spines could not grow straight without assistance, and both boys and girls commonly wore corsets. (Note that the corset still has a place in orthopedics to address scoliosis in children.)
Male costumers wear corsets for all kinds of reasons. Some surely do it for the historical reasons: because it gives them a slimmer silhouette. In addition, corsets are a distinctive element that people will recognize as being from another time period. (Whether they get that time period right is another matter.) It can also be a play against gender stereotypes or a way to get a more ‘feminine’ line for some.
(6) Adventurers/Feminists never wore corsets.
Have you heard of Mary Kingsley? She’s pretty dang cool. She explored the jungles and mountains of Africa, and spoke out in England for protection of African cultures. And she always wore a corset.
And as to feminists, well, I’m just going to leave this here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susan_B._Anthony
My point is, there is a time and a place for everything; history is richer and more complicated than we necessarily feel comfortable with. Whatever diversity of characters you see in today’s society, there was probably an equivalent amount of diversity historically. See “We have always fought” for an absolutely wonderful essay on this topic. From another standpoint, even if you are not going for historical authenticity, it is more important (in my opinion) to spend time thinking about your character and your costume than it is to choose one way or another. Yes, corsets are problematic from a feminist perspective: they restrict motion (I get winded faster in a corset than without one) and they contribute to unhealthy body images. Both of those things suck. But there is, perhaps, something to be said for – in a limited fashion – reclaiming some of that history, for using those structures to make something beautiful. That’s part of the reason I don’t want to make corsets that are designed to hide under clothing (which most corsets for most of history were).
Long story short: If you make an awesome, un-corseted, steampunk female adventurer costume I will applaud you. I will also applaud you if you make an awesome, corseted, steampunk female adventurer costume. Really only one word there is important for applause: “awesome”.
(7) Corsets are (period-accurate) outerwear.
Well, no. What people who think this are actually doing is confusing a boned bodice with a corset. Women who do historical reenactment generally wear a corset underneath a boned bodice. It’s a natural assumption to make, largely because we just don’t run into boned garments nowadays. So everything is a corset. And many costumers will wear corsets as outerwear, because, say, we’ve made a corset and it’s really pretty and we’re proud of it. Or because it’s an obvious visual signifier that we’re in costume.
(8) A corset has a particular shape.
Again, well, no. For hundreds of years, corsets had a conical shape, with a broad, triangular central panel called a stomacher that flattened the chest. (Renaissance/Elizabethan fashions fit this, as did corsetted fashions essentially until the late 1700s.) In the late 1700s and early 1800s, corsets for women shrank to short stays. (Corsets for men still flattened the waist and hips.) In the mid-1800s, corsets for women once again narrowed the waist, but this time accentuating and exaggerating curves rather than flattening them out. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, an “S-shape” silhouette became popular, and corsets were designed to push the hips backwards and the chest forwards to create that line.
All a corset is, in essence, is a boned undergarment which shapes the torso. It doesn’t matter nearly as much what shape it creates.
(9) You need a corset to get a period line.
To be fair, this one depends somewhat on your body. What many people need, to achieve something that looks “authentic”, is a lot of heavy fabric and boning. The thing is — that can be done with a single piece of clothing: essentially, a heavily boned bodice. The advantage here is simplicity. The disadvantage is that you don’t have the wiggle room for support that a corset would actually provide: the laces in a corset aren’t there to make it tighter so much as they are there to customize the fit; if you need something a little tighter in the hips and looser in the bust, or vice versa, you can manage with a corset – which is designed not to close fully – and not with a bodice. A bodice will de facto be looser, and will not provide as much support, as a corset does. But it can still give a period line, because that mostly comes down to boning and cut.
(10) People who get upset about poorly-fitting or poorly-designed corsets need to chill out.
This one might be true, insofar as getting upset about other people’s clothing is generally a losing proposition. But here’s the actual problem: people who wear corsets regularly, who make corsets, who perhaps even make their livings making corsets, know that if a corset isn’t right for your body it will be painful. And, not to put too sharp a point on it, potentially dangerous. Did you know that wearing a tightened corset in a car can increase your risk of severe injury in a crash? That’s because your ribs are already compressed, and when an impact occurs they have nowhere else to go. So they break. Clearly, not every person wearing a too-small or too-big corset is endangering themselves to this extent, but half the time, the people who freak out about corsets are the ones who know these things and care about them.