Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Corset Rant

I feel like corsets are given a really bad rap by a lot of people today. They are portrayed as painful devices inspired by sexism that crushed women's organs and caused them to faint. I'm getting really sick of this.

This drawing - which is really more of a caricature - is not helping.
Dangerous tight-lacing definitely did occur, especially after corset-makers started using steel grommets for the eyelets in the 1820's, but I cannot believe that half of society would put themselves through daily pain for centuries.

Think about it: nowadays, some people are very fashion conscious and body conscious; they make their thighs and belly smaller through plastic surgery; they buy expensive designer bras to push their breasts into unnatural positions - but this is not the norm. Most people just want to look nice and feel comfortable.
Scarlett O'Hara may have been upset that she couldn't get her waist back down to 18 1/2 inches, but I don't think Melanie would have been bothered by that!

It seems that in all this anti-corsetism, people have forgotten that the bra has only been around for about 100 years.  Before the bra, the corset was pretty much the only support garment available (unless you go all the way back to the Gothic Fitted Dress).  For women with larger cup sizes it can be uncomfortable to go with any support, especially during menstruation, pregnancy, and nursing, and wearing a corset is preferable to wearing no support garment at all.

Of course a corset is uncomfortable at first, so is wearing a bra for the first time or walking around in a new pair of shoes.  I wore my 1880's corset all day at Costume College and felt fine, and the historical interpreters in Colonial Williamsburg that I have talked to - who lace themselves up everyday - are able to work a loom and sheer sheep without a hitch (in fact, the sheep-shearing lady said that she needed a corset to protect her torso from errant ovine kicks!)

Women have fought for their right to vote and run countries, without constantly fainting and calling for their smelling salts, all while wearing corsets.


  1. Bravo! This is one of my costuming pet peeves, and one that I have to answer every-single-time I wear a corset in public or give a historical costuming talk!

    I've worn my 18th century stays all day, and washed dishes and vacuumed and gardened in them. Totally comfortable (well, as long as they are properly fitted. And tight garment will be painful if it doesn't fit you right!).

    Corsets do change your body if you wear them all the time - my stomach muscles disappeared after only a week of wearing a 1900s corset for 10-12 hours a day.

    Have you read Valerie Steel's excellent book on a social history of corsets? She does a great job of refuting the myths.

  2. No I've haven't read that, I'll go put it on the Xmas list! Thanks!

  3. Yes! Thank you! I wrote a rant of my own awhile back: and there's a great one on Isis' blog as well:

    Dreamstress is right--I swear I spend more time at living history events answering corset-related questions than anything else! "You must be so, really...but, no, really..." Yet I've worn my stays all day, hauled water and firewood in them, and even sprinted in my stays!

  4. Rowenna, thanks for directing me to those other posts. I had completely forgotten about that scene in Pirates of Caribbean - probably because my brain wanted to eradicate it as quickly as possible!

  5. Actually, as a person with a bad back, corsets help me. It's just like those belts people wear to lift heavy items.