Corsets Weren’t As Oppressive As Hollywood Wants You To Believe

Patriarchal death trap or just old fashioned underwear? It’s time to get to the core of what the corset actually is.

By Hana Tilksew3 min read

It’s basically a requirement these days: Every period piece needs at least one scene where a young woman is shoved into a corset and laced tightly until she can’t breathe. Films and TV have convinced modern audiences that corsetry was a plague forced on the women of ye olden days by merciless beauty standards. Characters who choose to go corset-free, like the titular protagonist of Enola Holmes, are portrayed as victors in a dramatic struggle for female freedom. Of course, that means that those who wear them are doomed victims of the patriarchy. 

Watching these scenes is obviously distressing and makes you feel for the characters being laced into these contraptions. It makes you wonder, why did women put up with corsets for so long? Were corsets really the misogynistic monsters we make them out to be? Or could there be a chance we’ve gotten the story all wrong?

Why Did Women Wear Corsets? 

The creation of the corset, as we know it today, can be traced back to the 16th century, when curvy figures became all the rage at the French court, and women used corsets more or less like push-up bras are used today. They accentuated the bust line, smoothed down the waist, and emphasized the full skirts of the time. In the 18th century, extremely stiff corsets with shoulder straps were popularized because they supposedly improved a lady's posture. Corsets went out of style at the beginning of the 19th century as empire silhouettes became all the rage, but came back in full force during the Victorian era.

It’s during this time period that everyone assumes most women were having their organs rearranged by deadly corsetry. And if all the fashion history you know was taught to you by Netflix and Hulu, who could blame you? But the practice of tightlacing – purposely squeezing your organs into an unnatural position to get the smallest waist possible – was rare and known to be dangerous. Even if Victorian doctors didn’t have access to modern X-rays, it wouldn’t have taken rocket science to figure out that constricting your entire abdomen and rib cage would create unfavorable side effects. 

Tightlacing was basically the BBL of its day – a dramatic tool used by some to fit into unrealistic beauty standards, but not a staple in the lives of everyday women. In reality, if most women wanted to cinch their figures a bit, they wouldn’t lace their corsets beyond an inch or two smaller than their actual waists. In this way, corsets were kind of like the shapewear of their day, providing support to the chest and hips while smoothing out the rest of the torso. 

The modern equivalent to the tight-laced corsets of the 19th century would be the plethora of constricting waist trainers available on the market today. Anyone can buy one from Amazon if they’re so inclined, but does that mean most women are placing bulk orders? No, because most people aren’t willing to sacrifice their lifelong health and well-being for the sake of vanity – not today, and not in the Victorian era. Frankly, it’s a disservice to women of centuries past to assume they’d all be foolish enough to spend a lifetime in hazardous undergarments just to achieve a “perfect figure.” Let’s give them a little more credit than that. 

The Revision of Corset History 

The demonization of corsets, unfortunate as it is, is a lapse in historical analysis that doesn’t really affect anyone’s day-to-day lives that much. Corset history can seem irrelevant to the contemporary age altogether. But when modern costumes are made to reference the past by people who don’t have a solid understanding of what historical women wore and why they wore it, we get devastating fashion disasters.

While playing Cinderella in the 2015 live-action adaptation of Disney’s beloved classic, Lily James wore a corset to support the huge gown she wore at the royal ball. Unfortunately, whoever was in charge of costumes seemed to go the tightlacing route, and squeezed James into a corset so rigid that she had to go on an all-liquid diet while wearing it. Disney deservedly faced backlash for putting James through this, so when Emma Watson wanted to ditch the corset while playing Belle in 2017, they likely obliged in the hopes that they would avoid a similar controversy this time.

However, controversy came for Disney anyway. Audiences hated Belle’s gown and still do, describing it as an “ugly prom dress” and agreeing that Cinderella “ate her up.” Compared to its predecessor, Belle’s dress truly is disappointing. Instead of being a memorable cinematic moment, it falls flat on screen. This feedback is hard proof that corsets served an actual purpose for the clothes of their time. It’s easy to understand the corset’s function – to support a heavy bodice and full skirt – when a gown with both elements is worn without a corset underneath.

Does this mean it was justified for Disney to force Lily James into a too-tight corset? Of course not. But the fact that they decided to forgo one with Belle instead of finding the middle ground between tightlacing and going corset-less proves that the revisionist history surrounding corsetry has consequences. James’s uncomfortable experience is what happens when you place something useful in the hands of people who don’t bother to understand its proper usage, and Watson’s sartorial catastrophe is what happens when historical misinterpretations bleed into costume dramas. The Belle gown could have been stunning if supported properly, but it just ended up looking flimsy instead.

Closing Thoughts

At the end of the day, the corset is simply a garment. It’s morally neutral like every other garment in the world. People can choose to use it properly or not, but that doesn’t mean the corset itself is the problem. Of course, there’s a certain sect of people who would like to imagine that everything from the past was inherently harmful to women, but corsets were no more dangerous than modern bras. Not everyone enjoys wearing a bra, but we wouldn’t classify them as death traps. 

There are plenty of actual historical injustices against women to get up in arms about, so can we please give the corset a break? Its greatest crime was being misused by a small number of women with unfortunate body image issues. When middle school girls stuff their too-big bras, we don’t blame the bra, but instead the body dysmorphia they’re experiencing. So why do we blame the corset for tightlacing? I, for one, think the corset deserves to have its name cleared.

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