48 thoughts on “SNARK WEEK: Corset Whining

  1. I did once have bruises. That said…I was a dumb@$$, I had no chemise (I KNOW LADIES), and I’d made my own corset and mistook bra size and bust size, so it was toooo small. I also used plastic boning. Mistakes were made, lessons were learned, it was a decade and a half ago. Corsets that I have that actually are for my size? JUST FINE. All day, and I can eat just fine in them. Although camp chairs are kind of impossible to sit in, because of the posture.

  2. At my most generous interpretation of some of these, it sounds like a few were the result of costume designers using the corset to try to force their bodies into shapes far past what the corset was meant for, but it’s just become such a lazy sound bite whenever an actress is in a period drama. I’ve only worn one a couple of times, but I always found them comfortable.

    1. That’s what I was thinking, too. Ruth Goodman, the practical historian (well, what would you call her?) goes into some detail about wearing corsets in her book How To Be a Victorian. Having worn a variety of 19th corsetry full-time for months at a time, she confirms than a decently-fitted corset, once you get accustomed to wearing one (you do need to breathe differently, but it shouldn’t leave you out of breath), shouldn’t be a problem at all, and even provides back support while doing all kinds of work (as she did on the series Victorian Farm). We’re not used to wearing anything remotely like that in our ordinary lives, so it does take some getting used to, but it shouldn’t be painful unless you’re being laced in way too tightly (which it sounds as if they definitely did to Ruth Wilson, if they were trying to reduce her waist by at least 10″), or your corset is badly fitted. So: well-fitted corset that smooths out one’s outline and does little waist reduction = should be fine. Crappy, badly-fitted corset + attempting to tight-lace = definite discomfort.

      Something else Ruth mentioned that makes me think Suranne Jones may have had a reason to be miserable was what she called “corset itch”–if you’re wearing a corset while engaged in strenuous work or exercise that’s enough to make to sweat, the salt can end up drying on your skin; your chemise (usually cotton by then) can consequently rub the salt into your skin and make it red, raw, and terribly itchy. I didn’t see the series, mind you, but if she was indeed doing a lot of bounding about, then she very well could have ended up with a nasty case of corset itch.

      So: a reasonably well-fitted, well-made corset does take some getting used to if you haven’t worn one before, and you may have to learn to breathe more “vertically” rather than “horizontally” and just adapt to the feel of it, but once you’ve done that, you should be OK. My thought is that most of the complaining is due to a combination of unfamiliarity with corsets, badly made/fitted ones, and ridiculous attempts at tight-lacing (which were mocked even in period). Perhaps the historical costuming community could give some costume designers a nudge in the right direction?…

      1. Thanks for your excellent points. A good deal of my corset-wearing was done in battle reenactment in Spain in summer, so I did a lot of sweating, and often wore the same shift three days running. As my shifts were all quite solid linen, they were great sweat absorbers, and didn’t get scratchy at all. But I can well imagine that cotton shifts, or a very thin linen, might have done so. And I don’t even want to start imagining what a synthetic fabric would have been like after three days’ footslogging around the siege of Zaragoza or the battle of Albuera!

      2. The only time I’ve gotten stays welts when when I was wearing stays during Hell Week laboratory exams. I wanted the hug stays provide, but one piece of lab equipment demands shitty posture in order to read the numbers. Hence a big dent in my sternum.

  3. Let’s not forget Emma Watson, who famously refused to wear a corset for her role in Beauty & The Beast. Le sigh

  4. Ruth Wilson reduced her waist by 11 inches all at once? I call COMPLETE BULLSHIT on that. I’ve done waist-training and, sure, once you’ve done it for a few months, you can establish some pretty radical differences between corsetted and un- but that’s after you’ve been wearing it for months and gradually bringing it in. I have a very, very hard time believing that your typical US actress (IOW, a person without a lot of squish around that area) could stroll off the street and reduce her waist by 11” with no prior training. No wonder she was in agony.

    1. I rolled my eyes so hard at that part I saw my brain. 11 inch reduction on a “slender size 10”? I bloody well think not.

  5. I think the lesson here is not, “corsets are terrible; don’t wear them” but “don’t design unnaturally tight corsets”!

    1. I think the lesson is: make your actresses wear chemises, corsets that fit, and tell them to stop being over the top with the stupid corset stories. they only say that sort of thing to make themselves look SO VERY Punished and “it’s all about the part.” “and women are so much better off now than then.” tripe. sheesh.

  6. Good grief! As a long-time SCAdian and reenactor, I have worn corsets since the 1970s. If they are well-made and fit properly, you will not be uncomfortable. I have a long body, so I make my own so its long enough.

  7. As far as not being able to breath … Since the beginning of pairs of bodies, women have been singing Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic and 20th century music, without mics over an orchestra, while wear corsets. As you said, dancing too. In every shape and style.

  8. I do wonder just how much of this is down to the fact that, for the uninitiated, corsets are seen by many people in our day and age period as inherently sexual fetish wear as opposed to the practicality it historically was, like stockings and garters prior to the development of stay-up pantyhose. I suspect its the contemporary sexualisation as well as a particular “porno-chic” aesthetic fuel these myths about the poor maligned corset and all the ahistorical complaints above.

    Which is strange as corsets, apart from being a practical garment worn at all levels of society, historically it was a men’s garment as well, and enjoyed huge popularity in the military – how else would you maintain your dashingly svelte figure after overindulging at the regimental dinner? Here’s an example of a male corset from 1812. (ok fine, technically you argue its a girdle but same principle – and you never see these in film and television on men – gee I wonder why?)


    Also, going back to the comment about diet and exercise, compared to the regime many of these actresses need to adhere to maintain their looks and thus their bankability are massively out of reach for most of us – oddly the corset in this light looks quite democratic and egalitarian compared to the personal trainers, dieticians and army of stylists some of these women keep in their employ.

    1. There’s a nice glimpse of Ralph Fiennes in a corset as he’s getting dressed in the film ‘Onegin’, IIRC.

  9. Meanwhile my core has been obliterated by a pregnancy and a C-section and I would love to find a good corset-type binder to help support me while I build back strength. Pushing all of this back in sounds pretty comfortable to me right now!

  10. Also corsets are great for your posture. Probably why all women in history who wore corsets have never complained of scoliosis.

    1. I seem to recall a Michelle Dockery interview in which she talks about the “Downton” corsets and what they did for her posture. It bothers me to watch a costume film whose female characters are slouching around. On the other hand, I’m happy not to wear the girdles that made my mother so uncomfortable. (And she was a slender woman. It was just something one did mid-century when dressing up.)

  11. I think a huge part of the complaints from people who wear for a short time filming as opposed to people who do recreations regularly is…
    a) costumers not always including shifts and other appropriate lining (hence welts and chafing). This might be the director’s fault because ~shifts aren’t sexy~
    b) not getting the time to get used to it due to filming schedules
    c) likely not getting a bespoke corset specifically tailored to the wearer’s needs, probably paired with
    d) costumers (or directors) forcing a corset to do the job of shaping a body beyond its real capabilities, instead of going in with the actual illusion-makers (puffy sleeves and bodice fronts, pattern direction, big skirts, petticoats, sewn-in padding, etc).
    I think it is likely that many of these actresses did have a really miserable time and aren’t being babies, BUT THAT’S NOT THE CORSET’S FAULT. It’s the production and industry sacrificing the actors’ comfort for convenience.
    And also I think it’d be considered weird if on the press circuit actors were like “oh yeah wore a corset it was so much better than a bra. Supported my boobs real nice, eased off the back, I’m never wearing a bra again.” I’d like them to, but I think the press doesn’t want to hear that because that’s not how people think of corsets.

    1. That’s why Lily James’ comment confuses me; I remember when the first trailer for Cinderella was released and everyone was aghast at how tiny her waist looked and thought Disney must have been CGI-ing her down, and she came out and was all “no no, it’s just a stiff bodice and a really massive skirt and petticoats that’s creating the illusion.” But after the fact she’s switched to, “oh yes they were absolutely torturing me by cramming me into a too small corset”?

  12. Some of these comments seem nonsensical, and I’d imagine there’s some slight to moderate exaggeration as is normal when telling a story (like they have to do on the press tours for movies, a situation where they also get asked dopey questions about their costumes and fitness routines). But I also think it sounds like some were put into ill-fitting corsets or not given chemises, etc. In which case, I’m more sympathetic to them.

    I have made 2 corsets. I found I did not love dealing with necessities in the 1880s one, but it was great back support at the con I wore it to. The 1908ish one I made I wear under costumes that don’t need it because I find I end up swayback and my back gets sore much more quickly than my feet–a problem a corset totally resolves. I would like to come up with a modern version to wear under my regular clothes.

    It’s not a caftan; you will feel it. But we’re also in an era of control top tights and spanx. So are we that much more advanced on this particular topic? I’m not convinced.

    1. I enjoy Cathy Hay’s comment about corsets vs today’s shaping. Paraphrased: Think of your leggings, with your butt hanging out for all the world to see. We’re expected to rearrange our lives via diet, exercise and surgery to have a butt which fits society’s expectations. How is this superior to wearing a corset?

  13. I too have worn a corset at several Ren Faires, cons and Reenactor events. I wore proper chemise, etc as well and I prefer wearing a corset over a bra. My back doesn’t hurt when I’m corseted and my shoulder straps stay put. Unlike the bra. Some of these horrid tales sound like they didn’t as mentioned before wear proper under things and were not bespoke or at least didn’t fit the actress. And the actress was given no accommodation time to get use to it and make it your friend.

  14. I LOVE my 18th-century working-class stiff leather stays! I have a long back and ordinarily having to just stand around for long periods makes it ache, but when properly strait-laced into my stays I can stand for hours with no problem at all. And it’s a great support when heaving around bales of fodder or buckets of water: no risk of back strain or hernia! Stays rule OK.

    And even for elite fashion stays it’s absolutely not necessary for them to be super-tight. They do somewhat redistribute your shape so you’re cylindrical rather than oval in section, and that means that your waist looks smaller from front and back even though a tape measure will prove that it isn’t. Let’s hear it for Mrs Scott, in the household of the last colonial governor of Virginia in the 1770s, who ordered a pair of stays sent from London with the note ‘I don’t mind the fashion if they are made easy and full in the Stomick’. (Quoted in Linda Baumgarten’s ‘Eighteenth-century Clothing at Williamsburg’.)

    (BTW, I clicked on the link to Thomas Chew’s corset and had a weird moment when I read the bit where it said the bag also included a pair of ‘silk suspenders’. Ooh, kinky, I thought – then I remembered that ‘suspenders’ is American-speak for braces, and was disappointed.)

  15. I don’t think Hollywood knows about padding (at least not in a historical sense) and try to get that 8 shape by inching in the waist only. That would be painfull, especially with a ill fitting corset and no chemise.
    Also not every era needs a small waist!

  16. Where did Valerie Steele write that nicely juicy sentence, please?

    As for the first example, Suranne Jones, you might be unfair. I don’t know whether the quote accurately reflects what was happening, and of course “You can’t really jump up and down wearing a corset” is bull. But it is quite possible to get hives and welts from corsets, even well-fitting ones. I’ve worn corsets for years without problems, then suddenly… rashes wherever any part of the stay or corset chafed just a little. And pain-wise they’re not to be sneezed at! They even gave me fever a few times. Maybe Suranne really is one of the unfortunate ones who get hives easily.

  17. If corsets were so awful and uncomfortable, then working women would not have worn them. They had no time to sit about, eat bon-bons and faint, they needed to bend down, stretch up, twist and reach. Also, women with any boobage, (me, 36 H) would not have been able to wear clothes with comfort, without the support of a decent corset, working class or an Empress. It’s such a lazy trope

  18. Oh, PLEASE! Each period has a differing corset shape and it is only when you get to the Victorian/Edwardian era that you start to see serious ‘tight-lacing’ – and the infamous S shape – creating more of an extreme silhouette. For example 16th,17th and 18th Century stays were not about cinching in the waist at all, but instead were there to provide a suitable structure to underpin a kirtle/gown or such. The garment is, in fact, quite comfy to wear… I know because I was a ‘boy player’ in a touring Shakespeare/Jacobean theatre company for several years and wore many a pair of stays and found them very supportive and easy to wear – especially the tabbed 17th Century variety (what on earth is Emma Stone winging about!!!) Besides, if you have a corset in the right size it should be fine no matter what the period. All of these actresses are hyper weedy or the costume departments are doing something seriously wrong. Check you measurements, people! I really think that the Alexandra Byrne’s comment you quoted is nearest to reality.

  19. I agree with some of the other commenters, I know there’s some exaggeration and absurdity happening here but it does sound like in a few of the cases higher-ups(costume designers, directors, others) had unrealistic expectations for the corset and failed to make sure actresses wore something underneath and to REALLY complete an illusion by making the shoulders and hips wider.

  20. I occasionally wear Redthreaded Regency short stays as bust support. I keep pointing out they support me way better than a bra, and I need the long term hug on stressful occasions. My mother is still convinced I’m crushing my organs. headdesk

  21. What I heard repeatedly is costume designers (or someone in a decision making capacity) believed all the crap that women are meant to be tormented and tortured by their clothing. So they made sure the corsets these actresses would wear would do exactly that. And by making them so small they were horrible to wear. How cruel.

  22. Many years ago, a friend and I wore corsets (with shifts and petticoats) and boned Victorian dresses to a supper. Once we began eating, the ability to breath became seriously impaired. She fainted; I came close. It would was a good lesson in historical reality.

    1. I think it’s just because the two of you haven’t had enough practice. Takes a bit to get used to the feeling. Have done house chores, worked out etc in a corset, appreciated the support honestly.

    2. I was in a show that wore proper corsetry, though it was community theater. (Mind you, the actual corsets were all over the place, because it was community theater, and you have to beg and borrow to fill out your roster. Roughly the same decade, though.) On Saturdays we had a two-show day, matinee and evening performance, so we generally left them on in between so as to make the evening costume fitting not an issue.

      And yeah, our between-show meal was generally very light. Needed, though.

  23. Tight lacing was perceived as a problem even back in the 19th century. Many of the letters to fashion magazines discussing the ‘torment’ of tight lacing seem to be SM fantasies.
    The daughters of a doctor opposed to tight lacing still wore corsets, they just removed the boning. They loved stylish clothes which wouldn’t sit right unless worn over the proper foundation garments.

    1. Absolutely SM fantasies. Also, lower class women did physical labor in corsets — there were even corsets specifically marketed to them!

  24. Petition to re-name “corset whining” to “tight-lacing whining”? Because it really sounds like that’s mostly what’s going on here. Like, if I wear modern clothes that are too small, that’s painful too!

  25. I love a decently fitting corset, but a lot of corsets that were really designed to adorn a bedpost, or corsets made by people who don’t have a clue what they are doing, are not at all fine. Corsets that would fit properly, except they are laced wrong can also be harmful, even dangerous. I’ve seen plenty of people on the verge of fainting and vomiting from being so badly trussed up. I have relaced MANY women who were dressed by someone who made them hang on to a post while they yanked the laces to within an inch of their lives, or a friend who paid zero attention to how uneven lacing was causing bones to curl inward. Some even had their corsets on upside down. A lot of those folks are people you would think had the experience to know better.

    It’s no surprise that people who don’t know what a corset is supposed to look or feel like are blaming the garment when it was really another ignorant person who hurt them.

    1. The very first time I wore a corset was at a convention, and my husband laced it up. We did have to loosen it mid-day, because he turned out to be very good at it, and it was a bit much. The funny part was that this was one of those days that I ended up in a late-night conversation with a bunch of people and made an offhand comment about how long I’d been wearing the corset—about eighteen hours at that point, and one of the guys who knew something about corsets sad, “This is your first time? Oh honey, don’t do that.”

      Really weird distribution of loose post-kid body fat when I took it off. :D

  26. It sounds more like these poor women were put into ill fitting corsets, than them whining without cause.
    I don’t blame them, nor do I think they’re lying (exaggerating a bit though? yes).

    So I feel like our ire should be directed to the people in charge, who decides to tightlace and forgoes shifts, rather than the women who complains about having to wear painful clothing for a job.

  27. Yikes, “The Alienist”…
    First of all, the show really kept insisting corsets were worn right on the skin – that terrible scene when Dakota Fanning’s character takes off her corset and there are close-ups on the red welts it left… In series 2 there were two lengthy sex scenes where women (who were not hookers who juuust might have done it deliberately) had corsets with no chemise in sight.

    And there is another thing. Dakota Fanning is a great actress, no doubt about that. But in that show she looked utterly terrible in her costumes. She was clearly uncomfortable, didn’t know how to stand, didn’t know how to move. Maybe they really had a corset on with no chemise. I remember it mostly from series 2 (and I’m not going back to watch series one) – she wore a lot of blouses with skirts, and she was slouching terribly. It made the edge of her corset usually clearly visible through her blouse.
    Her character was a well-brought up young lady from a wealthy family. No way she would have such terrible posture and movement.

  28. To me, this doesn’t read as the actresses “whining” nearly as much as the costume people making bad decisions re: stuffing their actresses into corsets WAY too small for them. I have fainted once in a corset, because I’d gained a little weight and was stupidly trying to lace it as tight as it had used to be, but like….as you say in the article, corsets should NOT cause fainting, and if they are, that seems like legitimate grounds for complaint on the parts of the actresses. I feel like this is squarely on the shoulders of the costumers, not the actresses.

  29. First, YES, I get that this is snark. But it’s one thing to critique a movie; quite another to lambast individuals for what amounts to personal preference and (gasp) speaking about it.

    So, I’m supposed to take as authentic the personal experience of the authors that wearing a corset is fine, not harrowing.. and discount the personal experience of the actresses who found it uncomfortable? Why can’t it be… simply allowable …. that the authors have one experience with corsets, and the actresses have another? Is it really necessary to drag the actresses because they have a different experience? Question: is anyone dragging the authors for finding corsets ok to wear? No? Basically, how does the actress speaking about her lived experience affect you? It’s ok that people don’t like corsets, right?

    Your approach is not only needlessly mean spirited (and might I say a tad misogynistic) it’s also logically unsound to expect your personal experience to “outweigh” someone else’s. No matter how much of an expert you may believe yourself to be on a subject. It’s ok that people don’t like corsets, and talk about it.

    On another post someone says “can we all just stop feminist (horror!) whining about corsets??” How about this: can we all just stop excoriating actresses for everything they do, especially given that male actors don’t have to face down the same level of relentless criticism.

    1. Anyone saying their organs shifted due to wearing a corset is gonna get mocked by us bec. it’s just an incredibly dumb thing to say. It’s laughably inaccurate.

      Also, look carefully at the quotes — a lot are not direct from the actors, they’re ‘reported by’ & even the ones where the actors supposedly said such stupid things are in articles with click-bait titles. So you shouldn’t assume these are the heartfelt & true personal experiences of poor widdle actors so much as tired cliches tossed around get some publication more hits. We’re pretty tired of that, & it’s 100% within our rights to call bullshit on it.

  30. i would like to add, that I really have enjoyed this site and the Snark posts in particular; it’s just that this particular post stood out as uncharacteristically pointed toward individual actresses, who certainly get enough criticism, and so I was moved to write. I’m glad a number of other responders are echoing some of the actresses’ experiences, and are pointing out that better knowledge on the part of the industry would address some of the points of the post. I feel the enormous body (hur) of expertise of the authors could be better bent toward advocacy on the part of the actresses.

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