By Kavita Ashton, guest contributor for Anything Goes Lifestyle
Already binge-watched the new Bridgerton prequel? Yep, us too. It’s not just the romantic storylines that have us all eternally enamoured with period dramas but the fashion too. If there’s an item that piques our curiosity the most, it’s the one that cinches in the waist of our favourite heroines – the corset.
On the one hand, the corset evokes the elegance of well-clad ladies from back in the day. On the other, they seem somewhat tortuous, as we watch characters wince in pain while their corset is laced up.
But what was the reality for corset-wearing folk in the past and is there a place for the garment in our wardrobes today? We unlace the layers of history and myths around corsets to find out.
A history of corsets
Body-shaping garments have been around since ancient times, but it was during the 16th and 17th centuries that the corset (once known as a ‘stay’) came into fashion. They were made using fabrics like cotton or linen and stiffened with pieces of whalebone, wood or metal.
Corsets remained popular until the 20th century, though the shape changed to suit the styles across the centuries. For instance, while the hourglass figure peaked in popularity during the 1800s, corsets with an S-bend became the ‘in thing’ after the death of Queen Victoria. These pushed hips and bosoms forward, creating an exaggerated dip in the back.
By the time the 1920s roared into being, corsets that nipped in waists were swapped for more flexible designs, in keeping with flapper girl fashions. Later in the 20th century, corsets were replaced with bras as everyday underwear.
If we trust our favourite period films and TV shows, corsets of the past were an uncomfortable affair and over the centuries, it’s true the garment had many critics for causing pain and illness. Some blamed tightly laced corsets for everything from endometriosis to fainting. Others saw the constant rigidity as a source of back problems and even the wasting away of tissue.
However, fashion historians are quick to point out that these ideas about the health impact of corsets may have been overblown. Not least because they were made at a time when medical knowledge was extremely limited.
While some women will have suffered the squeeze of an unforgiving corset, the day-to-day reality was less severe. Corsets were a precursor to modern bras, worn for support as well as style. Padding and hoops were often used to create desired body shapes too, rather than relying solely on the cinch of a corset.
So, when you see a leading lady being tortured with tight lacing, think – is this an accurate portrayal of wearing a corset, or a device to represent how restrictive womens’ roles were at the time?
They may have stopped being an everyday item, but corsets never completely went out of fashion. Today, they’re a common piece of costume dress (burlesque in particular, as well as period-inspired looks) and bridal wear. Plus we still see them on catwalks, styled as outerwear and creating feminine-yet-empowering looks.
If you want to rock a corset, here are some tips to ensure it’s a comfortable experience.
The golden rule of wearing a corset: make sure it fits correctly. It should be snug but not too tight. This always starts with measuring your waist size. Visiting a reputable corset maker is worthwhile too – see it as an investment piece.
Break it in
Wear your new corset for just an hour or two at a time to let it adjust to your body shape and minimise the initial stiffness. People in the corsetry world call this ‘seasoning’.
Don’t lace too tightly
A corset shouldn’t hurt or make it feel difficult to breathe. If it does, it’s too tight. Keep lacing loose so you can enjoy wearing it!