Wearing a Corset Doesn’t Have to Be Uncomfortable

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1902 Corset Advertisement -- Ideal rather than actualityWelcome to Fashion Flashback Friday, your guide to what they wore then.

One of most frequent comments I hear from folks about historic dress is “I don’t see how they could wear corsets when they’re so uncomfortable.” I used to hear some authors say, “My heroine would never wear a corset.” Yes, she would because a corset or stiffened bodice was the primary means of support prior to the early 20th century. Before the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution, corsets were fit to a particular body to a certain degree. Even when mass-produced corsets became available, those who could afford such would have their undergarments custom made.

I’ve made and worn corsets for historical recreation, and those tailored properly to my body have always been comfortable, no matter the period. I’m not a small girl up top, and the feeling of having my bosom supported from below rather than hanging from my shoulders is soooo nice. Another reason I’ve found them comfortable is I tighten my corsets until they are firm against my body and won’t shift around. I do not have my laces pulled so tight I can barely get oxygen into my lungs because, well, that’s stupid. I did that once when I was younger for an event. Never again.

The other myth about corsets is that you can’t move in them. Again, depends on the corset. An 18th century corset designed to go underneath a court gown (think Marie Antoinette) was designed to keep you rigid above your waist. You weren’t doing housework in them. A corset for daily wear in that period is less rigidly boned and allows for more freedom of movement.

So, if corsets are so wonderful, why not wear them all the time? Why did they go out of fashion?  Several reasons. First, while they are not as restrictive as people believe, there is some restriction of your upper body movements, especially if you need to stretch to reach something. Second, proper fit is important because a corset is not comfortable if it isn’t — and that extra five or ten pounds over Christmas could make the difference between comfort and “Why am I wearing this?” 

Third, you need to wear a layer underneath your corset so you don’t chafe, and given today’s clothing is much lighter than historic garments (less understructure), you probably need a corset cover as well to hide ridge lines, etc. More layers means equals more warmth. I live in Southern California, the land of college students dancing in the stands of the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day wearing bikini tops and shirts off, singing “Tequila!” There’s a small window where you want extra warmth. 

For all their faults, bras fit a broader range of bodies, are more forgiving for the ups and downs of our weight, and don’t generate as much heat. They also require fewer materials and notions. A spoon busk alone can cost between $20-$50, depending on how long it is and who you buy from. (And figuring out how long a busk you need can get tricky because most of us end up between sizes.) Also, bras don’t dig into your hipbones because you’ve got more padding there than when you bought the thing. (If your underwire hurts, time for a new bra.)

 Even with all this, I’ll confess I’m considering making a new corset for when I’m writing at my desk because of the back support they provide. There are some advantages.

I’ll go more into individual styles of corsets in future posts, but I’ve included two videos from historical costumers about the wearing of corsets. The first is from Bernadette Banner, who wore a corset for medical reasons. The second is from Morgan Donner, who is considering making a new corset, so wore her existing one for a week (this includes driving to and from work). It was her video which inspired this post.

Have a lovely weekend and see you next time.

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