There is a trope in a lot of period dramas wherein an aristocratic woman turns her back to her maid or someone who otherwise hates her, who then bends her over a chaise lounge or powder table to aggressively tighten her corset—clearly taking out some frustrations with each lace up. In Titanic, Rose’s breath hastens as her mother laces her up and forbids her from seeing Jack ever again. Prudence Featherington in Bridgerton grimaces and squeezes the hand of a nearby maid, almost as if she is in labor, as her corset is tightened in preparation for meeting the Queen. Judy Garland grips the bedpost in terror as her character’s corset is fastened in Meet Me In St. Louis. “I feel like the ossified woman in a sideshow,” she says, her skin going pale.
All of these scenes, of which at least one has been debunked as sartorially inaccurate for its time period, are meant to demonstrate women suffering to maintain societal beauty standards. Of course, as women have picked up more rights throughout the decades, we’ve scrapped the corset along the way—though Dr. Alanna McKnight, a dress and labor historian and author of an upcoming book on Toronto corset manufacturers, argues that we continue to wear corsets today, just by other names: girdles, binders, Skims, Spanx, etc. But should actors still have to wear these garments every day on the job?
Earlier this week, The Sun reported that Netflix and BBC are on the verge of banning corsets in their productions. Netflix denies this report, and a BBC spokesperson told Jezebel that this was “not a story we recognise and having checked with colleagues it’s not a live conversation.” Nevertheless, it brings up a subject worth discussing: What can be done regarding the pain and discomfort many actors have reported from having to wear these outmoded undergarments?
After Vicky Krieps portrayed the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, a woman whose weakened grasp on her own public persona caused her to turn inward and obsessively tighten her corset, she spoke about the immediate negative effect the costume had on her mood. In an interview with WWD, she said, “The thing I observed as soon as I had it on—and it would happen every day—is that after two minutes I would get sad. Like a deep sadness. And I found out that your emotional center is where your solar plexus and diaphragm is, and that is exactly where it is pushing the most.” Similarly, Bridgerton star Simone Ashley told Glamour that she experienced “a lot of pain with the corset…I think I tore my shoulder at one point!”
McKnight suspects the cause of these injuries are ill-fitting garments, not dissimilar from pain a modern-day bra wearer would experience from wearing too tight of a bra. “Everyone’s ribs are in different places and [corsets] will pinch if there’s no protected panel between the lacing and the skin, which is another thing that drives me insane when historic shows don’t have a chemise underneath the corset,” she told me in a Zoom interview. “They just have the corset against bare skin, which would never [historically] happen. But when you tighten it, the cords can burn the skin.”
Further, tight lacing, she explained, was a specific and extreme trend within corset history and not commonly practiced, though it seems to be what has carried over into modern portrayals. Corsets also demand a certain posture, and moving in modern ways might bring the wearer discomfort. “I went dancing in a goth club in 18th century stays [another undergarment, somewhat less restrictive than a corset], and I bruised the cartilage in my rib,” McKnight said. “Because you cannot dance to industrial music in an outfit where you’re meant to, like delicately waltz.”
Corsets, like high heels or clogs, need to be broken in, as well. “You’re expecting someone who has never worn a corset in their life to suddenly emulate someone who routinely practiced tight lacing, which is a form of body modification,” McKnight said. “So I kind of compare it to [how] most people have their ears pierced but not everyone has their ears stretched out to gauges.”
Corsage director Marie Kreutzer said something similar about her lead, Kriegs, wearing a corset for hours on set. “I underestimated what the corset would do to Vicky as an actress,” she told WWD. “And I didn’t think so much about what it had done to Elisabeth, because, unlike Vicky, she grew up wearing a corset from when she was 11 or 12.”
The trope of the corset as a metaphor for women’s pain feels tired, but I’m eager to see TV and films creatively use it as a metaphor for women’s rights and freedoms. Ideally, actors can also be fitted properly for corsets (and other historical garments) so they’re not feeling discomfort and pain on set.