"Bridgerton" Keeps Perpetuating the Hollywood Corset MythRoundup
tags: British history, fashion, popular culture, television
Hilary Davidson is a dress and textile historian, curator, and archaeologist based between Sydney and London. She’s researched Regency clothing for more than 15 years and published Dress in the Age of Jane Austen: Regency Fashion in 2019.
Simone Ashley made headlines last week after mentioning in an interview in Glamour how painful and restricting her corsets were as the new leading lady in Season 2 of Bridgerton. She had problems eating, a lot of pain, and even thought she tore her shoulder at one point. Actresses in the show’s first season had similar complaints about the garment: Nicola Coughlan, who plays Penelope Featherington, told Refinery29 that “taking off a corset at the end of the day just feels incredible. It’s a bra times 10,000. Your ribs are just like, Ah.” In the same interview, Ellen Mirojnick, who designed the first season’s costumes, painted that discomfort as an inevitability: “Of course, a corset will never be truly comfortable.”
Media outlets gleefully and naïvely picked up on these quotations without probing further, because they reinforce what those who work with historic dress call the Corset Myth. The myth is strong. The myth is pervasive. It’s the idea that all historical corsets were oppressive, painful devices of torture forced upon women for centuries. Like a hydra, for every story or article patiently explaining that just wasn’t the case, hundreds more pop up to say “corsets were BAD!” The myth, perpetuated by Hollywood productions in which corsets are synonymous with female subjugation, forces history into a single, uncomplicated narrative. It overrides the extensive research that proves otherwise. It’s simply not true.
Yes, corsets can hurt and damage, when worn incorrectly. But that doesn’t mean that it was the common experience. As a dress historian and curator, I’ve spent decades studying a huge range of sources giving richer, more nuanced pictures of corset-wearing. People often judge corsets by projecting modern standards of embodied comfort onto the past. Today, many of us live almost wholly in stretch clothing, especially since the pandemic began. Tighter, snug, and firm clothing had greater bodily comfort value ages ago, not least for warmth. Just because someone now can’t imagine wearing something stiffened around their torso doesn’t mean it was the same in the past. The myth is often based on unexamined assumptions about bodies.
Historical corset wearers used them every day and were accustomed to the feeling. Coming at corsets fresh can be strange and disorientating. It takes time to adjust, as Kim Kardashian knows. Before wearing her headline-grabbing Thierry Mugler corset to the 2019 Met Gala, she waist-trained for years and has her own shapewear line, the modern equivalent of the smoothing, supporting, and uplifting historical corsets did. It sounds like Simone Ashley wasn’t given an adjustment or practice period, which is a shame. Maybe productions should think of corset-wearing like fighting or riding, activities that need some practice to be effective and safe.
The Corset Myth foregrounds a false assumption: that waist reduction was the garment’s primary function. It wasn’t. Corsets are an answer to the eternal female clothing question: What do you do with the breasts? Hide them? Squash them? Show them off? Let them fly free? One has to do something, and corsets helped support the bosom. If you wear a bra now, you would have worn a corset in the past.