What ‘Bridgerton’ got wrong about corsets, the most smeared story in history

When you think of a corset, you might picture historical drama ladies clinging to a bedpost while a spirited maid aggressively constricts them. Netflix’s steamy Regency-inspired drama Bridgeton shows similar such tortuous scenes.

Ahead of the show’s second season, Simone Ashley, who plays new heroine Kate Sharma, complained shine about the Horror of wearing a corset. She claimed her corset caused her “a lot of pain” and “changed her body.”

[Photo: Liam Daniel/Netflix © 2022]

In the first season, Prudence Featherington (played by Bessie Carter) was tied tightly in a corset. Prudence’s mother urges her daughter, “I could squeeze my waist into the size of an orange and a half when I was Prudence’s age.” Rather unnecessary when Regency robes fall from an underbust Empire line that obscures the waist. Unlike their later Victorian counterparts, Regency corsets focused on enhancing a lady’s girth, not reducing her waist.

This scene is ubiquitous in historical drama, from Elizabeth Swan’s fainting spell Pirates of the Caribbean to Rose DeWitt Bukater unable to breathe titanicand of course Mammy’s iconic line, “Just hold on, and suck in!” as Scarlett O’Hara clutches a bedpost Blown by the wind. It may be an on-screen shortcut to the restricted lives of historical women, but it stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of historical corsets and women alike.

After centuries of women (and some men) wearing corsets to support and shape the body, it was Victorian men who did it taught us to hate corsets. Brace-related health issues were a myth constructed by physicians to further their own patriarchal perspectives. So you might be surprised to hear that historical drama perpetuates Victorian misogyny.

Medicine, misogyny and the corset

The list of medical ailments attributed to the brace by 19th-century physicians seems endless. Constipation, pregnancy complications, breast cancer, postpartum infections and tuberculosis have all been blamed on the corset. A Victorian physician, Benjamin Orange Flower, author of the 1892 pamphlet The slaves of fashion, asserted that “if women continue this destructive habit, the race must inevitably deteriorate”.

With the development of science, the medicinal root of these diseases has been identified and the guilt of the corset has been refuted. The corset offers an example of this Gender bias in medical research. The many complaints from George IVone of the many men who wore corsets in the 19th century was never blamed for wearing them.

Some corsets are even specifically designed to be healthy and supportive. Lingerie company Gossards released Corsets from a surgical point of view in 1909, which promoted the flexibility and supportive capabilities of the corset, which “could preserve the lines demanded by fashion, but without discomfort or injury.”

Historical corsets were ingenious, light and flexible. Whalebone (which is baleen from a whale’s mouth and isn’t real bone) is wonderfully flexible and conforms to the body underneath – and many corsets have been simply reinforced with cotton bands. Corsets reduce back pain caused by poor posture and had expanding portions for pregnancy. But the hourglass shape of the late 19th century was not what the women of regency wanted. They were only interested in her breasts, since Hilary Davidson has shown. The breasts had to be lifted and separated into two round balls. Regency corsets (or “stays” as they were known) were common short, always soft and never heavy-boned. Its purpose was chest support, never restriction. I wonder what Regency women would have thought of modern bras with pinching straps and chafing underwires.

[Image: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images]

Historical Mythmaking

So the problem with depicting corsets in historical drama isn’t “historical accuracy,” an idea largely debunked by historiansincluding Bridgetonis own Historical Guide. Bridgeton‘s costumes are happily reminiscent of designers George Halley‘s ornate and colorful Empire line fashion designs from the 1960’s. Bridgeton‘s costumes are historically inspired fantasy.

Bridgeton is something for Regency England game of Thrones belongs to the Wars of the Roses, and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s a fantastic reinterpretation, creatively inspired by the past. The idea that his costumes should be “historically accurate,” or that such a claim is even possible, is not at stake here.

This is a matter of historical error. Women of the past had an impact on their bodies and how they dressed. They were adept at achieving the fashionable proportions by padding the padding hips and bust, instead of reducing the waist. Like the show’s famous dressmaker, Madame Delacroix, many of the professionals who dressed her were women themselves. We strip away that agency and ingenuity when we assume that historical women were passive puppets disguised and cooped up by a patriarchal society.

For historical women, corsets were a supportive garment that allowed them to follow the fashionable silhouette without dieting, exercising, or undergoing cosmetic surgery. It would be a refreshing change to see historical dramas take on this feminist history of the corset rather than resorting to a misogynistic stereotype. What ‘Bridgerton’ got wrong about corsets, the most smeared story in history


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