beatrice_otter: The Schuyler sisters from the musical Hamilton, pointing to the sky (Schuyler Sisters)
[personal profile] beatrice_otter
As someone who knows a bit about history, there are a few things that most historical fiction (pro or fan) gets wrong ALL THE TIME, and it really drives me batty.  So I will be writing a few primers about basic details that people get wrong a lot, on an irregular basis.  It will not be a systematic "everything you need to know" basis, but rather "these are the things that are most glaring to me."  Unless otherwise specified, all these primers will refer to European and European-American culture and history.  (So, for example, your standard Regency AU.)

And period clothing and fashion are things I know a bit about, given that a) I find it fascinating and b) I used to work in the costume shop of a theater, so that's the subject of my first post.

One of the most common clothing gaffes I see is, well, ANYTHING related to corsets.  We get that SOOOOOO WRONG.  The myths, they are strong with this one.  So I'm going to define what a corset is, and then bust some myths about them.

First, a corset is a supportive undergarment that wraps around a woman's midsection and bust.  (If the top of it nestles under the bust, it is definitely modern and for appearances only.)  It is made of a durable, non-stretchy fabric, with semi-rigid slats called "stays" sewn vertically into it at regular intervals.  It usually laces in the back, and sometimes also in the front; sometimes the front is joined by hooks and eyes instead.  The corset has two main purposes: to provide support for the bosom, and to shape the woman's body into a desired silhouette.  It also works as a back brace.  The stays have historically been made of reeds, whalebone, and steel; they are never wholly rigid but adapt to your body as much as they shape it in the desired fashion.  Now, the desired shape changed over the years, but it was generally not too severe.

Elizabethan/Renaissence corset (1300s-1790s).  This style is actually fairly unisex; when worn by a woman, the breasts are kind of smooshed together into a uniboob effect.  When worn by a man, it just gives them good posture and a less jiggly waist.  This basic style lasted for centuries.  The stays were generally made of reeds; because they weren't as stiff as later materials (bone and steel), you needed more of them.  Each individual rib below is a reed in its own pocket.


Regency era (1790s-1840s).  Note that one is rather shorter than the other, and that the one you can see from the front has a busk so that the breasts are now separate instead of being smooshed together.  (Usually the busks were a lot smaller and less likely to dig into your breasts.)  They shorter one has as many stays as the Elizabethan one does, despite being shorter; it's not trying to hold the waist in, and is similar in construction to a bra, but it is long enough (especially in front) that the full weight of the breast is not hanging from the shoulders.


Victorian ladies' corset!  (1840-1900).  Here we have the hourglass shape that we think of as "what a corset looks like", it's very definitely a feminine garment.  Men still occasionally wore stays shaped more like the Elizabethan or Regency corset, but it was unfashionable if you could tell they were wearing it.  Also, this is where you start getting tight-lacing and the obsession with small waists.  And with whalebone and steel and other materials, you need fewer stays.  (The whalebone corsets were actually more rigid than the steel ones were; steel, after all, is flexible in thin strips.)


And, finally, the Edwardian corset (1900-1914), the last major corset style before the bra.  Also the shortest-lived, with good reason; it's the only one that's actually a problem, health-wise, because of what it does to your back if you wear it all the time.  This one we show from the side, so you can see the problem.  (This is a fairly extreme version of it; most women, particularly the ones with more active lifestyles, wore stays with a less pronounced S-bend in the back.)
 


So!  That's what corsets are and what they generally looked like, now on to the myths!

Myth 1: Corsets are terribly uncomfortable.

Fact: Many women (especially those with large breasts or with back issues) find corsets more comfortable than bras.  You see, if you are going to support the weight of breasts in your undergarments, there are two ways to do it: you can either support them from below by a garment that sits on the hips, or from above, by hanging them off your shoulders.  Bras hang the weight of our breasts from our shoulders; corsets support the weight from below.  It's like the difference between a hiking backpack where the weight is supported from a padded belt vs. a school backpack where the whole thing hangs from your shoulders.  If you're walking around all day, the school backpack may weigh considerably less, but will leave your back and shoulders more sore and tired.  Also, if you have back issues?  A corset works like a back brace, it gives you good posture and supports everything and keeps it in place (as long as you're not wearing an Edwardian S-bend).  Unless you cannot stand sitting upright and ABSOLUTELY MUST SLOUCH, a properly-fitting corset will probably be at least as comfortable as a bra.  But metal constricting your ribs! I hear you say.  Underwire! I reply.

Myth 2: Corsets cut off the oxygen and, by shaping your body in unnatural ways, causes damage.  Also, some women were so obsessed with having tiny waists that they had surgery to remove their lower ribs!

Fact: No woman ever had surgery to remove ribs so a corset could make them smaller.  Nope.   Complete, total, and utter baloney.  You can lace a corset very tightly to give you a teeny-tiny waist, and some women have; this was only ever a thing among the upper class women who didn't have to do heavy labor as part of their chores.  Even so, a tightly-laced corset will still let you take in enough oxygen to do normal daily activities, and will require your internal organs to do less shifting than pregnancy does.  Most women who wore corsets didn't tight-lace them; they were laced tightly enough to provide structure and support but not tightly enough to be uncomfortable.  As for the whole corset schtick in Pirates of the Caribbean, well, it's completely and totally wrong.  Elizabeth would have been wearing a corset for years, and would be quite used to them, and in any case pretty much NOBODY wore them so tight that they fainted from lack of breath.  Even a tight-laced corset (i.e. much tighter than Elizabeth was wearing hers) would not cause a fainting spell.

Myth 2: Corsets get in the way of anything active.

Fact: If your corset is properly fitted to you (and remember that corsets were worn mostly back before mass-produced clothing, so they would have been custom-made for each woman), you can do most things in corsets that you can do in a bra.  Women who wore corsets did many things up to and including singing opera and doing acrobatics.  They rode horses, played tennis, and climbed mountains in corsets.  Women today who try these activities in period dress report that the skirts are more troublesome than the corsets are, and the corsets do not generally interfere with their actions.  There is a darn good reason that in the early 1900s, the feminists didn't campaign against the corset, they campaigned against skirts.  Because the skirts were more likely to get in your way if you wanted to, say, ride a bicycle.  Or a horse.  Or go swimming.  Or climb a mountain.  Also, consider the female cast members of Hamilton.  All of them--including the chorus line--spend the entire performance in corsets.  They get up to some really athletic dancing, and do it just fine.

Victorian femal acrobat in costume--which includes a corset.  Victorian women playing hockey while wearing corsets
Victorian woman playing tennis while wearing a corset and bustle.  Victorian women climbing a mountain in corsets  Edwardian women skiing in corsets

Scene from the musical Hamilton, showing a female chorus member wearing a corset and leggings

Myth 3: Bras were a giant step forward in women's lib because they allow women more freedom.

Fact: We switched to the bra not because it is inherently better, but rather because fashion changed.  The 1920s aesthetic was DRAMATICALLY DIFFERENT from any preceding aesthetic for women.  Women were supposed to be boyish!  Flat-chested, slender, no figure!  Corsets give you a figure whether you have one or not; the 1920s/1930s woman wasn't supposed to have one.  So they switched to a bra.  And, look, the 1920s were changing a WHOLE LOT OF OTHER THINGS about society.  For example!  Central heating had become A Thing that people had, even relatively poor people.  With central heating, you do not have to wear as many layers.  A bra has fewer layers than a corset, especially when you consider that a corset also required you to wear a chemise under it.  The coming of the bra coincided with a strong wave of women's lib, but was neither caused by it nor resulted from it.  Also, people were supposed to be "natural," so you were supposed to be naturally thin instead of wearing a garment that made you look thinner than you were.  Great for people who have that body type.  Not so much for the rest of the population.

Myth 4: Corsets take a long time to get into, and you need help.

Fact: many women could get into even high-fashion outfits in less than 15 minutes on their own without any help.  Yes, it was easier with help, and if you were less able-bodied it was necessary, but even with those who needed help, it was a fairly quick process.  See a nice youtube video (with embedding disabled) to see an example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-ivntz8DbY

Myth 5: Only women wore corsets

Fact: while almost all women wore stays of some kind, many men did, too, especially upper-class men from the 1400s-1700s, and for similar reasons: to give them the right shape, and make them look less jiggly.  (Fat was good, it proved you had more than enough to eat, but you didn't want to be too jiggly about it, either.)  Fashions for both men and women tended to be highly structured, which means they generally looked better if you had the proper structure underneath them.  No women's fashion from this period in Europe will look right without a corset, and many men's fashions will look better with one even if they can be worn without, too.  They really are the foundation of your look.

General Undergarment Information, for Pre-20th Century Europe and America (both men and women).  (Mostly early modern to modern eras, so figure 1400s-1800s.)

The first thing you have to understand is that fabric was EXPENSIVE.  Most people could only afford one or two complete outfits; when the Industrial Revolution came, that changed slowly, but fabric was still really expensive.  Making thread is labor-intensive, when you're doing it on a spindle; then you have to take it and weave it into fabric; then you have to sew the fabric (by hand!) into whatever garment you are wearing.  The nicer/finer the fabric, the more labor it takes to produce.  And!  Dyes were expensive, too.  The darker the dye, the more expensive.  The more vibrant the color, the more expensive.  And they didn't have color-fast dying processes, so the color would wash out a little bit every time you washed it.  And washing stuff without machinery is EXTREMELY labor-intensive, so you don't want to wash anything you don't absolutely have to.  Not to mention, Europe is a cold place most of the year, and fuel for fires is expensive, and they didn't have very good insulation, and so wearing lots of layers was A GOOD THING.

This meant that most people had at least two complete layers on their whole body, pretty much all the time.  The form of the garments and undergarments changed, but the fact that there were two layers didn't.  The bottom layer, the one touching the skin, were undergarments; these were made of cruder and thinner fabric, no dyes, nothing fancy, usually pretty shapeless because that was easier and cheaper to make.  It did two things: it provided insulation, and it absorbed body oils/odors.  This was the layer you washed.  For men this took the form of what we now call long underwear; for women, a chemise (a sort of slip thing) and, in later periods, pantaloons.

The outer layer was made of nicer fabric, usually thicker, and it would be dyed at least a little bit, and have any nice details on it.  This layer you might never wash, or only if it got a stain.  Between the two layers was where the corset went.  So, starting from the skin out, a woman would wear a chemise (and a petticoat or pantaloons, depending on the era and the length of the chemise), a corset, and a dress.  More layers might be added, depending on the fashions of the day and the status of the woman; for example, a farthingale or panniers or hoop skirt or bum roll or bustle might be worn by middle-class or upper-class women; the number of skirts and petticoats also varied by fashion and status.  You got more skirt/petticoat layers, generally, in the 19th Century because fabric was cheaper and even middle-class women could afford them.

tl;dr most corsets weren't uncomfortable, unless you're going for high-fashion in the Victorian or Edwardian eras.  Most women could do anything up to and including play sports and do hard physical labor in their corset without a problem.  If you have a European or American woman of the corset-wearing era dropped into modern life, she's not going to think ditching her corset for a bra is the most awesome thing ever, although she may think the idea of getting to wear trousers when she wants to is.  A modern woman put into a corset-wearing era will probably adapt to the corset itself fairly easily, more easily than she would adjust to other aspects of the fashion (the skirts, and the things that held the skirts in whatever ridiculous fashion was popular in that era).  But the lower-class she's going for, the less elaborate they were--a working-class woman would wear simpler stays, and skirts with no under structure.  And a woman in a corset-wearing period, staying in her own era, probably isn't going to think about wearing corsets one way or the other, it just is.

And everybody was wearing two layers of clothing, and only the under layer would get washed unless there was a stain on the outer garment.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-08-03 03:44 am (UTC)
alatefeline: Painting of a cat asleep on a book. (Default)
From: [personal profile] alatefeline
Awesome info! Am am bookmarking this for a reference.

>> only the under layer would get washed unless there was a stain on the outer garment <<

Hmmm... Kind of like how a lot of people treat jackets, coats, sweaters now - hanging them up, brushing them off, and washing on rare occasions, because they just don't get as much body odor ground in and/or are fiddlier to wash.

>> But metal constricting your ribs! I hear you say. Underwire! I reply. <<

Yep. I can't wear either because I have texture and anxiety issues related to my Asperger's. Honestly, the Elizabethan corset looks more comfortable for me than 95% of bras, even counting sports bras and camisoles. (Almost everything that is tight enough to provide support is also tight enough to provoke panic and weird syncopated breathing. There are a few exceptions, and I treasure each such garment and wear it to pieces.)

>> We switched to the bra not because it is inherently better, but rather because fashion changed. <<

Makes sense. A lot of things people think are better are actually just different and more fashionable.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-08-03 04:53 am (UTC)
alatefeline: Painting of a cat asleep on a book. (Default)
From: [personal profile] alatefeline
Some trends that have amused me because I liked the thing when it wasn't fashionable in my local place, time, and social sphere: yogurt drinks; coloring books; long flowing skirts; books featuring kinky heroines; assembling collections of nature photographs.

I'm incompetent at clothing fashion, though.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-08-03 01:54 pm (UTC)
peoriapeoriawhereart: blond and brunet men peer intently (Napoleon & Illya peer)
From: [personal profile] peoriapeoriawhereart
Might 'quilted stays' work? The garment would still need to be tight, but you could probably use side grommets so it could be adjusted just so.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-08-03 02:03 pm (UTC)
alatefeline: Painting of a cat asleep on a book. (Default)
From: [personal profile] alatefeline
Maybe! If I decide to get a corset, I will try that. :)

(no subject)

Date: 2016-08-03 05:08 am (UTC)
lilacsigil: 12 Apostles rocks, text "Rock On" (12 Apostles)
From: [personal profile] lilacsigil
Bras are not supposed to hang the weight of the breasts off the shoulders, though - they're supposed to distribute the weight around the band, exactly like the shorter corset in your second picture!

(no subject)

Date: 2016-08-03 05:42 am (UTC)
lilacsigil: 12 Apostles rocks, text "Rock On" (12 Apostles)
From: [personal profile] lilacsigil
I'm a 44F and can slide the straps off and have support in my sports bra! I suspect it was the same with a lot of corsets, too - ideally, it fits well and is supportive, but in reality people stuck with the same old one for years and it poked them under the arms and rubbed a bit at the side, but oh well, too expensive to get a new one and no time to alter the old one.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-08-03 02:04 pm (UTC)
alatefeline: Painting of a cat asleep on a book. (Default)
From: [personal profile] alatefeline
Probably!

(no subject)

Date: 2016-08-03 06:42 am (UTC)
monanotlisa: (angela & roxy - bones)
From: [personal profile] monanotlisa
This is super-cool (and I am not even a Period fan, just a history connoisseuse!)

(no subject)

Date: 2016-08-03 07:03 am (UTC)
vicki_rae: (ZZZ - Dark Chocolate)
From: [personal profile] vicki_rae
This. Yes. The corset I wore over a linen chemise was very comfortable even with 42F boobs. Much more so than any bra I've ever owned. I have tactile sensory issues and hate bras with the fire of a thousand suns.
Edited Date: 2016-08-03 07:03 am (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2016-08-03 09:13 am (UTC)
lizbee: (Tudors: Anne Boleyn)
From: [personal profile] lizbee
This is incredibly useful and detailed, thank you!

Random drive-by fact: there was a very strong anti-corset movement among Australian feminists of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, partially because tight lacing was blamed for every ill a woman suffered (much as ill fitting bras are often blamed for all kinds of discomforts now), and also because the climate didn't really suit them.

(There were also issues where extreme tight lacing was introduced at a very young age at Australian girls schools, several years younger than in Europe -- such a UKcentric society, I have no idea how it compared with America -- and aside from concern about potential health problems, this was felt to be sexualising girls who weren't ready for it.)

(no subject)

Date: 2016-08-03 10:54 am (UTC)
fignewton: (Default)
From: [personal profile] fignewton
This was a fun, entertaining, informative read. Thank you!

How easy would it be to find a corset nowadays? I have a younger teen who struggles with her posture, and I wonder if that might help.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-08-03 01:52 pm (UTC)
peoriapeoriawhereart: very British officer in sweater (Brigader gets the job done)
From: [personal profile] peoriapeoriawhereart
Find a Renaissance Faire type and ask for their seamstress's card.

It's going to be a custom build.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-08-03 01:58 pm (UTC)
fignewton: (Default)
From: [personal profile] fignewton
Good point, and probably not accessible here. :)

(no subject)

Date: 2016-08-03 02:08 pm (UTC)
peoriapeoriawhereart: Blair freaking and Jim hands on his knees (Jim calms Blair)
From: [personal profile] peoriapeoriawhereart
Though, if you are somewhere with a strong sewing tradition including cutting their own patterns, a skilled seamstress that isn't in that trade might be able to work it up. Otherwise, look into long line bras.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-08-03 02:21 pm (UTC)
fignewton: (Default)
From: [personal profile] fignewton
Thanks for that tip - should've thought of that myself.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-06-14 05:06 pm (UTC)
cesy: "Cesy" - An old-fashioned quill and ink (Default)
From: [personal profile] cesy
Ah, this is a handy tip! I have found way too many focused on tight-lacing.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-08-03 02:16 pm (UTC)
fignewton: (Default)
From: [personal profile] fignewton
Thanks very much for all this info. It does sound like it would be a bit impractical. It's still fascinating to learn about, though!

(no subject)

Date: 2016-08-03 02:10 pm (UTC)
alatefeline: Painting of a cat asleep on a book. (Default)
From: [personal profile] alatefeline
Ask her what she wants to try, if anything, to help with her posture. Be prepared to be creative and, potentially, to take NO for an answer.

I am an adult who is now choosing to work on my posture because ergonomics make a difference to pain and tiredness in my hands and shoulders. But as a teen, people in my family nagging me about my posture was part of a really unhealthy dynamic in which my body was constantly scrutinized for its social acceptability while I was struggling to learn to accept myself. Being told that "normal people don't sit like X" leaves mental scars when it's what your body does naturally and comfortably. I'm not saying that you are going to do that but I wanted you to be aware that it's a really delicate topic.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-08-03 02:20 pm (UTC)
fignewton: (Default)
From: [personal profile] fignewton
Ha! Yeah, you deal with a teenager, be prepared for the NO. :)

For the record, she is very much aware that I consider her to be - as does she herself - a beautiful young woman who looks infinitely more beautiful when her back is straight. She remembers to straighten for pictures, for example. Her back muscles are a little weak, though, and the support of a corset might help her avoid slouching.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-08-03 09:33 pm (UTC)
alatefeline: Painting of a cat asleep on a book. (Default)
From: [personal profile] alatefeline
Understood.

>> Yeah, you deal with a teenager, be prepared for the NO. :) <<

Oooooh so very true. (Also true of adults reverting to teenager mentality, but at least they/we can't keep it up indefinitely the way actual teenagers can.)

(no subject)

Date: 2016-08-04 01:36 am (UTC)
archersangel: (lurking)
From: [personal profile] archersangel
might the old walk & sit with a book on the head thing work? maybe start out with a few minutes & build up from there, like regular exercise.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-08-04 01:17 pm (UTC)
fignewton: (Default)
From: [personal profile] fignewton
Certainly worth trying, thanks!

(no subject)

Date: 2016-08-03 02:20 pm (UTC)
endeni: (Default)
From: [personal profile] endeni
Oh, wow, this was so interesting! Thanks for sharing! *_*

(no subject)

Date: 2016-08-03 07:18 pm (UTC)
anghraine: from the 2005 p&p: darcy standing at a piano while georgiana plays it (Default)
From: [personal profile] anghraine
This is a great post! The LO THE CORSET IS THE ROOT OF ALL ILLS is one of silly unsubstantiated things that becames so widely accepted that you can never escape it. (It's like the ~myth of childhood~ of fashion!)

There is one thing I'm a little unsure about, but I'm in a different field. The 1790s-1840s as Regency fashion is something I haven't ever really heard of; I don't think I've heard of any periodization that packages those decades together. The historical Regency was only ten years during the 1810s; I've seen it considered part of the long eighteenth century, the end of an era, or early in the nineteenth and essentially proto-Victorian, or a bridge between the two, but not both. It might be semantics, but I'm mostly confused because fashion from the late 1810s on is so drastically different from what went before, and I was sure I'd read that the corset after ~1820 was a very different beast from that of the eighteenth century into the Regency.

if you don't mind too much

Date: 2016-08-04 01:44 am (UTC)
archersangel: (historic fiction)
From: [personal profile] archersangel
i found a link to a master post with info about the victorain era, once section includes fashion.

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