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.
Stays, as the English called them, were stiffened underbodices worn to shape busts and smooth torsos since the 16th century. Their inverted triangle defined Rococo fashions. In the 1790s, new ideas of nature and neoclassicism caused revolutions in women’s dress—the appearance of two separate breasts. They hadn’t been seen since the Middle Ages. Stays also changed shape over two experimental decades, resulting in the proto-hourglass form of the 1820s. Their focus was the bosom.
Corset was a French import word. It originally meant “little bodies,” and appears in 1790s fashion plates as a bolero over a dress. But the real significance was what was underneath. Corset was also a name for the increasingly popular lighter, less boned bust supports often made of cotton or linen, and more like a modern bra. They contrasted with stays in weight and density.
During the Regency period, both existed at the same time. Some “long” stays reached from the shoulder to the upper hip. “Short stays,” or corsets, finished under the bust or at the ribs. There were “Armenian” corsets, “divorce” corsets (because they separated the breasts) and “elastic” corsets, made of stretchy knitted textiles, among many others. Increasingly, such garments were designed and made by women, who used the female perspective as an advertising point.
Regency stays and corsets had two separate gussets that finally allowed breasts their shape after having been squashed into 18th-century firm fronts. The gussets often had drawstrings at the top to allow them to fit exactly. The look was the centrepiece of Regency fashion, presenting newly liberated bosoms up like two quivering oranges on a plate. Bridgerton’s corsets are cut to the older, breast-flattening style to create a modern idea of a cleavage that looks more like rising dough.
This is the context for Regency corsets. They’re quite a different beast from the versions that came later in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, when hourglass-shaped, heavily boned structures helped to create a narrow waist (though the illusion was often created by contrast with large skirts). That’s another reason the Bridgerton corset pain is perplexing: Simone Ashley said the corset gave her a “smaller waist,” causing her to get sick after eating while wearing it. But why? Regency dresses’ defining feature was a skirt starting right under the bust, now called an empire line, after the style’s 1907 revival. There was no visible waist, so any lissom reduction under the gown is pointless. It was more about a smooth line.
It’s also important that historical upper- and middle-class women had corsets made to fit them. Bodies are infinitely variable. Something so snug must be individualized to be comfortable. The Corset Myth has fed on many people trying an off-the-shelf-corset, lacing it too hard and fast, and creating pain. Bridgerton’s first season contributed to this misconception by depicting a character tightlacing—as the name suggests, pulling the corset laces as tight as possible—and suffering skin damage from leaving off the essential chemise supposed to be worn underneath. While costume departments have to dress most of the cast in stock corsets that can’t be fitted, Simone Ashley is the lead of Season 2. Did she not get a proper corset fitting? If she did, it shouldn’t have hurt. I’ve worn stock Regency corsets on-screen as an extra in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice film, and in a 2013 BBC documentary re-creating the novel’s Netherfield ball. They only squeezed when I got laced too hard—easily fixed. The 1810s replica short stays I made for my shape in another project are indeed “truly comfortable,” and I didn’t even have a Netflix budget.
Bridgerton prides itself on being unconcerned with strict historical accuracy—characters live in a racism-free aristocracy and dance to instrumental covers of “Thank U, Next” and “Material Girl”—which is totally fine and part of its deserved success. In the case of corsets, however, the actresses would have benefited from a smidge more accuracy. The period the show riffs on had the softest, most comfortable corsets for centuries, yet somehow the Corset Myth is so powerful that these actresses are suffering needlessly. It’s time for the Corset Myth to retire, and far more interesting Corset Truths to take its place.