~ Posted by Kassia St Clair, May 17th 2012
Our most popular piece on the website at the moment is "The Shapes We're In". Our deputy editor Isabel Lloyd wrote that women often favour clothes of a particular decade. “Ask any woman which decade suits her and odds are, she’ll have an answer ready”, she says. “A lifetime of staring glumly at changing-room mirrors, however painful, does give you a clear picture of your own proportions.” Isabel discussed this with women who regularly wear clothes from different eras—actresses from the Royal Shakespeare Company. One of the surprises that emerged was the attitude to corsets.
As the corset seems such an embodiment of pre-suffrage restriction, I had expected our actresses to hate them. Yet here’s Cecilia relishing every minute of it. Another actress I spoke to, Isla Blair, also had good things to say about them. Isla (“short, into my 60s; I’d have been good in the fin de siècle because I have a curvy bust and small waist”) wears them in period plays not just because they help her achieve the historically correct, upright posture, but because they make her feel supported. “You get less tired in one—in fact I asked a dressmaker I know to make me a slightly softer version of an Edwardian corset, which I wear under certain of my real clothes."
It is one of the tenacious clichés in fashion history that the corset worn by Victorian women mirrored the legal and social limitations imposed upon them. It’s an idea that retains traction in spite of the best efforts of at least two historians—D. Kunzle and J. Russ—who hashed the point out in 1977 over three consecutive issues of the historical journal Signs. In fact, corsetry wasn't restricted to women in the Victorian era, wasn't necessarily restrictive unless it was tight-laced, and wasn't unpopular with the women who wore them.
It was moralistic Victorian (male) doctors who first made the case against corsets, drawing those dramatic hourglass diagrams of the interiors of women’s bodies with all the organs squished out of place. That only happened if women laced their corsets very tightly over a long period of time and from a young age, which most didn't. The two historians made it clear that while the corset makes a neat metaphor for the wider social restriction of women in Victorian society, it isn't an entirely accurate one.