Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Ah, Yes, the Corset

Image courtesy of Victoria & Albert Museum/London
by Dominique Eastwick

Clothing: every character wears it, and in most romances, at one time or another, they have to take it off. But how many really know how period clothing works? I thought long and hard about this blog and what to talk about. I have a background in Costume design and history, so to summarize the history of costumes into one page is not going to happen. But I thought maybe we could bring it down to one piece.

The Corset
Such an integral part of who women were and what they wore. Here was a piece of fabric with whale bones and later, metal stays, sewn into it to completely alter what a women’s shape looked like. You think today’s man is upset about the Wonder Bra, thinking he's romancing a woman with a C-cup only to find out she's barely an A? Imagine taking a woman to bed who can’t even take off her corset because she can’t live without one since her body has been so distorted by it. 
Now, not all periods had corsets that were uncomfortable and inflexible. Certainly the Regency period had looser stays then the Victorian (which altered the waist to unbelievable sizes), Gibson Girl (which created an unnatural “S” shape to the body) or Elizabethan era (which complexly flattened the front of the body). But all were meant to alter the shape of the woman’s body to the desirable look of the era.
So let’s talk about the corset. The basics are the same no matter what period of time you're talking about, it's only where and how the cinching occurs that changes. I am not saying all corsets are the same;  just the purpose. 
Let’s stick with Regency as it’s the most romanticized. The silhouette of the woman accentuated the bust. The waistline fell just below the bust and slowly headed south as the 1800s progressed. The corset's main job was to push up the breasts, and of course, it still cinched the waist, but no one saw the waist so it was straighter and less hour-glass.
Corsets were expensive. Poor women didn't wear them. Not only could they not afford them, but wearing one would make it impossible to work in the fields. However, a woman of moderate status, trying to gain more status, would definitely aspire to have one. And those with money would have many. The corset was made to the individual’s body. It would have fit like a second skin in most eras.
Because corsets were expensive, you protected them. A chemise or shift would have been worn under the corset ensuring it didn’t get sweat upon. A petticoat would be worn over the corset adding protection to the corset.
Now, the big problem when writing about the Regency period is we all think that the corset could be easily removed. In fact, it couldn’t. The item would be laced up the back. For some the lacing weren’t merely zig-zagged, but might have several places that the laces would go straight up to the next hole. Then once the corset was completely laced, the maid would take those two lacings that went up rather the zig-zag and pull them tight and tie from there. This allowed for a tighter look in certain places.
Thus making the quickie in the library is less likely. I am not saying it didn’t happen, just not as frequently as we writers seem to write about. A man, no matter how experienced in getting a lady dressed, would be hard-pressed to get the corset just right to allow for the dress to fit properly again. Remember, most women spent a good majority of their time dressing for the events of the evening.
But I, as a reader and writer, will gladly suspend my disbelief for a well-written love scene and quick tryst with the right hero and heroine.

And as a closing thought...did you know men once wore corsets too? They found them cumbersome and uncomfortable, so stopped wearing them. Smart Men.

#dominieastwick, #decadentpub, #regencyromance

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