Today, corsets are seen as tools of patriarchal oppression. So much so that when corsets made a brief fashion comeback a few years ago, feelings of cognitive dissonance were expressed. “Can a feminist wear a corset without being a hypocrite?”
It’s not surprising that we have a notion that corsets caged women when it was portrayed as such in many period films and dramas. Remember the scene in the blockbuster hit Pirates of the Caribbean where Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann was fitted tightly in her new gown, and in the next pivotal scene she fainted and fell into the ocean because of it? The message was clear: corsets are not only oppressive, they’re also straight-up dangerous. But what if we tell you that corsets aren’t harmful? Men were the ones against it.
Corsets are equivalent to today’s bras
It’s unfathomable for us now that working women in the olden days needed to wear corsets (sometimes called “stays”). Wouldn’t they faint and be unable to do hard labour? Well, not really because corsets were worn then for the same reasons we wear bras today — mainly to support the breasts and for modesty. They weren’t worn directly against the skin but over a shift, which is a simple loose dress-like garment. Corsets were not meant to be restrictive nor were they worn only by upper-class women for the sake of fashion, they were utilitarian.
After the French Revolution, silhouettes became looser and natural as seen in fashion trends from the Regency Era (the time period that inspired the hit Netflix series Bridgerton). And so, the undergarments became even more relaxed and the corset took a shorter and simpler form to match the trends of the time.
It wasn’t until the mid to late 19th century that tight-lacing, a way of wearing a tightly laced corset to cinch the waistline, began to be practised. By this time, the ideal silhouette emphasised a waist that didn’t “taper to any great extent” — in other words, a tiny waist. Some women began using corsets not just to support breasts but to shape their bodice through tight-lacing. But even so, tight-lacing wasn’t something that the average gal would do. It was seen as frivolity and many publications criticised and satirised it.
However, much of the discussions about tight-lacing weren't just centred on the practice itself but also derided the women who do it. “Medical journals like The Lancet not only attacked specific fashions, such as corsets or tight-lacing but also criticised ‘the sex which worships the idol of fashion,'" wrote fashion historian Valerie Steele in her book The Corset: A Cultural History. "Indeed, virtually any criticism of ‘fashion’ moved into a diatribe on women's vanity and stupidity. 'Tight-lacing' was so ill-defined and the practice apparently so ubiquitous that it seemed to prove all women's mental — and moral — inferiority. Tight-lacing came to stand for everything that was wrong about women,” she added.
Corsets and tightlacing then became a hallmark of female vanity, a sign of being a try-hard. It’s similar to makeup shaming these days. Women are expected to fit into an ideal but shamed for trying to do so. Some things just never change.
With that said, tight-lacing does have detrimental health effects but evidence shows that women who did it then didn’t do it to the extreme. Adverse health effects of wearing corsets were exaggerated; some can even be attributed to other causes including accidents. To put this in perspective, think about high-heeled shoes. Wearing stilettos can also lead to accidents but it’s not always the case.
Corsets aren’t oppressive, beauty standards are
It’s simplistic to think of corsets as evil and oppressive. After all, corsets were once just a piece of utilitarian garment. In European colonies, the Spanish-occupied Philippines for instance, the use of corsets wasn’t embraced because it wasn’t suitable for tropical weather. However, women were still oppressed and experienced gender inequality.
Today, a lot of clothing and beauty products can be seen as oppressive. Makeup, bras and skincare routines (especially those involving whitening products) are some of the everyday things we use that can be seen as oppressive and a waste of women’s money and time. However, these are just things. What’s really oppressive are beauty standards. Corsets have been largely banished from women’s wardrobes, but gender inequality hasn’t gone out of style.
(Cover photo from: Ike louie Natividad via Pexels)
Next, read about our take on makeup (and no makeup) shaming.