The Good and Bad of Wearing a Corset for Nearly 30 Years

As I sit here listening to the thick layer of ice being scraped to safety outside and waiting for my weather induced migraine to subside, I am thinking about how I want to respond to the BBC/Netflix corset “ban” news floating around social media this week. The articles talk about the various statements made by actresses wearing corsets describing their experiences. In contrast, newer articles include statements made by costumers, corsetiers, and fashion historians regarding the proper fit and purpose of the corset as a support garment.

What can I offer?

The same thing I have always offered – My honest experiences.

I have been wearing a corset and/or stays for going on 30 years of wearing a corset. Okay, pause. This is a bit of a shocking statement, in a couple ways, even for myself. First, I counted and recounted. I have to accept it really has been that long and that is really how old I am now. That totally feels weird. Second, I have not been wearing a corset everyday for these years. It is the 21st century after all and I live in it; I have a “day job”, I wear modern clothes most of the time. I have worn a corset in different capacities and for different lengths of time through the past thirty years. In my early twenties, I wore a corset for work and hobby, 1810s, 1850s and 1860s. At this time, I generally was in a corset 6 or 7 days a week, 8 to 20 hours a day. I drove, ate, worked, played, and danced in a corset. In my later 20s and early 30s, I wore a corset more for hobby and volunteering; generally 2 to 3 days a week for various lengths of time and activities, for most weeks from spring through fall. Now, in my forties, I wear a corset far less than I would like as I currently only do a speckling of volunteering, ca 1800-1860s.

So, let’s start again.

I have worn corsets for going on 30 years – well fitted corsets and poorly fitted corsets….

Let’s start with the poorly fitted corsets. When I first started working at my local museum and doing reenacting, I bought the corset I was told to buy at the time – the Fredericks of Hollywood corset. This was a polyester, gored construction corset offered in sizes based on bust measurements (if I remember correctly.) At the time, they came with thin spring steel boning. Later, these came with poly boning. Wearing this style corset lasted a few years for me, until the story below quickly pushed me towards better corsetry.

I moved on to making corsets fit to my body. At first, I drafted patterns using my measurements and period diagrams using white denim and thicker spring steel boning. During this time, my mid-20s to early 30s, my body changed constantly. I was making a new corset each or every other year. I moved into using the duck-tape method of fitting and making my corset with coutil and the heavier spring steel. This has been my preferred method for over a decade. Only recently, out of curiosity, I decided to try the RedThreaded patterns, which I am quite pleased with.

Now, let’s talk about these experiences…..

The current articles talk about corsets limiting mobility, of being “famously restricting.” My experience does not find this to be the case. I find, when wearing a properly fitted of the right size, the garment is supportive and allows for quite a bit of movement. The best way for me to explain this is through images. These photos are from a work day at GCVM some year ago. I wore both a corset and a cage while doing a full day of manual labor. We tore down and rebuilt a fence moving rails & stones, and hauled corn to the crib. I was in no way restricted by my corset. Rather, my corset helped me as a support garment protecting my back.

Restriction happens when a corset is not the right size or does not have enough ease in the hips. This became screamingly obvious to me when I gained a bunch of weight during a health issue and tried wearing my pre-weight gain corset. I was not comfortable and could not move actively as I should.

There are a couple mentions of bruising and marks from corsets in the current articles. I would love to say I don’t get marks from my corsets. I do. I am a curvy woman who works her butt off in hot and cold weather wearing a corset. My chemise wrinkles underneath leaving wrinkles on my skin. Some of the designs are pretty cool. Sometimes they itch and take an hour or so to relax out in the evening. My bras on the other hand, have left deep red marks under my breasts and even have broken the skin if I work hard in one.

I will admit I even have a scar from one of my corsets. Earlier on in my history “career,” I was performing in Legend of Sleepy Hollow in the historic village. This was when I was wearing one of those poly Freddy’s corsets. This was in the fall, after a full spring/summer season. The performance was on the front porch and lawn of the Ladies Seminary, with a few hundred people gathered as the audience spilled out onto the village square. During one of the dances, I stepped in, stepped out, turned to put my left hand in, and snap! One of the spring steel bones in the back of my corset snapped. I finished the dance, finished the performance, fleeing and crouching in fear of the headless horsemen as the broken ends of the metal bone dug into my bloody skin. After the final bow, we exited “stage” into the town hall. I stripped to my chemise in the few steps from front door to inner door. Under the corset, my chemise soaked up the blood. The cut left a scar that was easily visible until my late 30s when it only showed itself if I got dehydrated or had a very long day in nineteenth century dress. Since then, I only use thicker, not wider, spring steel boning.

This brings us to “she ‘couldn’t f**ing breathe'” and accounts of feeling faint. Well, in nearly 30 years, my now overweight, out of shape self only recalls almost fainting once* due to my corset. Again, this was in my early 20s. I did an 18th century fashion show for a friend. For the show, I was dressed entirely in her clothing, stays included. The stays I wore were made for a woman with a longer waist and smaller bust than I was/am. I did the show. Then quickly drove to meet up with a friend, with plans to change there. Okay, maybe I wanted to show off this rather sexy look to my particularly handsome friend. Once there, I got a bit light headed and faint. I can not say for sure how much was the incorrect stays or the swoon-worthy man.

Yes, breathing in a corset can be a little different. I tend to breathe up and down in my chest more than out and in with my diaphragm. It is far from a “can’t breathe.”

I keep changing my mind about whether to include this last part. If you have been reading for some time, you may recall this photo. This photo was taken just a couple weeks after getting out of the hospital. I was very proud of figuring out how to wear mid-nineteenth century clothing post surgery. The other reality of this image is that the corset I was wearing saved me from a trip back to the hospital. I was good though the event. Then I over did it during packing up. I tore open my incision from the inside out. My corset kept my skin and tissue together on the outside. (Okay, a little woozy again thinking about that.)

I need to cut this “short” to get ready for a meeting. I hope this gives a better understanding of what it is like for an average, 20th turn 21st century person wearing a corset, whether for work, volunteer, or hobby. Let me know if you have any questions.

Please be sure to read my follow-up thoughts post.

*The time I did pass out from heat exhaustion does not count as I already had unhooked my corset and was exhausted from going from working at a resident camp program to a history event on next to no sleep for the prior week. I also don’t count the time I did pass out during a Yuletide performance because that was more a matter of dancing back to back day with little time to eat.

Published in: on February 23, 2023 at 11:07 am  Comments (4)  

4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This is fantastic. Like you, I was able to do a lot while wearing a corset. It certainly saved my back while lifting all the cast iron when I was fixing meals.

  2. I don’t have nearly as much experience, but I’ve not had a problem doing whatever I wanted in a well fitting CW era corset. However, a few years ago I thought I might get involved with period clothing from the Edwardian era for a Frank Lloyd Wright house where I volunteer. Looking at those corsets, I can’t imagine how a woman could do anything in them. Maybe the lived reality is just as different for those as of our era. Don’t know people who do that era to find out.

  3. Hear, hear. I spent 5 years working in a living history site as a costumed interpreter (and 10 more as a volunteer and hobbyist), and my experience is the same. I felt sick one (1) time when I knowingly over=laced myself trying to make a too-small dress fit on a hot day. Otherwise, over hundreds of days and activities ranging from dancing to farmwork, in temperatures from 10F to 100F, have never had that problem. Or any of the others. The only time in my life I have fainted was not while wearing a corset and camping in 90F+ weather==it was while tending my garden in a ‘breezy’ modern polyester skirt and blouse.

  4. I too find corset wearing to be a positive experience. Proper fit seems to be the key.
    So enjoy the “Blue Box”

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