How to Write About Corsets in Historical Fiction

Are you a writer of historical fiction? Do you have characters who wear corsets? Are you someone who pays attention to detail and wants your writing to feel real? If so, then this post is for you!

I am a writer, amateur historical costumer and corset maker/wearer, so I’m here to offer my advice on writing corseted characters in historical fiction. In this post I’m going to give you a brief history of corset wearing, some information from my experience about how it feels to put on and wear a corset, and some myths and tropes you’ll want to avoid.

Fashion tends to be an overlooked aspect in all types of fiction, not just historical fiction. But I think it’s pretty important because the clothing in the world of your story says a lot about the culture your characters live in and what their everyday life is like. In historical eras where corsets are used, knowing about your character’s clothing is especially important because it is so different from what we wear today! Even if fashion history is not your main interest, I hope you’ll read on, because corsets will impact historical characters way more than you think.

In general, I tend to be a proponent of corsetry (though I do believe there are cases where an individual shouldn’t wear a corset or shouldn’t wear one in a certain way). But a lot of portrayals of corset wearers in books and movies are grossly exaggerated and downright misinforming. In this post I’m aiming to provide the most objective information I can so that you as a historical fiction writer can make an informed choice on how to treat this aspect of your character’s world.

~So, What Is A Corset Anyway?~

Fashion design and history is my main hobby and obsession, so sometimes I forget that a lot of people don’t even know what a corset is. A corset can come in many, many forms so it’s hard to define what exactly it is. I would describe a corset as a rigid, supportive garment for the torso that includes some sort of reinforcement (such as boning). Corsets may or may not modify the appearance of the figure. They attract controversy because of their potential for body modification and extreme sexual ideals. (But I’m here to tell you that corsets are way more than just sexual objects or waist cinchers!)

Some people mistakenly refer to some things as corsets when they really aren’t:

  • Bustiers- these things can look kind of like a corset, but they don’t extend past the waist at all and do not provide the same support as a corset.

Alexander McQueen | Sarabande cotton-blend lace bustier top | NET-A-PORTER.COM

(Image from Pinterest, the caption says it’s by Alexander McQueen.)

  • Medieval fantasy vest-jacket thingies. These may include lacing and some boning like a corset, but they are vests, not corsets. They are not rigid or snug to the body and don’t provide any support or body modification. I love the look of medieval fantasy vests, but they are not corsets (and not historically accurate to medieval fashion either).

Love the tunic and shirt. Riding habit: I think a longer version of the tunic, over breeches, or over a short skirt/long tunic and breeches.

(Image found on Pinterest.)

  • Corset belts. These are a popular accessory in the goth/steampunk subculture. They are meant to stylistically imitate a corset, but they are belts, not corsets. Their purpose is decoration, not body support or modification. Here’s one I made.


  • Shuri’s “corset” in the Black Panther movie. THIS IS NOT A CORSET. It looks kind of flimsy and soft to me and it doesn’t seem to have much, if any, boning. I would say it’s a decorative bodice. Not a corset.
Medieval Rose — ‘This corset is really uncomfortable, so can we...


Pretty much, if it is flimsy, soft, loose, not boned, not covering the entire torso- those are some clues that the thing in question is not a corset. The key is that a corset is supposed to be mainly functional, while all this other stuff (bodices, corset belts, bustiers, etc.) are supposed to be mainly decorative. In historical time periods in European and American cultures, corsets are used as underwear for everyone, regardless of occupation or economic status.

Most people writing historical fiction include the wrong type of corset in the wrong time period, write incorrectly about how it feels to wear a corset, misidentify the purpose of a corset, and many other errors. That’s where this post will hopefully help you out, so let’s dig in!

~A Brief Corset Timeline~

One thing I notice is that there’s a lot of vagueness and confusion regarding which time periods were corsets used in. One time I was in a “medieval” roleplay where someone was writing about their character wearing a corset and hoop skirt! Even if you’re not a fashion historian and have no interest in becoming one, there are some basics you should know as a historical fiction writer. This mini timeline I’m giving here is about when corsets were used and what they were shaped like.

Pre-1500: NO CORSETS. As far as we’re aware, in ancient (pre-1000s AD) and medieval (1066-1485 AD) times, corsets did not really exist as we think of them today. So, if you’re writing realistic ancient or medieval fiction, you’re pretty much free to go and research actual medieval clothing and not bother with writing about corsets. Here’s a picture that represents medieval fashion pretty well. It’s pretty basic and loose, as you can see.

Women's figured silk gowns from 1380.  Women had to dress according to the position of their father or husband. Some of the restrictions in place included:  • Gold and purple silk cloth could only be used for women of the royal family.  • Wives and daughters of laborers could not wear a girdle garnished with silver.  • Wives and daughters of an esquire were not to wear velvet or satin.  • Wives and daughters of knights were unable to wear gold colored cloth or sable fur.

(Image from Pinterest. Source)

Things to research if you are writing medieval fiction: the kirtle, chemise, surcoats, Houppelande and Burgundian gowns, armor, types of headgear such as wimples, hennins, crispinettes, etc.

Mid 1500s-Late 1700s: Cylinder shaped “stays.” These couple of centuries cover a couple of sub-eras: Renaissance, Tudor, Baroque, and Georgian. The actual fashion changed a lot, but corsets didn’t change too much. They were called “stays” or “pair-of-bodies” during this period and they were cone shaped, not very naturally curved. Take a look at these examples.

Below is the pair of bodies that Queen Elizabeth I was actually buried in.

16th century corset or "pair of bodies" from Elizabeth I's tomb

(Image from Pinterest; probably shown at New Abbey Museum)

17th century stays shown below…

1620 - 1640 corset & stays & stomacher. Red satin over linen twill, edged with pale blue silk ribbon.

(Image found on Pinterest, links to Manchester Art Gallery)

18th century stays shown below…

Corset, multicolor silk brocade. 1750.  Country: France. Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (Elisa)

(Image from the FIT museum)

There are plenty of other examples of 1500s-1800s stays out there too!

If you are writing between the 1500s and 1800s, make sure you research things such as: the farthingale, pannier, robe l’anglaise, doublets, neck ruffs, the right types of head gear and wigs, and so forth. And make sure to never call the undergarment a corset! Call them stays in this era. (Here’s an article from The Dreamstress about stays vs. corset terminology.)

Also, Elizabethan and Georgian stays don’t function like the Victorian corset; they don’t aim to create curves, waist reduction, or an hourglass figure. They might nip the waist a little bit but their main purpose is to create straight, flat lines. They also push up the breasts a lot.

1780s-1820s: Corsets that functioned like a push-up bra. The late 1700s and early 1800s is known as the Regency era in fashion history. The style of dress consisted of very loose, high-waisted gowns with short, puffed sleeves. Since these gowns were loose around the torso but fitted around the bust, the corsets (referred to as “stays” in this period) were mainly there to support the breasts like a bra. They could be either long and full-body, or short (called half-stays when they’re short).

Example of long stays from the 1810s.

Corset, cotton, cord quilting, 1810-1820, KM 36.431

(Image from Pinterest– museum unknown)

Example of half-stays from the 1790s.

Corset of cotton with silk embroidery, boning, and lined with linen, circa 1795. V&A

(Image from the Victoria and Albert Museum)

Another interesting thing about the Regency era is the treatment of men’s fashion. In the Regency era, it was stylish for men to have a “wasp waist,” so they actually wore these “corset” belt things that helped reinforce the shape. (Such things existed for men all the way through the Victorian and Edwardian eras.)

Man's corset belonging to Purser Thomas Chew, USS Constitution, ca. 1825-30. Old Ironsides: USS Constitution Museum, Charlestown, Massachusetts

(Image from Pinterest– link to museum website is broken)

Observateur des Modes 1823

(Image from Pinterest)

I just find it interesting that in the Regency era, it was stylish for men to have an hourglass figure, whereas it wasn’t for the women.

1830s-1900: What most people imagine when they think of corsets. 1838 through 1901 is known as the Victorian era. This is a period when fashion started to change more rapidly. Major style changes occurred every couple of decades instead of every 50 years or longer like it had in the previous decades. As a result, the shape of corsets changed several times throughout the entire Victorian era.

1830s and 40s corsets/stays still looked mostly like the long Regency stays. They weren’t opening and closing from the front yet; that feature of corsets came later.

Corset Date: 1840s Culture: American or European Medium: cotton Dimensions: [no dimensions available] Credit Line: Gift of Miss Genevieve Karr Hamlin, 1942 Accession Number: C.I.42.74.12

(Image from the Met Museum)

These stays may look “softer” than the other stays we’ve looked at, but they have a lot of stiff cording for support, as well as some harder components like wood, reed or whalebone.

In the 1850s and 60s, the busk (front support structure) transformed from being just a wooden stick to something that can snap open and closed, making it a lot easier to put the corset on. The shape also changed to allow more outward curve in the lower stomach area. If you’re writing a story from these decades, make sure you know about hoop skirts/crinolines, crinolettes, petticoats, corset covers and such.

1864. Hourglass Corset. Shapes bust & waist. Would have been worn with a cage crinoline.    V & A Museum

(Image from Pinterest, links to the Victoria and Albert Museum)

IMG_3526 (2)

(Above is an 1860s style corset I made for my friend who does Civil War reenacting.)

The 1870s and 80s is often referred to as the “natural form” era or bustle era. The spoon busk (front support and closure with an exaggerated curve at the bottom) was a major feature in corsets to enforce that curved abdominal shape.

c. 1880 corset of red wool, silk, steel and whalebone, white cotton lace trim, possibly French.  "...highly fashionable and somewhat controversial, as colorful corsets had been associated with 'the aristocracy of vice' only a decade earlier." - The Museum at FIT

(Image from the FIT Museum.)

If you’re writing about the 1870s or 80s, make sure you know about bustles (including the various types of bustles such as the lobster tail), petticoats, corset covers, and so forth.

In the 1890s, the bustle and exaggerated curves of the 1880s were starting to go away, so corsets looked a bit more natural.

Corset Date: 1891 Culture: French Medium: silk, cotton, whale bone Accession Number: C.I.47.44.2

(Circa 1891 corset, image from the Met Museum.)

For the 1890s, you’ll want to research “bum rolls,” leg-o-mutton sleeves, and cycling outfits. (Seriously, the cycling outfits are awesome! Women had long, loose pants that looked like skirts.)

1901-1919: S-bend corsets and longline corsets. The period from 1901 to 1914 or so is known as the Edwardian era, and after that is World War I. There are two very distinct styles of corset from this period: first the S-bend, then the longline. The S-bend is called so because it creates a “letter S” shape by pushing your booty back and your bust forward, making you lean forward slightly. It was all the rage in the early 1900s, because it’s what the trendy Gibson Girl fashion illustrations looked like, and it was believed to be a healthier alternative to Victorian curved front corsets.

Corset Vers 1900 Falbalas by corina

(Circa 1900 corset, image is an original from Pinterest. Side note: I love the look of S bend corsets. They’re just so gorgeous and curvy!)

If you are writing early 1900s historical fiction, I highly recommend you do a lot of research about the Gibson Girl look! It was THE trendy thing that everyone was obsessed with.

Then, around 1910 the shape of popular fashion changed a LOT. Corsets became very long, slim and tube-like, and they went all the way down to your mid-thigh. This is to support the slim, elegant, Empire-waisted gowns of this period. Corsets remained long, slim and tubular for the rest of the decade.

The boning and busk stop at the hip so you can still bend over and sit down and stuff.

1910-1912 medium-high bust corset. Two other views also available.

(Image from Pinterest, links to

Here’s the 1910 corset I made.

IMG_0020 (2)

The point of the 1910s corset is to create slim hips, not a curvy figure.

1920s and beyond: Corsets still used… just not as often. Truth be told, even though corsets became less widely used in the 1920s and later, they have never actually gone away! They have taken on many forms, such as being made of elastic, or being used as a “girdle”, especially in the 20s through the 50s. Nowadays they are still being made, worn and enjoyed in various niche markets.

~How Does It Feel to Wear a Corset?~

This is one of the most important questions to answer if you’re writing historical fiction about anyone who wears corsets.

(Note: This section is based off my personal experience making and wearing corsets. I’m not a professional corset maker or reenactor, but in my research I have sought out information from the professionals. Also, I don’t have any experience making or wearing 1500-1840 stays; I’ve only made and worn Victorian and Edwardian corsets.)

Materials: One factor to consider is what the corset is made of, and this will vary from era to era. My field of expertise is more within late Victorian and Edwardian corsets regarding materials and such, but here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Every corset or pair of stays requires some sort of support, whether it’s boning or cording or something else. This prevents the fabric from wrinkling or stretching while you’re wearing it. Most of the time, corsets have long vertical pockets sewn into them (called boning channels) to contain the boning and this is what gives corsets their hard, solid look.
  • Tudor, Baroque and Georgian stays were most likely boned with reed. Like literal reed the plant. I don’t have experience with stays boned with reed, but I can imagine it would be somewhat rigid and inflexible.
  • Regency and early Victorian stays were corded, meaning they didn’t have hard bones in them; instead, they were sewn with cord or thick string inside to give them light support.
  • Victorian and Edwardian corsets were either boned with steel or whalebone. (Literal baleen from whales.) Whalebone, the real stuff, is cool because it becomes soft when warmed up by your body’s heat, so it molds to your body, giving you a very perfect fit. And steel boning is quite flexible, and very comfortable to wear. I have used both spiral steel and synthetic whalebone in my corset-making and I find both of them to be very sturdy, flexible and supportive.
  • 1920s-50s corsets may not have had much boning, but instead relied on modern materials like zippers and elastic. They were more similar to our modern shapewear than to a traditional Victorian or Edwardian corset.

What corsets feel like: In general, most corset wearers would say if they’re wearing a high quality, thoroughly boned corset, it feels firm and supportive. Maybe if you get a bad corset it would feel rather restrictive. The comfort of the corset directly correlates with how well it’s made. If it’s cheap and not really made to fit your body, wearing it is going to suck. If it’s of very high quality, it will feel like it’s a part of you, like second skin, and it will comfortably support your back and figure.

How to wear/put on a corset: If you’ve never worn a corset, putting one on can seem confusing. If it’s a Victorian or Edwardian corset that closes in the front, you loosen the back laces (strings) as far as they can go, wrap the corset around yourself and snap the busk closed in the front. Then you can pull on the back laces until the corset is snug around your body. Usually I make sure I can stick my hand through the rib and hip areas so I can breathe fully and sit down comfortably. Here’s a great image of one Edwardian woman helping another put her corset on! Notice how the back is already laced, and the corset is snapped closed in the front.

Shows how the corset is loosely laced in the back, and then it closes in the front and the back is adjusted.


(Images from

It’s different with 1500s-1840s stays, which only have one closure method instead of two. It would be very time consuming to take these on and off since you have to take all the lacing out, put the corset on and have someone lace up the back for you.

Taking the corset off at the end of the day feels weird, since your body has adjusted to it. Taking it off feels kind of like your guts are spilling out. Turns out, if you take off your corset too quickly, you can faint due to the sudden change in blood pressure- so a smart corset wearer makes sure to always unlace the corset slowly.

Another important point is that corsets have to be “broken in” just like shoes do. The more you wear them, the more the fibers stretch and help the corset conform to your body. The “breaking in” process is especially important with whalebone (or synthetic whalebone) corsets, because whalebone gets soft and changes its shape when exposed to body heat. Corset makers call the “breaking in” process seasoning. A well seasoned corset is going to be pretty comfortable, assuming it fits your body and proportions correctly.

Corsets and health: A lot of people are under the impression that corsets are bad for you. I’ve seen people use all sorts of extreme language to describe corsets, such as “hidden killers” and “torture devices.” But really, I think it depends on the corset. Let’s take a look at some of the major health issues associated with corsets. (DISCLAIMER: I don’t have any sort of medical background, but I have done some research into this area. If you’re really interested to learn more you should find information from additional sources. I’ve learned a lot about corsets and health from

  • Organ shifting/compression: Your organs are likely to shift or be compressed if you’re wearing a corset with high waist reduction. But the thing is, our organs are designed to be flexible. A corset with a high waist reduction only really impacts organs that are designed to be compressed during pregnancy anyway! I don’t know what the long term effects of such organ compression are, but if you usually wear a corset that doesn’t reduce your waist or only reduces it by an inch or two, and wear a higher reduction corset on special occasions, I don’t think there’s a problem with that.
  • Deforming of ribs/reduction of lung capacity: It’s true that you can compress the bottom of your lungs with a high reduction corset. But it would take years of waist training to do that, and the only difference is a little bit less lung capacity…. still probably not the best idea to try to do that, but again, it depends on the type of corset you’re wearing. A corset that’s curvier on the sides won’t deform your ribs, whereas a more cone-shaped corset requires some change in your lower ribs.
  • Spine problems/scoliosis: The cool thing is that a well-made corset can actually help relieve scoliosis like a back brace would. But a poor quality corset would probably increase spine and back problems.
  • Dependence on a corset: Some people say if you wear a corset too much your abdominal and back muscles will atrophy. I say that’s only true if you don’t do core-strengthening exercises outside of your corset or take breaks from wearing it.
  • Digestive issues: Probably the most annoying thing about wearing a corset is that it does make it hard to eat large meals or drink large volumes of liquids. It’s always a wise idea to loosen or remove the corset during large meals, snack throughout the day, and avoid carbonated beverages. Edwardian women would usually take their corsets off during tea time.

In summary, I have come to the conclusion that there’s no real danger to wearing corsets as long as you’re responsible with it and wear high-quality corsets that mold to your body well. This could impact your characters depending on their economic status and personal habits.

Mobility: While it’s true that wearing a corset does limit some movements, it doesn’t really impact your day-to-day functionality once you learn how to adapt. You have to remember that working-class women as well as wealthy women all wore corsets, and a working woman in the Victorian era had to be pretty active. The main restriction to movement is that you can’t bend from the waist; if you want to bend over, you have to bend from the knees or hips, not your waist/back. This has some practical implications. For example, you have to put your socks and shoes on BEFORE your corset, because you can’t easily bend over and reach your feet in a corset. You also can’t slouch. I have a hard time sitting in a modern car seat when wearing a corset, because the car seat makes you lean back and slouch and that fights the posture the corset is trying to reinforce. In Victorian and Edwardian times, this isn’t so much of a problem, because most chairs and things were pretty upright and didn’t let you slouch. It’s way more comfortable to sit upright and lean against the corset than it is to slouch and fight the corset!

It’s easy enough to breathe in a corset once you get used to it. Some people like to lace corsets aggressively tight around the ribs which isn’t so comfortable, but you learn to breathe from your upper chest instead of your diaphragm. Also keep in mind that a corset is supposed to be worn very snug against the body in order to provide the support it was designed for.

Once you learn to adapt to the few movement restrictions of wearing a corset, you can run, dance, ride horseback, do archery, do housework, and most other normal activities that people would do in that time period. Opera singers, both today and in the past, typically wear corsets! I have a hard time believing that opera singers can’t breathe!

Also, keep in mind that extreme tightlacing (wearing corsets designed for high waist reduction) would inhibit your stamina more than a regular corset would. But tightlacing in the Victorian and Edwardian eras was mostly done by wealthy women or celebrities who didn’t have to do much physical work.

The last point on the topic of how it feels to wear a corset is that it impacts you psychologically. It impacts everyone differently, but for me it makes me feel empowered because it feels like I have armor, and I have control over how it makes my body look. That’s why I go through the trouble of researching and making corsets, and making sure I’m wearing them responsibly. The psychological benefit makes it worth it to me. How does it make your character feel?

~Annoying Corset Tropes and Myths to Avoid~

There are a lot of myths that float around the concept of wearing corsets these days. Most of these myths come from Hollywood, the mainstream media, and people on the Internet who have never worn a corset. Trustworthy sources, right? The most popular corset myths I can think of are:

  1. The purpose of a corset is to make you unrealistically skinny.
  2. People had their ribs removed to wear corsets.
  3. Corsets were invented by men in order to oppress women and force them to sit around all day.
  4. Wearing your corset “too tight” makes you faint.

So first, let’s deal with Myth #1, the purpose of the corset. Did corsets exist solely to “make people skinnier?” The answer is a resounding NO! Victorian and Edwardian clothing had a pretty different shape than clothing today. If you tried on a dress from the 1890s over your modern bra, it would not fit right, even if the dress were made to your measurements. You would find that there would be a lot of extra room in the underbust area and there might be a lot of wrinkles in the bodice. This is because modern bras shape the breasts in a different way than Victorian and Edwardian corsets did. Also, the corset makes your waist less elliptical and more circular- slimmer when viewed at the front, wider when viewed from the side. So when people say, “This actress doesn’t need a corset, she’s so skinny-” they’re misunderstanding what the purpose of a corset is. A corset is especially important in the mid-Victorian era where people wore huge cage skirts and bustles. It would not be comfortable to wear a cage or bustle without a corset to bear the brunt of that weight, trust me.

In summary, the purpose of a corset is to create the fashionable body shape for the time period (regardless of the individual’s weight), create a smooth fit of the clothing, and provide support to the body. The corset is the foundation that you build a historical outfit off of. It can add aesthetic appeal, but it’s there mostly for practical reasons. Aesthetic appeal is not the ONLY reason why corsets were worn for 500+ years.

Now, how about Myth #2 (people had their ribs removed to wear corsets)? This one is laughable. Do you have any idea how terrible the medical technology was in Victorian times? How dangerous it was to undergo any type of surgery? How painful it would have been? That sometimes people chose to die from the illness instead of going through the surgery? Please do me a favor and never write about a character who had ribs removed for fashion reasons. We see photographs that seem really unrealistic, but people did sometimes photoshop pictures in weird ways. Here’s a brilliant blog post that describes how people hand-tinted photos to make themselves look exaggeratedly hourglass-shaped.

To me, the most hilarious example of Edwardian photoshopping is this:

Victorian wasp waist corset.  Do you suppose she has any ribs left?

(Image is found on Pinterest, can’t find an original source for it though.)

People on Pinterest look at this like it’s real and get very freaked out, but with the woman’s light clothing and the solid dark background makes it SO easy to just take some paint or ink or whatever and retouch the photo.

Also, it’s easy to look like you’ve done some extreme tightlacing when you actually haven’t. For example, padding up the bust and hips is just one of the many ways women used to fake an extreme hourglass figure. Check out another post I wrote on this topic if you’re interested!

Myth #3: Corsets were torture devices invented by men in order to oppress women. Haha, sure! As I’ve already mentioned, most women did not just sit around all day. They worked (often doing very hard physical labor). They went horseback riding (and did things like cantering and jumping). They played golf and tennis. They went on hikes. They went dancing and ice skating. It’s true that those were sexist times, but you can’t argue that all women just sat around and didn’t do anything all day or that corsets left them physically weak.

Also, men wore corsets too! Most people don’t know this! See this picture?

Men’s corset, ca. 1900.  From Das Germanische Nationalmuseum.

That is a man’s corset. From 1900. So, Downton Abbey girls, stop complaining that women have to wear corsets and men don’t…. that’s simply untrue.

Myth #4: Wearing your corset “too tight” makes you faint. First of all, let me hammer in a very important point. There is no such thing as tight or loose corsets. I repeat, there is no such thing as tight or loose corsets! What I mean by that is, all corsets have varying levels of waist reduction, but the overall tightness around your body will be the same. If you’re wearing a corset too loose, it won’t fit right or give you the bodily support it was designed for. If you wear it “too tight” all around, it will compress your ribs and hips in a way it wasn’t designed for. All corsets must be worn at the same level of tightness. Otherwise, you’re wearing it wrong. So please, don’t ever describe different types of corsets as “tight” or “loose”!

For example, compare Corset A…

Corset1885-1887The Metropolitan Museum of Art

(Image from the Met Museum– corset is from the 1880s)

…with Corset B:

1890 Victorian corset, undergarments, lingerie.

(Corset from the 1890s, from

Corsetmakers would say that Corset B has a higher waist reduction than Corset A. Or if you want to get really fancy, we would say it has a larger hip spring (hip minus waist). YOU DO NOT SAY CORSET B IS TIGHTER THAN CORSET A. They are supposed to be worn equally tightly. Now, if the two corsets are the same size and you wear them at the same tightness, Corset B would be harder to wear than Corset A because it has a different shape. Not because it is “tighter” than Corset A. Hopefully that makes sense.

Different people (and different characters) have different tolerances of waist reduction. Some people may be very muscular or slender and unable to reduce their waist much. Others may have a lot of soft, compressible flesh and can easily reduce their waist to 6 inches below its normal size. Corset makers have always known this, so every corset is different. If your character doesn’t want large waist reductions like in Corset B, they don’t have to have one.

This next part is mostly my opinion, but here are some historical fiction tropes that I think writers would do well to avoid, largely because they just get the facts wrong and perpetuate ignorance of historical clothing.

  • Everyone acting like corsets are a shocking, abnormal thing. Today people think that, sure. But most people today don’t think bras are a shocking, abnormal thing do they? In history, corsets are just underwear. Everyone’s used to the type of underwear they use.
  • Women fainting all the time. This one bugs me so much! If you’re wearing a corset responsibly, you won’t faint. I’ve never fainted in a corset. Now, one time I almost fainted in a Star Wars costume because I was standing under hot lights and I overheated. I think people would have been more likely to faint from overheating than from waist reduction.
  • Women complaining about how they can’t move/breathe. As mentioned earlier, corsets come with some mobility restrictions that you can adjust to. We wear things today that restrict movement, such as skinny jeans or stiletto heels. Doesn’t mean you instantly become weak and helpless as soon as you put on a pair of skinny jeans. It does mean that you can’t do the splits, though!

~So Then, What Am I Supposed to Write?~

I’ve given a lot of “don’ts” and not a lot of “dos,” so here are some things I recommend you do include in your historical fiction.

For me, the best thing you can do is to actually minimize the amount you’re writing about corsets or stays. They’re underwear, and people typically don’t talk about or think about their underwear all day.

There may be some cases where it’s appropriate to describe your character’s undergarments. If you’re going into depth describing everything else your character is wearing, then yes, describe the corset/stays. Or maybe you have a few of your characters who are close friends having some personal “girl talk” and whispering about taboo topics. Or maybe you have a character whose profession may have a strong focus on fashion and lingerie.

It’s also really important to research the culture you’re dealing with. In Victorian and Edwardian times, even looking at corset illustrations in the catalog is kind of a secretive thing. In this culture, most people don’t just waltz around and publicly broadcast information about how their underwear is feeling. Or adopt the views from 100+ years into the future about what underwear ought to feel like.

The best kind of corset representation, in my opinion, is to show women going about their everyday business without too many remarks or complaints about corsets. (Not to say that nobody would have ever complained, but I think modern books and movies over-exaggerate how often people complained about their clothes.)

When writing about corseted characters, I would also include the ways their clothing impacts how they move. For example, putting shoes on before putting the corset on, or bending from the knees to pick things up from the ground.

You should also research the fashion from whatever time period your story is in so you can know how the clothing impacts your character. For example, Queen Elizabeth I would have worn stays, a farthingale, petticoats, huge stuffed sleeves and a neck ruff. This would impact how she moves and goes about her everyday business, which is different than Queen Victoria, who would have worn a corset and corded petticoats or a cage. Both cases are also pretty different from peasants, servants, and even other ranks of nobility in those time periods. Make sure you know your character’s economic status and time period if you want your historical fiction to feel realistic!

Research your type of character’s everyday routine, too. A wealthy Edwardian woman would wear 4 different outfits during the day. People who wear corsets would snack and have several small meals throughout the day. Servants, poor people or those living in rural communities might not own very many clothes. There are different outfits for different activities in some time periods, such as riding habits for horseback riding in Victorian times.


Why is all this helpful to do? Why take all this time to research the time period and culture that your character lives in- especially if you don’t want to bog down your story with info dumps?

First of all, I think it’s important to not perpetuate ignorance. Media can be a pretty powerful tool for spreading misinformation or exaggerating facts. A lot of people today think that corsets, for example, are far more dangerous and sinister than they actually are, and portrayals in books and movies have a lot to do with that. It’s easy to assume things about history based on your own “common sense,” but before you jump to any conclusions, do some research and try to find out if your perceptions are true.

A great example of this is finding out that people in the Victorian era didn’t bathe very frequently. Maybe once a week or twice a month was pretty normal, which is understandable, considering how expensive it would be to heat up all that water. Our natural, “common sense” instinct is to conclude that everyone in the Victorian era was gross all the time and smelled bad. But it turns out, hair didn’t get greasy as quickly back then as it does today, because they didn’t use strong shampoos that stripped the scalp of its natural oils. Women also cleaned their hair every day by brushing it. Today we let our hairbrushes get pretty gross, but in the Victorian era women would clean the brush after every use. This keeps the hair pretty clean on most days, so bathing every day isn’t necessary. It’s easy to judge people in other cultures and time periods, so it’s a good idea to make sure you have all the facts before jumping to conclusions.

The other reason why I think it’s worth your time to research fashion in historical fiction is because I think it will help your writing feel more vivid and real. Maybe you won’t include every single factual detail you research in your story. That’s okay! I get that readers are more interested in the plot and characters than they are in detailed facts about fashion history. But if you can imagine with precise detail how your character is moving, what they’re wearing and what their daily activities are, that will naturally leak into your writing.

Hopefully this post has armed you with some good information on how to approach writing corseted characters. Below I’m going to post some additional resources about corsets and fashion history. Feel free to comment below or contact me on Instagram (@ameliamarie.seamstress) if you have any thoughts or questions about this topic. Thanks for reading!

~For Further Reading~

Lucy’s Corsetry Blog: Contains a lot of useful information on the physical effects and health benefits of wearing corsets and tightlacing.

A Damsel In This Dress: This blog is by a woman who has a historical costuming business. She has experience in almost all the eras from medieval to Edwardian, as well as historical horse riding techniques! Her blog and Instagram are what proved to me that you can canter and jump while riding sidesaddle AND corseted.

The Readthreaded Blog: Another blog by a professional historical costumer. Recently she wrote a blog post about a visit to a corsetry museum in Germany, which had all sorts of cool stuff like seamless corsets and ventilated corsets.

The Dreamstress: Has regular “rate the dress” posts where you get to see some interesting and diverse examples of historical fashion. There’s a lot of information about the 18th through 20th centuries.

My Pinterest account: if you want to see a lot of pictures of what people wore in various eras, I have some Pinterest boards about eras such as Edwardian, Victorian, mid-20th century and more!

3 thoughts on “How to Write About Corsets in Historical Fiction

  1. Hi! I’m a fellow corset fan and re-enactor; just wanted to add a few points! 🙂

    First, before I forget, I wanted to mention that corsets don’t get worn against the skin (except as modern fetishwear), because they’re *really hard to clean*. It also leaves you a lot sweatier if you don’t have at least a thin cotton shift underneath them; it’s surprising what a difference it makes! And if you sweat too much in them, then if you have steel boning it starts to rust, which degrades the material and can leach rust stains through to the next layer.

    In the Victorian era one would also have a chemise, which is a corset cover, over top of the corset, as well as the shift or chemise beneath them. There’s a surprising amount of layers involved in some areas–especially considering that when they did start wearing underwear, they weren’t joined at the crotch seam. You can’t pull panties up over the corset properly even with elastic (looks and sits weird), so you have to put your underpants on first. But that of course also means you can’t pull them down until you take the corset off! So with the crotchless knickers, you can just squat with your knees out and they pull out of the way (you can pull them more aside if needed, and you’re done. Don’t even need elastic! And with modern panties, you still leave them up, and just pull the crotch to one side the way you do with a one-piece bathing suit.

    The baroque stays, the cylindrical ones with only the lacing up the back, by the way, can absolutely be put on by the person wearing them, with a little practice. You do NOT unlace them–gods, I’d go out of my mind if I had to lace the bloody thing up a second time, ha ha! You just loosen them up, same as the Victorian ones, and pull them on over your head. If you’ve got a satin ribbon in there rather than a grosgrain one (like the flat shoelaces, which I *don’t* recommend), you can just grab the dangly end and pull on it, and the ribbon slips through so nicely you can just snug the whole thing up and tie it off on the lowest loop. Of course, as I find with the Edwardian one I have as well (and the modern ones; it’s probably common to all corsets and stays lol), there’s a stage where it’s more or less in position but not quite snug to the skin yet, which involves adjusting breasts and belly fat etc for maximum comfort and effect–which can involve a certain amount of jumping around and get fairly athletic, ha ha! And to get them off again, you just pull the trailing end, same as with a shoelace, and tug the lower few loops loose with a finger at the small of your back, and pretty quick, you’ve got the whole thing loose enough to pull off again. Frankly, the top of them isn’t really compressing anything more than a push-up bra would anyways, and the ribbon slips nicely, so you can just grab the bones on either side of the lacing at the bottom, behind your back, and tug them apart. Took me longer to do my make-up than to get dressed or undressed, and that was with the chemise, stays, corset, panniers, stomacher, petticoats, underskirts, and overdress! –Oh, and, yes, the stockings and shoes, which, yeah, are a pain if you forgot to put them on beforehand. Very similar to being about seven or eight months pregnant, so far as access to one’s feet go!

    –Which reminds me: No, they didn’t *bathe* too often (as you say, heating up a full bath without a water heater is a major undertaking!!). But that isn’t to say that they didn’t regularly *wash*. One would wash one’s face, hands, armpits, groin, and feet every morning at the least. And using a wooden or horn comb (allegedly; can only attest to the wood) does absorb a lot of the oils out of the hair. Also, one would rub dry powder, flour, uncooked porridge oats, or sawdust into one’s hair about once a week, bundle it all up in a towel and leave it in one’s hair for about half an hour to absorb the oils, and then comb it out dry, which also made a huge difference. Leaves one’s hair very soft, too! I used to work in a very dusty environment at the time I made my stays (a wheat pool; grain dust permanently suspended in the air), and only had to wash my hair at most once a week. Very effective, and that wasn’t even directly applying the stuff!

    Oh, and hey, just want to confirm how little they limit one’s movement; I’ve done tai bo in my Edwardian one! But one sort of has to do the ballet plié (heels together; knees spread; bend at the hips) to reach the ground, lol. Interestingly, it wasn’t until the Roaring 20’s and the short hemlines that that whole thing of ladies needing to sit with their knees together really came into being (although I doubt it could be done any other way with the longline Edwardian corsets, ha ha). Prior to that, one sits with one’s ankles crossed and knees spread, to flatten the drape across the front of the dress. If one sits with one’s knees primly pressed together, it looks really weird! The front of the skirt sort of goes ~~nn~~ lol!

    Anyways, I put a link to pics of my dresses in as my website if you want to see them. Thanks for the article!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: How to Write About Corsets in Historical Fiction – Lily M Snow

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