When I hear the word “corset”, I immediately think of Scarlett O’Hara gripping a bedpost while her maid tight-laces her into a stiff boned corset in the 1939 film “Gone With the Wind”. Or a more recent image: Kim Kardashian at the Met Gala in 2019 wearing a skin-tight dress by Thierry Mugler, her organs squished into an extreme, custom design by the famed corsetmaker Mister Pearl. Or that scene from Netflix’s “Bridgerton” series in which Prudence Featherington is brutally tied into a corset by two maids, her mother urging them to pull it even tighter.
Popular culture would have us believe that corsets were tightly laced torture chambers: painful, repressive and damaging to women’s health, leading to fainting spells and potential organ damage. But according to the fashion historian Hilary Davidson, this is far from the case. “The corset is definitely the most misunderstood garment in dress history,” she says. “People who wore corsets in the past wore them every day. They were used to having tighter clothing in general because it keeps you warmer.”
From the 16th century, children wore little bodices called “stays” to which they attached drawers and petticoats, so from an early age people were accustomed to wearing clothing that sat firmly against the stomach. “We’re all used to our own idea of bodily comfort and that was part of theirs,” says Davidson. She’s speaking with me at Opera Australia’s headquarters in Surry Hills, Sydney. Davidson was recently appointed the chair of the Fashion and Textile Studies master’s program at the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, a position she takes up in August. But many years ago, as a schoolgirl, she did her work experience in this old warehouse, sewing costumes for the company.
Today, we’re here for a very different reason. The scenic painting department, with its natural light and paint-splattered floors, happens to be a beautiful location for a shoot. And the costume department, which houses hundreds of corsets, stays and crinolines among the racks of historical clothing the company uses in its productions, has loaned us a dress with a corset and bustle, a style worn in the Victorian era (see opposite) — and the waist is indeed tiny.
Even so, Davidson tells me most middle-class Victorian women were not oppressed by tight-lacing. “The late 19th century is the age when leisure and sport-for-leisure really grew up, so there’s tennis lawns, there’s croquet, there’s cycling, there’s mountaineering, and women are doing all of that in corsets.” There are many types of corset and the purpose changed over time, but its primary function was to support the bust, much like a bra. “Like people have everything from a sports bra to a plunge bra and push-up bra now, women had different corsets that did different things,” she says.
For working women of the era, it was basically a supportive waistcoat. Those who toiled in the fields might wear a corset made of leather; others would wear jumps or stays, softer alternatives that were quilted and corded with cotton rather than boning. Granted, a fashionable woman might have worn the latest designs from Paris, which were heavily boned and intended to reduce the waist, and these did sometimes lead to faintness. But she would have had something less restrictive for day; her Parisian corsets were likely saved for special occasions, just as we might wear uncomfortable heels to a party.
“Saying all women in the past were forced into corsets is like someone 20 years from now saying all women in the early 21st century had to wear stilettos,” says Davidson. “It sounds ridiculous to us. That’s how the narrative about corsets seems to people who work with historical dress.”
Statuesque and fond of wearing red, and with abundant curly hair that would be fetching under a bonnet, Davidson looks like she’d be at home in a corset. “I have a few,” she admits. “I’ve worn a corset from just about every period of history: Elizabethan, 18th century, Regency, Victorian. To feel how a corset affects my body has been a big part of shaping my understanding of them and changing my mind about perceptions of the garment.”
A meticulous hand-sewer, Davidson has undertaken replica clothing projects for a number of museums, including the Hampshire Cultural Trust and Jane Austen’s House in Chawton, England, for which she re-created two long coats, known as pelisses, thought to have been worn by Austen. Davidson’s book, “Dress in the Age of Jane Austen”, was published in 2019 and she has appeared as an expert on BBC historical programs. She’s also a poet.
Davidson grew up in the Blue Mountains, outside Sydney, in a family that she says wasn’t particularly creative. But her mother, Barbara, was an excellent sewist and passed on that skill. Like a lot of young girls, Davidson made clothes for her Barbies and furnishings for a doll’s house. From there, she created costumes for school plays.
“We didn’t have much money when I was young, so I lived in secondhand clothing — before it was ‘vintage’,” she says. “People would bring around bags of clothing and I’d rummage through them.” Her mother would also buy her pieces, establishing a lifelong love of old textiles. Davidson still wears a velvet jacket from the 1970s that she was given at age 10. She was a good student, so why did she leave school in Year 10? “Frankly, I had better things to do. I was frustrated. I was bored. I wanted to travel.” Her parents supported her decision, she says, but “they got a lot of flack for it”.
To fund her travels, she did odd jobs and worked at the not-so-glamorous-sounding Budget Fabric Bar in Sydney. “I bought myself a round-the-world ticket the day everyone else got their HSC results. With my own money. And I was very proud of that,” she says.
Next, she headed for London. “I had these inchoate, romantic yearnings. I wanted to go to London and do something with costume, somehow.” She spent her days at museums, including the V&A and The National Gallery, sketching things that fascinated her, like medieval shoes. Visiting Paris, she walked into the legendary Left Bank bookstore Shakespeare and Company and asked for a job and a place to stay for a couple of weeks. She lived above the store “in unspeakable squalor” but, she says, “I’d wake up and Notre Dame was right there”.
After three months, Davidson returned to Sydney to save more money. She enrolled in a shoemaking course at TAFE and began work as an apprentice with Donna-May Bolinger in Darlinghurst. “I always loved the magical quality of shoes: [the] fairytales and mythology,” she says. “It felt enchanting to be able to make a pair.” To this day, Davidson has an obsession with red shoes (she owns 11 pairs).
But her feet were itchy. She travelled again, this time to Europe and Russia, haunting museums. “I was educating myself in all the things I wanted to know about,” she says. Returning to Australia, she became a travel agent to learn how to book herself cheap fares. She recently found an old résumé — it showed she’d had eight jobs by the time she was 20.
“I was about 19 when I started doing medieval re-enactment, in Sydney’s Inner West, and I think that was the push that ended up with me becoming a dress historian,” she says. “I loved beautiful historic dresses and it was a chance to wear them, floating around in a version of the 15th century or whenever.”
In the early 2000s, Davidson heard about a master’s degree in the history of textiles and dress at England’s Winchester School of Art. She applied for it, though she lacked the qualifications, mounting a campaign based on a portfolio of clothing she’d made, and she taught herself to write a university essay. In the end, the school had no reason not to admit her. “That changed my life, and from then on in I was a dress historian,” she says.
By then, Davidson had returned to London and had quit the medieval scene, “partly because I had no sewing machine or equipment for a while,” she says, “but largely because I finally had access to the real thing. From then on, most of what I made was reproductions, or using sewing as a form of embodied research about historical clothing.”
While undertaking the degree, Davidson secured an internship at the Museum of London, where she eventually became a curator of fashion and decorative arts, adding costume curation to her skill set. “Looking back,” she says, “all roads lead to Rome, but at times it was uncertain.”
What to do with breasts? It’s a question women have been dealing with while getting dressed for a good 100,000 years, says Davidson. A well-preserved linen bra from the early 15th century, found under the floorboards in an Austrian castle in 2008, was a “wonderful discovery”, she says. Why? Because it has two separate bust supports like a modern bra, while other finds from the medieval period have busts that are high and tight. Intimate garments don’t usually survive as the linen and cotton they’re made of disintegrates more quickly than other fabrics. “No-one had any idea that something like that existed,” says Davidson. “It was really exciting.”
In the 16th century, people would sometimes stiffen the bodices of their gowns with pasteboard and canvas, creating the rigid look we associate with the Tudors and the courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. This, explains Davidson, was a turning point: clothing no longer took its shape from the body; instead, it was “shaping the body”. By the end of the century, women began to wear a separate garment that did all the stiffening, with the gown worn on top.
During the Regency period, in the 1800s, fashion reverted to a more natural body shape. This marked the end of the Tudor mono-bosom; separate breasts were back. Corsets became a lot softer and dresses were lighter (think Austen and filmy high-waisted gowns). “One of the big myths of Regency dress is that women didn’t wear corsets,” says Davidson. “But what you actually see is often they’re made to look like you’re not wearing a corset, but there’s still something there.”
Which brings us to “Bridgerton”. That tight-lacing scene is somewhat inaccurate, given that the clothing of the era fell gently over the waist and didn’t accentuate it. The costumes fail what Davidson calls “The Bill and Ted Test”. On watching the 1989 comedy “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” several years ago, she noticed that a brief, ridiculous scene, in which Bill and Ted kidnap Beethoven, featured “really good” period costumes. “I decided that this was my benchmark now for Regency dress,” she says. That is, costumes worn by main characters should not be worse, in terms of historical accuracy and cohesion, “than the extras in a 1980s teen comedy”. (You can join the conversation on Twitter @BillAndTedTest.)
Another production that fails is the BBC’s 2016 “War & Peace” miniseries, whose costumes are, she says, “historically inaccurate and ugly”. At the other end of the spectrum, Davidson loves the 1980s costume dramas by Merchant Ivory (among them, “A Room with a View” from 1985) and the films “Queen Margot” (1994), “Orlando” (1992) and “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992). As for 20th-century trends, Davidson makes mention of the corset as outer garment, a look that has come in and out of fashion. “The incredible structured strapless bodices that emerged from couture in the 1950s are kind of corsets,” says Davidson, referencing designs by Christian Dior and Charles James. “They required the invention of the bustier to support underneath.” The era also gave rise to waspie belts, a kind of exterior corset that sits below the bust. In 1990, Madonna appeared onstage in a corset by Jean Paul Gaultier, which became one of the decade’s most striking and controversial fashion items. But in 2001, when Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge!” was released, “suddenly burlesque style was everywhere; corsets were everywhere”, says Davidson.
That brings us to the modern “waist trainer”, an elasticised garment — not quite a corset — used to reduce the waist over time or to provide postural support. Again proving the corset is not merely for aesthetics, the author Tara Moss has spoken about wearing one to manage back pain caused by scoliosis. The mainstream narrative, she points out, is one of “corsets causing, never relieving pain”.
These days, we internalise our corsets, Davidson says. We work on our abs or control the shape of our bodies through exercise like Pilates, effectively making our own body the corset. When Kardashian squeezed into Marilyn Monroe’s gown for this year’s Met Gala (horrifying most costume historians), she spoke of crash dieting for weeks in order to fit the dress. When she wore Mugler’s design in 2019, she got the same effect by forcing herself into a Mister Pearl corset. At least you can take off a corset at the end of the day, Davidson points out.
For those thinking of giving one a try, she warns that “the feeling is different, whatever style is worn, which takes a bit of getting used to”. A firm fit is important but it doesn’t have to be tight, she adds. “The only time I’ve ever been in actual pain was wearing a Regency corset for a BBC documentary. I was laced too tight and it crushed my breasts.”
Asked to name her favourite fashion era, she points to the early 20th century, when Paul Poiret and Mariano Fortuny were creating clothing with long, tubular shapes — barely a waist in sight. As for her favourite piece in her own collection, Davidson won’t say. “Who’s my favourite child?” she replies. “I love them for different reasons. I tend to hold on to things for a very long time. I still have things I had as a kid. If I love it, I just keep it. Sometimes I do what I think of as cellaring: I leave them until I love them again.”