The historical stereotype of oppressed women clad in suffocating corsets is refuted by research suggesting they may have been more comfortable than modern bras.
The controversial opinion has been advanced by Australian academic Dr Sarah Bendall, author of a new book, The Shaping of Femininity: Basic Dress, Body and Women in Early Modern England.
A researcher at the Australian Catholic University in Sydney says that corsets were much less restrictive than people think, and their main benefit was to provide breast support before bras were invented.
For at least some women, she said, they were probably more comfortable than today’s bras with their straps and underwires.
“They supported the entire torso, so they didn’t crash into the back,” says Bendall.
“For women with large breasts, this is probably more comfortable than a modern bra.”
Bendall acknowledges that it’s impossible to directly compare modern perceptions of comfort with what women experienced in the past.
Women’s bodies were distinguished by a large number of pregnancies and prolonged breastfeeding.
Today’s fashion designers also have access to materials such as stretch fabrics and techniques such as princess stitching that give shape and comfort that were not available to previous generations.
However, historical women were not mere fashion victims or slaves to male body imagery, says Bendall.
“Corsets were not stupid clothes worn by stupid women. They weren’t always made of bone or tightly laced, and they weren’t just tools of oppression.
“The staple garments worn by women during this period tell the story of women’s agency and shape Western ideas about the female body to this day.”
To get some idea of what it was like to wear 17th-century corsets and lingerie such as farthingales, beads and sandals, Bendall made her own based on models created from those that survived the period.
She wore them or gave them to models that fit and then interviewed the owners.
“Women’s embodied experience is practically absent in literature, so historians have relied on male voices,” said the historian of material culture.
“These men often made fun of women’s fashion or used it to give a moral opinion about these stupid women who wear these ridiculous clothes.
“Even the second-wave feminists of the 1970s, who focused on women’s experiences and saw these clothes as an example of male oppression, relied on what men wrote for their sources.”
Bendall says corsets are probably not the most comfortable thing to wear from a modern point of view.
“But they were no more restrictive than high heels.”