5 Things You Didn’t Know About Corsets (and may be shocked to learn!)

Someone helping another girl get into a corset

In the script for Intimate Apparel, each scene opens with a detailed description of a corset or piece of fabric. 
Wait…what is Pultizer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage doing writing about underwear? 
Well, it turns out that there are a lot of things that a person can tell about you by your underwear. 
To introduce you to the history of these undergarments you’ll see in Intimate Apparel, here are the Top 5 things you didn’t know corsets (and may be shocked to learn!).

5 things you didn't know about corsets

1.More money = tighter undies

A women wearing a corset

At the time of Intimate Apparel (1905), most women wore corsets as an undergarment. An especially restrictive corset that gave the wearer a coveted “S curve” was a symbol of social privilege. 

Women who’s job it was to organize servants and assign tasks didn’t require much movement during the day, and could afford to lace themselves into a highly-restrictive corset. 

Women who worked for a living, such as Esther and Mrs. Dickson in Intimate Apparel, couldn’t wear such a tight corset because they needed to move and bend to perform their duties. Watch on stage for Mrs. Van Buren, a high-society woman who can afford to seek out the perfect S-curve and hires Esther to create corsets for her.

2. Corsets were reinforced with bones.  From whales.

A crying whale cartoon with a rainbow hat on

Well, they’re not really bones, though they’re called that. The material is called “baleen” and it’s part of a Baleen whale’s mouth that helps them filter plankton and krill. Baleen was strong but flexible and wouldn’t lose it’s shape over time. Later in the 20th century as whales became endangered, spiraled steel rods largely replace baleen in corsets. 

Strips of Baleen from whales

Baleen boning used in corsets

3. Men wore corsets too.

Men wanted smooth lines under their clothes as much as the ladies did. Although not as popular as the women’s corset, their were many different types of corsets available for men. 

a drawing of men in corsets
a drawing of a corset

4. And so did children!

Both boys and girls could wear a corset–even infants. Corsets on children were often used as training tools to prepare them for the corsets they would wear in adult life. 

A child’s corset was less intense and usually given its shape by the rough material sewn in cords rather than the baleen or steel rods they’d wear as grown ups. 

An old advertisement for corsets

5. Corsets (might have) smashed your guts!

Throughout their 500 year history, many have attributed various ills to the wearing of a corset, such as liver disease, cancer and the breaking of ribs.

a drawing depicting how corsets mess up and squish the organs

“Physicians objected to the health risks, religious leaders objected to the display of the exaggerated female shape, and feminists decried the corset as real and symbolic imprisonment of women”  from “Reshaping the Body: Clothing and Cultural Practice”

Closer to the truth is that the wearing of tight corsets for long periods of time may have led to the weakening of the abdominal muscles. Imagine if you didn’t have to hold yourself upright because your corset did it for you. Those muscles that you’re no longer using would get pretty lazy, right? 
A restrictive corset also prevented vigorous exercise, which contributes to robust health. The prevention of exercise had the same health consequences then as it does now. 

A gif of a woman taking off a corset and feeling free

As the 20th century raged on, clothing trends became looser (think 1920’s Flapper) and corsets gradually went out of fashion for wearing every day. 
Still, modern women and men seek out shapewear (do you own a pair of Spanx?) and other inventive gadgets to change the shape of their bodies. 
We’ll be anxious to know what you think about the corsets you’ll see in Intimate Apparel and why Lynn Nottage made them a focal point in Esther’s heartbreaking story. 

Next, watch a sneak peek from Intimate Apparel costume designer Amanda Mujica at the corsets you’ll see on stage!

Corset options in 1905: http://staylace.com/gallery/gallery27/index.html1900’s Fashion: http://www.marquise.de/en/1900/index.shtmlReshaping the Body: Clothing and Cultural Practice: http://exhibits.hsl.virginia.edu/clothes/