Corsets were an essential undergarment for Victorian women, which lifted and supported the bosom, created a flat front and provided women a form-fitted figure. But they were notoriously restrictive. As essential as corsets are to the 18th century, they are equally as important to period costume design in the 21st century.
However, as period-era dramas filled the air, costume designers of many Emmy-contending shows followed up to dress their cast members in corsets — but with the modern twist of added comfort.
Carrie Coon, who plays wealthy socialite Bertha Russell in HBO’s “The Gilded Age,” is no stranger to wearing corsets. Her theatrical background meant she wore them on stage under heavy, upholstered fabrics that had to withstand all kinds of weather. During a costume fitting for the show’s second season, Coon tells Variety: “Every job is different. No matter what the period and so they’re built differently.”
The best corset comfort tip she ever received was during a fitting. “Expand your ribcage,” she says. “That means once you release air, you have room to breathe. It’s been a great help when you’re working 15-hour days.”
On the surface, the corsets appeared restricting, but for “Gilded Age” costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone, they also added a layer that represented so much more. Her designs were further influenced by the era of the Gilded Age, a time of great invention and breakthroughs in architecture, chemistry and fabric dying. With extremely feminine silhouettes, the women could utilize that femininity as a tool to express the character’s function, power, and sexiness.
Walicka-Maimone says she relied on Christine Baranski, Cynthia Nixon and Coon, all with theatrical backgrounds, to help inform her designs.
“They could guide us to what worked on their bodies. We could cut through that discovery process,” she says.
With hours-long shoots, costumers got used to opening the costumes and corsets to give actors time to breathe.
Walicka-Maimone also constructed corsets for Coon as her body changed since she was pregnant during filming. “It was guided by her complete comfort, so she had half corsets.”
“When I was pregnant and wearing a stretch corset, a lot of the back had to be lace-up so they could accommodate the change in my size, but the bodice takes a long time to take off,” Coons recalls.
“The Great” costume designer Sharon Long also had a pregnancy to contend with — both a fictitious one for Elle Fanning’s Catherine the Great and a real one for actor Charity Wakefield.
Comfort was key for Long’s cast. “We used a corsetier who professionally made the corsets, so they were made to their shape,” she says.
To accommodate Wakefield, Long created a special pregnancy corset that contained elastic sides and lacing. “As she expanded, the corset could expand with her.” When Wakefield returned from maternity leave, Long took into account the actor’s needs during her breastfeeding period. “It had a front opening and her breasts weren’t squashed in any way,” she says.
Long was always sensitive to how her cast was feeling in their looks, knowing that it could impact the whole shoot. “If somebody wasn’t comfortable, we bone the dress instead of them wearing the dress. You have to find ways around them,” she says. And most of the cast were more often than not comfortable and actually liked the supportive feel.
For Season 2 of Netflix’s “Bridgerton,” costume designer Sophie Canale took over for Ellen Mirojnick. Canale sees the plus side of corsets, noting that they almost immediately help with an actors’ posture. “I think that [a corset] is a real lend to period dressing. Having that silhouette helps an actor find their character,” she says.
But Coon explains the other side of that. “Because the corset is holding you up, you lose the proprioception of your musculature,” she says. “You have to bring more consciousness to using your core muscles when you’re wearing a corset than when you don’t, because you can really get lazy in it.”
Despite being set in the Regency era, “Bridgerton” was not period accurate. Canale had the liberty to weave in shorter corsets for the younger girls while the women wore longer corsets.