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Of Corset Hurts
aka: Of Corsets Painful
Of Corsets Sexy... but there's a price.

Pirate: "I'm gonna teach you the meaning of pain!"
Elizabeth: "You like pain?" *thwack* "Try wearing a corset!"
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl''

Corsets are painful, the popular theory goes. Squeezing four or more inches from your waist in order to get that perfect figure? Dear god, woman, that must be torture—however will you be able to breathe? This perception has been carried into fiction: if corsetry is mentioned in a period drama, it is often in the form of a woman's complaint about the pain caused by being squeezed —usually against her will—into the garment, and often faints from the restrictions. In more recent years, creators have taken to using the physical constriction provided by corsets as an allegory for the societal constriction women faced in the past; when a woman complains about her stays, she’s actually complaining about how she’s oppressed by society’s norms, a common complaint of the Spirited Young Lady.

The trope is older than radio, as a lot of literature—some medically sound, some not—was produced in the nineteenth century regarding the dangers in corset-wearing. Nowadays, people who have worn one are split: some think it feels nice, some think it is indeed uncomfortable, and some think it hurts but enjoy that. This can be very Truth in Television - see Real Life section below.

Can often overlap with Of Corsets Funny. See also Of Corsets Sexy, for a more general overview on the garment’s use, and Fashion Hurts, for other kinds of clothing-related pain.


Examples:

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     Anime And Manga  

  • In Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt, the Big Bad wears a very tight corset and is, in fact, named Corset. He has a BDSM fetish, so he wears it specifically because it hurts.
  • Invoked in Ranma ½ once with a steel corset Ranma is forced to wear as a girl. It's tight enough when worn as a girl —when Madame St. Paul first forced Ranma into it, the latter is screaming in pain — and as such, constrains his bones to a point of almost crushing when he turns back into a man, forcing him to keep his female form. Thus, the symbolism of Ranma being trapped in the guise of an obedient girl both physically and metaphorically is complete.
  • Despite providing the page image, female characters in Victorian Romance Emma only wore extremely tight corsets for special occasions, in this case taking a couple inches off before a date.
    • However, they are described as painful, or at least really unconfortable. In one scene of the manga Emma's employer, Dorothea Meredith, is being dressed for the day, when her husband, Wilhelm, enters the room, and proceeds to lace his wife's corset. Despite the whole scene is described as a jocular, almost sexual moment of intimacy, Wilhelm has to place his foot on Dorothea's back and pull the laces with all of his might to squeeze his wife into the desired shape. The author's commentary for this scene claims that, according to her researches, such a painful scenario was common and not surprising at all.
  • The infamous corset seen in Black Butler gives us a rare male example of this, although he was preparing to go to a ball undercover. As a girl.
    • It's interesting to note that since men don't give birth their organs don't shift around as easily so it's more difficult for them to wear corsets properly. See the Real Life section below.
  • In Murder Princess, Princess Alisa is not happy about having to wear a corset.
  • Lampshaded in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya when in chapter 7 of the original light novel (adapted into the sixth episode of the anime and first story arc), Haruhi complains about her Playboy Bunny corset complicating the effects that the summer heat is having on her, but she admits that at least her arms and shoulders are feeling better.

     Film  

  • Two Disney animated films had this, both from 1998.
    • Mulan, during the "Honor to Us All" montage, and she doesn't enjoy it. It wasn't exactly a corset, but a large sash pulled very tight to make her waist smaller. Ironically, the matchmaker berates her for being too skinny to bear children. Perhaps she was destined to fail and ultimately become China's savior?
    • Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World. It's clear that she doesn't like it, and it shows she is being forced into accepted norms for women in the society.
  • Pixar followed Disney's example with Brave. At one point, Queen Elinor dresses her Rebellious Princess daughter Merida up in a corset, who complains that she can't breathe. What's really odd about all this is that the movie takes place in Medieval Scotland, and corsets shouldn't actually exist yet.
  • From the opening scene of Corpse Bride:
    "Get those corsets laced properly! I can hear you speak without gasping."
  • Not exactly announced, but the expression on Rose's face in Titanic as hers is being laced by her mother shows the pain informative of this trope. And it's symbolic as her mother is explaining that Rose has no choice but to marry Cal as she laces her up.
  • In the 1994 film of Little Women, Marmee is prone to rants about how corsets are responsible for womankind's reputation as weak and ill, and when Meg gives in to pressure from her stylish friends, there is the obligatory scene where she is painfully laced into a corset by a strong-armed maid.
  • In the Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland, Alice refuses to wear a corset, which shows us how rebellious she is.
  • In Pirates of the Caribbean, when Elizabeth is being dressed in a corset, Governor Swann tells her it's the fashion in London. She replies, "Well, women in London must have learned not to breathe...!"
    Gov. Swan: "What do you think?"(of the dress, corset included)
    Elizabeth: "It's *GASP* difficult to say."
    • Despite Elizabeth's corsets being based in an era where they were designed to be more comfortable and supportive than nearly any other era, there actually is some logic to this particular example. Elizabeth has lived her entire life in Port Royal, where fashion trends of the time probably take several months to arrive from places like London and Paris, if not years, and has probaby been wearing softer stays where the emphasis was less on shrinking her waist and more on lifting her bust (like a modern camisole with a built in bra). The corset her father buys her was likely intended to be worn by a woman whose body had been somewhat corset-trained since age twelve or so, and who would not feel too squeezed by it at all. Elizabeth, on the other hand, hasn't experienced that, so the amount of constriction probably would feel shockingly painful to her and alter her breathing to the point of her later collapse.
    Pirate: I'm gonna teach you the meaning of pain!
    Elizabeth: You like pain? *whacks him over the head with a pole* Try wearing a corset!
  • In The Duchess, during the wedding-night scene when Georgiana is being undressed by her new husband, we see that she's wearing her corset over bare skin (which reveals a set of painful-looking welts when the corset is removed). This is incorrect, as corsets were (and are) properly worn over a protective garment of some sort (usually a chemise) to protect the wearer from just such injuries.
  • A similar situation arises in the movie of Tuck Everlasting, in which Winnie is forced to wear a corset. Her mother tells her "You must suffer to be beautiful, so say the French", to which Winnie replies "Well the French are crazy!". When Winnie is staying with the Tucks, Ma helps her remove the corset, commenting on how she can't understand why women torture themselves with them.
  • Esther and Rose Smith experience this in Meet Me in St. Louis.
  • All About Eve:
    Margo: You bought the new girdles a size smaller, I can feel it.
    Birdie: Something maybe grew a size larger.
    Margo: When we get home you're going to get into one of those girdles and act for two and a half hours.
    Birdie: I couldn't get into the girdle in two and a half hours.
  • One of Natalie Portman's costumes in Attack of the Clones included a corset (specifically the one she's wearing in the "aggressive negotiations" scene). Portman mentioned on one of the DVD featurettes that she wanted to finish filming the scenes involving it quickly because she had trouble breathing.
  • Bridget Jones has trouble with a constricting panty girdle in the second film. If one only heard the audio, they would be forgiven for thinking someone was dying in agony.

     Literature  
  • In E.L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime, Evelyn Nesbit flees a crowd and is taken in by Emma Goldman. Once Evelyn's corset is removed (along with the rest of her garments), Emma treats the marks it left on Evelyn's flesh. Given that Emma Goldman was in real life an advocate of socialism and women's rights, the garment is clearly symbolic of the sufferings caused by the society of the time.
  • Discussed at length in Nancy Springer's Enola Holmes series. The prospect of wearing corsets, as part of boarding school and normal society, is one of the major factors that influence Enola to run away from her brothers' custody.
    • The horrors of corsets are an important factor to the mystery in The Case of the Gypsy Good-bye. A missing duchess is known to have an extremely slim waist from spending all her time since childhood, even while sleeping, in a full-length spoon busk corset. The duchess's kidnappers merely stole her expensive clothes and abandoned her—but she stayed missing because her waist had atrophied to such a degree that she could not walk without the corset.
  • Laura looks forward to haying time in Little Town on the Prairie because it's an opportunity to remove her corset. While Ma says she ought to sleep in her corset, and Mary does, Laura can't.
    • Carrie also doesn't seem too keen on them. At one point, Mary is trying on a new dress, but it's absolutely skintight and she can hardly breathe, let alone finish the buttons. Laura realizes Mary's corset must have stretched back out, and while she pulls it tight again, all the while warning her sister not to breathe, Carrie's comment is a relieved "I'm glad I'm not old enough to wear corsets." Laura tells her to be glad while she can be.
    • In Little House in the Big Woods, when two of Laura's aunts are getting dressed for a dance, one of them hangs onto the bed so the other can drag on her corset strings with all her weight, bracing her feet like she's in a tug-o-war. Unsatisfied, she measures her waist with her hands and says that when Laura's ma married Pa, he could span her waist with his hands.
  • In Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner, Meg starts secretly wearing a tight-laced corset in pursuit of fashionable slimness, suffers untold agonies, and eventually faints in the middle of a dinner party.
  • Gone with the Wind references this several times, Scarlett can take the pain of a tight corset, but other female characters are mentioned to have fainted when it becomes too tight.
  • In The Goddess Test, Kate's maids force her to wear corsets. Kate is not pleased, and tries to force her gut out to give herself more breathing room and to spite them.
  • In The Fairy Godmother, lacing Daphne into her corset is painful. Understandably, as Daphne is overweight and the corset is meant to force her into too-small (but the "appropriate" size) dresses.
  • The Gates of Sleep: after Madame Arachne carries off Marina, her maid forces Marina into tightlacing with the comment "You've never been properly corseted". (Marina eventually figures out how to tense her abdominal muscles to keep her corset from being laced too tightly.)
  • Horribly used by a 19th century short story: a young peasant girl hides her pregnancy with a rudimentary corset (planks of wood strapped together with rope). When the baby is born, it is hideously deformed, and who should drop by but a circus man, who offers to buy the baby for his freakshow. She promptly sells it, and when she gets pregnant again, the whole deal is renewed, and she makes a pretty good living out of it. The name of the short story is A Mother of Monsters made by famous french writer Guy de Maupassant.
  • Simona Ahrnstedt goes back and forth between this and Of Corsets Sexy in her debut novel Överenskommelser. We get several allusions to how uncomfortable it can be to wear a corset, but a lady is expected to do it anyway. And if she shapes her body as much as possible, men will of course find her more attractive.
    • Magdalena Swärd in "De skandalösa" is happy to not have to wear a corset during a costume party.

     Live Action TV  

  • The inconvenience and discomfort of corsets was one of the major complaints of the mother and eldest daughter in The 1900 House.
    • Similarly, some of the women in Frontier House refused to wear them after a while (and, in the hot weather, wound up wandering around in their underwear).
  • In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow steals a corset from her vampire self to impersonate her. Then Willow realizes that she needs to breathe, though her vampire self does not.
  • Done implicitly in the Star Trek TNG episode "Time's Arrow," when Picard et al are in 19th century San Francisco; neither Troi nor Dr. Crusher look comfortable in period fashion.
  • In an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Grissom, Nick, and Sara come across a corpse with a horribly shrunken waist and horribly disfigured torso. Eventually, they discover that it was a man who, obsessed with American Civil War history and reenactments, habitually wore a male corset that had reduced his waist to only a few inches wide.
  • In an episode of Bones, the victim of the week was a nine-year-old girl with a deformed ribcage. It turns out she participated in beauty pageants and had worn a corset in her sleep, in addition to starving herself to the point of malnourishment.
  • On 3rd Rock from the Sun, Dick is having body-image issues, and puts on a corset with Harry's help (referencing Gone with the Wind) - he explains to a puzzled Tommy "It's called a 'Shatner'."
  • There was a scene in the first season of The Vampire Diaries where Katherine Pierce was having her corset put on by Emily, her handmaiden, and by the expression on her face and her small gasp at every tightening of the corset, we could just imagine what it felt like.
  • In one episode of Call the Midwife, an unmarried woman hides her pregnancy via a girdle, fearing that she'll be fired from her job for it. Nurse Jenny is horrified to find this out, since it poses many medical issues for the woman and her child. The woman is convinced to stop wearing it, and the baby is thankfully born fine.

     Webcomics  

  • A Sluggy Freelance 'MITDOP' strip features a demon who tormented its victims by... forcing them into corsets and high-heeled shoes. Unsurprisingly, the rare female victim laughed it off.
  • While all of the genderbent characters in Exiern (and there's a bunch of them) hate being women in general they reserve their worst complaints for corsets—all except for one priest who appears to have been transgender in the first place.
  • VG Cats parodied corsets in this strip. Now they're beautiful!
  • The Continentals has a dinner party scene in which the gender-bending Lady Fiona Fiziwigg and the conventionally feminine Evelynne Poole spar verbally on the subject.
  • Dan and Mab's Furry Adventures has a (female) corset maker who likes "crushing people to death while watching them slowly suffocate". Naturally, she's a snake.

     Western Animation  

  • On an episode of The Simpsons, where the family lives in a house set in 1896, on a reality show, Marge in one clip is shown wearing a tight corset, and the camera zooms down to her horribly swollen feet.
  • The Critic. Lampshaded by a maid pulling on corset strings, yelling, "Suck it in! Suck it in!", and it's revealed to be Jay Sherman. The corset, however, is put on more like a straitjacket than a corset, with Jay's arms bound as well. He mutters, "I don't think this is right." The maid scoffs at this, puts a top hat on him, and boots him out of the room.
  • Peter tried this one to get on a rollercoaster. This causes his organs to rearrange.

     Video Games 
  • In BioShock Infinite, after Booker DeWitt frees Elizabeth from the electronic leash she was strapped to inside Comstock House, she winces in pain when Booker ties her corset while she looks at the card that her future self gave Booker that contains the coded song for controlling Songbird. In this case the corset is not entirely to blame; there's a cord that was just unplugged from her back.

     Real Life  

  • Judith Flanders, in her excellent book The Victorian House (US title Inside the Victorian Home), wrote that "It is difficult to say how tightly {Victorian} women really laced. Large quantities of writing, by both pro- and anti-lacing campaigners, seem to have been written by sexual fetishists, as a sort of soft-core porn.... The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine correspondents whom we would today guess to be fetishists used words like 'suffering', 'agony', 'delicious', and 'exquisite' to describe the effects of tight lacing, while what appears to be genuine correspondence contained words like 'comfort', 'ease', and 'freedom'."
  • In the PBS television series The1900House the women found that corsets made it almost impossible to get the endless housework done. Finally, Joyce discovered a period magazine with an article denouncing corsets as bad for women's health (perhaps written by female physician Alice Bunker Stockham), and they promptly discarded theirs.
  • On tennis courts before the First World War. Elizabeth Ryan, who won eventually 30 Grand Slam titles, recalls that at her first tour of England (1914), the ladies’ dressing rooms would have a fire (it was an English summer, after all), above which would be a rail on which the players’ corsets were hung to dry. “It was not a pretty sight”, she said, “as many of them were blood-stained from the wounds they had inflicted”. The Encyclopedia of Tennis, ed. Max Robertson & Jack Kramer (London; George Allen & Unwin, 1974), p. 239a.
  • Corsets were (and still properly are) customarily worn over a chemise or similar garment, never over bare skin, to protect the garment from sweat stains and body odors.
  • Early bras were specifically marketed as more comfortable and practical than corsets, showing just how uncomfortable (although not always painful) corsets were. Of course now, with straps and underwires, we seem to be starting all over again. (These days, large-busted women are some of the chief proponents of the corset; assuming the thing is tailored and constructed properly, wearing one means that the weight of the bust is carried not on the shoulders but on the hips.)
  • Lana Parrilla, who plays the Evil Queen on Once Upon a Time, said in an interview that the corsets in her costume are so tight that she cannot properly swallow food while wearing them and has to be on a liquid diet while filming scenes in them.
  • Lucy Lawless said that her Xena: Warrior Princess corset was perfectly fine... after they removed the boning out of it.
  • Corsets have somehow become the outfit of choice for action girls in movies and TV (Wonder Woman and Xena have likely had something to do with it.) Multiple actresses, such as Bridget Regan (Kahlan Amnell of Legend of the Seeker) and Caity Lotz (Canary of Arrow) have said their corsets felt fine during their initial costume fittings, but when they had to start doing fight scenes in them...


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alternative title(s): Of Corsets Painful
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