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Pirate: "I'm gonna teach you the meaning of pain!"

Elizabeth: "You like pain? 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? 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. 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.

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 of Of Corset Hurts include:


Anime And Manga

  • In Panty and Stocking With Garterbelt, the Big Bad wears a very tight corset and is, in fact, named Corset.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Film

  • Two Disney animated films had this, both from 1998: Mulan, during the "Honor to Us All" montage, and Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World. It's clear that neither of them enjoys it, and both use it to show the heroine being forced into accepted norms for women in their respective societies.
  • Pixar will be following 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."

    • The corsets she wears are some of the most comfortable and least constricting corset models ever (unlike Victorian corsets, they don't squeeze around the waist that much and are mostly meant to push up the boobs--they are hardly less comfortable than some modern evening dresses), so this is a good example of the costume not matching the message. Ironically, if they'd put her in the sort of corsets women actually wore in the golden age of piracy (the late 1600s), those would have been painful and constrictive (women in the French court kept fainting in them). In the movie, Elizabeth's corsets are based on much more comfortable, late 1780s models.
      • Might be somewhat justified, as acting in an action movie with a painful corset would be very difficult to do.
        • Nonetheless doable, since Captain Jack removes her corset fairly early on in the film. (No, not like that.) Later, when she takes off the red dress in which she had the action scene of her being buffeted around the Black Pearl, it can be seen that she hadn't replaced it at any point.
      • Also, the Pirates of the Caribbean series is an Anachronism Stew anyways.
  • 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.

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.
  • 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.

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 Fransisco; neither Troi nor Dr. Crusher look comfortable in period fashion.
  • In an episode of CSI, 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.

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 transgendered 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".

Western Animation

  • 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.
  • The first episode of My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic has a similar scene to this, with Rarity securing a saddle on newcomer Twilight Sparkle, who does not look comfortable.
  • Peter tried this one to get on a rollercoaster. This causes his organs to rearrange.

Real Life

  • An improperly worn corset can be not just uncomfortable, but dangerous--or, through the occasional freak accident, fatal. Tightlacing without knowing what you're doing is discouraged by most modern corset-wearers as it can cause all sorts of damage to your ribs, spine, and internal organs. It's also recommended anyone wishing to wear a corset regularly have one tailored to them, for obvious reasons. (When one does this, corsets are no more uncomfortable than an undershirt.)
  • 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'."
  • 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.
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