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Oh, how you contort me: Regencycore and the corset question

Understanding how clothing shapes our bodies requires a look under the corset.

Art by Kritika Rathore

Amidst the increasing, repetitive tempo of a quadrille, the twirling of muslin, taffeta and satin gown hems catch us swooningly. In the swishing steps of bodies moving fluidly to the ball music renditions by Kris Bowers and Vitamin String Quartet, the dancing bodies hold an element of corset stiffness. The Regency Era (around 1810-1837) is attracting contemporary appeal owing to the dilemmatic, deeply adorned romantic tropes combined with the elegant high society fashion described by Jane Austen, Julia Quinn (of Bridgerton fame), Maria Edgeworth and Susan Ferrier. 2022 has seen the appeal of regency aesthetics, popularly called ‘Regencycore’, skyrocket due to the raging popularity of the period drama Bridgerton and the trickle-down effect of other aesthetics like cottagecore, princesscore, fairycore, and grandmacore.

While the boundaries of these trends are blurry due to their shared intrinsic romanticisation of a rural past free from machines and modern tackiness, the corsets remain emblematic of the Regency Era fashion. Corsets or stays, female undergarments made of whalebone, were usually used to maintain a tiny waist for women and accentuate their tight-waisted dresses. A fashionable item that continued till the mid-20th century, the impact of corsets on women’s bodies has been a matter of historical and sociological thought. 

The everlasting fandom of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Emma has embraced Quinn’s Bridgerton, as period drama fans recreate the iconic styles with a moreish ardour for the looks. Despite the raging romanticisation, Bridgerton shows the inconvenient and constraining nature of the corsets in a growing woman’s life. An obvious example that comes to mind occurs in season one, when one of the Featherington ladies attempts to reduce her waist to the optimal size of “an orange and a half”. Similarly, the debilitating effects of a corset are shown on season one protagonist Daphne Bridgerton’s bruised back when she stands romantically yearning after a night-long social ball in season 1 episode 1. 

Corsets have long been criticised for deforming the spine, displacing intestines, and causing asphyxiation and blood clots. In addition to the garters, stockings, pearl accessories and gloves, corsets, worn as outerwear rather than innerwear, have become the new fashion today, often made of flexible cotton and synthetic materials. Despite these shifts, all the symbolism and the physical significance attached to this clothing, the bioarchaeology — the study of human remnants through archaelogical knowhows — of corsets that wear bodies, remain at the heart of changing fashions.

Rebecca Gibson, a professor of anthropology specialising in corsets and skeletal biology, studied museum exhibits of corset-impacted skeletons to ponder upon the relationship between the viewer and the wearer of corsets. Gibson’s broader works explain the technicalities of corsets over their changing styles, however, its health aspects are not the focus here. What is it about the peculiarity of corsets that makes them so easily accepted by the modern, comfort-driven clothing market?

“The new corsetry was a counter-rebellion” with newly defined forms of femininity, says Gibson. Regencycore’s love for corsets comes not sheerly from the sultry, fashionable high cut stays enhancing one’s bosoms, but due to the neutral, non-agentive of the corset as the softer materials make the corsets unable to mould a woman’s body. The in-between nature of modern stays carries the glorious remnants of the regency fashion trope, but for women who visit the world of their fandom for a limited time. All the same, the image of a corset is still sculptural, modified and one that non-hysterical women wore in the past. The ignominy of female hysteria further goes deep into the bioarchaeological analysis of corsets as the skulls and waists of non-corseted bodies digressed from those of corseted bodies (hinting at fatness and mental instability).

Bioarchaelogical understanding of corseted bodies contextualises the deep-rooted history of corsets in the way its contortions are seen in buried skeletons. The visceral nature of scruitnizing women’s bruised, changed skeletons long after their death hints at the long-lived nature of corsets. It has become immortalised today – revived through fast fashion under the garb of regency fashion as people today wear it as an act of time travelling through past literary eras The relationship of this clothing becomes difficult to grasp as ephemeral trends make clothing a matter of frivolity and fast fashion. The change in materials and use of corsets from an underwear to an outerwear creates important speculation about what the bodies will look like after the corsets of today. In frills, square quadrille formations, soft stays, and pearls of  expressing the regency craze through screens, the future awaits digital archaeology to look at contemporary corseted bodies.