Wednesday 4 March 2015

The Great British Sewing Bee Does Corsets - Part 2

I was feeling so positive about the pieces the contestants made, especially as it was the first time for almost all of them, but then the ‘history’ section started and I felt … disappointed. It’s so frustrating that the BBC went for lazy pseudo-history!

Let’s look at what they said …

The Mad Hatter.  Image from Wikipedia.
Well, they started with, “It’s the only garment in history that could kill.” Sigh! I’m not aware of any documented cases where a corset killed anyone (and I believe there was a case where it actually prolonged someone’s life, but that’s for another time), however leaving that aside, what about other garments? In the 19th century they commonly used green arsenic dye in women’s gowns – sounds pretty deadly to me.  The famous Mad Hatter of Alice in Wonderland was a reference to the mercury poisoning 19th century milliners often suffered from, due to exposure to the element in their work.

Isadora Duncan.  Image from Wikipedia.
Moving towards garments we still wear … The dancer Isadora Duncan was strangled to death when her scarf got caught in the rear wheels of her car.  There have been various other cases where scarves, ties and other neckwear has got caught and strangled someone (such as in the doors of a lift or the moving parts of an escalator).

But, let’s move on from that killer corset comment, shall we? (Well, I’ll try to!)

Next came Rosemary Hawthorne to demonstrate how stiff and thick Victorian corsets were … well, yes, they would be when you’ve got them rolled up and try to bend them. Apparently (according to the BBC’s expert, that is), corsets mean you couldn’t run and made steps a challenge. Of course, women of the 19th century spent all their time walking as slowly as possible on the ground floors of buildings. (Wish there was a sarcasm font I could use here!)  She even claims that “You would have been immobile in a garment like that!”

Well, crap, someone had better tell KathTea Katastrophy, a corsetiere and model who used to work as a personal trainer while wearing her corsets (see the first entry on this Lucy’s Corsetry page for details), because according to Rosemary Hawthorne, that’s impossible.

And what about all those maids and other working women who wore corsets their entire lives throughout the 18th and 19th centuries?  (And as seen in Downton Abbey - the actresses playing servants apparently wear corsets as part of their costumes.)

So you see why I was so disappointed in this segment of the programme – it was all just regurgitated propaganda from Victorian anti-corset writers.

I’m at risk of going into a full-on rant, so I’m going to stop there. If you’d like a more realistic and truly expert discussion of corsetry, you’d do well to read Valerie Steele’s The Corset: A Cultural History (And yes, her name is very apt, isn’t it?!) and do check out Lucy’s Corsetry recent blog post responding to a US TV show’s segment on corsetry and its health implications.

To summarise – The Great British Sewing Bee does corsets gave some good first attempts at making corsets, despite the limitations, but made an epic fail in their attempts at corset history.

Coming up next week, I’ll tell you the three main mistakes they made with the corsets on the Sewing Bee and how you can fix them!

In the meantime, tell me what you thought about the Sewing Bee’s corset history. Lots of lovely folk on the Magpie & Fox Facebook page and in some corsetry groups shared my woes about the faux history on the programme – join in the discussion!

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