Tuesday, 27 November 2007


There are several types of corset that women have worn to produce the shape that fashion dictated. The main differences are in the length of the corset; whether it covers or reveals the bosom and whether it flares out over the hips or stops below the waist. There are also differences in fastening, with some that just have lacing at the back and others that have hooks in front and some that have both. None are comfortable but the corset that reaches from just under the arm to the top of the thigh is the worst. The corset would have been supported by whalebone but these days there are flexible metal rods that invariably work their way out of their casings and skewer you in the middle of a scene. Riding side-saddle in a corset is an excellent exercise in balance.
It is the role of the costume designer to make sure that your dress is fitted on the tightest corset possible and the job of the dresser to get the corset on, however much the actor pleads for leniency. For period pieces, where corsets are needed, the dress is usually made for the actor and so the day comes when you arrive for your first fitting with the intention of working with the costume department to make the character look just how they should. So when the corset first goes on, you are quite happy for it to be pulled in and for the hour or so it takes to fit, all is fine. The theatre director Philip Prowse also designed all his shows and would notice with hawk eyed attention if there was a millimetre of room for manoeuvre in the corset, then remove it. Later, like the new shoes that were slightly too small in the shop, you will bitterly regret your compliance. For once the dress has been made to fit the contours of the corset you so gamely squeezed into, that is the shape you must retain for however many months you will be working, however many hours a day.
Tricks employed to make the wearing of a corset bearable are: breathing in as much as you can when the corset is going on so that your ribcage is expanded, not breathing deeply, coughing, sneezing or laughing once the corset is on, only eating easily digestible foods, (preferably in the form of soup), not taking it off or loosening it at all during the day as it will never get back on. Losing weight does not help; the corset is fastened so that the ribs meet, having no padding only means that your ribs rub together.
Of course, there are positive aspects to corset usage. You get a stunning waist-cleavage-hip-ratio without having done any exercise or cut any bits off/stuck any bits on. And you stand alarmingly straight. Moreover, as an actor, there is nothing like a corset to help understand some of the true suffering and day-to-day realities of your character's life, now they are your own. If you are very lucky, your corset will have been made to measure and will become like a second skin after a few weeks wear. Wearing a corset on stage is only difficult during the technical rehearsals.
Christine Edzard who directed the film adaptation of ‘Little Dorrit’ designed the most intricate costumes I have worked with. Many of the materials were hand printed especially for the film. I was playing the vain and spoiled Minnie Meagles. On the first day of filming, my hair was elaborately tonged with the old Marcel wave ironing tongs that reproduce the period curl but in keeping with the attention to authenticity, none of the actors wore make-up, except for a little face powder. I was laced into my corset and I am fairly sure an elbow, if not a foot, was applied to get it tight enough. Then they layered petticoats, dress, pinafore and shawl and lastly, a bonnet. I had been wearing the costume for approximately 15 minutes by the time we were done and was already in difficulties with the shallow breathing. I turned to pick up my script, ready to leave the dressing room, tried to catch my breath and promptly fainted.
An hour later, having unsquashed the hair, petticoats, dress, bonnet and face, I was allowed a new addition to the look; blusher for my greenish hue.