What a profound experience it is not to be wearing a corset

Think about corsets for instance. Yes, corsets.

We all know they were hella uncomfortable, and bad for the internal organs – but I’m not sure I had realized they were also bad for mental functioning.

Elizabeth McGovern, one of the Downton Abbey crew, spent a lot of time wearing them, and she says they are. It makes sense, of course – obviously you can’t breathe properly in them, and obviously breathing properly is important for mental functioning – but I don’t think I’d made the connection until I saw her say it on some dopy PBS special about How Fabulous is Downton Abbey the other day.

Elizabeth McGovern is talking about restrictive underwear. Or more precisely – since we are talking about the new season of Downton Abbey, in which the action has moved into the free-and-easy Twenties – she is talking about the absence of it. ‘There is no way,’ she says, speaking heavily and with the conviction that can be born only of bitter experience, ‘that I can convey to you what a profound experience it is not to be wearing a corset. In the series, we’ve been through the years leading up to the First World War, the years during it, and now we’re in the years after it, and I have actually physically inhabited the clothes of each era in that I have not only tried them on but spent the major part of my days wearing them.

‘Corsets are so uncomfortable that they drive me mad, and it is incredible how much it changes your world view to be out of them. You can move around so much more freely, and the passage of air is not constricted – you have more oxygen making its way to your brain so you have much more ambition, much more desire to achieve things and connect with the outside world…’

I didn’t fully realize that, specifically, but I resisted the confining nature of girls’ clothing from earliest childhood. I detested skirts, and wore jeans or corduroys whenever I possibly could; I whined and resisted whenever I was told I had to put on a dress. Trousers were freedom and skirts were constraint; it was that simple.

It’s a funny thing the way female clothing is designed to hobble and restrain women, and women put up with it.

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