“IT REALLY HELPS you understand how a corset shapes your world view—the way you breathe, and eat,” said actress Elizabeth McGovern of the costumes she wears in her role on the hit series Downton Abbey (I’m a huge fan), now in its second season on public television on this side of the Pond (The New Yorker, January 16, 2012). “I think it is the single reason that women are less accomplished historically than men. They couldn’t actually breathe.”
Even allowing for a bit of facetiousness, McGovern has a point. When the (under)clothes we wear distort our internal organs and constrict basic physical functions, how can they fail to affect how we live, and how much we expect of ourselves?
Compared to corsets, girdles were a step in the right direction, believe it or not. And once we’d ditched those, as well as garter belts, there was a blessed period during which lingerie didn’t try to do anything fantastic except cover you and look nice. Then the flattening crap crept back. First sign: the horror of control-top pantyhose. These days, there are all these undergarments known as “shapewear,” meant to smooth and firm. Although touted as so lightweight and advanced that you barely know you have them on (ha), they represent the same old maneuver: taking a woman’s natural body and trying to transform it into the silhouette du jour—in this case, a slender, bumpless column. I don’t buy it.