Dress Down Sunday: Corsets in Films

Ten Days in the Hills by Jane Smiley

published 2007


Ten days in the hills Corset 2

“No. Frankly, Stoney, I much prefer making movies for a couple of cheap bastards who want to cut corners in every scene, because it’s more fun. My guess is that Mike’s instinct will be to weight the whole project down with authenticity, so that, for example, every costume will be perfect from the underwear out. So the actresses will all wear some kind of corsets. But twenty-first-century actresses aren’t used to corsets, so they’ll be distracted by the discomTen days in the hills Corset 1fort of wearing corsets, and they’ll look awkward in corsets. So, as a result of that, Mike and I will get into a lengthy discussion of whether the actresses should be made to wear corsets, and the solution will be to try it out, which won’t in the end demonstrate anything conclusive. There’s thousands of dollars in costume financing wasted and at least a week of filming before we get to the issue of, say, dirt. Is the encampment going to look dirty and authentic, like the sets in The Return of Martin Guerre, or is it going to look clean, like the sets in A Man for All Seasons? Mike has lots of money, so he’s going to think that if we just get all of the details right, then a movie will eventuate, but in fact what will eventuate will be a kind of slow-moving parade of everything we’ve bought. I like staying here, in other words, but I would never live here.”

Ten days in the hills Corset 3

commentary: Yet more on this marvellous book, and some fascinating insights into film-making. Each of Smiley’s books is very different from every other, and she has a disconcerting tendency to say that she doesn’t really bother with research. But presumably she learned about film-making when her Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres was turned into a film in 1997.

I laid claim in a previous post that this was a great contemporary novel, but also a very entertaining one, and this kind of detail in it I find fascinating, along with some very funny stories. (And reading the earlier post is probably essential if you want to get a feel for what the book is about, with its unusual and specific form.)

I looked up some contemporary reviews of Ten Days, and was very surprised by one from Frank Cottrell Boyce, a very fine writer himself. He praised the book, said it was beguiling and impressive, but then compared it very unfavourably with a book called Karoo by Steve Tesich, another novel very taken up with film-making, published in 1997. As it happens, I read Karoo recently and found it very hard to take, and would never have put it in the same arena as Ten Days: I know many people enjoy Karoo as a cult favourite, but it seemed bizarre to me to raise it above the Smiley. I can’t help wondering again: is Karoo a boys’ book, a laddish favourite?'

Anyway. I do recommend this one – it has so many incidental delights:
Here’s why I need a wife, Stoney thought: with a wife you could say, “This is what I think,” and then, after a while, after something had happened, she would say, “It was just the way you said it was going to be.” And then all of your passing good ideas didn’t simply vanish into thin air.
The singer Zoe, former wife of the director Max, is a wonderful character, along with her loathsome new boyfriend, the guru Paul. There is an excellent moment when Paul gives Zoe a lot of guff about her former lives as part of her ‘therapy’:
Zoe…was thrilled by this story, and the possibility that it revealed Paul as a charlatan made it all the more thrilling. She had been expecting to work through guilt and remorse, and here all she had to do was embroider upon this narrative of her past life.
And the passing thought of Isabel would resonate with many of us, as she hears a rather gruesome story:
“Ugh,” said Isabel. It was true, she thought, that honoring the integrity of other people’s cultures was always harder than you thought it was going to be.
There are a lot of surprisingly explicit sex scenes in the book, along with discussion of filming bedroom scenes.

There are also some nice clothes– including a gold silk velvet dress worn by Gene Tierney: I tried to find out if this dress existed, but no picture was forthcoming. There’s a lovely-sounding peach silk chemise, and a discussion by one character of how small clothes decisions can have an effect – this is a woman who has disastrously lost a set of keys:
Isabel sighed. “What I really hate is those strings of choices that led to the disaster. So, this morning, I looked in my suitcase and I saw the loose [jeans] and the tight ones, and Stoney was coming out of the bathroom and looking at me, and that made me feel very sassy, so I put on the tight ones, but if I’d put on the loose ones, the keys wouldn’t have squeezed out of my back pocket as I was standing up…”
So the pictures: there’s Angelina Jolie being a very modern actress in a corset. And also Brigitte Bardot at the top of the post. Neither of them is particularly trying to look historical, and they have not tightened themselves as much as the lady in the third picture…


  1. I do want to read this one, Moira. It sounds very entertaining, indeed. And I do like the writing style in the little bit you've shared. The idea of expecting modern women to wear corsets is...well.....it's probably worth reading the book just on the score of that one mental image.

    1. Yes Margot! And this book is full of interesting byways and side issues, while never losing its way. She is a brilliant writer...

  2. In one of her collections of essays (possibly "A Plea for Eros" but I am not quite sure) Siri Hustvedt mentions having once had a walk-on part in a historical film production and having to wear a corset and how she actually found "the tight hug of the corset" (or words to that effect) quite pleasant, vaguely erotic even.

    This is not my experience. I sometimes wear a corset under a nineteenth-century costume when giving a talk on historical clothing, and the only thing I can say about it is that if not very tightly laced it is only mildly uncomfortable, whereas if tightly laced it is extremely uncomfortable verging on torture. The grating on your ribs and hipbones is probably the worst part. Movement is severely resticted: lying down or bending over in any kind of way is almost impossible as is running or climbing or any other athletic pursuit. You can really only sit up very straight and still or stand up very straight and still and walk stiffly with very small steps. (Driving a car is really, really uncomfortable for this reason, since in a car it's almost impossible to sit up straight enough.) Breathing is difficult; you can only breathe very shallowly. On a couple of occasions I have had somebody lace me into a corset (on top of my ordinary clothes!) before an audience while talking, and the audience will then hear my voice changing, becoming thinner and reedier as my lungs are compressed. I don't have any medical knowledge, but I assume that it's the compression of the lungs that makes for all that fainting among nineteenth-century women - when your brain doesn't get enough oxygen you simply pass out.

    It does annoy me, though, to see a film or a play set in the nineteenth century with the actresses not only not wearing corsets, but also walking, moving and running in a way that would have been impossible when all women were corseted all the time and also most certainly considered unfeminine and improper. Clothes affect not only the way we look but also the way we behave and the corset is the most obvious example of this.

    1. That is fascinating, thanks for sharing your experiences. I feel that corsets explain why (for example) there are no deep comfortable chairs and sofa in olden times - because they are either impossible or uncomfortable to sit in if you are wearing a corset. It ASTONISHES me that women put up with it for so long, because it affects every aspect of life.

    2. I frequently wear corsets for theatre, and a properly fitted corset is not uncomfortable at all. In fact, it helps support the back and takes some of the weight of the skirts. You can't just put one in and wear it all day, you have to wear it loosely laced the first time, and gradually increase your length of time and how tightly you lace over at least several days. You should always be able to breathe. Pro tip, put on your shoes first, though.

    3. Thanks - very informative and helpful! That does all make sense....

  3. It does sound interesting. Maybe someday. Glen keeps reminding me it is only 4 months to the book sale, so I will put it on the list.

    1. you never know what may turn up! As you can tell from my comments, I loved this book, but it is quite a commitment, and not everyone would love it, but as I think I said, I'm guessing you would very much enjoy the bits about film-making.


Post a Comment