A lot of boning is happening in Twin Cities costume shops right now, and get your mind out of the gutter. We’re talking about the process of assembling the bone-like structures that support corsets.
Autumn Ness, who wears a Children’s Theatre Company costume shop-created undergarment to play the stepmother of “Cinderella,” loves a corset.
“It’s doing me a favor as an actor. It’s helping me know: ‘Don’t do that. That’s not a movement that’s available to you as this character,’ ” said Ness, who also finds that the garments make her more secure. “It’s an armor between you as a person and your nerves or questions about whether you’ll do a good job. You put that armor on and you have this thing standing between you and all of those feelings.”
Body-shaping corsets, the Spanx of a bygone era, were a key element of the recently closed “Rocky Horror Show” in which Frank-N-Furter wore one as outerwear, and corseting figures into four current shows: Most of the women wear them in “Cinderella.” The female lead of Old Log Theatre’s “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” announces her flirtatiousness with one. In the Guthrie Theater’s “A Christmas Carol,” 35 costumes have a corseted silhouette. And, while corsets were worn in the Regency period of Jungle Theater’s “Miss Bennet,” costume designer Sarah Bahr specifically chose not to use them in order to reflect the modern sensibility of Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon’s “Pride and Prejudice”-inspired play.
Corsets, too, have been modernized. The vertical supports that form a sort of cage around a person’s torso are called boning, probably because they were once made of whalebone, but now they’re plastic, metal or, when “Gentleman’s Guide” costumer Samantha Fromm Haddow needs a low-cost corset hack, repurposed zip ties.
“It is about the silhouette. We want to be authentic, and we want to take you back to the that period in time,” said draper/tailor DJ Gramann II of the Guthrie’s costume shop.
That’s easier said than done with Mathew J. LeFebvre’s “Christmas Carol” designs. The show takes place over more than a 50-year period, encompassing several style changes and kinds of corsets. (Some characters’ fashion sense dates to an even earlier era.)
The 13 women in the show are constantly changing costumes — they wear a total of 35 — so there’s no time to get in and out of corsets. The solution? Dresses with partial corsets built right in.
Gramann, the corset expert at the Guthrie, recalls that designer Jane Greenwood had very specific ideas about the corsets worn by every single woman in “The Great Gatsby” and that the differences between the sisters in “Sense and Sensibility,” one of the corsetiest shows ever done at the Guthrie, were underscored by their undergarments.
“We are a department that, in certain ways, is in support of performers, helping them do their jobs,” said Gramann, who has to make sure actors can actually act in their finery. “I’m always asking: Do you need to do a cartwheel? Do you need to clap your hands over your head?”
Or, do you need to sing? It can be difficult, even in today’s more modern corsets, in which elastic and new methods of construction create additional breathing room. Bahr has designed corsets for opera productions and found that their use is a matter of personal preference. The Juliet in Minnesota Opera’s “Romeo and Juliet” loved feeling the tightness of the corset against her diaphragm, creating a tension she used in her singing technique, but the Juliet who took over when that production played in Ohio hated it.
Corsets are authentic to the Edwardian era in which “Gentleman’s Guide” is set, but Haddow goes beyond authenticity with a bold character named Sibella.
“We took a little liberty. She probably would wear a corset, but it’s an undergarment, not something you’d see on the exterior,” said Haddow, who has Sibella showing her scanties even at a formal dinner. “She’s owning her sexuality. She’s using it to her advantage and having her waist cinched and her chest out exemplifies that.”
An iconic look
That also was the idea in “The Rocky Horror Show,” in which star Gracie Anderson — and, eventually, almost the entire cast — wore corsets as if they were shirts. It’s an iconic look for the show, but it’s also rebellion against society’s dictates, according to costume designer Rebecca Bernstein.
“The fun thing about ‘Rocky Horror’ is it’s owning it, asking, ‘You think this is sexy? Great. I’m wearing it because I want to wear it,’ ” Bernstein said.
Corsets can also indicate power, said Ness, who wore one as the Queen of Hearts in CTC’s “Alice in Wonderland,” or even hidden kindness, like the forgiving one she wore in “Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy.”
“You have to stand up straight. You move differently. Designers are thinking about all sorts of different character things beyond period with corsets,” Ness said.
Which underscores how far corsets have come.
“As a woman that has studied clothing for most of my life, I innately see a corset as a constraint, something that society — possibly men — demanded of women to give them a ‘perfect’ shape. Even now, we deal with undergarments that are supposed to slim and tuck and push everything up. It’s like a woman’s body can never be good enough,” Bahr said.
Gramann notes that girls of previous eras were laced into corsets when they were as young as 10 to begin the process of contorting their ribs. And it’s not just torsos that have been constrained by corsets, Bahr added, saying that being so rigidly encased that they could barely move was once a status symbol for ladies of leisure.
“Tight-laced corsets messed up organs. People broke ribs. There’s a lot of history of corsets that deals with feminism and the constraints of society. Women can’t do anything in a tight corset. They can’t sit down, they can barely breathe,” said Bahr, whose “Bennet” costumes depict women who don’t have time for that nonsense.
CTC’s “Cinderella” also makes a corseted statement.
First, there’s a comic “corset scene” that demonstrates constraint, as costume director Amy Kitzhaber describes it.
“Cinderella is helping one of her stepsisters,” Kitzhaber said. “She jumps into the air and the corset pulls her back, almost like a cartoon.”
Ness’ stepmother corset, like those in “Gentleman’s Guide” and “Rocky Horror,” is on the outside. It’s funny, but she believes the corset that restricts her character says something important about the challenges she faces.
“We draw from the idea that [women] have a level of involvement in their own pushing-down,” Ness said.
The hope is that what has been perceived as misogyny in previous “Cinderellas,” where men played women’s roles, can be flipped in this all-female take. And that has a little something to do with corsets.
“They had bonds they were tying these women into,” Ness said. “In a more feminist-forward show, we’re able to own pieces of that: whether the stepmother is maybe the architect of her own demise because she embraced all the misogyny that was put on her.”
In other words, corsets can represent the restraints society places on women, especially in historical shows. But they also can be a modern way of saying women have the right to choose — or not choose — to lace themselves in.