When I tell people that I dress like it’s 1777 for work, it usually only takes them a minute or two to find their way to the question, “does that mean you wear a corset?”
The answer is yes. I mean, no, I wear stays. But really yes: I wear a structured undergarment designed to shape me into a fashionable silhouette. But I do that regardless, after all, what else is a bra?
A lot like @AudreyPorne, I’ve got complicated feelings about structural undergarments and society. So when, after ten seconds, they come back with “isn’t that uncomfortable?” I try to answer carefully. Truly, my stays are very comfortable. More than that, they are comforting. The stays I wear are modeled on a pair from the third quarter of the eighteenth century, but they were artfully fitted for me, and the finished product feels like a hug. When I say that, I mean that my stays exert a slight, familiar pressure on my torso, like having someone’s arms wrapped around you at the end of a long day. It is a comforting sensation. However, have you ever had someone come up behind you and give you a hug when you’re in the middle of something? It has a way of impeding your freedom of movement. Hugs are great, but they’re not always convenient. So too with stays.
In my stays I am coddled, comforted, and to some extent constrained. Some of my actions are impeded. Our Girl History from 1775 is okay with this, because her actions are limited not just physically, but socially. She will never become a soldier, and so the fact that marching all day, drilling with muskets, dropping to one knee to fire, and charging with fixed bayonets would be physically uncomfortable for her is no problem at all. Her society and her wardrobe are united in discouraging this behavior.
Our Girl History from 2016 (which is to say me, at work), on the other hand, is frustrated by this. In her world, gender ought not influence actions, and she’s happy to make that point by doing the same work as men. Just for the principle of the thing, she plans to carry just as much firewood as her colleagues in breeches do, but when she goes up the stairs with her arms full, she runs up against the brick wall of historical reality and trips on her own damn petticoats.
So when I am asked if I am comfortable in my stays, I take the time to answer as fully and truthfully as I can. It is no physical torture to wear stays. And there are few better ways to understand the lives of people hundreds of years ago than by wearing their clothes. But for me, wearing stays is emotionally uncomfortable, because it reminds me that I am telling a story about a society that permits half their population to exist with limited agency, and that one of the tools that society uses to limit agency is fashion. It reminds me that my life is limited in a similar way, if to a lesser extent. It makes me want to burn my bras. But I won’t, because that idea makes me uncomfortable…