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Spanx of a bygone era: Behold the power of the binding undergarment

By Chris Hewitt, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) on

Published in Fashion Daily News

MINNEAPOLIS - 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?"


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