'Bridgerton' is making corsets cool again. But are they safe to wear?

Bridgerton (starring Nicola Coughlan, pictured) is back. Read what experts have to say about corsets before you try the trend. (Everett)
Bridgerton (starring Nicola Coughlan, pictured) is back. Read what experts have to say about corsets before you try the trend. (Everett)

Bridgerton is back, and Season 3 leading lady Nicola Coughlan is setting the record straight about her waist. The 37-year-old actress, who plays Penelope Featherington on the hit Netflix series, has done a lot of talking about her body since Part 1 of the latest season premiered on May 16. In response to some allegations that her waist was Photoshopped onscreen, she told People that her appearance is actually a result of wearing a corset.

"Sometimes they come in a fitting for a fashion designer and they put a corset on me and I'm like, ‘Oh, you can go tight,'" she told the publication. "I think if you wear corsetry for long enough, your body really molds to it."

The series has previously started conversations and controversy about the body-shaping undergarment after star Simone Ashley told Glamour UK that she was in “a lot of pain” while wearing her corset on set, and even said she "tore" her shoulder while wearing the garment. Lily James, who wore a corset for 2015’s Cinderella, claimed to E! News she was unable to digest food properly while wearing her costume. Cara Delevingne, who had to wear a corset for her role in Carnival Row, had little love for the garment, telling Net-A-Porter, "I had to wear a corset every day, and you lose your voice. I wonder, in the past, did men just sit round thinking, 'What can we do? A muzzle? Is that a bit obvious? OK, we'll just wrap something around their waists so they can't breathe or speak.'"

Nonetheless, corsets are having a resurgence off the set, with stars like Kim Kardashian — seen wearing a Margiela by John Galliano corset that, to quote one fashion reporter, made "her waist look about the width of a pencil" — rocking the garments on the red carpet. But is it worth trying the trend for yourself, or will it only result in discomfort? Here's what experts say.

There’s a long historical view that a corset can restrict one’s breathing when pulled too tight. (Who else remembers the scene from Pirates of the Caribbean in which Keira Knightley’s character faints and falls into the ocean as a direct result of her corset?)

Deirdre Clemente, an associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, tells Yahoo Life that in reality, corsets aren’t quite the torture devices for women that they are occasionally purported to be — but they were a means of controlling women’s bodies. While we may see corset tops as a sexier item, in the 1800s and earlier, they were considered a necessary garment for modesty.

“It’s hard for the public to separate the garment itself from its reputation as a protector of virtue," Clemente says. "In my opinion, all the historical hoopla about people fainting from corsets, having their ribs cut off, not being able to have children [due to damage], a lot of that has been, in my opinion, overstated in the historical record."

She adds: “It’s often what’s found that we make a big deal of. What we don’t see is the hundreds of thousands of women who wore this and didn’t have any problems.”

The purpose of the corset, however, has long been to create the illusion of a smaller waist, which is part of the reason why it has gotten a bad reputation. Clemente points out that all fashion comes down to “body distortion,” but that unlike other body-distorting garments, corsets have stuck around, popping in and out of favor within modern fashion cycles for years. In fact, she says, one theory as to why corsets fell out of fashion initially had to do with the rise of dieting — while women used to control their waists with an external device, like a corset, dieting encouraged them to make the shift to controlling how their body looked via what they ate.

While the corset has a complicated history, Dr. Tasneem Bhatia tells Yahoo Life that if you want in on the trend, you should feel fairly safe doing so — as long as you follow some simple guidelines.

“They do squeeze your organs, but if you’re wearing a corset for two hours or so, it’s not a big deal," Bhatia says. However, she adds, "If you’re wearing it for 12 hours, or overnight, that does pose a bigger issue for several reasons."

She explains that doing so puts “a lot of pressure on your abdominal organs. You’re putting a lot of pressure on your bladder and your bladder wall. Most importantly, it’s really messing with your pelvic floor," which is a group of muscles that support the pelvic organs, including the bladder. "If we don’t have a healthy pelvic floor, meaning those muscles are able to open and contract and release, that can lead to a lot of [gynecological] issues. That can happen from wearing a corset, or a waist trainer, for too long.”

Bhatia also notes that, while corsets can give the illusion of a smaller waist or an hourglass figure, they cannot lead to weight loss or permanently change the shape of one’s body.

If you're going to wear one, “make sure it's not super-tight to the point that you can't breathe,” she says. “You should be able to breathe. You should be able to sit and stand comfortably. Make sure that the fabric of the corset is breathable, that it's not super, super stiff, and then limit it to four to six hours. I would not wear it continuously for longer than that amount of time.”

This article was originally published on April 13, 2022, and has been updated.