Whalebone cages? What TV shows like ‘Bridgerton’ and ‘Queen Charlotte’ get wrong about corsets
The hotly anticipated prequel to the popular Bridgerton series, Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, has just been released on Netflix. The Bridgerton writers have once again taken aim at the corset in the opening sequence of the first episode.
Sitting uncomfortably in a carriage on her way to London to meet King George III, Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz laments that her underpinnings (stays – the 18th-century term for corset – and hoop petticoat) are not only uncomfortable but made of “the bones of whales”. These “whalebones”, she claims, are “delicate” and “sharp” and may stab her if she makes a wrong move.
While it is true that whales died to provide one key material used in the manufacture of women’s underpinnings from the 16th through to 20th centuries, the real Princess and then Queen Charlotte, who had a keen interest in the natural world, would have understood whalebone is not actually delicate bone.
What is Whalebone?
Whalebone is the colloquial English term for a material known as baleen. Baleen is not bone. Rather, it is the name given to long hairy plates made of keratin – the same substance that makes hair, fingernails and horn – in the mouth of various species of baleen whales.
Baleen allows the whale to feed, as it traps small sea creatures such as…