Note: This post tackled more topics than I initially intended, but they all are related.
Over the years, I’ve met many people who want to wear regency, but fear it’ll make them look “fat” or “fatter than [they are]”, quotes that are sad because they’re ashamed of their bodies. But since someone who knows fabrics and design well enough, as I do thanks partly to experience as a much, much larger person, can alter the visual proportions of the body, regency can actually be a great tool to help someone start to like their bodies. Unfortunately, Bridgerton…let’s swing back around to that.
Topics like this can be hard to tackle since it’s so easy to unintentionally seem to be shaming one group for the sake of another. What’s not fashionable in a body now could be what’s fashionable in a few decades, and what’s fashionable now may be what no one wants later. No body is a bad body. In the 1920’s, flat chests and straight figures were desired and women who had hips or busts were shamed, and by the 1950’s, tiny waists with bullet-boobs were all the rage and women who didn’t were shamed. There’ve been times when being plumper was desired (remember how Anne Shirley envied people with enough on them to have dimples in their elbows, and thinness was picked on?) since it meant having the money to eat enough, and there’ve been times when being slimmer was desired since it meant having the money to eat healthy, something which tends to cost more to do (and that I think should be a crime against humanity–fresh produce and such shouldn’t cost so much more than salt-heavy canned stuff). And I myself have been all over the spectrum size-wise. I was once 400 pounds, and as an adult, got down to 109 pounds…when fully dressed. That actually wasn’t good for me. I now am between 127 and 132 most days. Whatever body you have, remember that there was once a time when that was the body everybody wanted, and that’s the body that everyone will want again. We’re all ahead of our time in some ways, and regardless, no one should ever, EVER be made to feel ashamed. (And yes, I’m saying “made” since it’s not a choice when society rags on and calls you wrong, and saying “it’s a choice” is just a way to relieve bullies and judgmental jerks from the way their words hurt other. No one ever feels ashamed for having the things that aren’t insulted. Shame is a response to society being cruel, and for that, it’s society that should feel shame.)
Body-shaming is AWFUL, and no one should ever be made to feel ashamed for the bodies they have. And if you want to say “But saying no one should be ashamed endorses unhealthy lifestyles,” you can get off my blog and page right now. (You can also get off my blog and page if you have a problem with the racial diversity in the show, as some people have had–this show isn’t focused on real events.) Pre-lockdowns, I was a daily gym rat, but won’t endorse that to people who aren’t interested. Whatever someone enjoys doing is what I’ll endorse to them. If someone enjoys going to the gym all the time and eating paleo, awesome. Do that more (well, lockdown-dependent). If someone prefers to eat lots of cakes all the time while watching their favorite cooking shows, awesome. Someone who does the first can still be larger, and someone who does the latter can still be very thin. Kinda funny how someone being bigger for whatever reason is seen as something to shame people over because it’s an “unhealthy lifestyle,” but skydiving has no risks? Getting into a car has no risks? People have literally died from e.coli in healthy, healthy spinach. According to Harvard, 5% of heart attacks are related to exercise, which they say is “only 5%,” to which I sarcastically say, “Oh really? Is that all”?” Everything comes with some sort of risk, even the gym and other things typically seek as “healthy”, and whatever someone decides for their own bodies, they shouldn’t be shamed for or be made to feel ashamed for the bodies they have. And keep in mind that, for many people, it’s not a choice since medical issues do exist that take people to both extremes, and anyway, it’s never your business to ask. So if you want to try that crap about how shaming gets people healthier, you can take your wrong opinion and shove it where the sun don’t shine.
That said, I’ve watched many reviews of this show by YouTubers glad to see a plus-sized woman in the show, but dismayed that her clothing was made in ways that made her look plumper. Again that’s not inherently bad, but it can feed into the belief that you have to be thin to be pretty or thin to look good in regency stuff. Nicola Coughlan herself arguably isn’t even plus-sized, but her fashions in the show do make her look a good deal bigger. I don’t think this was the costume designer being clueless, as many YouTubers have been speculating. In the books (yes, this is based on a Julia Quinn series), Penelope’s mother picks on her for her size, and they did aim for that here, though a lot of viewers missed most of it, going by YouTube comments. It would be very easy to make Penelope look slimmer with a waistline just below the bust, at the most common, i.e. proper, placement and fabric gathered more in the back.
But the character is a bigger girl, and so, by placing that waistline right across the fullest part of her bust, Nicola appears to be larger. I think they decided to take a non-plus actress and make her appear plus-sized, though a better option would have been to cast a plus-sized woman in the first place, which is what I wish the YouTubers I’ve watched had focused on instead. There are already so few chances for plus-sized women in acting as it is, at least in things where size isn’t going to be the butt-end of the jokes. This is an opportunity that could have gone to someone who already just plain doesn’t have many opportunities otherwise. I know the character loses weight as part of her happily-ever-after later in the book series, but that could have been nixed and her being happy at the size she was.
Another of my concerns is that people who want to participate in regency fashion will see Nicola, see her as Penelope looking larger than she is, and think that they can’t wear it, that they’d feel “fat” or “fatter than [they are]” (which is sad that anyone should feel is inherently bad), and feel that they can’t participate without being embarrassed. The reality is that anyone can feel good in regency is it’s made to their bodies and with an understanding of their goals and how to achieve those goals. And this is a fantastic style to adapt to modern wear. When I was younger, we called this style “babydoll.” (And anyone can feel good when society doesn’t shame the hell out of them, and there’s a lot of latent fat-shaming of Penelope through people being disappointed that she looks bigger than she is.)
I’m also concerned that so much focus is on how the cuts of her costumes affected her visual size instead of her acting. She’s absolutely charming and adorable and I just love her. She easily could have been one of the sisters with a larger actress cast as Penelope, and she’d have stolen the show for how true precious she is instead of being overshadowed by talk of how “they made her look fat,” which, again, is feeding into body-shaming and excusing the casting director for avoiding casting an actual plus-sized person in a rare role that is specifically a plus-sized character. I will credit the writers for not making the character’s larger size into a big point, and that they instead kept it small enough that her mother’s nitpicking was easy to forget, or even to miss altogether. But in that case, they could have put her waistlines where they usually would have been, if they were going to be so set on not casting a plus-sized actress, so that there wouldn’t have been talk about how she looks “frumpy” or regency makes her “look fat,” so that we could just watch her be adorable.
I think they had good intentions, but ultimately missed the mark.
I’m very worried that this is all going to feed into talk about how “they made her look fat” and make people feel more ashamed, when the talk should be about why a plump actress wasn’t cast in the first place, given the lack of roles already for plus-sized women. I’m worried that, rather than feel they can be included and feel good in this stuff, larger ladies will feel embarrassed and like pretty things will make them look bigger when so many want to be smaller (don’t start in on how these people, these human beings with feelings, “should be eating healthy and going to gyms”–healthy food takes money a lot of people don’t have, and gyms are still closed in many places right now, and they also take money, and some people do both and are still larger, and you have no right to know someone else’s potential medical situations–if you’re not asked, then keep it to yourself).
Regency IS a style that works on everybody due to its versatility. I’m defining “working” to mean it’s a style that work with anyone’s appearance goals and make them feel good. The fantastic thing about it is, if you know your stuff well enough, as I do, then you can make someone look slimmer, or you could make someone look like their figure is more straight, or you could make someone look fuller (some people want that, stop with the judging). You can play up a belly (whether that’s pregnancy or someone just plain has one), or you can conceal one. Whatever your aim is, it can be done with regency. Just make sure you go with someone who actually knows how it works in all directions.
No one looks inherently bad in regency. In my view, the thing that makes anyone look bad in anything is when they’ve been shamed into visible discomfort or embarrassment, feelings that usually stem from society telling them they’re wrong, their bodies are wrong, they shouldn’t be wearing that style because it’s for younger people or older people, that they’re too big or too small…. The ones who really look inherently bad are society for being judgmental jerks. When someone can feel beautiful and confident, no matter what they wear, that confidence will show through, and that is beauty. Regency is a fashion style that can help anyone with their goals, and make anyone feel as beautiful as they already naturally are, and plus-sized actresses belong in acting too.