Wondering why we scream about metal grommets in historical costume movies and TV shows? Here’s the dish, and I’m paraphrasing from my own article Why Metal Grommets Are the Visible Panty Lines of Historical Costuming.
In the era before zippers and velcro, garments had to be closed up somehow, and people tend to think all clothing — especially women’s clothes — laced up the front or the back. This is not exactly true, but that’s another article. For garments that do lace up, however, the costumer needs to reinforce the lacing holes so they don’t wear out. Fair enough.
The modern way to do this is to use the little metal things from the fabric store, either small one-part, punch-in eyelets or the bigger two-part grommets. The costumer inserts them in the front of a medieval fitted dress or the back of an 19th-century ballgown, laces it tight with ribbons, and it’s good to go.
Except metal eyelets and grommets were not used in outerwear in historical periods before the 20th century. Grommets were intended for underwear and shoes only.
How Were Clothes Really Laced Up?
Throughout most of history, laced garments had hand-worked eyelets. Small, simple holes covered over in something like a buttonhole stitch. They weren’t always the prettiest things either, but they were functional. Sometimes, a metal ring (like a jump ring used in jewelry) was bound underneath the stitches to make it even stronger. But plain old stitching can reinforce the holes quite well for everyday use. The eyelets work well because you aren’t tearing as many fibers as you would with a grommet (or eyelet) that requires punching a large hole in the fabric.
When metal grommets were first introduced, they were used on corsets in the 19th century (in 1828, according to Norah Waugh in Corsets and Crinolines). Because metal could take heavy lacing stresses, this helped corsetry create a distinctly hourglass figure in women that became so popular in the Victorian era. Corsets and stays prior to this period didn’t suck in the waistline; instead, the boned stays and even boned bodices smoothed the waistline and supported the bust, which was easy enough to do with a hand-sewn eyelets up the back, which were not pulled terribly tight.
In addition to corsets (which were were strictly underwear or cabaret garb until the 1980s), metal grommets were also commonly used in boots and shoes in the 19th century and early 20th century. So we would hardly ever see metal grommets or eyelets on clothes, unless we happened to look down and very closely.
Even the language indicates the relative modernity of grommets. The Online Etymology Dictionary (which cites the Oxford English Dictionary, among other sources) explains that the word “grommet” dates to the 1620s with a meaning of “ring or wreath of rope” and the meaning of “metal eyelet” wasn’t recorded until 1769. “Eyelet” itself means simply a “small hole” and dates to the 14th century.
What About Metal Rings in Medieval Clothes?
Metal lacing rings were sometimes used in the medieval and renaissance eras, but these are not the same as grommets or eyelets. If you look carefully at period imagery, you’ll find that these metal rings are not punched through the garment fabric — they’re attached on top / underneath / at the edge of the fabric, and the lacing is woven through the rings. The “rings” may also be metal hook-and-eye closures, and the hook part is not completely visible. Our friend Kimiko Small has more details on her website.
All of these are quite different than the modern metal “grommet” technology, plus they are less common than the simple sewn eyelet, which was the easiest and most widely available technology.
Why Do Metal Grommets Matter?
Lacing up pre-20th-century historical costumes with metal grommets in movies and TV shows is like having visible panty lines — at the very least, it’s a little tacky, and at the worst, it’s totally inaccurate. Obviously, this is not the end of the world, and no-one is going to get an irretrievably wrong idea about history or even historical clothing because of it.
Movies and TV shows with visible metal grommets in the gowns are a sign that the production is probably using some rental costumes. Also, the production may be on a tight budget and not have time for hand-work in the costume shop (though, I’ll say, I’m a really slow hand-sewer, and I can bang out handmade eyelets; also, passable sewn eyelets can be made on many types of sewing machine).
Metal grommets and other costuming shortcuts can hint at a lack of time / budget / understanding / focus in the movie or TV show. Added together with a lot of modern fabric, unstyled hair, etc., etc., metal grommets say “historical accuracy is not a priority here at all.” Which, yeah, isn’t always a big deal in, say, a fantasy like Galavant, but it can bum us out when we’re watching something that purports to tell a big historical tale.
Lastly, they’re ugly. Man, who wants to look at those things, especially in a front-lacing gown? I’m talking to you, Borgias: Faith and Fear.