The Alienist Chafes


Let’s get this out of the way. The Alienist (2018), a new series set in 1890s New York, has some snarkworthy corset-chafing scenes in the first episode. So much so that the Internet practically lit up, calling out for Frock Flicks the minute the show hit TBS on basic cable here in the states, with people messaging and tagging us on social media, saying “OMG DID YOU SEE THAT?!?!”

We actually hadn’t seen it at the time because none of us tends to watch live TV as it happens (I’m the only one who actually has terrestrial TV, and I still TiVo everything; the other two only have streaming shows). But, as a rule, yes, we are aware of upcoming TV shows and movies — y’all might have noticed that The Alienist had been on our Upcoming Movies list for months (it’s not there now because we only list things until their premiere dates). We would get around to it when our schedules allowed, don’t you worry.

I see you shiver with antici...

OK, I now have watched the first few episodes of The Alienist, and I’m totally underwhelmed. As a show, anyway. It’s doing that ‘gritty historical’ thing which is trendy these days, a la Peaky Blinders and Taboo. It’s obviously a reaction against ‘overly pretty’ historical dramas, and it’s probably going for a male audience. Fine, whatever. Much as a planned ITV remake of Pride and Prejudice aims “to tease out the story’s ‘darker tones” and make it less “bonnet-y than people assume,” looking at historical serial killers seems to be a popular way to make costume dramas seem like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos. MEH, I say.

Let’s focus on the snark then, shall we?

Get on with it

The first corset-chafing is at a house of ill repute, where newspaper illustrator John Moore is getting his rocks off. I was willing to excuse this one with low-level snark, thinking it was just an unnamed-character prostitue and her lack of chemise was done to play into 21st-century ideas of what was sexy. It’s wrong, it’s dumb, but it happens all the time, and I’d usually just file it away for a basic Snark Week meme.

The Alienist (2018)

1890s prostitute lacking a historically accurate chemise. Ho-hum.

The Alienist (2018)

John unlaces the whore’s corset, because modern audiences find it sexy (despite the ouch-iness of her not wearing some kind of chemise/smock). Whatev.

Later in the episode is when we get into real WTFrock territory. Dakota Fanning’s character, Sara Howard, has been introduced as the first woman ever working at the New York City police department. Her job appears to be secretary to the police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt. She’s kind of obnoxious about her trail-blazing role in a very modern fashion, making waves with the men of the department and anyone else around, saying things like, ‘oh, do you want me to use my feminine wiles to get that done?’ It strikes me as anachronistic feminism instead of historical feminism, which we’ve ranted about endlessly.

Likewise, this bad costume episode is also a bit of anachronistic BS to emphasize “it was so horrible back then, let’s pat ourselves on the back about how much better it is today for the ladies, right???” Especially since it’s prefaced with this conversation…

We follow Sara (Miss Howard, if you’re nasty) back home, where she has a solitary dinner, and then her maid helps her undress, saying:

Sara: I can’t decide whether they abhor our shape or crave another.

Maid: They believe us to be delicate creatures, miss.

Sara: Then to hell with them.

OH FFS. Who’s writing this crap? Is it from the novel the TV show is based on? Because it’s as clunky and pandering as these visuals.

The Alienist (2018)

Sara is not wearing a chemise / smock, even though she’s previously been shown wearing a perfectly proper 1890s outfit.

The Alienist (2018)

There’s a sound effect of the corset being ripped off that’s something like a zipper crossed with that squelchy sound of flesh sticking to vinyl on a hot day. Ew.

The Alienist (2018)

And nevermind her maid wouldn’t need to unlace the corset entirely from the back — just loosen it a bit, otherwise, a lady can remove it with the front busk.

This scene unnecessarily reinforces the trope of corsets as torture devices, with an added layer of misogyny. Which is entirely reductive and modern. You can have a woman of the 1890s who is defying the constrictions of her time without her a) spouting a bunch of cliches from a 1970s women’s lib poster and b) whining about historical clothing that’s she’s wearing incorrectly. Can’t we do better?

The best revenge is to do better

The rest of The Alienist does have better costumes, at least, if it the dialog isn’t stellar. The plot follows criminal psychologist, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (the eponymous alienist) and his team as they try to figure out who killed a number of boy prostitutes. It’s based on a novel of the same name. No word yet if it will be renewed for a second season. If you’re into historical serial killers, maybe this is for you, if the random modernisms don’t bug you as much as they bug me.


 Are you watching The Alienist?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

57 Responses

  1. mmcquown

    I want John Moore’s hat! And speaking of which … we see the maidservant going outside without one, the alienist constantly goes out without his, and even Sara seems on occasion to forget hers.

  2. Kaye Dacus

    I just watched the first episode yesterday—and as soon as I saw the squelchy corset scene, my only thought was: I hope Frock Flicks snarks this!

  3. Lauren Rachel

    Was watching this with my mom, a non historical costumer, and she just turned, looked at me, and asked, “She’s stupid, right? Isn’t she missing that comfy pajama dress thing?”
    I love when even my mom knows something’s wrong.

  4. Richard Harper

    I haven’t seen the show, but I read the novel when it was new and loved it. I don’t remember such shitty, pandering dialogue, though. And I am completely over that chemise-free bullshit.

    • Alys Mackyntoich

      I re-read the novel in anticipation of the series, and I can assure you there is none of this fake feminism, no corset bullshit. Sara Howard was appropriately feminist for what was feminist in the 1890s.

      Having loved the book, I’m deeply disappointed in the series. They’ve made changes that don’t improve the story and left out things that mattered a lot to making these characters real.

      • Deb

        Right?! While I love the set, props, and men’s costumes, the characters dialog makes them into less than real people — just caricatures from the late 1890s AS SEEN FROM TODAY. I despise revionist history. Given Caleb Carr’s long and impressive career as an historian, I was appalled to see him listed as a consultant. Very surprised he’s loaning his name to this slaughtering of his own novel.

        So far, this series is much more centered on individual characters motivations, instead of trying to discover the killer’s motivations, which hopefully will lead to his capture. In the book, each person’s idiosyncrasies are hinted at, rather than boldly portrayed. We all know it’s almost impossible to look into one’s own shadow; yet the book’s usually mild-mannered (if intense), gentlemanly Dr. Laszlo Kreizler is replaced on screen by a Kreizler who rudely tackles each of his colleagues personal problems, and insists they acknowledge their foibles and flaws. These people are supposed to be his friends, not his patients! The whole thing feels contrived and forced.

        The worst thing (outside of corset abuse and Sara Howard’s odd costumes) is that I don’t care about ANY of these people, not even the poor murdered boy prostitutes. That’s the greatest shame of all.

  5. Sara

    I liked Peaky Blinders. I didn’t like this show. I gave up after first episode. It was eye roll inducing gritty

    • Trystan L. Bass

      I liked Peaky Blinders better bec. of the overall quality — better dialog, better actors, more of a sense of style. I only watched about a season & a half bec. Peaky still isn’t my cup of tea, but it wasn’t gritty for gritty’s sake, which The Alienist appears to be.

      • Nzie

        “Gritty for gritty’s sake” is so lame. Obviously some things are dark and seedy by nature… I’m not expecting child prostitution to be light. But I think some of these producers think grit can do all the heavy lifting for them, and it just can’t. There is no amount of grit that means you can phone in the dialogue. I got the impression that’s what this show would be, so I didn’t prioritize watching it. Reading your review, I’ll save my time and consider reading the book.

  6. Elyse

    When I saw the ads for the show and that it was based on a book, I went and got the book from the library. Still haven’t seen the show (alas, no cable), but no, the dialogue is not quite that clunky in the book. In fact, Sara is relatively nuanced when you consider that the entire book is from Moore’s perspective. And while kind of a Bro in the book, he actively tries not to be.

    Side note – when you snark, could you discuss the proportions of the clothing? The few images I’ve seen look like Dakota Fanning is dressing up in an adult’s clothing. Is that just weird costuming or were the proportions for clothing that odd in the 1890’s?

    • Trystan L. Bass

      I noticed the proportions, but couldn’t get any full-length screencaps in good lighting (the show is kind of dark, & even lightening up the images wasn’t helping, so I gave up!). I think Dakota Fanning is very petite & maybe whoever fitted her didn’t have enough time (skill?) to get the proportions to work. 1890s can have weird, exaggerated shapes that will overwhelm small frames without careful tailoring/fitting, however, they didn’t have to use those particular styles on her :-/

    • Colleen

      For a very short window, say 1893-1897 or so, proportions really were that odd. The costume designer said in an interview he had to make many more costumes than he had planned because there wasn’t existing rental stock for what was essentially a fad.

      While Sara is not a fashion forward character, she is from a very wealthy background so she would have had access to the latest fashion. I did like the menswear bent of her stuff, with faux vests and under jackets and that idea.

      • Trystan L. Bass

        It appears that the later episodes get more menswear-y & less exaggerated, so Fanning looks better fitted. But I just can’t stick with this show!

  7. Sarah Faltesek

    So like, do people think that Victorian women just had raw, bloody nipples all day every day?

    • picasso Manu

      Weeeell… Yes. After all, it IS a “torture device”, don’t you know. Because Silly Victorian woman is silly. Not like us, who are WAAAY better in our flesh corsets and our 12 inches stilettos on bare feet, which don’t hurt at all, no siree!

  8. B

    I was very excited to see this show, it looked like an interesting premise and the potential for some great costumes. Then I noped the hell out about half way through the first episode. Very disappointed!

  9. Carmen Beaudry

    The book was very good, and fairly accurate. I’m sorry to hear that they’ve screwed up so badly in the series.

  10. Kersten

    Omigod THANK YOU for mentioning this. The no-chemise thing was driving me batty!

  11. Mary

    It looks like the corsets have hooks in front. Why not just unhook them (easily) instead of depending on someone else to unlace the whole thing?

    • Kersten

      Well that’s the thing, isn’t it? If they were being accurate that’s exactly what Sara Howard would do. :)

  12. Donnalee

    The book was at the least decent way back when. Oh well–bases are covered by other commentors. Thanks for showing us the film/tv seems dopey at best–

  13. Kaye Dacus

    Also—question from a costuming novice . . . isn’t Sarah’s corset way too small for her? Shouldn’t the back meet, or nearly meet, under the laces when it’s fastened?

    • Jennifer

      No, you don’t want the back to meet. It’s called ‘spring’ and gives the spine room to move. It’s pretty painful if it does meet in the back. You want at least a 2 incn gap, but no more than 3 or so.

  14. Kathy

    I haven’t read the book. Like the plot premise and there are some really cool touches. But, all in all, the writing is entirely too self-aware. Doesn’t feel organic to the era or characters.

  15. Brandy Loutherback

    I don’t get cable TV so I don’t get the TNT Channel, All iv’e seen are clips, especially the one where the maid takes Dakota’s corset off! God the no chemise thing annoyed me to no end! Though I was told by a Facebook commenter that you would need more than an undergarment to stop chafing. Your Thoughts on that comment?

    • Jennifer

      Most of the marks I get from my chemise/corset are from my chemise itself. A few are from the seam line that runs down the front of my corset but none are from the bones.

      I have no chafing. The only time I have a problem is when I don’t lace the bottom properly and the underbust loosens and it slides down, but that’s user error. I still don’t get any chafing, it just makes my lower back muscles sore because my petticoats are resting lower on my waist.

      I can wear a corset all day, but try to stuff me in a pair of modern skinny jeans and we have a problem lol.

    • Trystan L. Bass

      A layer between your skin & the corset is enough. Ditto on ‘more marks from the chemise than the corset’ — if you have a big, baggy shirt stuffed into a restrictive garment, the folds of the shirt may get pressed into your skin a little over time. I guess a modern comparison might been tucking jeans into tight boots? IDK.

  16. Martha

    I haven’t seen this yet but was excited as I really enjoyed the books. It doesn’t surprise me another good idea ruined.

  17. Kaite

    I wanted to enjoy it, and I do for the most part, but the no chemise under corset thing kept creeping back into my mind. And sometimes I feel like the chemistry with the main characters isn’t there yet. Honestly, my favorite part is seeing how they delve into younger Roosevelt making all the cops and government officials pissed off! Younger Roosevelt fighting all the corruption and whatnot is some of my favorite history for him!

  18. Queenie


    Sorry for capslocking but every time they do this, I spend hours and hours explaining to clients (I am a corset maker) that no, actually, they don’t hurt and they’re not torture devices.

  19. Queenie

    Her corset looks more 1860s/ 1870s to me, and ‘health corsets’ made of mesh etc were a thing by 1890. But you know, ‘Victorian’ seems to be good enough the very second an outer garment comes off. Because we’re all still wearing 1970s bras to give the correct silhouette under the draped jersey that’s so fashionable in the late 20teens.

    The best selling corset of the 1890s (in the UK at least) was Symington’s ‘The Pretty Housemaid’. 1890s corsets have a lot of cording rather than boning and those bust gores would have been boned. Here’s a handy picture of the Pretty Housemaid

  20. Brandy Loutherback

    This woman said Sara wasn’t chafing, that the bones of the corset left marks on her skin, when the corset’s were tightened to maintain the correct look, that you would need more than an undergarment to protect your skin against it. Your thoughts?

    • Queenie

      This might be complicated!

      In the later Victorian period, you start to see single layered corsets with all the bone casings on the outside. That, combined with a chemise, minimises any marking on the skin. This corset seems to have welted or felled seams with the boning inserted into the channel that creates, which has mixed results for miniminising skin marking – it has some of the advantages of internal boning, in that internal boning does a better job of reducing the waist and changing the silhouette of the body from a slightly square oval to a more slender-appearing round, and some of the benefits of external boning, in that it marks the body less, although it requires a cover so the boning isn’t seen through outer garments.

      In other words, I would expect to see that level of marking on the body if you were looking at a woman who chose an extreme silhouette, which most women did not, if the outer garments were particularly heavy, as the main job of a corset is to distribute their weight around the body, and if it were internally boned in applied channels.

      It is much more common in the lower classes, who purchased used or cheaply manufactured corsets and were at the vagaries of company sizing, and could not afford to have their dressmaker run up a corset.

      But a middle to upper middle class woman, who can afford a maid? Nope. The only circumstances in which I would expect her to have marks from a corset would be if she was wearing a particularly heavy gown (court, high status social occasions), she was active in the marriage market (thus requiring to show off a fashionable silhouette) and she tried to achieve it by tightening a corset beyond it’s capacity, i.e. taking up the 2″ gap at the back which allows the spine to move.

  21. Susan Pola Staples

    False bc if your corset fit properly it wouldn’t chafe and you’d be wearing a chemise under it.

    I really enjoyed the book when I read it years ago and also was looking forward to seeing it. It’s such a meh fashion-wise bc of no corset chemises and Sarah’s garmet0 not fitting although the dinner dress looked okay but for the Doucet off the shoulder aspect (look at photos of his 1898-1902 iridescent gown at Met)

    I’ll probably slug thru it to see if it improves

  22. Kersten

    A note on the grittiness: I read a review which pointed out that ten or fifteen years ago this show would have been more revolutionary, but we’ve seen examples of shows that are both more polished and more graphic since then. So this show doesn’t achieve either full grit and therefore isn’t as shocking or intense as it could be, or the stylish period drama of say, the Rupert Everett miniseries of Sherlock Holmes. I don’t find it satisfying at all and I think that’s why. It’s just…middling, where it could be great based on the material.

    Also, am I the only person who thinks that although Sara Howard would certainly experience sexism, no man would dare to, for example, show her his penis (as happens in the first episode) because she’s a freaking LADY who is wealthy and works for his boss? Reeks of modern sexism/feminist response rather than period accurate sexism. Victorian MEN would be shocked. Argh.

    • Kendra

      WUT? I haven’t watched this, but yes, 100%, no 19th c man would flash anyone he didn’t consider a prostitute.

      • Kersten

        It happens because the one cop is pissing in a pail in the corner of the room at the station, which also strikes me as, like, they’ve had outhouses and latrines for like, ever at this point so even that isn’t accurate? This show is so lazy about its history in ways which betray lazy storytelling over and over again (I’m a screenwriter, I should know) which is a shame because the books, I gather, are very accurate and much more compelling. Aaaaaaagggghhhh I say.

    • Alys Mackyntoich

      Yes. If this had been made in 1994, it would have been amazing.

      And I agree 100% about the portrayal of sexism going way too far over the top. Sara’s experiences in the book were enough, they didn’t have to be turned up to 11.

  23. Melponeme_k

    This show has nothing to do with the book it is based upon. Which is a shame because the book was so wonderful. I just watch it out of boredom and prefer to think of it as “NOT Alienist, Something else” show.

    The costumes look too costumey to me. No one looks as if they have lived inside them. It is also trying too hard to hook in all the old Penny Dreadful fans.

  24. Catherine_N

    I thought of you guys immediately when I saw the corsets with no chemises! And I believe what Elyse is referring to, is the HUGE puffed sleeves they had in the mid-1890’s. They look gigantic on little Dakota Fanning, but I think that was the look back then. Care to elaborate on these sleeve monstrosities, Trystan?

  25. M.E. Lawrence

    I felt that way about the book–kept reading for the occasional good set piece and to see how it would end, but it’s a bit turgid, and Sara’s character is very underwritten and tokenish. I wish Fanning would/could have gone head-to-head with the writer and director if necessary, and fought to make Sara a woman of her time.

  26. Laura

    Yes! I have only seen the previews for this, I immediately thought of this website when I saw the corset scene. Trying to explain to my mother why I was laughing was interesting. Disappointing to hear about the show and all in all is crud, as the rest of the costumes to my semi educated eye looked OK.

  27. Hawke

    [deep sigh] Can’t we just get ONE THING in the 1890s that’s nice? From what I’ve seen of the non-underwear costumes they look decent though, so I might check it out and see if it’s nice enough to suffer through the dialogue for…

  28. BDD

    I kept trying to get a closer look at the pin Sarah’s wearing. I think it’s a micromosiac. My mum collects them and I spent my childhood digging in flea markets. But yes, the corset scene was awful.

  29. anniebuck

    I like the show, but as alwaayyyyyssss, it seems, these days, they have to try to put a modern thought process on the characters. Like, look how more advanced our heroes are than all these backward cretins. It’s exhausting. Having said that, I really appreciate the grammar and vocab, in particular Luke Evans’ accent. It’s so crisp, and he has a great old New York flair. And he ain’t hard to look at, neither.

    • Ms. Heather Ripley

      I’m in the middle of season one and I tend to agree, that corset seen was a red flag for me. And anniebuck, thanks for pointing out that some of the slang of the era is laced throughout and kind of fun to catch. I read the book long ago and I found the parts about Teddy Roosevelt to be the most interesting. It’s not great, and not horrible, enough for me to watch during my workout and at least look at some pretty clothes and Luke Evans!

  30. Brandy Loutherback

    Is the woman who plays the prostitute the same actress who plays “Princess Claude” aka Malibu Hooker Barbie?! If it is she’s used to inaccurate modern costuming!

  31. peony67

    I have not seen this -yet- however it was shot here, in Budapest (Hungary) and I’ve been an extra in it a few times… I don’t know the main actors wardrobe, but for the extras there were gorgeous clothes, including quite a few original items (yes, even on extras). However, only shitty chinese corsets… I took my own (as a reenactor I own (made) a couple of them)… and had a not so nice dicussion about how I would not wear it withouth something underneath… the dressers / wardrobe ladies simply had no ideas. On the other hand… those dresses…mmm. It made me want to do some end of the century stuff… Need to figure out how can I stream it.

  32. saffireblu

    I’m gonna be shallow, here- I watched this for Luke Evans… when I saw the first chemise-less scene, I was like FFS! I’m still watching for Luke, & hoping the costume accuracy will improve- but on the bright side… at least the metal grommets are period accurate by this point!