The costume that Meryl Streep said was "evil, evil"

Authenticity was important to the producers of the 1981 film The French Lieutenant's Woman. A whalebone corset was key.

Role as a 19th-century woman meant the actress had to wear a corset for hours every day

Meryl Streep arrives at the Toronto International Film Festival Tribute Gala in Toronto on Sept. 9, 2019. Hollywood stars Joaquin Phoenix and Streep are the centrepiece of the inaugural TIFF Tribute Gala - a fundraiser that highlights standout creators in the film industry. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Actress Meryl Streep was hardly an unknown in 1981.

At that point, she'd already won an Academy Award for her work alongside Dustin Hoffman in the 1979 divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer. 

And now Streep was the guest of the CBC's Bob McLean on the afternoon talk show McLean at Large on Oct. 8, 1981. She'd had made the cover of Time Magazine and for what McLean described as "an important new film,"

That movie was The French Lieutenant's Woman, and McLean said he'd spoken to Streep "just before" its premiere.  

A heavy wool dress over an 'evil, evil' corset

Meryl Streep promotes The French Lieutenant's Woman

40 years ago
Actress Meryl Streep says having to wear a tight corset and heavy wool dress were just two challenging things about making the film The French Lieutenant's Woman n 1981. Film excerpt copyright by United Artists, 5:42

The program played a segment from The French Lieutenant's Woman, in which Streep starred opposite actor Jeremy Irons. 

Streep played two roles in the film: a fictional 19th-century woman, as well as the actor portraying her in a modern-day film. She would go on to be nominated for another Academy Award for her work in it.

"I wanted to do something out of the ordinary," she told McLean, describing why she'd taken the role. "I wanted to do something out of this century, or science fiction, or something out of Manhattan." 

He asked if Streep, who'd performed on the stage, if she liked the costume she'd worn while playing the 19th-century character in her new film.

"It's more fun in the theatre because you take the corset off after two hours," said Streep.  "In the movies, you wear it for 12, 13 hours."

She described her corset as "iron-clad whalebone."

"The costumes were made just as they were constructed in the late 19th century. They were evil, evil."

What went over the corset wasn't very comfortable, either.

"The dress I wore was about nine yards of green wool," she said. "In the summertime."

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