When you’re just starting out in this wonderful world of costuming, you tend to use what’s easy and fast. This is no crime, we’ve all done it, that’s to be expected. If you want to lace up a garment, you need to reinforce the lacing holes so they don’t wear out, and you find some handy little metal ring things at the fabric store, either small one-part, punch-in eyelets or the bigger two-part grommets. You insert them in the front of a renfaire bodice or the back of a Victorian ballgown or maybe the sides of a medieval fitted gown, lace it tight with ribbons, and you’re good to go.
Seems like the perfect solution, right? Well, sure, those metal eyelets and grommets work. But they were not used in outerwear in historical periods before the 20th century. Grommets were intended for underwear and shoes only.
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 pretty well.
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 a lot more stress, this helped corsetry create a distinctly hourglass figure in women. But corsets were strictly underwear (or cabaret garb) until Madonna Louise Ciccione made her “Like a Virgin” fashions trendy in the 1980s. Metal grommets were also commonly used in boots and shoes in the 19th century and early 20th century.
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.
Thus, metal grommets showing on the outside of your pre-20th-century historical costumes are like having visible panty lines — at the very least, it’s a little tacky, and at the worst, it’s totally inaccurate.
Now, you may not care that metal grommets are historically inaccurate. Let the world see that your undies show! And sometimes you’re just in a hurry or you’re making an outfit that isn’t supposed to be super-accurate. OK, fine. I have stuff in my current costume closet with metal grommets showing for exactly those reasons too. But it helps to know the background and history before you disregard the rules.