Looking to bygone eras for sartorial inspiration is nothing new. Flared jeans, mini skirts, hammer pants, capri pants, acid wash, crop tops, jellies – we’ve got our ancestors to thank for the good, bad, and offensively ugly trends that still wind up in our wardrobes today. But while many 21st century women have no qualms about introducing lamé leggings back into their lives, there’s one item of clothing that has maintained an air of taboo since it first went out of fashion: The tight-lacing, waist-shrinking, apparently organ-reshuffling undergarment also knows as the corset.
Victoriana connoisseur Sarah A. Chrisman was given such a garment by her husband for her 29th birthday. Her initial reaction was shock, but four years later, Chrisman (who readily admits she’d rather live in 1889 than 2013) has gone on to wear corsets almost 24/7. She’s now written a memoir documenting her journey from a 32 to 22 inch waist size. Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present, and Myself, describes Chrisman’s experience with making her longtime obsession a lifestyle.
It should be mentioned that Chrisman’s obsession is no reduction of the word. She washes herself with a pitcher and basin, hand-sews all her own clothes, uses oil lamps for lighting, and writes snail mail will quill pens (thought her book comes with a serif font and is available though Amazon.com). But the garment that cemented her 19th century obsession has sparked a heated discussion about the garment that sparks other women’s 21st century intrigue.
Legit Victorian-era corsets obviously don’t come loaded with heath benefits. You only have to look at one to wonder “where does it go?” and in reference to your large intestine rather than the cream cheese bagel you just ate for breakfast. The health detriments of corsets have been well documented, and were one of the main reasons for the corset falling out of fashion. The other reason was the arrival of feminism, when it was decided that the idea of women mushing their internal organs into a boned undergarment did not mesh with women’s lib. Au contraire, ma soeur! Google ‘corsetry patriarchy’ for approximately 25 million reasons why corsets reinforce gender stereotypes.
And then enter Fashion with a capital F. Fashion has always been drawn to the taboo, so what better garment to reinterpret than one branded ‘anti-feminist’ and medically proven to worsen your health? While Christian Dior’s tightlaced ‘New Look’ took corsetry down the romantic route, other designers loosened the laces and made the garment a symbol of womanly empowerment and sexual liberation. The costumes Jean Paul Gaultier created for Madonna’s Blond Ambition tour in 1990 included that now-iconic belted bustier with conical brad, and punk queen Vivienne Westwood used the corset as a key body-shaping element along with elevated shoes and crinoline. Fast-forward to the age of Miley Cyrus and underwear as outerwear, and corsets are definitely still a thing. See Scarlett Johansson on this month’s Vogue Mexico, on Malgosia Bela in La Perla’s Spring 2014 campaign, and on front-row fixture Dita Von Teese on the regular. Von Teese’s average on-stage waist size is 19 inches, though she laced down to 16 with a fearsome lingerie dictator she calls an “official corset trainer” (no word on whether he makes her do burpees).
Other Victoriana enthusiasts — the ones who write about their passion rather than live it out in starchy crinolines and crotch-slit pantalettes — argue that corsets have always been about empowerment. In a post titled ‘Wasp Waists and Feminist Debates,’ blogger Alyssa makes the anti-anti-corsetry argument that stigmatization of lacing actually repressed a woman’s right to control her own body and sexuality. This had a lot to do with a Victorian woman’s utmost duty to bear and raise children, the high maternal mortality rate, and the growing desire to circumvent their gender roles rather than reinforce them. On a slightly related note, Chrisman prefers wearing pantalettes over panties as they make it easy to piss on trees while camping — take that, traditional gender stereotypes.
Then there’s the argument that they improve your posture. As people who sit at a desk for 50+ hours a week, we’re always looking for ways to avoid becoming The Hunchbacks of Abrams Media – though we’d preferably still have the option of indulging in Bagel Wednesday.
Would you ever consider wearing a bona fide boned corset? How ’bout them breezy-crotch pantalettes? Or do you find them to be even more offensive than JNCO jeans?
this is some kind of spaceship or something.