Women’s fashion has long elicited controversy at every twist and turn of the trend, but no article of clothing has been celebrated and reviled quite like the traditional corset.
Today, popular opinion views the lace-up design as restrictive both literally and figuratively, with the rigid design coming to symbolize the social repression of the 18th to 19th century American woman.
Others have fetishized the garment as the ultimate in seduction wear. It’s not uncommon to see satin and bow-bedecked versions selling alongside massage oil and teddies (I’m not talking Paddington Bear) at adult lingerie stores.
So when "Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present and Myself" (Skyhorse Publishing: November 2013) landed on my desk, I was intrigued by the writer’s claim that wearing a corset was such a positive, body-loving—if not even feminist— move on her part.
At the beginning, author Sarah Chrisman is as dubious as anyone else about corsets. Having received one from her well-intentioned husband as a gift, she puts aside her initial reluctance to wear what she thinks is an uncomfortable and perhaps even subversive garment to give it just one polite try—and is shocked when she enjoys it.
Not only does she lose two sizes in the waist immediately upon lacing up, but an attractive hourglass takes form on her self-described fuller figure. The 30-something says she instantly feels more sensual and striking in the corset than she ever has in contemporary clothing, because, in her words, “I’m not fit like a 12-year-old boy.”
As we journey with the author on her adventure with Victorian wear, the well-researched Chrisman addresses what she says are safety myths surrounding corsetry from the get-go, like the storied broken ribs and moved organs she claims have no scientific basis. She also explains why the waist is the one area of the human body that’s so easily, and safely, moldable. (Try wearing a corset on your thighs. No matter how tightly one laces, sadly nothing gives.)
On the plus side, Chrisman finds the supportive corset back straightens her posture like a board; in fact, current orthopedic garments for back pain look strikingly identical in shape. She says that breasts are supported from below to hold the bosom up and shoulders back in the “proud” posture that was so valued by the Victorian era—a far cry, she adds, from today’s uncomfortable bras that slump shoulders down and pull the body forward, often leaving painful grooves on the tops of shoulders and leading some of us to celebrate a “braless day” as its own luxurious entity.
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