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.
Wearing a corset doesn’t prevent Chrisman from the kind of active life Victorians enjoyed; she eschews a car (and even a driver’s license) to instead bike wherever she needs to go, and enjoys long strolls in the town where she routinely turns heads in and resides, having now embraced full Victorian wear from dramatic Edwardian hats to sweepingly full skirts with petticoats and kitten heel boots. (She makes many of her own pieces so that they stay authentic to the original fabric and cuts used by Victorians, and don’t resemble the polyester costume copies that one may see in a Halloween shop.)
For those looking to try a traditional corset, Chrisman advises going no more than 2 inches smaller than your starting waist measurement, and buying one that is marketed as a “tight-lacing corset,” which simply means that the design will support full-time wear and posture, and is not intended as a flimsier costume or boudoir-only wear; it’s not necessary to lace them uncomfortably tight in spite of the name. “Corsets are ultimately about support, foundation and structure, not simply about waist reduction,” she instructs.
Also be aware that any elasticized garment like Spanx, girdles and bustiers are not the same thing. “They won’t provide the same support as a structured corset any more than a trampoline will hold up a person the same way a floor would,” she adds.So why did corsets go out of style? Contrary to popular belief that the suffragettes kicked them out as they emancipated women with the right to vote in the 1920s, it’s not so, says Chrisman. In fact, if you Google Susan B. Anthony images, you’ll see the unmistakable outline of a corset underneath the legendary suffragette’s dress. Chrisman instead attributes the demise in great part to Coco Chanel, who panned the corset in favor of vertical designs that sat better on a boyishly gamine body. And as with all things fashionable, trends always cycle in and out.
The supposedly liberated woman of today often pines for one aspect of our great-grandmothers’ era, says Chrisman—a time when naturally full hips and a fleshy flush of health were revered, and the waist was considered the most erogenous zone of all.Might the corseted Victorian woman have been free in ways that the modern woman will never be?
Generations ago, posture was considered next to Godliness for a literal reason. “The very phrase ‘upright citizen’ comes down to us from the Victorians because of the connection they saw between posture and decent behavior,” explains Chrisman.
Chrisman claims that the marked difference in her stature immediately changed how the outside world perceived and interacted with her. “My entire life I considered myself hopelessly clumsy, yet after I started wearing a corset, strangers began asking if I was a professional ballerina!” she recounts. “I was no longer slouching, my chin naturally came up, and I held my head higher—in an interesting connection of physiology and psychology, this not only made me feel personally more empowered, but also communicated a more alpha mentality to those around me,” she adds.
It’s interesting to note that Chrisman’s husband also takes to dressing in vintage Victorian wear with his wife. In a time when we often assume that only women bore all the high demands of fashion, it turns out that men had to meet discerning standards, too. They were also expected to hold perfect posture underneath cumbersome layers like suspenders, a waistcoat, a fussy collar (which had to be starched) that buttoned into the back of the shirt, and a large pocket watch that required daily winding and was weighted with heavy fobs and chains. “If a corset-wearer grows weary of holding herself erect, it’s possible to lean into the corset and be held up, like leaning into a hug,” says Chrisman. “Men, however, had no such support to lean on; the entire pressure of maintaining an upright bearing was on themselves alone.”
The Victorian’s infatuation with persnickety garments basically required assistance for both genders with daily dressing. This aspect held some unexpected charm for Chrisman. “The way in which helping each other with our clothing brought us closer together and deepened our relationship was one of the sweetest elements of the experience—it’s like an intimate form of team-building exercise,” says Chrisman, alluding to a time when dressing routines helped distinguish and establish relationships between Victorians.
As with every give, there’s usually a take. And Chrisman says the one thing she can’t do while wearing a corset is put down a big meal like she once enjoyed. Since the stomach can’t bloat with expansion, one feels full, faster. And yet this discovery became a pivotal turning point for Chrisman, who always refused to diet, though still battled the body image fight that so many women, regardless of size, often do.
“One day, I suddenly realized that I didn’t have to worry anymore—that a corset had made me more aware of exactly when I was full, and exactly when I wanted food. It was an incredibly liberating realization, like I had stepped off the tightrope and onto firm ground,” she says, adding that she eats as she pleases and never leaves the table hungry, but with such portion control built in she doesn’t have to think about it.