The Misunderstood Corset
The corset is perhaps one of the most recognized pieces of pre-modern undergarments, weaving itself in and out of women’s wardrobes throughout the centuries, never fully obsolete. Its resistance to the enormous societal changes that allowed women to permanently discard the crinoline and the bustle is an indication of how embedded it is in notions of femininity and womanhood, making it even more curious as to how it has become probably the most controversial item in fashion history.
The corset, in fact, is highly misunderstood. Historians and feminists were quick to explain the corset in the very simple discourses of oppression versus liberation and fashion versus comfort. However, some odd 20 years of research by acclaimed fashion historian Valerie Steele have demonstrated that this paints an extremely limiting picture. Although some women may have felt it this way, that is not to say we can generalize for centuries of women the corset had incredibly powerful and positive connotations of status, youth, beauty, self-discipline (a very profound marker of a civilized person), artistry, respectability, and of course, erotic allure. Although its use began in elite aristocratic circles, it eventually spread to all of society, and just as we have preferences for different kinds of dresses or shoes today, different kinds of women wore different kinds of corsets, hence, had all very varied experiences.
Just to show how modern representations of archaic times can be misleading, all we have to do is compare what we see in illustrations, pop culture, and advertisements that promoted the achievement of the fashionable waist through tight lacing and actual existing corsets (or stays as they were previously called) dating from as far back as the 18th Century that ranged from 24-30 inches, really above the idea and image of Victorian “wasp waists” that we have today. Yes: women did manage to shave off a couple inches in this manner, however just how much they shaved off has been completely exaggerated and fantasized.
Corsets have also been linked to the modern perception of women from the past as being vain, foolish and excessively preoccupied with fashion. However, no one stops to think that adornment and self fashioning of the body began way before capitalism, seasonal wear and the concept of what’s “in”, as well as being something that applied to both genders. For a time, men too wore corsets as part of respectable dress and for posture, beginning from a very young age. Steele aptly argues that by depicting these women as oppressed by fashion, we automatically ignore the multifaceted and profound reasons why women held onto corsets for so many centuries; especially considering that among its heavy opponents were many men of authoritative positions, including highly respected male doctors.
Adding fuel to fire were the many myths that surrounded the origins of the corset, romanticized by fanciful representations and art, which older scholars mistook for actually wearable apparel.
One such myth is that the corset originated from a queen whose extreme vanity led to the adoption of torturous fashion. Books written on the subject in the 1800s that emphasized the fashionable waist of 13 inches achieved by Catherine de Medici (Italian born French queen of the 1500s) with metal corsets – a complete fantasy - were reproduced in advertisements of the early 20th Century that tried to stress how much more humane and comfortable their modern corsets were compared to those ancient ‘torturous devices’. Interestingly, such a practice of proving how modern societies are superior by decredibilising older cultural behaviors and expressions is not an uncommon tactic, and definitely not one limited to fashion.
Imaginations ran wild due to a number of steel corsets usually found to be dating back to about 1580 and 1600. After careful examination, these museum exhibits are believed by scholars to be orthopedic instruments used to correct scoliosis, a spinal deformity (as they are still used today), “when they are not, as is commonly the case, fanciful reproductions”. Drawings and stories from the time resulted in innumerable imitations, just as they did with medieval chastity belts. It can be easy to misinterpret something when time has made us so irreparably estranged from the cultures that produced it.
Corsets were not an instrument created for the oppression of women – even if many believe it to be so. They originated sometime in the first half of the 16th Century when fashion tended towards more tailored clothing intent on perfecting ‘body fit’. The use of hard materials such as whalebone and buckram were not ‘imposed’ on women in order to limit their ability to move and life their lives - they were put in place (quite voluntarily by women themselves) in order to provide a rigid foundation over which to place outer layers, as well as of course to perfect the ideal silhouette. Men too wore restrictive clothing such as stiffened doublets and padded codpieces as part of dress, as such rigid clothing was a way of connoting physical restraint and control of the body, behavioral signs of civility and nobility. This is where we see that corsetry was an elite, bourgeois concern: a disciplined manner of dress was complemented with strict social practices from posture to manner of speaking, and even to dancing. This all round appearance mirrored their respectability and aristocratic privilege, in contrast to lower social classes that “enjoyed a freedom unrestricted by etiquette” allowing both men and women the physical mobility to undertake manual labor.
Different cultures too attached different cultural meanings to corsetry. Puritan England closely associated loose dress with loose morals, such that it was rare to find a single woman ‘unlaced’ even in the countryside. Tight-lacing in France on the other hand was far less common and strictly observed; women were already loosening their stays by the beginning of the 18th Century.
Like most women’s undergarments, corsets were inherently contradictory. Women did in fact wear corsets for reasons of beauty, fetishizing the slender waist to the point of enduring discomfort (although we must remember that comfort and pain are very relative concepts) bringing to mind the phrase “beauty is pain,” one which I have heard innumerable times by women when commenting on contemporary beauty practices such as waxing, hair extensions, and arduous exercise to attain the ‘perfect’ look. The erotic appeal of stays, in how they pushed up the breasts, displayed the female body leading to a subtextual relation of lacing to sex, was just as strong as the propriety it conveyed, allowing women to communicate their sexuality and beauty in a socially acceptable manner.
If the corset was such an instrument of torture and oppression, then where do we place modern standard elements of female dress such as sky high heels? They deform your feet, numb your toes, and make it hard to walk or run freely, along the same lines of pain inflicted by corsets. As you see, once you think about it, the answer is not so simple.
There is really a lot more to say on the subject, on the multitude of ways it was worn, on its representation of women’s honor, on its casual shifting between underwear and outerwear and on its demonization by science, but ultimately, the question of corsets is one related in its source to social classes - not to gender.
Steele, Valerie. The Corset. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. Print.