This interview conducted by Jessica Jernigan with Valerie Steele (PH.D, Yale and Director and Chief Curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology), an author of many books on fashion is perhaps the best overview of the corset that I have read. At the end of this article, I’ll list other references that you can read for more information on the use of the corset over past decades. but for now, enjoy the interview.
In the world of women’s undergarments, only the chastity belt excites more passion than the corset. The corset has had its champions and its detractors for as long as it has existed, but, over the past couple hundred years, it has attained a unique power as an icon. For dress reformers of the 19th century, the corset was the epitome of female vanity and enslavement, and it remains a potent symbol of historic oppression. We’ve all seen drawings of Victorian ladies cut in half to reveal bones deformed and organs misplaced by a lifetime of corset wearing. The feminist response to the corset was pretty well established early in the last century, and it has persisted with little modification up to the present.Of course, moral repudiation of the corset made it a potent fetish object, and uniform feminists’ disdain makes the corset an obvious plaything for their postfeminist sisters. These dichotomies not only enhance the allure of the corset, but they also suggest that it may hold a multiplicity of meanings and experiences.
This more open view informs Valerie Steele’s fascinating and unorthodox The Corset: A Cultural History. In this wonderfully illustrated and even-handed book, Steele—chief curator and acting director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology—presents findings from more than two decades of research and consideration. Her view of the corset and its role in women’s lives is fresh, intriguing, and highly provocative.
Interview: What drew you to the corset as an object of study? Valerie Steele: Well, it was actually the corset that first turned me on to the history of fashion. I was in graduate school at Yale, my first term there—it would have been ’78. A classmate of mine gave a presentation on two scholarly articles, both offering different theories on the meaning of the Victorian corset. That was so inspiring. I realized, “Oh my God, I could do the history of fashion.” So that was a major turning point in my intellectual life.
Your vision of the corset’s history is much more complex than the standard feminist view, and I found it quite compelling. Why do you think the prevailing interpretation is so simplistic?
VS: Well, first, fashion in general tends to be demonized. I wrote an article once called “Why People Hate Fashion.” It was a history of anti-fashion sentiment, its evolution from biblical polemics—that it was all about vanity and feminine evil—to modern Anglo-American feminist and leftist ideas that it’s part of the oppression of women, or capitalist oppression and false consciousness. Hostility toward the corset is one particularly vehement expression of hostility toward fashion in general.
Do continental feminists have different views on fashion?
VS: Oh, yes. In Britain and America, Protestant, middleclass culture—shaped, in part, by Puritanism—has always said that fashion, by its very nature, is elitist and duplicitous, that clothing should be simple and utilitarian, a mirror of the individual’s true self. Historically, fashion has been vilified—like theater and art—as something false. Whereas in Catholic Europe—in France, in Italy—and in Russian Orthodox culture, it’s much more accepted that fashion is a mask. Fashion is part of a persona that you put on and present to the world—something like what the Italians call an la bella figura, when you’re obviously trying to put your best foot forward. The fact that clothing may exaggerate how beautiful, how rich, we are, that it might lie—it’s just one aspect in the construction a public self.
That’s interesting, because one of my problems with the anti-fashion perspective is that, when you argue that fashion is a patriarchal or capitalist trap, you are also arguing that any interest in fashion is either stupid or totally passive. There is no room for self-expression, nor does this view encompass every woman’s experience of fashion—it doesn’t allow for nuance and diversity. As you demonstrate in your book, there was no single corset, nor was there one consistent experience of the corset.
VS: Right. Corsets varied tremendously. Some really are much more comfortable than others—not just in terms of size, but in terms of design. Women had different kinds of corsets for different activities, different times of day. Even a single corset could be worn a variety of ways—laced tightly, laced loosely, not laced at all.
And attitudes about the corset have been ambiguous, not just for or against. For example, even in Victorian society—where the corset was a critical part of the proper woman’s attire—extreme tight-lacing was generally taboo. A 13-inch waist was never the norm. One of the things I find most fascinating in your book is the suggestion that historians have frequently taken fantasy as fact when looking at the corset, which is why we have such phantasmagoric images of what it was like to wear a corset.
VS: Oh, yes. It’s quite remarkable—the naive acceptance of fascist fantasies and specious medical theories as reliable historical records.
I mean, reading excerpts from The English Woman’s Domestic Magazine—stories of sadistic boarding schools, of hot dominatrix-types binding up bad boys and girls in tight corsets, of young men and women tutored in erotic submission—was not altogether unlike reading Penthouse Letters.
VS: If you read one of two, you might think these letters are about real oppression. But, if you read a dozen—or hundreds the way I have—it’s quite clear these letters are pornographic fantasy, not factual testimony.
And how much can we expect other forms of representation to be factual? Were Victorian fashion magazines necessarily more representative of the average woman’s dress than current fashion magazines?
VS: Right, exactly. When I taught, I would ask my students, “You wouldn’t believe everything you see in Vogue or in National Inquirer. Why should you believe it from a magazine from a hundred years ago?”
And then there are the claims about the corset’s effect on female health… Again, some of the medical texts you present in your book might be compelling in total isolation, but, if you look at some of these claims in the context of more general ideas about physiology presented at the same time, these statements look like pure quackery.
VS: Exactly. No reputable historian would accept the idea that educating a woman sucks all the blood from her uterus, or that masturbation causes insanity. But many historians are totally credulous when it comes to fashion.
I would have thought that sirens would go off in the head of any feminist historian who comes across the word “hysteria.” I mean, a doctor writing about the pathology of the wandering womb is not an altogether reliable source of medical knowledge.
VS: It’s so weird. There’s another book about the corset that just came out: Bound to Please by Leigh Summers. I quote from her Ph.D. dissertation in my book… Anyway, she talks about hysteria as if it’s a real disease! [Laughing.] Prolapsed uterus—yes, that is an actual medical condition, but hysteria is a much more complicated intellectual construct.
Leigh Summers’s reaction to your claim that a lot of Victorian corset material is fetish literature—not a reflection of general experience—is rather interesting…
VS: She doesn’t care! How can one base an argument on material that one knows to be false?
I think her explanation is that, even if these scenes are fantasy, they can tell us a great deal about the society in which such fantasy exists. I agree with that, but I don’t see how it makes fact and fantasy interchangeable. I mean, let’s look at another 19th-century artifact: If we accept Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe as the norm, then French ladies were all eating lunch naked. It’s very curious.
VS: It’s very curious. And I think it suggests another reason why the corset is so demonized. In the 20th century—and now the 21st—there has been a propensity to patronize and look down on people in the Victorian era as stupid and un-liberated. The corset is paradigmatic of Victorian ignorance.
That’s so anthropologically unsound!
VS: Of course. But historians feel perfectly free to patronize the women of the past.
That’s interesting. Your discussion of the history of the corset reminded me of Kathy Peiss’s history of cosmetics. Her view, like yours, is much more complex than the standard vision of makeup as a tool of oppression. Peiss found, for example, that a lot of women embraced cosmetics as a means of democratizing beauty—an asset once available only to the aristocracy. Have there been women who felt empowered by the ability to shape their own bodies?
VS: I think there’s some evidence of that. But—as I try to make clear in my book—attitudes varied a lot. For everyone, who experience the corset as an attack on her body, there will be another woman who embraced the corset as a means to reshape herself.
The corset had class implications, as well.
VS: Of course. For a long time, many people believed that upper-class people were really—biologically, inherently, almost racially—different from the lower classes. The fact that a working woman could recreate the upper-class ideal of the perfect figure with a homemade corset challenged that idea.
You also quote women who, rather than feeling liberated by the “corsetless” fashions of the early 20th century, found them to be quite trying on the average figure.
VS: Right. The idea of the perfect figure doesn’t go away when the corset disappears. Rather, it’s been internalized. As clothes became more revealing and less structured, women lost the ability to push their fat around. Instead, women have been forced into a disciplinary regime of dieting and exercise.
Debates about corsets have been going on—
VS: Since the 16th century, really. Since the minute the corset appeared.
To what degree were most women affected by—or even aware of—the medical and philosophical arguments about corsets?
VS: Oh, by the middle of the 19th century, that kind of information was very wide spread. Medical attacks on the corset had been popularized to the extent that the average middle- or even working-class woman would certainly know that many doctors opposed corsets on health grounds. Whether they acted on it would be something else.
Given the history of antipathy to the corset, how has it persisted?
VS: Well, in terms of medical arguments, there were doctors who felt that corsets were unhealthy, but there were also doctors who believed that the body—particularly the young or female body—required support. Women were aware of both these views, and they were able to question and assess them. Some women asked, “Why do our daughters’ bodies need more support than our sons’ bodies?” Other women said, “If the corset is unhealthy, doctors should devise a more healthy corset.” Thinking about the corset has been complex, attitudes have been complex, and that complexity has helped it to survive.
Do you think that the corset will ever disappear altogether?
VS: I would say no. For one thing, when it reentered fashion as outerwear in the 1980s, it became a sexualizing garment. Like the high-heel shoe, it will be in and out of fashion, but it will always remain a sexy accessory. And, in a sense, the fact that it’s no longer a mandated part of the wardrobe gives it greater potential for longevity.
It’s hard to rebel against the optional.
VS: Right. And the corset persists in other forms. I do feel it has been internalized in the form of diet and exercise, and I don’t think that will ever go away. Also, people have generally misinterpreted the function of the corset: For the average woman, it was more a bust support and a bust enhancer than a waist cincher. The historical evidence for this is overwhelming. So, of course, the corset survives in the bra.
Then, indeed, the corset will not disappear in my lifetime. I have been nude in public, but I have not appeared dressed and braless since the 6th grade, and I can imagine no set of circumstances in which I would willingly forgo the brassiere. I would be a sad, pale imitation of myself without it. End of Interview.
The Modern Corset
So you can expect the corset to be around for a while. An accessory it may be, but for some it has sex appeal and for others, it helps to shape the body to achieve that hourglass effect. As Dr. Steele said, it was used to push the body fat around. Modern versions of the corset worn as an outer garment are even seen as a fashion statement. The corset has shaped and defined women’s lives and Sabrina Wong tells us how in this brief video.
Well there is still much to learn. This article on EBay talks to the different types of corsets, their shapes, which corsets are best for each body type, the different purposes of corsets and how to choose the right one for you considering both color and material.
Well now at least you have some idea what corsets are all about, so next we learn what you need to know when buying a corset.
Now you have this wondrous garment, but the hard part is yet to come. Lacing that corset up is no small feat of determination, but we found some tips and tricks that might help you. Check out these videos below and see if they don’t give you a bit more confidence. Still, it good to have someone help you. I want to see the look on your wife’s face when you ask her for help.
Self-lacing example (inverted bunny ears)
Shape of your Corset Gap – What Does It Mean?