Friday, 5 December 2014

Freedom in constriction: The corset as form of female liberation

Victorian Corset Advert, 1886

The Victorian corset was a garment which was pivotal in the reshaping of the role of women in the late 19th century.

The image above attempts to illustrate the ideas society wished to project through the use of corsetry. The figure in the centre is a young women staring at herself in her hand mirror looking rather pleased with the sight that greets her. The caption beneath the image on the left hand corner claims the corset to be an “improvement”, making the assumption that the corset has improved her as a person and her sense of self, indicated by the mirror in her hand which represents personal image. The picture in the right hand corner is captioned “how delightful to be admired by everyone,” suggesting the corset brought women attention that they would not normally be worthy of garnering without one, and, as the last image demonstrates it had the potential to fully improve their lives in all aspects and projected them into better and more ideal ways of living within a perfect, boxed in society, just as the advert fits the woman into its neat boxes. Whilst it is exactly adverts such as this one which plagued feminist and religious discourse in opposition to corsetry it, also holds multiple truths of how the corset came to be an emblem of the paradoxical nature of the Victorian era.

The advert is proof that the corset was an item of clothing that many women were reluctant to give up for personal reasons, which defied male expectations including; personal satisfaction in bodily image, vanity, sexual allure and a sense of importance and status, all of which came with corset wearing and I want to prove that there was much more to this garment than the obvious ruin it is perceived to have caused. I believe that there was a reason as to why it wasn't until the 20th century that the corset died out, and why, even after its demise, women still have an utter fixation towards the corset; that it wasn't solely an object of oppression, but, more often than not, it was object of female power and control.

"The Corset Testing"
The dual nature of the corset, being both vulgar and modest is exemplified in this engraving from 1788 ‘L’essai du corset’ from the British museum, which shows a high born lady being fitted into her corset. Her garments, wig and surroundings all give her an air of aristocracy and decorum which are only added to by the constrained and fastened image of her corseted waist. However, her exposed breasts, which fixate the cleric sitting opposite her, show that that corset eroticises, and, much to the horror of religious dress reformists, breaks down the barriers of religious decorum as it enthrals even the clergy. But the lady in question does not give any objection; she merely revels in the attention she receives showing that it is quite likely that tight-lacers enjoyed the eroticism of it the corset as it “enable[ed] the female body to be read as seductive,” (Summers 124-5) without the woman having to jeopardize her delicacy and sense of propriety.

This eroticism of the corset inevitably led to the fetish practice of tight-lacing. David Kunzel points out that, contrary to what dress reformist would have us believe, tight-lacing was only practised in private by a select few, which indicated that, rather than responding to social expectations of women, which dictated that tight-lacing was a “relapse into barbarism”(Kunzel 571), tight-lacers were in fact “responding to a personal and inner compulsion” (Kunzel 577) meaning it was a form of social defiance, allowing them to enjoy the rarely acknowledged freedom that the corset presented. The corset gave women the opportunity to permanently alter their bodies to suit their desire. This ability to make their own decisions, even with regards to their own body, was one of the very few decisions Victorian women were allowed to make. In an age where the big decisions were made by men and involved little to no female participation, the ability to mould and keep her body in the way she wanted it gave women a sense of independence which they would have happily suffered for.

In addition to this power over the self, the corset also gave women the power to play on gender stereotypes in order to manipulate situations. If a lady wanted to put a halt to an event she felt unnecessary, she could depend on her corset to constrict her lungs and cause her to swoon which brought the men in control to her rescue. Many popular novels emphasised the great “heaving of bosoms” (Roberts 558) which the corset caused which, though most likely caused by a shortness of breath due to a lack of sufficient lung capacity, was often read as sexual. Great literary heroines also took advantage of the fact that the corset made them physically weak most times and manipulated this fact by emphasising their tendency to faint during stressful situations and thus playing on their female delicacy and submissiveness in order to manipulate situations. Horace Walpole’s heroines of The castle of Otranto, Isabell, Hippolyta and Matilda faint or swoon constantly in order to avoid experiencing or confronting the violent events of the narrative such as Conrad’s and Theodore's death and to afford them protection by the male heroes.

Whilst this eroticism helped to form marriages into possibly higher classes, the corset also helped maintain the appearance of these class structures by signalling class status. Unlike the slacken jumps which were often worn by the lower-classes for their ability to allow for freedom of movement, the corset was rigid and boned, therefore impeding movement indicating that its wearer was above the realm of manual, menial labour. As this deduction came with the assumption that the wearer was of the aristocratic classes, the corset also came to be symbolic of the tightly bound respectable values of upper classes. Summers points out that the corset “denoted good breeding,”
(9) and the fact that summers points out that domestic servants in receipt of these garments were often scolded for attempting to dress above their stations,” (10) indicates the value women themselves placed on their status in society and that they would readily protect the garment which illustrated them to be better than others.

Modern tight-lacer: Dita Von Teese
There were many reasons both practical and political for, the opposition to the corset. It is true that the corset was oppressive, restrictive, unhealthy and at times vulgar. Yet despite what certain groups would have history believe the birth and survival of the corset was far not that straight forward because it was, and still is, a garment which women, not men, have, either consciously or subconsciously fought for.  Many items of clothing today from body shapers, waist cinchers, all the way to the introduction of liposuction surgery, all evolved from the corset and the female need to change her appearance to align itself with her possibly unattainable perception of beauty. Sites today, such as Contour Corset, are designed specifically to help women achieve the hourglass figure of their dreams by providing them with the very garments which our historical counterparts fought so hard against, culminating in the conclusion that it may never have been a case of women being slaves of society but of a their own minds demonstrating that “the women’s struggles getting in and out of corsets have not entirely ended” (Fields 379) and are unlikely to.



Dorre, Gina Marlene. “Horses and Corsets: “Black Beauty,” Dress Reform, and the
Fashioning of the Victorian Woman”. Victorian Literature and Culture. Vol. 30. No. 1 (2002): pp. 157-78. E-journal. 09/10/2014  

Fields, Jill. “ ‘Fighting the Corsetless evil’: Shaping Corsets and Culture, 1900-1930”. Journal
of Social History. Vol.33, No. 2 (1999): pp. 355-364. E-journal. 09/10/2014

Kunzle, David. “Dress Reform as Antifeminisim: A Response to Helene E. Roberts’s “The
Exquisite Slave: The Role of Clothes in the Making of the Victorian Woman”. Signs. Vol. 2. No. 3 (1977). pp 570-579. E-journal. 09/10/2014

Roberts, Helene. E. “The Exquisite Slave: The Role of Clothes in the making of the Victorian
Woman”. Signs, Vol 2. No. 3 (1977): pp. 554-569. E-journal. 09/10/2014

Summers, Leigh. Bound To Please: A History of the Victorian Corset. Oxford: Berg, 2001.

Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story. Ed. Lewis.W.S Oxford: Oxford
University Press,20008. Print

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  1. I like the links between the advert and the connotations the corset carries. Brilliant work.Enjoyed reading it!

  2. It is interesting to see the different points of view toward the same topic! I really liked the way you introduced the paradoxe of the corset and his meaning.