Forgotten Truths about Corsets

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Recently, I took the plunge and bought a corset: a real, spiral steel boned corset, just like the Victorians wore, having been inspired by the fascinating journey in corsetry by Sarah Chrisman of This Victorian Life.

And, for those who are curious, I was not raised in a conservative culture where skirts and dresses were the only option for women’s apparel. Like Sarah, I graduated from college, have worn jeans throughout my life, and have traveled across the country (though she has me beat in the number of places she’s visited).

And, having worn the corset off and on for over a month, I’ve learned quite a few things about what it’s like to “really” wear one of these things.

  • It can be comfortable. I’ve heard all the tales about not being able to breathe, about fainting and longing to take the thing off (a lie that continually gets propagated through fantasy literature). Even in a snug corset, you can breathe. It isn’t going around your throat; it contracts about your middle, which is where your intentines are, not your lungs.

This doesn’t automatically mean any corset will be comfortable, of course. Getting the right shape of corset (and not trying to force your ribs or hips into a circumference that your bones can’t manage) is critical. Sizing is very important, and giving your corset and your body time to adjust to each other is crucial. You just can’t throw a corset on, cinch it up tight, and call it good. Your body won’t be used to the posture requirements.

  • It can be supportive. In a lot of ways, a corset can be like a very elaborate back brace (like what people wear to help them lift heavy things). It transfers upper weight more efficiently to your hips and spinal column and can encourage one to bend with one’s knees instead of one’s waist. As someone who’s had to watch what sort of chairs I sit in due to my back, having the support of a corset is delightful. (Yes, I did use the terms “delightful” and “corset” in the same sentence.)
  • It can create amazing posture. I’ve struggled with slouching (as most of us have, I imagine) and the corset encourages good posture. In fact, it makes bad posture hard to achieve, and this makes muscles like my lower back and side learn what they need to do to achieve good posture. Coupled with exercises I’m doing to strengthen my core and back, my back actually hurts less now that I have a corset.
  • It is far more flexible than I expected. A corset is not a suit of plate armor. The spiral steel and even the flat metal in it bends. There are some moves you can’t achieve (hunched upper back for example), but people used to dance ballet in corsets. You can move and breathe and bend over to look under a sofa, no problem.
  • It can encourage a healthier diet. No, it doesn’t mean wearing a corset makes you long for vegetables, but the slight pressure–like a hand against, but not boring into your stomach and intestines–can make you less eager for enormous portions. You actually don’t enjoy overeating in a corset, because the enlarged stomach gets squished against the corset like a pair of tailored pants.
  • It gives you an amazing silhouette. This doesn’t mean you get an instant hourglass. I picked a corset style that matches my natural body, which means no defined waist, but it still snugs up any loose skin or less toned muscles (much like you could achieve by “sucking in your gut”). This creates a smoother, flatter front that is a delight to see in the mirror (and, for me, it’s helping me stick to my diet and exercise plan because I’m already seeing and enjoying the results, and I want to look more like that, even without the corset).

Now, this isn’t to say that all corset styles throughout history have been comfortable. I’m sure some “latest fad” corsets were idiotic and that women didn’t enjoy them, and that they did urge women down to absurd circumferences. But then, our fashion push for skinny today has some people going anorexic and some of our modern trends–skinny jeans? control top undergarments?–are hardly paragons of comfort.

So, if you write about corsets, please, get the facts straight. Most women who wore these garments didn’t hate them; in fact, many of the leading suffragettes of the past advocated keeping the corset, and even after the ’20s abolished the corset as the fashion ideal, some women kept wearing it. And nowadays, many enlightened, liberated, independent-minded women are returning to the corset, not because we feel we have to but because we actually like it.

For more about corsets and corsetry, you can read Sarah’s account of her first year in a corset in Victorian Secrets: What Wearing A Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present, and Myself and visit Lucy’s Corsetry for a trove of videos, reviews, and general information about wearing a corset. I’ve found both invaluable and have spent hours learning through both of these resources.

Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren

2 thoughts on “Forgotten Truths about Corsets

  1. Really interesting! It’s great when you can actually try historic things out rather than writing about them based on assumptions. Sounds like your corset experiment went better than my adventures with a drop spindle. 🙂 Thanks for sharing this info!

    Like

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