Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Of Corset Is A Good Idea

"Did you need the laces of your corset loosened?"

Queen Anne, The Three Musketeers

 So once upon a time I was in college, and I had nothing to do of an afternoon. And a thought occurred to me: I've never seen Gone with the Wind. I should watch that.

This turned out to be a bad idea. As anyone who has Asperger's Syndrome knows, sometimes something just sets you off and you can't think about ANYTHING ELSE for the next three months to a year. In this particular case, the compulsion was brief, but violent; I came out of my Gone-With-the-Wind-induced haze in about twelve weeks, the proud new owner of a circa-1854-ish summer gown, from shimmy to shoes. I was a lot poorer, and my poor sewing machine was a lot closer to the grave. But man, I'm proud of that dress. And the escapade began a continuing fascination with the history and practice of corsetry.

So today I thought I'd show off my collection. WARNING: the blog below contains pictures of corsets. They are fairly un-provocative, as I am modeling them all worn over t-shirts, but if you're easily horrified, you might want to go read something else.

Still with me? Okay.  Here's the one that started it all:

I'm not smiling in this picture because it's cold in here and I feel very silly smiling at my computer in a room all by myself. 

So this is my very first corset, the one I made all by myself. It's made of plain white canvas broadcloth, plastic zip ties, some grommets, four shoelaces and some bias tape that I still have not paid back to my friend Travis (sorry, Travis!) The only specialty part I needed was the corset busk (translation: the part that hooks together in the front). It was a heck of a lot of work, and I'm hecka proud of it. Also proud that it's machine washable. 


 This corset is short, coming up over the bust but sitting above the hips, because in the 1850s hips didn't matter because you'd be wearing three petticoats over them anyway. The idea here is to maximize hip-to-waist ratio, so my waist is pretty tucked (and can be more so, but I didn't feel like lacing it up that tightly) and my chest is smoothed out but not squeezed or anything.

In owning this corset for the last few years, I've learned a thing or two about society at large. When we talk about Victorian fashion, you always get someone tut-tutting about "Oh, those Victorians, wearing corsets every day that warped their ribs and squished their internal organs! What a repressive, objectifying, horrible thing to do! Thank goodness in our enlightened day and age we don't do that kind of thing . . . yaay for feminism!" There's the insinuation that the Victorians were all sexually-repressed perverts for finding such an unhealthy look desirable.

Well. Once I finished sewing this corset, just as an experiment, I wore it under my church clothes on Sunday.

People who had NEVER SPOKEN TO ME BEFORE came up to me to say hi, tell me I looked wonderful, and ask me if I'd lost weight. 

Enlightened age, my foot. At least the Victorians had the straightforward sense to know that the silhouette desired by fashion was only going to be achieved with a lot of lacing. These days, the prevailing wisdom is that supermodel bodies are achieved by minimal eating and maximum exercise, and that if you do not reach this ideal, you're not healthy, and are more over a lazy, gluttonous, selfish drain on society. Lies! All of it lies! Supermodel bodies are achieved with Photoshop, and healthy and skinny are NOT the same thing. Given the choice between wearing a corset, which I can take on and off as I please, and messing up my whole system with some new fad diet for months at a time, I'll take the corset any day.

Okay, I'm off my soapbox now.

Anyway, when I got back from my mission and got my first real job, I treated myself to Corset #2:


Corset #2 is not of my own making, but rather a purchase from OrchardCorset.com, which is a fine retailer if ever I saw one. It's not a historical corset, but it does evoke sort of a later-Victorian look. It's longer, extending down over part of my hips (the bustle was in by then, so narrower was better, from a front view) and well up over my bust. I love this corset, but it's not "under" wear by any stretch of the imagination; it's going to show through whatever I've got on, so I usually wear it over a fitted t-shirt and under a sweater or shrug. It was just too pretty to resist. Because this one's so much longer, it's harder to maneuver in (bending over is not allowed. Period) and squeezes my ribs more than I'd been used to in my Civil-War-style one. (This is the era of the warped ribcages.) However, it is boned in steel rather than plastic, which basically means this sucker will stop bullets. 

A month or so ago, while poking through a vintage clothing store with some friends, I came across Corset #3:

This thing is an honest-to-goodness antique historical corset of awesome. Obviously, this style is not so much with the waist-squeezing. My guess is that it's from somewhere between the late 20s and early 40s, by which time the drastic curves were out and straight, flat, and smooth was the thing to be. The rig-up is so different to anything I'd ever encountered that it took me a while to work out that it WAS a corset, and yet another while to figure out how to get the thing on.