The shape she’s in

Corset-wearer’s mem­oir a lot of fun, ex­cept when she disses older women

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Wendy King

ALIT­TLE re­straint never hurt any­one. Just ask your friendly neigh­bour­hood dom­i­na­trix. Es­pe­cially if she is wear­ing a corset. This woman’s un­der­gar­ment de­signed to hold the shape of the torso comes with a wild set of as­sump­tions. Sarah Chris­man, who lives in Port Townsend, Wash., de­cided to ex­am­ine them. Chris­man, 33, is a mas­sage ther­a­pist by pro­fes­sion and, along with her hus­band, a demon­stra­tor of his­tor­i­cal cos­tumes by vo­ca­tion. Af­ter re­ceiv­ing a corset from her hus­band as a birth­day present, she de­cided to wear it all the time. And she cer­tainly learned some­thing along the way. As a mem­oir, Vic­to­rian Se­crets is a straight­for­ward read, al­though her prose is a lit­tle twee: “my dear hus­band;” “the dear mir­ror;” “my dear or­gans.” My dear, please let it go. Her his­tor­i­cal re­search is fun and in­for­ma­tive, and she de­bunks many of the non­sen­si­cal ideas that swirl around corsets — that women broke their ribs to wear them (the “ribs” of the corsets would wear out and break, the sim­ple physics of lac­ing a woman into one could not pos­si­bly break hu­man bone); and that only the wealthy wore them (work­ing-class women wore them, and they were de­signed to pro­vide phys­i­cal sup­port for the labour they per­formed). Chris­man de­scribes what a corset does to the fe­male form: it supports the bust with­out a bra, tak­ing the weight off the shoul­ders and back. It pushes the in­testines down­ward away from the waist, cre­at­ing an hour­glass fig­ure. Vic­to­rian clothes are made to fit that fig­ure. Chris­man says the clothes are beau­ti­ful, func­tional and very well made. “In my own mind, I re­flected that part of why I en­joy wear­ing a corset so much is that it is an ac­cen­tu­a­tion of this dif­fer­ence (be­tween men and women),” she writes. “A woman is not an in­fe­rior man, so why should she dress like one? I am very proud to be a woman, and I had learned to en­joy flaunt­ing that pride.” Her point is well-taken. Wear­ing a corset not only changed her ap­pear­ance — her waist went from 32 to 22 inches — but the way she acted as well. The con­stant phys­i­cal re­minder of the bor­ders of the body lead to smaller food por­tions, more thought­ful move­ment through space, an as­sured, con­fi­dent pos­ture, and more at­ten­tion to time and place and how it re­lates to one’s own be­hav­iour: You can­not be slovenly in a corset. While wear­ing her corset, Chris­man en­coun­ters lively en­cour­age­ment and vo­cif­er­ous dis­ap­proval from both men and women of all ages, but un­for­tu­nately, she is truly ven­omous in her de­scrip­tions of the older women who cross her. In one en­counter, she writes, “a dumpy old woman glared at me with much the same ex­pres­sion I imag­ined she had turned on the Grim Reaper, sev­eral decades pre­vi­ously.” She de­scribes this same woman by turns as “Grandma Biddy,” “old crone,” and “bel­liger­ent.” Another older woman is crit­i­cal that she is wear­ing frag­ile “mu­seum” cloth­ing. She is re­ferred to as “Polly Es­ther” for the rest of the book. Yet another is de­scribed as a “lump­shaped baby boomer.” And one more is “over-the-hill” with her jaw open “like one of the stu­pider breed of dog.” It is sim­ply dis­taste­ful. A Vic­to­rian lady would never say th­ese things out loud and cer­tainly never would have com­mit­ted them to print for pub­li­ca­tion. The Re­nais­sance es­say­ist Michel de Mon­taigne ob­served: “Fash­ion is the sci­ence of ap­pear­ances and it in­spires one with the de­sire to seem rather than to be.” The so­cial graces, with their at­ten­dant re­straint, af­ter all, have to be cul­ti­vated and re­fined from within. They can­not sim­ply be “laced onto” the wearer. Wendy King is an un­corseted Winnipeg free­lance writer.

JULIE OLIVER / OTTAWA CIT­I­ZEN FILES

Vic­to­rian Se­crets What a Corset Taught Me About the Past, the Present, and My­self By Sarah A. Chris­man Sky­horse, 241 pages, $33

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