Wednesday 28 April 2010

A corset-related rant

I’m currently reading The Alchemy of Murder by Carol McClearly. I have a weakness for crime stories that takes place in the past, and this book is a made-up adventure of the very real journalist Nellie Bly. In short, while investigating a madhouse (by pretending to be mad- she really did that) she realizes that one of the doctors is killing off inmates in a rather gruesome manner. No one believes her, but when Jack the Ripper shows up in London, Nellie is convinced that it’s the same man. She then follows him to Paris, enrolling the help of Jules Verne and Dr. Pasteur on the way. I like it, Nellie is likeable, and the pacing works and it’s definitely worth a read.

However, I did stumble upon one of my pet peeves, and feel the need to air. The peeve is: “A portrayal of an independent female in historical times, must make a point on how much she dislikes corsets.” I know I’m not the only one who made an indignant bounce when Elizabeth in Pirates of the Caribbean complains over the stays she suddenly has to wear. A woman of her class would have worn stays since childhood, even in a hot climate, at the very least for formal occasions. Furthermore, stays that fits aren’t uncomfortable, and there’s no need to tight lace them.

In The Alchemy of Murder, Nellie remarks that she can’t abide corsets and refuse to wear them. Even though this picture is in the book:

I’d say, by posture and lines, that she’s wearing a corset. She’s a slender woman, so I’m sure she didn’t tight lace- something that seems to have been a practice very few really indulged in. Nellie was a working woman who travelled a lot, so I can very well imagine that she laced herself very moderately. But, she was also a woman who worked as a journalist at a time when that was very much a man's world. She was controversial just for that, and she didn’t need anything that could add to people’s animosity toward her. He pictures show a woman who dress nicely, but with no particular flashiness.

Don’t get me wrong, there were women who objected to corsets back then. And doctors, who actually seems to have objected even more. A discussion on corsets and its symbolism and significance, well, that’s a vast subject. A terribly interesting one, but not something I feel I can delve into at the moment, with all my reference literature packed away.

I object to the trick of showing independence in women by her views on a corset. I can see where it stems from- a corset is for many (most?) a garment that is uncomfortable and restricting and something women have liberated themselves from. So a woman in a historical setting that objects to corsets, is per definition liberated.

I object, because it totally disregards the why’s of a corset. The social pressure, for sure. The demands of fashion and how far people go, in this very day too, to be able to pull it off. Even practical purposes. Corsets, as being underwear, have always been erotized, but a 100 years ago it wasn’t its sole purpose. A corset was also a bra, or something that held your stocking up. Today a corset is either seen as a torture device or used to titillate and I think many forget (or never even knew) that there can be other functions.

This became rather long and ranty, I’m afraid. Not too unclear, I hope. Heap your opinions on me now, I’d like to hear what you think.


Lauren said...

Right there with you!

American Duchess said...

you're so right! That part of "Pirates" never sat well with me either. I have read many places that the women who migrated westward shed their corsets for purely practical reasons - because they were now doing ranch works, branding cows, etc., but the corsets were still worn for formal occasions, church and whatnot, before being given up completely.

I think there is a reason women today are still enthralled with corsets and look for opportunity to wear them, and even if we were required to wear them every day, I still think women would! We like the structure of it, the thinner waist, the good posture. I agree, don't lace it tightly, don't be uncomfortable.

Isis said...

Lauren: Yes, I suspected that I wasn't alone! :-)

American Duchess: Exactly! Also, rural people in most contries don't wear the latest fashions. The traditional clothes in Sweden, that mostly originated in the 18th century fashions, do mimic the shape of stays, but without boning. And what I think we forget today is that many corsets in the 19th century was heavily corded with just a few bones. There were many, many types of corsets and you don't wear the same corset, or lace as tightly if you are a worker, than if you are a fine lady. And as you say, even if corsets were given up for work, they were still something you wore when you could, not disregarded.

I enjoy wearing corsets, not only for the shape, but also because I enjoy the feel of wearingthem, but I don't lace myself so tight it's uncomfortable.

The Dreamstress said...

Definitely my pet peeve too! I think it really makes sense to compare them to bras. Some women do go without, but if you are in a business meeting and a well endowed woman is braless - well, it's pretty noticeable and definitely out of the ordinary!

There is no way Nellie is not wearing a corset in that photo.

For good historical crime fiction, have you read 'The Alienist'? It also includes real people (Teddy Roosevelt) and doesn't have any dumb, irritating lines about corsets!

Alisa said...

Finally! Someone else who thinks like me! I can't tell you how many book/movie reviews I've done where I'm peeved and annoyed beyond all reason by authors/movie-makers who don't do their research and think a good quick 'shorthand' for an independent woman is one who won't wear a corset - or at least one who complains about how uncomfortable it is. My 'favorite' is this author who claimed her character was unable to sit down because she was wearing a corset! Um, yeah. I'm a costumer, I've spent all day, several days in a row, wearing a corset, and while there's always that rather joyous moment of unlacing at the end of the day, I was not uncomfortable, I could breathe and did not pass out, and I certainly could sit...even on the ground! The new Alice in Wonderland film is another prime example. Alice won't wear her corset or her stockings - and in spite of this, her party dress somehow fits her. Yeah. There's a reason we costumers make the undergarments first....

I've always said corsets are no different than modern day bras, various body correction undergarments, or high-heeled shoes. And personally, I've never 'suffered' while wearing my many corsets, but I have genuinely suffered to wear a cute pair of shoes! How many independent women today don't wear a bra or heels? It's a pretty small percentage.

Heh. Thanks for giving me the chance to rant!

Rowenna said...

Agreed! Competely. I got quite indignant at that part of Pirates, too. As a reenactor, one of the most common questions I'm asked is, "Aren't your clothes uncomfortable?" People are generally disbelieving when I tell them no. In fact, given the alternative of not wearing any sort of support, I much prefer stays. Even for manual labor, which I do in camp quite a bit--sure, I can't bend at the waist, but it makes me lift with my legs, now doesn't it? But it makes no difference if I'm in stays or not--I can haul water, help pull a cannon, and do a sprint.

People often don't recognize the difference between eighteenth-century stays and nineteenth-century corsets--properly fitted stays (even laced tightly) don't do any of the oddball things a tightly laced nineteenth-century corset could do to a person's innards. My father is a chiropractor and, when people ask his medical opinion on stays, half-jokes that he's all for them--it would make people stand and sit up straight!

Final anecdote--a friend of mine from reenacting has back problems and, rather that purchasing a back brace, occasionally wears her stays under her scrubs at work. :)

Isis said...

Duchess: Not to mention uncomfortable!

I've read The Alienist and like dit, but it was a long time ago. I think it's time for a re-read! :-)

Alisa: Oh, yes, the new Alice-movie, I KNEW I had been annoyed of "no corset because I'm liberated" very recently!

Women worked in stays for hundreds of years, but the modern view seems to be that ALL women tightlaced to within an inch of their lifes and that ALL women suffered terribly and longed to be without.

Preciely. Lots of women goes in shoes that are extremely uncomfortable, and don't complain!

Rowenna: I've had that disbelief too. In ten years I've had problems with my stays three times. My very first pair fitted so poorly that even moderatley laced they gave me bruises over the ribs. The second time I realized very late in dressing that my jacket had "shrunk" and therefore I hastily laced down a bit more. It was slightly uncomfortable, but not unbearable, until I started to laugh after dinner. Due to being too tightlaced I started to hyperventlate and nearly fainted. I can add that "normally" laced I never had any problems with laughing. The third time the room I was in had some problems with the chimney and the room got filled with smoke. At that point my body rebelled against being confined (still modertaly laced) and I had to remove my stays. My point is that well-fitted and well-laced stays aren't uncomfortable, apart from in smoke-filled rooms. :-D

Exactly! Stays fits very differently! Most people don't get that. And even a 19th century corset is uncomfortable if it fits and you lac ein slowly and not overdo it. :-)

LOL. Yes, I can imagine that stays would work in a similar way. :-)

Wilhelmina Carlotta Johanna Grafin von Marquart said...

I would rather wear a corset than a pair of super high heeled shoes, the truth is corsets are not uncomfortable, I have worn them over a shirt and under clothes, i even once feel asleep in one, i was really sleepy and laid on my bed and next thing i knew i was awake and it was morning, so people who say these things in new books or movies are wrong and have never worn one, cause if they had they wouldn't make such a big deal about them being uncomffy.

Shaggy said...

I'm a Male and wear a corset as I have arthritis and the posture it gives relieves the pain more so than anything else I have tried.Yes it restricts your movement a little but one becomes accustomed to it.

I also lace women, and most of them love the shape and feeling, why is it a crime for women to be feminine in this age?
Women can wear Mens clothes with impunity, if a man wears a corset or skirt it is cross dressing.
People need to get their heads sorted out I think. Personally I care not a jot as I do what I feel happy with and to hell with the rest of them!

Isis said...

Shaggy: INdeed- if it make syou happy, then why not!

Sarah said...

I know I'm rather late to the party, but Agreed! That line in Pirates of the Caribbean bothered me, too; corsets don't have to be restrictive and uncomfortable. Plus, I can't help but believe that a woman who has grown up wearing corsets for years wouldn't get used to them and learn how to move and breathe in one so as to not feel restricted. And maybe a small woman would be perfectly comfortable without one, but I'm sure that many bustier women would have been less comfortable without a corset's support than they'd have been going without! I think this is just part of the eroticization of corsetry; reminding modern audiences of the stereotype that subservient women were willing to undergo extreme discomfort and disfiguration to make themselves more attractive to men. It's much more boring to not mention corsets because they're mostly irrelevant!

Isis said...

Sari: I'm sure she would! Generations of women wouldn't have been able to work and live in their corsets if they were so uncomfortable as modern voices try to make them.

The funny thing with eriticism and corsets is that it is ALSO an attribute for the dominant woman, so it's a piece of clothing with more sides than one may think. :)

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