Conducted by Jessica Jernigan
In the world of women's undergarments, only the chastity belt excites
more passion than the corset. The corset has had its champions and its
detractors for as long as it has existed, but, over the past couple hundred
years, it has attained a unique power as an icon. For dress reformers
of the 19th century, the corset was the epitome of female vanity and enslavement,
and it remains a potent symbol of historic oppression. We've all seen
drawings of Victorian ladies cut in half to reveal bones deformed and
organs misplaced by a lifetime of corset wearing. The feminist response
to the corset was pretty well established early in the last century, and
it has persisted with little modification up to the present.
Of course, moral repudiation of the corset made it a potent fetish object,
and uniform feminists' disdain makes the corset an obvious plaything for
their postfeminist sisters. These dichotomies not only enhance the allure
of the corset, but they also suggest that it may hold a multiplicity of
meanings and experiences.
This more open view informs Valerie Steele's fascinating and unorthodox
The Corset: A Cultural History. In this wonderfully illustrated and even-handed
book, Steelechief curator and acting director of the Museum at the
Fashion Institute of Technologypresents findings from more than
two decades of research and consideration. Her view of the corset and
its role in women's lives is fresh, intriguing, and highly provocative.
What drew you to the corset as an object of study?
Valerie Steele: Well, it was actually the corset that first turned
me on to the history of fashion. I was in graduate school at Yale, my
first term thereit would have been '78. A classmate of mine gave
a presentation on two scholarly articles, both offering different theories
on the meaning of the Victorian corset. That was so inspiring. I realized,
"Oh my God, I could do the history of fashion." So that was
a major turning point in my intellectual life.
Your vision of the corset's history is much more complex than the
standard feminist view, and I found it quite compelling. Why do you think
the prevailing interpretation is so simplistic?
VS: Well, first, fashion in general tends to be demonized. I wrote
an article once called "Why People Hate Fashion." It was a history
of anti-fashion sentiment, its evolution from biblical polemicsthat
it was all about vanity and feminine evilto modern Anglo-American
feminist and leftist ideas that it's part of the oppression of women,
or capitalist oppression and false consciousness. Hostility toward the
corset is one particularly vehement expression of hostility toward fashion
Do continental feminists have different views on fashion?
VS: Oh, yes. In Britain and America, Protestant, middleclass cultureshaped,
in part, by Puritanismhas always said that fashion, by its very
nature, is elitist and duplicitous, that clothing should be simple and
utilitarian, a mirror of the individual's true self. Historically, fashion
has been vilifiedlike theater and artas something false. Whereas
in Catholic Europein France, in Italyand in Russian Orthodox
culture, it's much more accepted that fashion is a mask. Fashion is part
of a persona that you put on and present to the worldsomething like
what the Italians call an la bella figura, when you're obviously trying
to put your best foot forward. The fact that clothing may exaggerate how
beautiful, how rich, we are, that it might lieit's just one aspect
in the construction a public self.
That's interesting, because one of my problems with the anti-fashion
perspective is that, when you argue that fashion is a patriarchal or capitalist
trap, you are also arguing that any interest in fashion is either stupid
or totally passive. There is no room for self-expression, nor does this
view encompass every woman's experience of fashionit doesn't allow
for nuance and diversity. As you demonstrate in your book, there was no
single corset, nor was there one consistent experience of the corset.
VS: Right. Corsets varied tremendously. Some really are much more
comfortable than othersnot just in terms of size, but in terms of
design. Women had different kinds of corsets for different activities,
different times of day. Even a single corset could be worn a variety of
wayslaced tightly, laced loosely, not laced at all.
And attitudes about the corset have been ambiguous, not just for or against.
For example, even in Victorian societywhere the corset was a critical
part of the proper woman's attireextreme tight-lacing was generally
taboo. A 13-inch waist was never the norm. One of the things I find most
fascinating in your book is the suggestion that historians have frequently
taken fantasy as fact when looking at the corset, which is why we have
such phantasmagoric images of what it was like to wear a corset.
VS: Oh, yes. It's quite remarkablethe naive acceptance of fascist
fantasies and specious medical theories as reliable historical records.
I mean, reading excerpts from The English Woman's Domestic Magazinestories
of sadistic boarding schools, of hot dominatrix-types binding up bad boys
and girls in tight corsets, of young men and women tutored in erotic submissionwas
not altogether unlike reading Penthouse Letters.
VS: If you read one of two, you might think these letters are about
real oppression. But, if you read a dozenor hundreds the way I haveit's
quite clear these letters are pornographic fantasy, not factual testimony.
And how much can we expect other forms of representation to be factual?
Were Victorian fashion magazines necessarily more representative of the
average woman's dress than current fashion magazines?
VS: Right, exactly. When I taught, I would ask my students, "You
wouldn't believe everything you see in Vogue or in National Inquirer.
Why should you believe it from a magazine from a hundred years ago?"
And then there are the claims about the corset's effect on female health
Again, some of the medical texts you present in your book might be compelling
in total isolation, but, if you look at some of these claims in the context
of more general ideas about physiology presented at the same time, these
statements look like pure quackery.
VS: Exactly. No reputable historian would accept the idea that educating
a woman sucks all the blood from her uterus, or that masturbation causes
insanity. But many historians are totally credulous when it comes to fashion.
I would have thought that sirens would go off in the head of any feminist
historian who comes across the word "hysteria." I mean, a doctor
writing about the pathology of the wandering womb is not an altogether
reliable source of medical knowledge.
VS: It's so weird. There's another book about the corset that just
came out: Bound to Please by Leigh Summers. I quote from her Ph.D. dissertation
in my book
Anyway, she talks about hysteria as if it's a real disease!
[Laughing.] Prolapsed uterusyes, that is an actual medical condition,
but hysteria is a much more complicated intellectual construct.
Leigh Summers's reaction to your claim that a lot of Victorian corset
material is fetish literaturenot a reflection of general experienceis
VS: She doesn't care! How can one base an argument on material that
one knows to be false?
I think her explanation is that, even if these scenes are fantasy, they
can tell us a great deal about the society in which such fantasy exists.
I agree with that, but I don't see how it makes fact and fantasy interchangeable.
I mean, let's look at another 19th-century artifact: If we accept Manet's
Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe as the norm, then French ladies were all
eating lunch naked. It's very curious.
VS: It's very curious. And I think it suggests another reason why
the corset is so demonized. In the 20th centuryand now the 21stthere
has been a propensity to patronize and look down on people in the Victorian
era as stupid and un-liberated. The corset is paradigmatic of Victorian
That's so anthropologically unsound!
VS: Of course. But historians feel perfectly free to patronize the
women of the past.
That's interesting. Your discussion of the history of the corset reminded
me of Kathy Peiss's history of cosmetics. Her view, like yours, is much
more complex than the standard vision of makeup as a tool of oppression.
Peiss found, for example, that a lot of women embraced cosmetics as a
means of democratizing beautyan asset once available only to the
aristocracy. Have there been women who felt empowered by the ability to
shape their own bodies?
VS: I think there's some evidence of that. Butas I try to make
clear in my bookattitudes varied a lot. For everyone, who experience
the corset as an attack on her body, there will be another woman who embraced
the corset as a means to reshape herself.
The corset had class implications, as well.
VS: Of course. For a long time, many people believed that upper-class
people were reallybiologically, inherently, almost raciallydifferent
from the lower classes. The fact that a working woman could recreate the
upper-class ideal of the perfect figure with a homemade corset challenged
You also quote women who, rather than feeling liberated by the "corsetless"
fashions of the early 20th century, found them to be quite trying on the
VS: Right. The idea of the perfect figure doesn't go away when the corset
disappears. Rather, it's been internalized. As clothes became more revealing
and less structured, women lost the ability to push their fat around.
Instead, women have been forced into a disciplinary regime of dieting
Debates about corsets have been going on
VS: Since the 16th century, really. Since the minute the corset appeared.
To what degree were most women affected byor even aware ofthe
medical and philosophical arguments about corsets?
VS: Oh, by the middle of the 19th century, that kind of information
was very wide spread. Medical attacks on the corset had been popularized
to the extent that the average middle- or even working-class woman would
certainly know that many doctors opposed corsets on health grounds. Whether
they acted on it would be something else.
Given the history of antipathy to the corset, how has it persisted?
VS: Well, in terms of medical arguments, there were doctors who felt
that corsets were unhealthy, but there were also doctors who believed
that the bodyparticularly the young or female bodyrequired
support. Women were aware of both these views, and they were able to question
and assess them. Some women asked, "Why do our daughters' bodies
need more support than our sons' bodies?" Other women said, "If
the corset is unhealthy, doctors should devise a more healthy corset."
Thinking about the corset has been complex, attitudes have been complex,
and that complexity has helped it to survive.
Do you think that the corset will ever disappear altogether?
VS: I would say no. For one thing, when it reentered fashion as outerwear
in the 1980s, it became a sexualizing garment. Like the high-heel shoe,
it will be in and out of fashion, but it will always remain a sexy accessory.
And, in a sense, the fact that it's no longer a mandated part of the wardrobe
gives it greater potential for longevity.
It's hard to rebel against the optional.
VS: Right. And the corset persists in other forms. I do feel it has
been internalized in the form of diet and exercise, and I don't think
that will ever go away. Also, people have generally misinterpreted the
function of the corset: For the average woman, it was more a bust support
and a bust enhancer than a waist cincher. The historical evidence for
this is overwhelming. So, of course, the corset survives in the bra.
Then, indeed, the corset will not disappear in my lifetime. I have been
nude in public, but I have not appeared dressed and braless since the
6th grade, and I can imagine no set of circumstances in which I would
willingly forgo the brassiere. I would be a sad, pale imitation of myself
Corset: A Cultural History by Valerie Steele