Picture of me in the first corset I ever made, a Victorian corset which, if I'd been more experienced at the time, I might have drafted it to accentuate my already meager bosom rather than to flatten it to nothing. Photo taken by Autumn Adamme
Wearing a corset is believed, by many modern women, to be a specious kind of torture. Many actresses will say that the hardest part about playing their historical role was having to be squeezed into a tight corset in which they couldn't breathe. If you can't breathe in your corset it's probably tied too tightly. While history does report some rib removals and fainting from lack of oxygen, this was not necessarily the norm. As with people throughout history (and certainly true of our modern times) there are always a few extremists in the lot to make us believe the worst of everything. There are certainly people today who's love of corsets stems from a desire to milk from it the most extreme expression of shape, and perhaps some pain as well, but that's a personal choice.
I'm not a romantic nor an extremist. I have always been boringly pragmatic. I can tell you from personal experience that wearing a corset can be comfortable and supportive. Although my love of historical fashion started, according to my mother, before I could talk, I didn't make my first corset until I worked with Autumn making custom costumes for dance and fair folk way back in the early nineties. I've only ever made one corset for myself, though I've made quite a few for other people. The corset pictured above is what I made for myself. It no longer exists and it makes me sad because it represented for me a great shaping time in my young adulthood, both literally and figuratively. It burned to a crisp in an attic fire several years ago and I wish I had carefully photographed it before it went up in flames. These couple of pictures that Autumn took of me in it are all I have. Aside from memories.
Making a corset is an arduous affair. I loved making them. They take hours of drafting, cutting, piecing, lining, grommeting, and then, just when you think you can't take any more of it, you have to hand bind the whole thing closed. You can't skimp on quality, you can't use broad loose stitches. A corset is a utilitarian object meant to last. It has a purpose and to perform you must use tight close stitching. I have to admit that I didn't love making costumes for dancers. I hated making random custom clothes for people who didn't want to pay more than $1 an hour in labor. I still have nightmares about a certain pair of chinos. I should have known that anyone getting a pair of chinos custom made was going to be a busk up my ass.
I loved making the corsets. I loved hand work. It gave me plenty of time to let my imagination run wild. I lived in a microcosm of thread and brocade. My fingers literally bled from the work. It pleased me to imagine doing it all by candlelight. I imagined being a seamstress during the French revolution and how much that would stink (literally) but how the work would have been amazing too. I would get lost in all the pieces around me. I loved pounding the grommets with a mallet on a piece of battered wood we had just for the purpose. That's a noise people have been making since man first fashioned bludgeons to beat the brains of fish with. I loved it when a grommet was driven against its washer cleanly. I loved working the metal against the heavy rich brocades. I loved the juxtaposition of the stiff boning and the malleable fabric. Like real bones beneath human flesh.
The last step, binding the corset, was both an exquisite pain and a great triumph of will over object. I loved this step best of all. Tight tiny stitches pushed relentlessly through so many layers of fabric you could bend the needle if you weren't careful. I'm not sure you could use a needle again after it worked through a corset binding. Might only have been good for some light mending of airy single layer silk after that. My fingertips were pocked with needle pricks and though it was painful at first, by halfway through sewing the binding the tips would be numb from the abuse.
When my own corset was completed I was very proud of it. I can see many faults even in this old photograph of it, yet it was something so complicated and so pretty, with such a satisfying weight to it, I didn't care about the puckering which I would later get better at avoiding. I did wish I had been more careful with my own fittings so that I could have prevented smashing my very small bosom into nothing.
I am not a person who wants pain in my fashion. I don't ever wear shoes that are too small even though my feet are already far from dainty. I will not wear heels that make it difficult or dangerous for me to walk. I refuse to get my legs waxed. I will, under no circumstances, wear a waistband that cuts into my flesh. So when I say that wearing a corset is comfortable, I mean you to understand that I found it truly comfortable. Some people like a corset for different reasons and may seek constriction and pain, and we can all be pleased in our own way because the beauty of a corset is that it's adjustable.
When I look at this picture of myself, so much thinner than I ever remember being, it might seem that my corset is so tight it's given me a much smaller waist than I already had. This is not the case. I had a very small waist in proportion to my hips already. Which is pretty amazing because I haven't got one at all now. My corset might have taken my waist in by an inch. Maybe a little more. But that's it. I wore mine as an undergarment. This photograph is of me in my Victorian underwear. I have never before or since allowed myself to be seen in public in my underwear. I wore this underneath my Victorian ball gown. I danced waltzes and polkas in them.
Wearing a corset pulls you up to your maximum height. It doesn't allow you to slouch or slink. It holds you tall, strong, in some ways impenetrable. It's like wearing soft armor. It accentuates your figure while giving courage.
Wearing a corset does not impoverish a woman's strength, it supports the strength she already has.
Written by Angelina Williamson.