David Kunzle has chosen an awkward moment to write seriously and in detail about corsets and tight-lacing. We are living in a period when, as he allows in his preface, the practice is viewed “as one of the quintessential Victorian social horrors, the forcing of young females into narrow corsets being regarded as morally and hygienically on a par with the forcing of small boys into narrow chimneys.” In the present feminist atmosphere the historical corset is associated almost entirely with the oppression of women, if it is taken seriously at all. Mention of it most often seems to conjure a vision of idle, neurasthenic ladies fainting on sofas and prevented by their stays from doing useful work or having serious thoughts.
Kunzle is brave to offer a full-scale history of the corset, but even braver to expand and elaborate his heterodox view of it—that “the corset gave in the past as it still does, vestigially, in the present not merely physical support, but positive physical and erotic pleasure.” He presents a huge body of evidence to support this view, which in turn leads to an even more heterodox theory that tight-lacing was an expression of both sexual and social revolt—a symbol not of repression at all, but of a sexual rebellion that was a significant aspect of the class struggle. To make such a claim convincing, Kunzle has had to proceed with care into disputed territory to establish historical connections among the realms of fashion, politics, sex, medicine, and morality without sounding cranky or fatuous. To see a tightly constricted body as an image of freedom takes not only imagination but historical tact and a fine anthropological detachment, and Kunzle displays all three.
Painful compression is glaringly absent from current female torsos, although standard erotic taste still runs to high narrow heels, long red nails, and multiple holes in the ears. Puritanical Americans still love the pleasures of self-punishment, although now the luxury of severe bodily discipline usually takes the form of stringent exercise and curtailment of food and drink, not the systematic application of tight corsets and starched collars. The new methods of self-torture seem to connote moral freedom and physical purification while the old habits suggest social tyranny supported by sexual hypocrisy. A good look at them in context is probably not such a bad idea, as a possible hedge against smugness.
Studying only the element of constriction in dress might seem slightly perverse, but Kunzle’s book has the virtues of certain other acknowledged classics, notably Steven Marcus’s The Other Victorians, in which matters once glossed over as unworthy are shown to have instructive connections with official history. Even most costume history contains spongy generalizations about the past meanings of clothes, copied without demur from earlier books. Rarely has an aspect of historical dress been intelligently discussed with enough reference to complex civilized life to engage an educated reader. David Kunzle is an art historian with a special interest in the arts of popular social protest, and his earlier book traces the history of European pictorial broadsheets, picture narratives published from the fifteenth century until the early nineteenth.1 He is accustomed to studying history in the mirror of popular response. Looking at corsets this way—plowing through mountains of significant trash as well as standard classics in at least four languages—he is exceptionally well equipped to explain them to modern readers.
A tight fit around the body began to appear in Western clothing for both sexes at the beginning of the fourteenth century, and “fashion” as we now know it then began in good earnest, along, of course, with so much else. Mode in dress ceased to be a matter of regional custom and became, like the other arts, an index of Western social flux, sexual stress, and individual expression. One basic element of fashion was a variable mode of shaping the midsection; and as sexuality more and more infused the forms of art, dress also divided the sexes in this respect with great visual energy. Women’s legs were engulfed in fabric below stiffened ribcages, tight waists, and exposed chests; men displayed their legs but tended to stiffen and hide their arms and shoulders, chests and necks. The rigid shapings of male dress were generalized over the whole body, suggesting armor divided into parts, a well-organized force of will, and a kind of total corporeal tumescence. Men were often constricted but their tight waists were always accompanied by padded chests, sleeves, and codpieces, or stiff collars and rigid boots. Women stiffened only the center: the rest could flow, spread, and swell with the vivid signs of organic life.
Once set in motion, fashion kept changing; but after about 1500, when bones came into use for stiffening garments, various forms of bodice stays were a constant feature of Western female costume for four centuries.2 Over so broad a span of time and place, stays obviously altered in aspect and significance according to the facts of female life, but they seemed, Kunzle suggests, to confer a basic female self-respect. Women wore corsets in factories, in fields and shops, in mansions and palaces. They wore them teaching school in Montana, dancing in Viennese ballrooms, selling fish in Amsterdam, or managing businesses in Paris. Milkmaids in barns and housemaids running up and down stairs wore them; only serfs and the destitute had to go without. Corsets differed, like women, in shape and social character.
And like women, they provoked enormous hostility throughout modern history. No other item of costume has drawn so much attention in print and excited so much wrath. Centuries of misogyny seem to have been concentrated in the form of hatred of stays—for undoubtedly it was in her corsets that Woman seemed to be most blatantly insisting on her sexuality. In the first Renaissance days of bodice-stiffening it was the thrusting up of the breasts that was most deplored, and early reformers blamed stays on sexual vanity. In the late eighteenth century, objections may have had the same underlying motive but were made on the grounds that corsets violated Nature and blasphemed the sacred classical proportions. In the nineteenth century, health and maternal functions were allegedly threatened by stays, and willful slavery to fashion was held responsible. For centuries, women apparently wore their corsets in spite of public opinion. The clearly erotic meaning of stays was always hard to condone, even though many men were excited by them and women enjoyed wearing them. High heels and makeup have had similar histories.
A tight corset sexualizes the body not simply by thrusting the bosom and hips into prominence, but by showing how it must feel. The sight of discomfort voluntarily endured for the sake of an acute but obscure satisfaction is very disturbing. It makes Europeans very squeamish about Ubangi lip-stretching, Sumatran teeth-filling, and Chinese foot-binding, for example. Among other things, extreme tightness seems to suggest a sexual readiness deliberately prolonged, an erotic tension stretched to the breaking point. Similarly, the display of self-inflicted sexual pain seems to invite sexual cruelty.
Kunzle distinguishes between normal corset-wearing, which was almost as common as skirt-wearing despite the fuss made about it, and the fetish of extreme tight-lacing. The latter was a personal obsession which occasionally seemed consonant with fashion but which was never condoned and rarely practiced by the truly fashionable. Even when fashionable dress required tight and long stays, fetishistic tight-lacing was practiced only by a few. Extreme practitioners laced themselves gradually smaller and smaller, patiently training their figures to the absolute minimum that could be borne, measuring themselves constantly, taking pleasure in the accomplishment, in the triumph over pain, and ultimately in the sensation itself. This state of mind quite clearly has nothing to do with an interest in fashion; but there were periods in fashion; but there were periods in fashion history when it seemed to social critics as if it did.
After the corset was made to open and close with hooks up the front, the wearer could put it on herself. The garment could put it on herself. The garment could be laced up the back in advance, hooked on, and then tightened by pulling sideways on the ends of the laces, which emerged through loops at the waist. Holding on to the bedpost while somebody else tugged from behind was not necessary after 1845, although such collaborative practice was often an important part of the fetish. The image was certainly the main feature of pictorial satire, but it shows more about how corsets were perceived than about how women got dressed. It is true, however, that before the French Revolution stay-lacing required help.
Extreme tight-lacing and public dismay about it seem to have intensified after 1760, and continued to increase throughout the nineteenth century, parallel to the rise of industrial wealth and the dissolution of old social hierarchies. Kunzle repeatedly demonstrates that in such a European social climate, tight-lacing was an expression of sexual and social aspiration—“an arriviste, never an arrivée custom.” Severe tight-lacing was most likely to occur among upwardly mobile young women trying to assert themselves, escape the maternal stereotype, and gain power in the world, if only through erotic expression. It was partly the socially subversive flavor of the practice among allegedly respectable women that aroused disapproval. In the middle 1860s, for example, tight-lacing was lumped with other pushy habits affected by “fast” young girls, such as meddling in politics and striving to become learned. Strong-minded and tight-laced girls were condemned in the same breath, not contrasted. Their loins were girded with more strength than was seemly.
By the 1880s European female fashion had achieved an intense erotic emphasis focused on an hour-glass torso rising above a very narrow, tight, long skirt that flowered into a bustle and train at the back. The sensual vigor of such clothing, in a period of great sexual repressiveness, brought out all the force of submerged terror in the reformers, including women, then crusading against fashion in the name of reason. Conservative male reformers spoke of freeing women from their folly and their furbelows, but Kunzle believes that what many of them really felt was a strong impulse to restrict the sexual liberty so evidently taken by the expressive details of women’s dress—especially by the disturbing corset—and to shackle women in the real bondage of steady maternity and honorable domestic labor. For that kind of pure, sweet, noble life, of course, unattractively loose-waisted and unnoticeably simple garments are just the thing.
The frightening inference was that the tight corset, far from being an encumbrance, was in fact the vital key to a woman’s toilette, its generating engine, the vibrant source of the pleasure she felt in her billowing silks and quivering feathers. The intuition that suffering might be undergone to take pleasure caused a lot of the stir about corsetting in its heyday. Restrictive masculine clothing of the same period imposed suffering only for good form’s sake. It had no trace of auto-erotic flavor, and so it escaped the same degree of censure and ridicule. Tight-lacing was a celebrated feature in the personal arrangements of famous fin-de-siècle demimondaines, for whom extreme narcissism seemed a correct public posture: milk-baths and a fourteen-inch waist were both socially forbidden and thrillingly sexy. Horrifying rumors were circulated that such women even had ribs removed to allow for tighter stays.
Tight corsets were also worn by men, especially during the days of the great Regency dandies, and most significantly during the rise of military dandyism all over Europe following the Napoleonic wars. Kunzle again suggests that the very tight neckwear and very tight waistcoats then worn with stays by men expressed an anxious insistence on the self, on personal and even sexual worth, specifically in the struggle to push oneself up the social ladder. Many Regency dandies were upstarts, not landed gentry. Their claim to social distinction and acceptance had to lie in a personal style, even a physical and erotic one, just like that of similarly ambitious women. Kunzle finds a related social anxiety underlying the rigid military dress uniforms of the same period, which were especially strangling at the neck and waist.
Such gear was worn (also with stays) by officers all over Europe, as if they wished to undertake severe hardships even in peacetime, to appear in training even in the ballroom. As the outward sign of a capacity for endurance it was a claim to honor as well as a goad to masculine pride whenever it uneasily confronted the effortless confidence adorning pride of lineage and inherited fortune. Naturally enough, such a gamecock stance in men was easy to ridicule as preposterous vanity and even effeminacy; during the early nineteenth century, military and civilian dandies alike were mercilessly lampooned by the popular press. As opposed to social ambition, however, Kunzle likens the severest form of tight-lacing among very young girls to anorexia, as having been a similar sign of acute psychic distress. It was a way, he suggests, of “numbing pain, or of replacing a psychological stress with a physical stress and discipline easier to bear and better rewarded.”
In Victorian England, tight-lacing had very little chance of being directly defended by its practitioners, since the received attitude toward it was so intensely disapproving. But during the 1860s, The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, under its forward-looking and youthful editor, Samuel Beeton, opened its correspondence columns to discussion of this controversial subject. A flood of letters arrived describing an unmistakably erotic pleasure as well as a general sense of well-being achieved through extreme tight-lacing. A heightened physical awareness and energy, not weakness and sluggish languor, were often attributed to the practice. Women of eighty wrote that they had tight-laced all their lives and never had a day’s illness and so forth. This material nicely balances the medical horror stories about corsetting collected by feminist historians, and all the familiar testimony about what a martyrdom corsets often were. Kunzle demonstrates that inveterate tight-lacers were actually quite hardy and tough; the ones who died or languished under its influence were already undoubtedly the victims of existing ailments or weaknesses. Out of fear or prudery, doctors at a loss for diagnoses might well attribute more symptoms to the effects of corsetting than a true scientific spirit ought perhaps to have allowed.
In the twentieth century extreme tight-lacing sank out of sight and became one of many other “kinky” obsessions. The most outstanding present-day tight-lacing fetishist is Mrs. Ethel Granger, who made the Guinness Book of Records in the late Fifties with her thirteen-inch waist. This active and healthy lady is now over seventy-five and still tight-lacing, and we are assured that she “can still walk for hours in her size three shoes with their five-inch stiletto heels.” There is a picture of her to convince the incredulous.
On the surface of fashion, twentieth-century female clothing has generally abandoned constriction to aim at expressing an ideal of comfortable freedom—an aspiration not always lived up to in sartorial reality. Woman’s trousered leg, not her girded loins, has been the chief vessel of that ideal in modern life, and the reason is not so much that pants are actually freer (some constrict a lot), but that more than anything else, female trouser-wearing seems to be the most satisfying symbolic repudiation of nineteenth-century sexual views. Corsets did reappear to fortify rebellious girls who flouted convention in late-Thirties historical films like Jezebel and Gone with the Wind, and the wasp-waist was even more ostentatiously and cinematically revived in the early Fifties. But the very different social temper of the Sixties soon took the look of dress in other directions.
David Kunzle obviously has as deep a sympathy for variations of sexual expression as he has for variations of social protest, and he works hard at understanding possible links between them. His book is social history in depth, not entertaining commentary. It is encyclopedic in both the good and the bad sense: we are perpetually given more than we want to know, but on the other hand, if we ever do want to know something about the subject, we will surely find it here.
March 4, 1982