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Tight Laced: Unravelling the Corset’s Taboo

   Are you looking for a miracle product that smoothes out lumps and bumps, makes you look thinner, and doesn’t require any exercise or surgery? For the longest time, Spanx seemed too good to be true. Yes, they’re uncomfortable, difficult to put on and take off and, of course, downright unsexy—but no one had to know. From the outside they give off an image of smooth lines and a perfect fit without the use of surgery, pills, restrictive corsets, or dieting. Looking your best is as simple as putting on a pair of underwear. However, if a deal seems too good to be true, it’s probably because it is too good to be true.

   After years of being boasted as the ultimate miracle undergarment, boosting the confidence of red carpet stars and everyday women alike, it was finally time for reality to set in. In early January this year, Huffington Post published “Spanx are Literally Squeezing Your Organs”: an article exposing the health hazards of elasticized
shapewear. Researchers made claims that Spanx and types of foundation wear are compressing and realigning women’s internal organs, cutting off circulation, and leading to an abundance of health complications ranging from tingling extremities, to blood clots, and obscure skin infections.

   Following the publication of the Huffington Post article, a shapewear exposé swept the internet. The same publishers who once sang the praises of Sarah Blake’s seemingly female-empowering empire, now attributed her creation to perpetuating unrealistic ideals of femininity, and frivolously glorifying fashion over health.

   Could it be that Spanx, the great liberator from torturous and invasive compression wear of yore, is transforming women in the very same way as the devices it tried to distance itself from? Not to rely on another colloquialism, but it’s common knowledge that history repeats itself, and this story sounded all too familiar.

Remember modern shape wear’s older sister, the corset?

   Nearly all of the same health claims were made about the corset back in the late 1800’s. Since then, it has become vilified as a primitive, restricting form of foundationwear that enslaved women’s bodies for centuries.

   I began to wonder what the “moral” difference is between squeezing yourself into a sausage-like casing of spandex and lacing yourself into a corset. Both are essentially used to modify the body in some respect, so why are Spanx seen as normal while a corset is taboo?

It seems that this year in particular, corsets have been receiving quite a bit of media attention. What two years ago was largely seen as the property of alternative models and fetishists started receiving praise from well known celebrities. Most notably, Jessica Alba admitted to wearing a corset for 24 hours a day, for three months straight to help her body bounce back from giving birth. These celebrity endorsements have given way to dieting plans focused around corset-like compression bands that restrict the appetite.

   In actuality, the corset’s history had more to do with support than aesthetic modification. It’s rumored the corset was an Italian invention, brought to France by Catherine de Medici. Through her popularity the trend spread, and by the middle of the sixteenth century corsets became a foundation wear staple. It was at this point that the “busk” was incorporated into the garment’s design, giving it a structured shape to support women’s breasts and aid in relief from the weight of heavy garments.

   It wasn’t until Victorian times that “tight lacing” became popular. In the mid through late 19th century, an exaggerated hourglass figure became fashionable, and corset shapes changed from cylindrical to curvaceous. The tightness of a corset was equated to a woman’s standard of purity. As a result, the term “upright citizen” was coined in reference to the perfect posture obtained through Victorian-style corsets.

   After a few decades, concerns arose about the safety of tight lacing. Accounts of bruising, broken ribs, and failed pregnancies came to light. (It’s rumored that on many occasions the latter

   was intentional due to the inaccessibility of birth control.) The backlash was a movement for “rational dress,” based upon beliefs that fashion is frivolous, and women who wore tightly laced clothing were vain, frivolous slaves to fashion who were consequently unfit to perform their sole responsibility to society, which was being a mother and raising children. Oddly enough, shortly after WWI began, there was a shortage of the metal needed to create corsets. Women sought bras for a less restricting form of support and paired them with a girdle made from rubberized materials.

   Upon reflection, the corset’s role was more akin to that of a modern bra. It provided structural support and played a large role in women’s dress. A bra alone is not fetishized, but rather it is the idea of a bra that is. The sexual association is that bras hold to breasts and corsets cling to women’s waists. Although the bra is eroticized, it’s widely accepted use makes it “normal,” ergo
—not deviant.

   Textbooks can only teach you so much. Fashion is complex to analyze in that it isn’t merely an art to appreciate behind museum glass, or a social movement that can be retold in a chronological series of events.  Fashion is both living art and history. Its timeline is anachronistic—moving, stopping, and then circulating back around as trends come in and out     of style, each time shapeshifting the cultural meaning imposed upon the trend at any given period
of time. I wanted to understand exactly what made the corset so taboo, and decided the best way to do so would be by trying it myself.

   After doing extensive research on the history of corsets as well as modern corsets, I decided to purchase one from local NYC store Orchard Corset. After much evaluation I settled on a cotton under bust CS-411 with steel front busks and double spiral steel boning—the real deal rather than a flimsy costume or lingerie corset. Orchard offers a wide variety of styles and fabrics, but the under bust is the easiest for every day wear, and the cotton is the most breathable fabric to choose during summertime.

   Orchard offers a ton of great customer support both in store and online, plus they have great Youtube videos teaching the basics of waist training: the act of wearing a corset for prolonged periods of time to achieve a smaller waist. Although tight lacing wasn’t my intent, it was super helpful figuring out how to “season” and put on my corset. Before you can wear your corset for a long period of time, you break it in gently for several hours at a time.

   It took me a few tries to figure out the best way to put it on properly. It’s essential for both the safety of your body and the form of the corset that the back is laced up evenly. Needless to saying, having to simultaneously look over my back in the mirror while pulling at the laces proved to be quite the challenge.

   Wearing my corset for the first time was hardly the painful experience I expected. Of course, I only pulled in the strings slightly for my first wear—just to the point where I could feel that it

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   was on, but didn’t feel squeezed. I was shocked at how big of a difference just wearing it made. With just a slight change my waist looked far more defined, and I had perfect posture with very little effort. However, my posture was so straight that bending over was nearly impossible. During one of my first wears I made the mistake of lacing up my corset before putting on my shoes. Needless to say, getting dressed actually required thought and planning rather than just grabbing my clothing and putting it on.

   I followed the store’s instructions regarding breaking in the corset. The first few days I’d wear it from 30 minutes to an hour at a time, eventually I’d lace up and wear it out while running errands.

   By the next week I began tightening it more snugly, to the point where I could definitely feel the corset’s hug, but didn’t have shortness of breath or any pain. I’d either wear it for the course of the work day or put it on before a night out. After about six hours of wear, its presence would annoy me, especially while wearing on the train during a long night out. It’s impossible to slouch in a corset, and I do not recommend lounging around the house in one. One Sunday night I made the mistake of lacing up after eating pizza, and then heading out with friends for two dollar beers. That was a disaster.

   I can understand why some might be interested in using a corset to restrict their appetites and lose weight. The corset’s compression on your organs means you feel full faster since there’s less room for your stomach to expand after eating. It’s physically impossible to eat to the point of feeling “stuffed,” which is exactly what I tried to do that night.

   However, humans are not meant to eat as large of portions as we normally do. Luckily, our stomach expands to accommodate our excess food. While wearing a corset I actually felt like I had more energy because I was eating the proper amount of food I’m actually supposed to consume. Never once did I take off my corset and feel hungry. However, there were times when I’d take it off and mindlessly binge on food—my self discipline, and corset, thrown to the wind.

   Overall, after my brief two week dalliance in corsetry was a largely positive experience. Although it was difficult to bend over, and was more restrictive motion-wise than shapewear, it was more comfortable in a lot of ways. Even with its hook and eye closures and laces, I found the corset easier to put on and a lot easier to take off than Spanx. Also, I never felt sweaty or gross while wearing a corset in the summer. Maybe that’s a result of the cotton being more breathable.

   One huge advantage for modern shape wear is that Spanx are certainly more discreet than a corset. Depending on what kind of material I was wearing, I’d at times have to put an extra layer over to make sure that none of my corset’s lines or boning was showing through my dress. Some avid fans of the corset wear them over their clothes, but I wanted to see what the garment was like as foundation wear rather than a fashion statement.

   While I was wearing a corset I felt more feminine, elegant and almost regal in some ways. My posture was ideal and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy having a waist of pin up proportions. There’s a certain air of dignity inherent to a corset that Spanx lack. It’s obvious that the garment is a result of craftsmanship rather than an assembly line production. Corsets also contour to your body as you wear them more and they become more comfortable. In that sense it has the same personal feeling as a favorite bra, or shoe rather than elastic foundation wear which retains the same shape.

   In conclusion, I’ve realized that almost everything that is created with the intention of making us “look good” is most likely going to hurt us in some way. Whether it’s wearing high heels, putting on Spanx, getting braces, laying out in the sun, getting a bikini wax, or wearing a corset. Anything used in excess comes with ramifications. Wearing a corset is no different.

   Although I do have a newfound appreciation for corsetry, would I wear the garment all the time? No. But then again, I don’t wear shape wear or high heels all the time for the exact same reason.

   Upon demystifying the corset, I’ve realized that it really is no more taboo than a bra. Certainly Victorian ladies would be shocked if they were labeled as sexual deviants for donning a corset, after all, they were seen as the pinnacle of moral purity. It appears that the corset’s fetishization stems from the transgressive nature associated with body modification of any exotic form. What is familiar to us may be seen as taboo later on in history.

   Personally, I can’t help but laugh at the thought of people a hundred years from now wearing Spanx as taboo fetish wear.

 by Christine Buzan