Because of my clear fascination with historical shapewear and undergarments, a number of people have recommended that I read Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present, and Myself by Sarah A. Chrisman (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2013). Although I am deeply interested in clothing and historical costume, and although I incorporate this kind of material culture into my work as a historian, I have never been tempted to become a historical re-enactor. Ever. Perhaps because of my utter disinterest in wearing historical clothing myself, I was eager to read Chrisman’s book, which is an autobiographical account of a relationship between a 30-year old woman and her corset. Chrisman is very insightful about the ways in which corseting herself forces changes in her body, posture, and wardrobe. However, she is much less thoughtful about how the people of Seattle respond to her experiment in corsetry.
Chrisman and her husband Gabriel enjoy wearing real vintage clothing from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and she describes their growing involvement with the reenactor community in Washington state. In wearing a corset, Chrisman reports that she was able to leave her tall, slouchy, not model-thin body behind and finally to feel at home in her body for the first time in her life. Her breasts were relieved of the pressure of her bra straps, and for once her curves were flattering. Furthermore, her corset limited the amount of food she could consume at any given time, removing another source of anxiety about her body: “It was no longer a matter of biology, but of simple physics: my stomach could not expand past the diameter of my corset. If I started the day with my corset at twenty-eight, or twenty-four, or twenty inches, as long as I did not loosen it, I would have the exact same measurement at the end of the day, no matter what I ate or what I did in the interim. I could eat until I was full at every meal,” (120-21).
However, Chrisman approaches her interests in corsetry and historical costume like a buff, not a historian. And like many buffs, she displays an astonishing intolerance for any fellow buffs whose interest in historic costume isn’t as accurate as Chrisman believes it should be. Continue Reading »