Call for Comments: Corsets, Torture Device of the Patriarchy or Comfy Back Brace of Vintage Glamour?

From Katya: Or, perhaps, a little of column A, a little of column B depending on historical context and use?

I know you were all waiting with bated breath for our next fashion-centered episode (I mean, I was). Listeners that have ever checked out my Instagram account (@JustThatNerdKid) know that it mainly documents my vintage inspired sewing projects, with regular cameos from my cat. I’ve been lurking in the online sewing community since I was in middle school and it’s put me in conversation with some other sub-cultures including – pin-ups and historical re-enactors – communities where modern and historical corsetry for fashion, costuming, or even to help with back pain is a thing. The Algorithm Gods accordingly pushed this video by YouTuber Karolina Żebrowska to my feed: How Victorian Men Taught Us to Hate Corsets: The Biggest Lie in Fashion History

She has two primary claims: 1) That historical corsets made in Hollywood are likely not properly made and improperly worn and it is this that causes the pain that actresses often note in interviews rather than something intrinsic to corseting itself and 2) the claims that corsets are painful, even harmful, stemming from misuse perpetuate anti-feminist arguments from the 19th and early 20th centuries that attempted to discredit women, especially suffragettes, by portraying them as incapable and anti-intellectual because they liked clothes.

The effects of tight lacing

Overall, I think her arguments are fairly compelling, especially when she cites the use of medical corsets and points viewers to Bernadette Banner, a historical sewist with scoliosis speaking about her experience of growing up in a medical corset or brace. Bernadette also has a series about making her own historical corset using methods and materials based on primary source research. (I’d also add Jessica Kellgren-Fozard’s video about getting a corset to help her deal with her own back pain resulting from her medical conditions. And also pretty vintage dresses because we can look after our health AND be fabulous at the same time.) In all three cases, Banner, Kellgren-Fozard, and Żebrowska note that the continued use medical corsets call into question myths about the medical risks of corseting when used properly* alongside the negative cultural effects of the continued stigmatization of corseting or other forms of traditionally feminine dress.

Now, we aren’t a medical podcast and I’m not a doctor so let’s accept the the sake of argument that corsets don’t pose a health risk. Let’s also accept that the way that Hollywood portrays corsets is not historically accurate (what? The film industry not historically accurate? NO, I DO NOT BELIEVE. *clutches pearls*) That leaves the cultural question: why would we oppose a fashion choice made by an individual that isn’t harming others? 

Philosopher Roland Barthes, one of the first academics to write on fashion by the way, notes that fashion is language (see The Fashion System). It is therefore a way of self-expression, communication, and identifying communities -in fashion often called sub-cultures- of like-minded individuals. Policing fashion by discrediting corsets, high heels, make up, hair styling, or other forms of self-decoration or body modification is therefore a method of policing how others choose to exist in the world including how they choose to express their gender, sexuality, interests, politics etc. It is effectively a form of governing speech through governing the individuals use of their own bodies. Anyone with a tattoo who has ever been lectured for the fact by a parent, friend, or complete stranger has experienced this first hand. 

The issue is when a culture, like 19th century anti-suffrage movement, manipulates the meaning of the language of fashion to mean something that enables discrimination. For example, the myth that shows up that shape wear and pantyhose cut off circulation to the brain (see The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), suggests that the women who wear these things are incapable and therefore not to be trusted with things like voting, having their own bank accounts, a career or generally any semblance of independence. More wide-spread modern examples include the natural hair movement that combats discrimination against primarily Black and other POC by weaponizing hair texture as a sign of being unhygienic or unprofessional. Requiring individuals to have straight hair, associated with beauty ideals founded in whiteness and white supremacy, turns the daily act of haircare and the personal choice of how to wear one’s hair into a politically charged stance -regardless of the individual’s own wishes. Deviating from the norms of whiteness, regardless of whether it is a choice or not, could cost individuals their jobs, their credibility, and more. 

The broken record of this show, that everything is ideological, applies to fashion. Part of the challenge is also that the meaning of fashion, like language, is contested. For example, feminism in the 1960s is often associated with the “bra burning” movement that saw bras, high-heels, and make-up as tools of patriarchal oppression. The point wasn’t about the fashion as such but the position in society that the fashion symbolized: these pieces of dress were culturally mandated regardless of personal identity or preference according to a society that wanted women to occupy a narrow position in society, primarily as sex objects and caretakers. Rejecting fashion associated with patriarchal culture was therefore a tool for rejecting patriarchy itself.

Arguably, in many quarters the pendulum has swung the opposite direction: one of the side-effects of the way this and ensuing periods of feminism was incorporated into mainstream narratives resulted in devaluing or stigmatizing symbols traditionally associated with femininity. Not only fashion but also aspects of women’s labor, like sewing, that have and continue to be devalued as “just” housework or “just’ women’s work. (Fashion and clothing manufacturing is also historically one of the few places where women could work outside of the home. The two are therefore linked, even though as cultural phenomena they manifest differently.) I know many women and femmes -myself included- wear traditionally feminine dress in the 21st century, including corsets, as an ideological statement asserting the value of femininity and their own personal freedom, combining aesthetic preference and political act in one. 

We’re planning to have a fashion historian and a few other vintage enthusiasts on the show to discuss the meaning of fashion, past and present, so please share your questions. What defines your aesthetic and why? Have you ever encountered either positive or negative influences that changed your relationship to clothing or your body?

*Aside from being well fitted, corsets must be broken in or “seasoned” prior to prolonged wear. They should also not be laced to the point of pain or discomfort but should feel more like a firm hug. Claims about health risks, especially the idea that corsets damage and rearrange organs, are mostly linked to “tight-lacing” or the use of corsets to achieve a substantial difference in waist size. I’m not a doctor however this looks to be an “everything in moderation” kind of issue best explored between an individual and a trusted physician. 

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