Introduction to Corsets | Period Costumes - Corset History | Corsets, The Fashionable Foundation - Style, Wealth and Status
Types of Corsets, How to Make Them and Where to Get Them | Corsets, Gracious Instruments of Torture - Health, Punishment and Oppression
The Subversive Stays - Corsets and Sex, Erotica and Fetishism | The Corset - Conclusion
In the periods when corsets were worn, clothes were generally revealing (not that they showed a lot of flesh, but they certainly suggested it) and made subtle enhancement necessary. The 1500s robe, the 18th Century gown, the Victorian cuirasse, all revealed the underlying shape and had other 'display features' - not to mention the notorious effects of windy weather on a crinoline. This overt sexuality was incongruous, since the clothing itself was not easily removed. To go unlaced was to invite shame; hence the opposites 'straight-laced' and 'loose' women. It would, of course, be unwise for a prostitute to make herself too inaccessible.
Early on, therefore, the corset was a sexual item. It is obviously and traditionally attractive: the primitive depictions of women, concentrating on the generative and secondary sexual areas, are exaggerations similar to the hourglass or S-curve. The small waist emphasises the breasts and buttocks (corsets often left these bare); altered breathing resulted in the famous heaving bosoms of period drama. Recent research has suggested that those women judged most sexually attractive have 24-31" waists and 36-40" hips. It's not slenderness but proportion that is vital. This is linked to fertility- the female sex hormone oestrogen concentrates fat on the buttocks, making the waist optically smaller. This obvious symbol of marriageability ('I'm worth your time - I'm not pregnant, but I'm fertile') contributed to the waist being so drastically reduced.
These improvements explain the corset's popularity with pin-ups and sex symbols. Hence the many pictures of a corseted Marilyn Monroe - a generously proportioned woman (which she undoubtedly and successfully was) could be further enhanced by careful manipulation of laces and a suitably revealing pose. Typical girlie/promotional shots show how corsets are used to dress both interchangeable lad-mag models (perhaps less successfully) and international icons. They are garments which really do not suit very thin women; something recognised by the perennial lacing-up of model Sophie Dahl1, and whoever dressed Kate Winslet in Titanic.
Venus in Curves
Women in the 19th Century recognised other physical effects. Tight-lacing was known to produce particular pain/pleasure sensations, suggesting that the 'repressed' Victorian sensuality transformed into masochism - which, of course, was perfectly ladylike.
Aside from tight-lacing, normal corset wear is a novel experience. It is not at all uncomfortable, let alone painful, as widely thought - it is more like being gently hugged all round. There is an immediate (again, not unpleasant) effect upon posture, and breathing; this is not so odd as to be unduly noticeable. It is a pleasant feeling of being embraced, supported and safe.
Psychologically, corsets have advantages. Women, obviously, now buy things which enhance the figure and emphasise femininity. It's said that buying lingerie is the only shopping issue directly concerned with female self-confidence, and it is immensely rewarding (who cares about narcissism?) to look at a pleasing reflection. There's no doubt that admiring one's (slightly improved) appearance raises self-esteem, and the corset - with its many meanings and enhancing abilities - is one of the best outfits for the auto-voyeur.
Taken to extremes, corsets have long been used as a form of erotic asphyxiation. Crush-lacing, although unwise for longer periods, causes shortness of breath and consequent arousal. Corsets have a place in many sadomasochistic games; its usefulness in bondage (laces as restraints and restricted movement) and discipline (knotted cords can be used for mild flagellation) has been well exploited.
It is also used in D/s (Dominance/submission) relationships. The Top may wear one because (testimony of several professional dominatrices) it feels something like armour, making one impenetrable and commanding (although you're advised to put your boots on first, or get your slave to help you since you can't bend down). Otherwise, the bottom can be forced into one and made to wear it under everyday clothing, perform certain services, parade about with their privates on show, or simply suffer - a form of 'petticoat discipline' more immediate than frilly knickers.
There exists a splendid corset by theatrical and fantasy specialists Tamalah Gamah and Ieish. A little more heavy-duty than the average Ann Summers offering, it has an abundance of aggressive decoration. Made of leather (the traditional dominant's choice) it hints at bondage by using strap attachments, belts and buckles. There are special textured effects on the shoulders and matching gauntlets. Reminiscent of chain mail, the lower portion resembles a chastity belt. The shiny surface is like an insect's shell, and this along with an abundance of metal studs suggests the wearer is not to be approached. The whole is like a guarded fortress, a 'touch me and you'll be sorry' effect.
I Love You for your Corset...
The many layers of underwear worn with a corset in the past have influenced its position in the fetish scene today. Here, anything that is ritualised dressing rather than a necessity has acquired popularity, corsetry more than most. The use of corsets in sex is apparently a proud tradition. A contemporary account lists how they were used as a form of remote seduction, the woman variously adjusting her suspenders and tightening her laces. And eventually, they were used to indicate her preferred sexual position; a low-fronted corset with 'close-grouped suspenders' indicated 'take me from behind'.
The American fetish magazine Bizarre recognised the erotic capability of the corset - their typical treatment of it being a corseted lady in lace and large heels, rear prominently on display, oblivious to the watcher. The idea that she is in casual wear suggests she's doing as she pleases, rather than being posed for the enjoyment of a (male) audience. This is similar to the modern use of corsets as confidence wear - however, it's an odd dichotomy, being both dominant and submissive.
This is mainstream corset fetishism. The true, Freudian meaning of the term - an object or body part that is fixated upon until it becomes the 'primary love object' - goes to extremes. Its use in this sense varies; it may be voyeuristic (corseted partners); inanimate (the object itself, lacking a wearer); to do with body modification (small waist) or transvestism.
Corset fetishism has been explained as childhood memories of the mother's underwear (less probable today) or the garment's ability to create pleasure, both physical and aesthetic. A voyeuristic corset fetishist described his interest as not 'clean', that is, related to other clothing and lingerie. He likes seeing a woman corseted, and the fun involved in playing with this. Enhancement of the underlying shape is also said to be important. Although this is a visual attraction, he worried about his fantasies taking over and his becoming absorbed in them to the exclusion of other activities, or people. Luckily he had an obliging wife.
Women involved in corset fetishism are notably tight-lacers (women are generally less interested in visual stimuli, as opposed to situations or feelings). For them, it's the challenge of removing an extra inch or so, and - at least at the beginning - it is a visual concern. Similar to going to the gym. Increased wear is coupled with growing self-esteem and appreciation, and physical sensations also help. Often these women are encouraged by their partners - Ethel Granger, the late record-holder with a waist of 15", was married to a corset fetishist. They may become alternative celebrities.
Kathie Jung is one such example. She ousted all competition with her appearance at one of the annual Bal de Gracieuses, a meeting for corset-wearers and their admirers which is always an occasion for fantastic outfits. Kathie's was made of silver. Aggressive, it took the corset-as-armour to extremes and had a hint of Gautier's cone-cups. Lines marking the position of redundant boning were described in bristling rivets, and it featured wrought decoration which echoed late-Victorian bodice embroidery. Her extreme curvature would seem at odds with the rigidity of the material, but subtle shaping makes it appear fluid and light. She wore a supple leather under-corset, just visible underneath. Here, corsetry's relationship to engineering are clear: exact shaping and joining are shown, and a similarity to heavy building work (such as bridge design) in the separate panels and rivets. Kathie Jung is today's unofficial record-holder (contested by Spook, among others), at a Grangeresque 15". However, she appears to be quite small in stature, so this looks less exaggerated than you would think. The silver outfit reportedly hinged at the back, and it was generally thought to be museum-worthy.
Woman or Teapot? It's your Choice
This extraordinary enhancement of femininity is what attracts transvestites and transsexuals to corsetry. Besides their advantages to female physiques, the drastic alterations in shape are ideal for men wishing to adopt a more womanly appearance. The transvestite's favourite is reportedly the Victorian hourglass corset, adapted for the smaller-busted shape, which dispenses with the need for awkward padding. Rocky Horror Show fans aside, a corset allows men to wear fitted clothes without looking irregular and also - worn with high heels - bestows the swaying female gait.
There is more to this, however, than gender alteration. In other cultures, men's use of corsetry is a rite of passage, and the small waist - as in 16th and 19th Century Europe - is fashionable. These cultural associations explain the appeal of corsetry to 'Modern Primitives'.
This disparate group is characterised by their use of body modification, ritually altering the physical confines of the body with techniques from primitive tribes, shamans and mystics. Their 'leader' is Fakir Musafa (a pseudonym, unfortunately) who has been involved in such practices since childhood. The results of his experiments with waist-training are shown in the famous picture of him outwardly dressed in suit and tie, but with a (slightly daft-looking) hourglass shape. The use of corsetry in this way is a record of how physical limitations can be and are extended in order to achieve spiritual knowledge. The early Christian ascetics were specialists in scarring, branding and dirt - pain equalled holiness. Modern primitives use less gruesome but often use just as extreme methods. Fakir's magazine Body Play details these exploits, of which tattoos and body piercing are (in moderation at least) a now-acceptable form. These, and the growing popularity of corsets, are taken to hint at an increased spiritual awareness in society.
The corset's place in sex is perhaps more important - at least, more wide-ranging - than any of the previous topics. It is certainty what people tend to associate corsetry with today ('What prostitutes wear?' most often heard by the serious corset wearer). Both 'vanilla' and more specialised sexual behaviours recognise some value in it. And the influence and constant preoccupation with sex itself within other aspects, fashion in particular, ensure that the popularity of corsets-even if dubious - will certainly continue.