When Sarah Chrisman’s husband gave her a corset for her 29th birthday, little did she know how much it would change her life.
Enamored with all things Victorian, she had long stayed clear of corsets, believing them to be unhealthy and symbolic of historical female oppression. As she regularly wears her unexpected gift, she begins to see it not as an object of oppression, but empowerment. She outlines this journey of corsetry in her cleverly titled memoir, Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present, and Myself.
Once Sarah tries the corset on, she finds herself quite pleased with her reduced waist and remarkably improved posture. The more she wears it, she finds it’s not nearly as uncomfortable as it appears. It doesn’t feel constricting at all and, contrary to what many believe, she can breathe just fine and is in no danger of fainting.
Surprised at these findings, she then embarks on a research quest to learn all she can about corsets, unlacing their many myths in the process. For example, one of the most common misconceptions is that corsets broke women’s ribs, but this is misunderstanding. Victorian references to “broken bones” actually refer to the whalebone ribs of corsets, and not human bones at all. Also, corsets were worn by all classes of women, even servants, and not confined to the wealthy. Worthy of note is how, contrary to the belief that corsets were imposed on women by men, women chose to wear them. In fact, men were quite vocal in their concerns of corseting.
Chrisman grows to appreciate the hug-like feeling the corset provides and how much her posture improves. She wears the corset regularly, even sleeping in it, and only removing it for showering and Judo practice. She gradually transforms herself into a Victorian lady, introducing other aspects of Victorian dress, which, like the corset, alter the way she composes herself. First, she learns to walk in kitten-heel boots. Pleased with the overall effect on her gait, she begins to regularly wear antique Victorian garments (she and her husband collect and repair antique clothing) as well as her own reproductions.
A year of wearing a corset reduces Chrisman’s waist from 32 to 22 inches. Her posture improves so much her shoulders no longer ache, and she notices other positive physical changes. Most importantly, her confidence improves, having no choice but to hold her head high at the will of her Victorian garb.
My only critique is the defensive tone frequently used by Chrisman, but this is forgivable considering how regularly complete strangers berate her for her sartorial choices. Such commentary includes statements like, “why would you do such awful things to your body? It’s not natural,” and “those things are horrible for you!”
Chrisman’s memoir is a fantastically engaging and enlightening read. By the last page, you might even be inspired to start corseting yourself…or at least stop slouching.
Chrisman and her husband, Gabriel, have fully adopted a Victorian life residing in Port Townsend, Washington where they are gradually restoring their Victorian house to its former glory. On a related note, perhaps the Portlandia 1890s skit is onto something about the Pacific Northwest:
The dream of the 1890s is alive and well in Port Townsend (I now yearn for a visit – it seems as close to time travel as I can hope to achieve).
Sarah and Gabriel Chrisman give presentations on Victorian clothing and antiques, as well as other aspects of life in the period. Sarah has since written another book on how to apply Victorian standards of etiquette to the present day. Such information can be found on their appropriately named website, thisvictorianlife.com