I choose to call this an “overview” rather than a “review” because I have decided that I’m terrible at reviewing books. I give “spoilers” (if such exist in history) and don’t inject much of my own opinion into reviews. What I simply aim to do is tell you all the different interesting things you can expect to learn in this book, in more detail than I have given in my video or this post. If you prefer to watch/ listen instead of read, here is my video review:
What can you expect to learn in this book?
This book has a heavy focus on the history of corsets. It starts at the very beginning, with primitive corset-like garments worn by the Norfolk, Boadicea the Celtic Goddess, a statue of an ancient Crete goddess, incredibly old drawings and paintings – these all portrayed women wearing leather bodices as armor: waist cinchers complete with adjustable lacing, since other methods of closure (like buttons) hadn’t been invented yet.
It also touches on how almost every culture has some form of body modification – food binding, neck stretching, etc. And now cosmetic surgery is prevalent – it’s a human need to “reinvent ourselves,” Lauder says.
She mentions that women are not the same shape and size that they were in the Victorian era, due to health and nutrition – therefore she says it is necessary to modify the shape of the corset to fit a modern woman.
Corsets throughout history were different shapes and had different purposes – either to flatten curves and give a more child-like silhouette in the medieval era, or to give a conical torso in the 16th century, then a natural shape in the Regency era where corsets were higher and more resembled bras, then to give an hourglass shape and accentuate curves in the late 1800s. However it’s important to note that not all of this shaping was done by corsets, pairs-of-bodies etc. Padding was also used on the shoulders and hips to accentuate this silhouette. Corsets and other under-clothing was also used for warmth, and to prevent the body from staining the outer clothing as bathing was less frequent.
The book touches on how fashion was different and similar between the wealthy and the more “industrial” classes – namely, how the wealthier classes deliberately dressed impractically, to show that they don’t have to do hard physical labor. However, both high and lower classes did wear some form of the corset.
Letters and newspaper columns of the time show opposition of the corset mostly from men – however, women’s fashion endured because of older women – the mothers, grandmothers and maids. Therefore, corsets were not forced upon women by male misogynists.
During the 1800s, both men and women wore corsets (as I had mentioned in my men and corsets video), especially those of higher class, as it promoted good posture and showed that you were an “upstanding” citizen. King George IV was one of these corseted men.
Modern designers like Thierry Mugler, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Alexander McQueen are known for their corsets created in modern materials like metals, latex, plexiglass, scales and feathers – they combined the traditional with the fetish with the surreal.
Christian Dior was responsible for the New Look fashion in the late 40’s / early 50’s. This book also touches on Chanel, Jacques Fath, and others. Vivienne Westwood, called the Mother of Punk in the 70s, was one of the first people to wear a corset as outer wear. Punk and fetish fashion rose together at this time. There was also of course the goth movement in the 80’s, Madonna’s corsets in the 90’s, and today, corsets have evolved once more in steampunk fashion.
Other sections mention the Burlesque side, featuring Bettie Page and Gypsy Rose Lee in historical context, and Dita Von Teese and Immodesty Blaize in modern Burlesque.
Yet another chapter is dedicated somewhat to fetish of corsets. The first known corset fetish stories are published in the “English Woman Domestic Magazine”, though the stories in here have been largely dismissed as fantasy. However this establishes a different between corseting and tight lacing. Almost all women corseted everyday at a light reduction, but did not necessarily tight lace. In modern day, extreme tight lacing and other forms of body modification like piercings, tattoos, implants, branding etc formed a marriage – Fakir Musafar is referred to as the father of modern body modification.
Galliano and Mr Pearl both promoted the couture / high fashion side of corsetry, the heavily embellished pieces that were works of wearable art.
The last chapter is the “modern girl’s guide to corsets” – Corset 101 – how to choose the correct size, how to lace it up. The end of the book includes interviews from three of Velda’s models and their personal experiences.
My personal thoughts
The book itself is well-written, there are few if any errors. This book is MUCH easier to read than certain other history books, and was capable of keeping my attention.
I noticed in the historical section it jumped around a lot – I would have preferred for it to focus on one fashion era at a time, for instance devoting one chapter to each fashion era, instead of the current organization. In this book, the silhouette would be one chapter, and it would describe the silhouette in one era compared to the next era. Then the next part focused on the skirts: how the skirts in ‘that era’ compared to ‘that other era’. I found that with the current organization of this book, it had a tendency to repeat itself. However this may be useful for people who don’t want to bother reading the whole book but instead pick out the chapters that they want to read, as those chapters are able to stand alone.
Some people have said that this book is too “Velda-centric”. There are a lot of her corsets in here, and it does mention her introduction to the modern corset industry and how she pioneered some styles – however, it says in the preface that this is HER journey through history – it wasn’t written by a historian per se, but by a designer. It isn’t meant to be read like an unbiased textbook; it is definitely pro-corsetry. I’m not surprised that so many of her designs are featured throughout the book, and I wouldn’t hold this against her or the book at all.
In all, I enjoyed reading this book (and looking at all the pretties in the book!) and I’m currently enjoying combing through the bibliography in the back to learn more about the history of corsets and fashion. You can read more reviews on “Corsets: A Modern Guide” or to purchase this book on Amazon here.