“Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present, and Myself” by Sarah A. Chrisman — an Overview
I admit it. I’m terrible at book reviews. So many years of working in biology labs have conditioned me to treat every publication the same way: study, jot notes, report results relevant to my own research. Opinions are frowned upon by the Board. (At least I got to sneak in some alliteration.)
My video review, despite being 13 minutes long, feels painfully short and superficial. In reality, the raw footage of the review was over an hour long, wherein I combined Chrisman’s research and experiences with my own and discussed possible (soft) conclusions to certain questions regarding physical, psychological and societal impacts of wearing a corset. Alas, most people these days don’t have 13 minutes to spare, nevermind an hour.
This book used to be called “Waisted Curves: My Transformation into a Victorian Lady” and was self-published and hand-made – Chrisman carefully hand-folds each page, sews them together, and binds the cover in your choice of cloth, silk or leather — the way that books were made in the Victorian era. Due to the print or weave on the cover fabric, no two books are exactly the same. You kind of feel the love and the labour emanating from this. The price of this book, $40 for cloth-bound and $49 for either silk or leatherbound, is well-justified just by how much work must have gone into assembling the book itself — but the contents inside are worth much more.
Now the book has been picked up by a publisher, it has changed its name to “Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present, and Myself” and is available on Amazon.
The book is essentially a memoir of Chrisman’s first year (and a few months extra) of corset training – in this time, her waist is reduced from 32” uncorseted to 22” corseted – she changes the way she carries herself, and her style of dress so that essentially she is transformed into a “Victorian lady” by the end of the book. If this book were made into a movie trailer, I have a feeling that it would look like a typical “transformation” or “make0ver” movie (e.g. Clueless, She’s All That, Teen Witch, Princess Diaries, etc). Let me tell you now that those movies are garbage compared to this book. “Waisted Curves…” is a non-fiction, first-hand account of what it’s really like to make such a transformation (not only in appearance but also in health, grace and building one’s knowledge) – it’s not an overnight change, and it’s not without its challenges.
A Not-So-Brief Summary of Events (SPOILER ALERT)
The book opens with Sarah’s 29th birthday when she receives an underbust corset from Timeless Trends from her husband, Gabriel. She was initially not impressed with her gift but she humored her husband by trying it on, and was immediately surprised by her figure in the mirror – I related fondly to this ‘first experience with a corset’, and think anyone who has worn a tightlacing corset (with positive results) can also relate.
Throughout the next few chapters, Sarah begins to report some benefits to wearing her corset, such as having fewer migraine headaches, being able to ride her bike easily while wearing it, reducing heartburn after meals, and experiencing more energy. You also read about Gabriel’s experiences with men’s Victorian clothing and how they can be just as restrictive as women’s clothing, forcing the man to keep his shoulders back and maintain proper posture.
Frustratingly, throughout the book Sarah and Gabriel are both subject to stinging, ignorant remarks from various know-it-alls; during Victorian fashion shows, the couple observed many enthusiasts and self-touted experts propagating the same tired stereotypes and myths. Sarah also appears to be regularly assaulted by grabby strangers (some well-meaning, others not so much). Being one with large personal bubble, reading about these interactions was actually a bit uncomfortable to me (I tend to hide my corseted figure when out of the house for this reason) and I have to give Sarah props for practicing so much patience and poise.
Chapter 10 and the surrounding chapters are one of the most important sections in the book – the couple report their findings on some of the most pertinent questions regarding physical and societal effects of corseting. Below is a small summary of their findings (this list is by no means exhaustive):
- A study written the 1890s states that there was no right and wrong way to breathe, simply different types of breathing that occurred more commonly than others. Women were much more capable of adapting their breathing patterns compared to men, likely because pregnancy in the last term forces breathing upwards.
- Most historical publications against wearing corsets were written by men. Of course, male writers were more prevalent during the 19th century (female writers often used a nom de plume at this time). Females preferred their corsets and preferred men to mind their own business. Even the female suffragists (or suffragettes) were more often than not seen wearing corsets — a quick Google image search will show nearly all suffragists wearing corsets. This is touched on again in chapter 22 when Sarah finds pictures of Susan B Anthony (who is considered to have a pivotal role in women’s rights and is a heroine for even the most extreme modern hardcore feminists) wearing a corset! If the corset were truly a tool invented by misogynists, certainly Anthony would have taken issue with this.
- Although some studies noted a negative correlation between number of corseted women in a given area, and the birth rate in that area, in reality the dropping birth rates could be explained by the fact that birth control was becoming more widespread at this time, not necessarily due to corsets getting tighter. However many people, even many doctors, didn’t grasp the difference between correlation and causation.
- Surgical rib removal never happened for cosmetic reasons, ever. The fatality rates of this would be far too high – if not from accidentally puncturing a lung by working in such close proximity, then from errors in anaesthetic doses, infection, or unsuccessful blood transfusions.
Note from Lucy: “Blood and Guts: A History of Surgery” is a very good (yet graphic) series if you’d like to learn more about the horrid medical practices in the past.
- Other medical studies cited in this book showed that the amount of force that is required to crack or break a rib on an elderly woman’s skeleton may exceed the maximum tension that the coutil in a corset can exert before ripping. (Lucy’s note: I have once ripped a corset just by sneezing.) In the stories of “broken bones” or “broken ribs” for corseted women, it was the whalebone in the corset that had snapped, not the human bone. Desiccated baleen is far more brittle than modern spiral bones.
- The preservation process of bones during the 19th century could have contributed more the unusual shape of the ribs on these skeletons than the corsets did. Other possible reasons for severely deformed ribs would include rickets, osteoporosis, tumors, or auto-immune conditions that attack bone and cartilage – and these conditions were more widespread than people realize. (Lucy’s note: I’ve never seen a preserved man’s ribcage from the 1800’s and would love to see if it shows similar effects!)
Upon receiving her first custom-fit corset, Chrisman reported a great feeling of freedom – a feeling of being in
control of her own body, and neither physically burdened by the weight of her bust, nor psychologically burdened by a need to conform to modern popular aesthetics (whether in body image or in fashion).
Speaking of fashion: Chrisman soon began customizing her clothing to fit her new figure, and this is (in my opinion) the most pivotal point in her transformation. She notes how a person’s appearance comes together so nicely when the clothes are good quality and custom fit – something we tend to neglect nowadays with off-the-rack clothing. Sarah stresses that the Victorian-style clothing she wears is not a “costume”, it really is how she dresses everyday and what she feels most comfortable wearing.
With her custom corset and custom clothing, her air of confidence, her intelligent persona and her graceful movements, Chrisman began to note a distinct change in how others responded to her presence. Her body language and her style of dress commanded respect, and random strangers (as well as guards in a New York airport) treated her with courtesy. In essence, she was recognized as an alpha in the human species.
My Personal Thoughts
Forgive me if I stumble over this awkward conclusion – injecting subjective matter into a literary review always feels a bit foreign to me:
Although I’m not sure exactly how many copies of this book exist, I know that there are certainly not enough. I couldn’t put this book down. Why haven’t more corset- and Victoriana-enthusiasts caught on? This book addresses the most common and pertinent questions regarding corsetry and Victorian society — and due to its warm (and sometimes hilarious) first-person narrative, it teaches the reader in a refreshing, fun and interesting manner. I would consider this my favorite corset-related book that I have read to date. Had I the means to do so, I would probably consider flying across the continent and shaking Sarah’s delicately-gloved hand for having the strength to undergo this metamorphosis, and to dedicate a part of herself to sharing this experience with so many others.
You can buy this book for yourself in paperback or on Kindle here on Amazon.