Imagination and the Spaces of the Corseted Body:
Gaston Bachelard and the Images of Home
Women in the Victorian era were in a tight spot. Cultural norms of the day required women to fit the fashionable ideals present in society. Already in a marginalized and contained space economically and politically, women remained stationed in a physically constricted space individually. The infamous corset manipulated and morphed women’s bodies into a culturally accepted (however unnatural) form. Did the garment restrict, even harm women’s bodies to the point of injury? Of course it did; the garment represents just one of the numerous efforts both women and men have made to attain a socially acceptable body.
Since the corset’s main purpose is to press the torso into a predetermined shape, in this article I study the corset in terms of the space it takes up and the space it leaves clear; the ways it both enslaves and sets free; and how it both enervates and empowers. In this article I sift through the numerous images comprising the corseted Victorian female body in order to reveal a poetics of the corseted form. Considering the space of the corset requires a methodology appropriate to the study. I have chosen to use the ideas of Gaston Bachelard in his book The Poetics of Space. According to Bachelard, images of home create an experience of intimate places, depending on the locations within the home. Taking his ruminations on space and applying them to the corset, I make an analogy between the female body and the idea of home. The body is a site of much recent scholarship in the fields of theatre and performances studies, and can be analyzed as many different things including a text, an instrument of inscription, and a nexus of images. I believe the concept of home can be readily seen in/on the body. With this in mind, I explore the ways in which examining the corseted Victorian female body as an image of home can be a useful tool and heuristic for interpreting the history of the corset.
“All really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home” (Bachelard 5). So the French philosopher begins his journey to delve into the spaces of the house, which in turn provide images of home. Interspersed with scores of poetry verses, Bachelard’s text draws on poetic images to analyze the spaces within the home in regards to imagination. The home is above all a place for daydreaming (6). Daydreams allow us to join the imagined with the actual, and create spaces that have elements of both. What we remember, what we know, what we see, and what we forget all meld together to generate our individual notions of home. If the home in question here is the female body, how do these elements fit together to produce an image that is at once actual and imagined? Let us now look back at this image of home, the Victorian corset.
A History of the Corset
The phenomenon of the corset boasts of a dynamic history. While art and fashion historians have studied the corset to analyze what impact it had upon women and society as a whole, their studies have focused primarily on its social, psychological, physical, and economic effects. These historians have emphasized the physically debilitating effects of the corset and speculated on the use of the corset to enforce a patriarchal society, and how it kept women in their literal and figurative places. Art historian David Kunzle, however, posits another theory in his book Fashion and Fetishism. He argues that some women used corsetry (specifically tight-lacing) to claim their sexual agency in order to free themselves from the ties of marital and maternal life. According to Kunzle, “the young girl of the late Victorian era tight-laced in protest against the stereotyped social role awaiting her, and in hopes of attracting a man for whom companionship and erotic pleasure weighed more than parenthood and family” (Kunzle 45). Though he describes several different ways that women could use the power of the corset to shape their own destinies, his theories conflict with theories of scholars who deny that women could gain agency in such a tightly controlled patriarchal society.
Valerie Steele, a prominent fashion historian, rejects both the oppressive qualities of the corset and the freeing qualities of the corset in her book Fashion and Eroticism, and calls for a critical analysis that does not bow to the author’s ideological stance (Steele 161-162). Steele explores the spectrum of opinions in the Victorian era on the subject of corsetry. According to Steele, some opposed the corset and others defended it, but Steele argues that one must not overlook the large middle population who made up the majority of society. This majority “condoned or actively approved of ordinary corset wearing, but denounced the practice of ‘tight-lacing’ (a term that was variously interpreted by the different segments within this group)” (162). As we shall see, the fine line between corsetry and tight-lacing depended on the space between the corset and the body. This almost indecipherable distinction between good uses and bad uses marks just one matter surrounding the contested space of the corset.
A more recent study of the corset, Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian Corset by Leigh Summers, surveys and evaluates different kinds of archival evidence in order to answer the question of why this painful, unnatural, restrictive, and sometimes harmful piece of clothing was so popular. She discusses the simple, more obvious reasons—the ever-present vanity of human kind—as well as more complex economic issues—corsetry factories sometimes employed women, creating spaces for females to have economic freedom, though still physically bound by the corset. The quest for a suitable silhouette figured into many Victorian women’s lives, both those women in the middle classes and those in the working classes:
“Corsetry was essential, not just in constructing femininity, but in constructing a class-based identity and subjectivity. Corsetry was prized by fashion-conscious, middle-class women because it crafted the flesh into class-appropriate contours. That is, corsetry operated to hide any “course” abdominal bulges from view, while it smoothed the hips and created the small, circular (rather than oval shaped) waistline that supposedly denoted good breeding. The well-corseted body, in tandem with suitable clothing, gave an immediate first impression of gentility. It operated, to the distress of many middle-class women, in exactly the same way for their working class sisters.” (Summers 9-10)
Because of the unbiased strength of the corset, working-class women could attain an attractive shape as easily as middle- and upper-class women; the corset acted as a social leveler. The shape-changing power of the corset gave the working-class women hope of a vertical move up the ladder of society; however, corsets themselves varied much in quality and in design. Summers goes on to trace the control and manipulation of the shape of women’s bodies throughout the time period. During the Victorian era, the corset created the hourglass or “wasp waist” effect on women’s bodies. As times “progressed,” women became (semi) liberated from the constraints of the corset. During the late-nineteenth century, women started practicing gymnastics and other exercises requiring looser-fitting clothing that did not inhibit movement. The corsets were dropped almost overnight and the garment became a piece of history. Of course, the shift was in fact not so quick. Manufacturers (usually male) designed special “exercise corsets” so women could participate in gymnastics while appearing to keep their cultivated figures. Over time the corset morphed into the smaller, yet similarly useful girdle, then eventually these artifice of control became unfashionable altogether.
What stepped into its place is fascinating. Instead of manipulating a body into a predetermined shape by means of material clothing, women sought the desired shape through diet and exercise, and sometimes surgery. The body was (and is) expected to be firm, flat, and in the shape of an hourglass without the help of external constraints. Women today nurture (or torture) bodies into shapely submission so as to create an accepted body without the corset. Steele details the shift from the slenderizing corset to the slender body:
“For both the High Victorian and the Edwardian periods, the ideal of feminine beauty (though different in details of physique and fashion) was a draped ideal- the existence of a beautiful body had largely to be inferred from the appearance of a woman in fashionable dress. The Twenties illustrates a shift to the opposite extreme: Much more of the body was revealed, so that, in effect, clothing only succeeded in its object of enhancing feminine beauty when worn on a nearly ideally suitable body.” (Steele, Fashion and Eroticism 239)
Clothing formed the “draped ideal” and was therefore accessible to more women; the ideal shape could be attained through the correct application of clothing, so it did not automatically exclude women of certain body types. More women could attain the ideal shape. This accessibility however was limited to those who could afford to buy the corset in the first place. But even with the economic limitations, Summers argues that in addition to upper-class and middle-class women, working class women also wore corsets and many homemade versions were replicated from patterns in magazines. Summers gives evidence that even female prison inmates had access to corsetry, and were required to wear them. “So great was the purview and popularity of corsetry that unfortunate working-class women incarcerated in prisons or asylums could not escape its reach, even if they had wanted to.” (Summers 16). From the external corset of cloth to the internal corset of a shapely figure, from the richest parlors of Victorian England to the dirtiest prisons of the same age, beauty knew/knows no bounds.
Victorian fashion can be placed in an approximate 100-year period from about 1820 to 1910 (Steele, Fashion and Eroticism 51). The period preceding Victorian fashion, the Empire period, displayed classical or Greek features: high waistlines and straight skirts that created a “vertical silhouette.” Undergarments (like the corset) had traditionally dictated the outline of the figure:
“The corset had existed for centuries, but its contours changed over time. During the eighteenth century, the corset formed a heavily boned V-shape. When the Empire mode dominated in France, the corset became lighter and shorter, evolving into something more akin to a linen bust-support […] After about 1806, the corset was again boned and fitted with a busk, flattening the stomach and hips. With the development of Victorian fashion, the corset again constricted the waist, but the shape was now closer to that of an hourglass.” (Steele, Fashion and Eroticism 54-55)
The evolution of shape continues through this period, starting with the more vertical line, moving to an hourglass. As the fashion progresses, it begins to squeeze in the middle, while expanding the top and bottom of the silhouette. Corsets emphasize and draw attention to “secondary sexual characteristics” such as the hips, breasts, and buttocks (Steele 34). It is these secondary sexual characteristics that attract the opposite sex, Steele argues. In the primal urge to draw a mate, visual stimuli can play a large role in the courting process. It would seem then that the breasts and hips would be the focus of the physical figure of the female form. But it seems that the spotlight settles on the small waist at the center of the image. What can we read about this tiny center, this miniature, cinched core? This quest to stay within the boundaries of beauty is close to the heart, and I believe, therefore, close to the bodily home. At this point let us enter into this home of the body, this house of beauty, and see what the phenomenon of the corseted body poetically fills out.
Miniature Centers and Dynamic Cores
Bachelard’s inquiry into poetic space includes an intriguing exploration of miniatures. What is small can be of magnificent proportions, imaginatively:
“One must go beyond logic in order to experience what is large and what is small. By analyzing several examples, I shall show that miniature literature—that is to say, the aggregate of literary images that are commentaries on inversions in the perspective of size—stimulates profound values.” (Bachelard 150-151)
He is noting a paradox. How can something small be grandly stimulating? How can something tiny be experienced as huge? Bachelard locates this concept in our notion of possession and control. But with that control comes deep meaning: “The cleverer I am at miniaturizing the world, the better I posses it. But in doing this, it must be understood that values become condensed and enriched in miniature” (150). Consider a tiny insect. It is small and almost inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. But peer at the insect through a magnifying glass, and suddenly the bug is immense. Looking closely at the tiny insect reveals a world replete with miniatures now exposed as rich and detailed. The poetic value shifts from the grand images of nature to the miniature bug, as the insect is now the center of our universe, and consequently now possessed in all its value by the observer. If the tiny waist of the corseted woman is a miniature image filled with enriched value, upon observation, the viewer can imagine total possession of the valuable object. Because it is the tiny center of the woman, one can imagine control over this profound value. For to have the center is to possess the core; and at the core is its value.
If the waist of the female corseted body is the center, this small core encapsulates the value of the whole being. Bachelard explicates this notion by means of an example from Cyrano de Bergerac, as the title character muses on the value of the apple:
“This apple is a little universe in itself, the seed of which, being hotter than the other parts, gives out the conserving heat of its globe; and this germ, in my opinion, is the little sun of this little world, that warms and feeds the vegetative salt of this little mass.” (Bachelard 151)
Bachelard then concludes, “The apple itself, the fruit, is no longer the principle thing, but the seed, which becomes the real dynamic value” (151). Applying this idea to the female form, the whole being of the female is no longer the “principle thing.” Visually and aesthetically, the waist is now the center, the core, and the seed. It has the dynamic value. The seed of the apple gives life and indeed is life. The center of a woman holds this dynamic value as well. From the center, from the stomach/womb comes life. Every person on earth is born from the center of a woman. But upon closer examination, it seems that the corset and also Victorian society assisted in the shielding and seclusion of women’s life-giving abilities, even though human kind depends on these abilities for survival.
For many Victorian women, pregnancy meant the end of social life. Society considered a pregnant woman appearing in public offensive, and relegated the woman with the growing child inside her womb to the home. Bachelard’s image of home is thereby doubly expressed in the pregnant corseted woman; for the Victorian female, the domestic sphere was her locus of interaction, and if her center began expanding, she was forced back into a real “home.” It is as if Victorian society thought of the female as requiring shelter and needed to be held captive. The notion of a woman as miniature and possessing dynamic value can be equated with a man’s desire to possess the woman as a doll. According to Bachelard, “the tiny things we imagine simply take us back to childhood, to familiarity with toys and the reality of toys” (149). This concept problematizes the concept of woman as the center, because if the woman’s waist ceases to be miniature, the man must then grow up. He can no longer imagine the woman as a toy, as a tiny thing to possess. The woman now possesses the ability to create life from the dynamic center, which is a powerful place, real or imagined. If there is a real child on the way, forcing the center outward, the man can no longer imagine himself as a child at the center. Home is now a fearful place, one that is mysterious and threatening. Therefore, the expecting woman must stay hidden in the real home until she becomes the imagined, emblematic home once again.
It is believable then that the corset aided in veiling pregnancy. Manufacturers designed special corsets to keep the pregnancy hidden for weeks, even months. Because of the social stigma of pregnancy, women took drastic measures to cover the visual aspects of gestation. Summers devotes a chapter of her book to the inspection of the maternal body and the effects of corsetry:
“The corset was, moreover, integral in maintaining pregnancy taboos. Its fundamental, if rarely acknowledged, charter was to reduce the size of the body, disguise “unfeminine” bulges and prevent, whenever possible, the pregnant body from attracting public notice […] Clearly, many Victorian women hid their swelling bodies, while others understood that unwanted “obstructions” or pregnancies might be interrupted by the application of stout and tightly laced corsetry.” (Summers 60-61)
Staying within the acceptability of the strict social conventions, the corset could hide the pregnancy for a period of time, allowing the woman to go about her life without fear of breaking social norms. Hostile to the natural development of gestation, the corset held the woman’s body in during a time when she most needed to expand. Aesthetically, the pregnant stomach created a visual picture in total opposition to the fashion of the day. Instead of an hourglass with the center being the smallest part, the figure now shifts to a circular form, with the center being the largest part. The value of the miniaturized center is gone, because the imagined tiny core is no longer present. The space eventually can go back to its culturally expected form, when the child is born. Then, after the appearance of the new child, there exists a new human being also in possession of a new dynamic core. The seed has been carried on, and the effects of the pregnancy and birth are now separate from the shape of the mother. The center can again retract, providing an image of youthfulness and virginity, despite the obvious child in tow. Value has once again returned to a small core, with the duplicated dynamic core present in the new child, a miniature herself.
Like a picture within a picture, the tiny core of a woman replicates over and over again through her subsequent children. In the case of some Victorian females, the woman becomes pregnant and but then strives to hold in the enlarging space of life. However, after a daughter is born, there is a new female with a new miniature center. As the mother can now again be a toy, a miniature plaything for men, the daughter now plays with toys that inscribe the value of the dynamic core into the imagination of the child. Many female dolls made in the years from 1850-1900 came with corsetry. The small toy, though not real, had the correct proportions and value-weighted center of the ideal Victorian female. The dolls popular in this time period fell into two categories: the baby doll and the adult fashion doll. Both of these dolls further reiterated the child’s knowledge and embodiment of her role in society. A woman may be used as an object, either for sex or procreation. According to Summers:
“[Historian Ardyce Masters] believes that the baby doll/fashion plate doll trend was actually a backlash against feminists who were subverting prevailing stereotypes of women as naturally maternal or narcissistic. Fashion-plate dolls were (and still are, of course) influential in formulating childhood expectations of appearance and behavior. The nipped-in waists and broadened hips of the “adult” dolls would have (subconsciously at least) insinuated in female children their future roles as sexual objects, and instilled in them the desire to retain or accomplish at any cost that unnatural feature, the tiny doll-like waist. Doll corsetry would have been instrumental in this process.” (Summers 73)
Though the doll may have participated in a process that inscribes gender roles into children, in a way the corseted doll doubly contributes to girls’ unnatural body expectations. The dolls in this scenario were made out of porcelain and cloth. The porcelain head, neck, arms, and legs connected to the torso, a cotton-stuffed form. The miniature corset simply rested on the semi-rigid doll body. Similar to my argument above, the doll possesses the corseted-body-without-the-corset so desired today. Many women tirelessly strive to achieve the hard, muscular look that shows the containment of the flesh without any external constraints. But the doll has this self-contained look in addition to the external restraint of the corset. For female children, grasping the corseted doll and imagining their own bodies to match could create an expectation that only the inanimate could actually achieve. Even the perfectly crafted doll was expected to wear the restraining corset (if only to give the appearance of a dignified, refined female form, since the corset was useless on the doll). There was no hope for natural bodies, and no hope for female freedom. Even the perfect body was in need of alteration, and not good enough on its own.
A doll sporting corsetry does not “experience” the pressure and tightness that a live woman with corsetry must bear. For the doll, the corset does not actually hold in anything. The corset merely rests on the contained, rigid form of the doll. From a human perspective, however, the corset’s power lies in its binding strength. Without intense pressure and without a constant push and pull the corset will not work. Shaping the torso into an hourglass requires a committed concentration on the part of the wearer. The wearer must give into the tight garment, simultaneously allowing herself to be reformed while restraining herself in order to achieve the desired shape. Everyday, the corset-wearing woman or another person must pull tightly at the corset strings, binding her up in this powerful piece of clothing. One day, the wearer might choose to have the laces tied a little looser; the effect may have been visible to the outside as an excess of flesh, or it may have been undetectable. But the woman knew. She could feel extra room for breath and a slightly less constricted torso area. The agency some women possessed to either allow for a more roomy application of the corset, or to stretch the lacing to its maximum binding power allows a possibility for control over their own miniature cores.
The designs of corsets changed considerably from the eighteenth century to the nineteenth century. The eighteenth-century corsets included holes lining up the back which were staggered on each side of the corset; this meant that the lace must be pulled through one hole on one side, then through another hole on the other side. By the nineteenth century, the holes appeared opposite each other. The wearer could now tie the laces in a criss-cross pattern, applying equal pressure to both sides of the corset at once. The woman being laced was no longer yanked from side to side, but pulled straight back. Additionally, this design allowed women to tighten their own corsets (provided the slack laces remained in the corset before she donned the garment), as long laces could be manipulated from the front as well as the back. Peter and Ann Mactaggart, authorities on the subject of corset design, postulate that after this change women did not need to hold onto anything (a bedpost, a chair, etc) while being laced up. Many art pieces and cartoons from the Victorian period depict a corset-wearing woman grasping onto a bedpost, holding on for dear life as another person pulls with great force on the strings. Instead of being thrown off balance by the criss-cross pulling, the woman in the nineteenth century could remain steadfast on her own. Past the eighteenth century, according to the Mactaggarts, “[…] unless the woman tightened her own stays, which she could do, she was passively involved and there was in any case no reason, except perhaps tradition, for her to hold onto anything” (Mactaggart 46). The idea that a woman was only “passively involved” in her corset-donning experience seems an understatement, for the woman on the business end of the corset was involved physically, emotionally, and psychologically. The transformative power of the corset imprinted its mark on the center of the woman. Though heartily encouraged by society at large, a woman still made the choice to place her body in the corset and lace up the strings (or allow the strings to be laced up) in order to shrink her waistline by force. Some may have found this authority freeing, as a smaller and smaller dynamic core presented more and more opportunities, whether social, economic, or otherwise. The commanding strength of the corset may have extended vicariously to the mental and emotional state of the woman, granting her confidence and possibilities she may have not otherwise received. As Bachelard posits, “tininess soon appears to be the habitat of primitive strength” (165); the miniature center of the corseted woman may have housed this primitive strength in imagination as well as Victorian reality.
Protection from Within and Without
Following the outline of the corset from the small, constrictive circle of the waist, let us now journey around to the back of the corset, to the aforementioned taut lines of lacing, crossing back and forth from the bottom all the way to the top. A rigid knot of ties results, holding the material and boning tightly against the body. Corsets could be made with the cheapest hardwearing fabrics and metal or the most expensive silks and whalebone, complete with trim. The shape of the corset remained somewhat consistent, though manufacturers did apply many structural and decorative changes throughout the corset’s run. In general, the function of the corset is to force physical matter to a place where is it not naturally located. This means pushing the waist inward, as if the torso can somehow shrink to the size of the un-flesh-covered spine. To lace up a corset, therefore, requires strength. One must pull at the laces until the muscles and fat pick a side, either above or below the waist, anywhere but the center. Once laced, the woman bearing this garment has little mobility and room even for breath. As Steele notes, there seems to have been a subjective line of balance that should be observed when taking part in this foundational garment. “Many—perhaps most—doctors defended the ‘moderate’ and ‘legitimate’ use of the corset, while vigorously opposing tight-lacing or the ‘abuse’ of the corset” (Steele, Fashion and Eroticism 167). Success or failure of applying the corset hovered perilously between the two extremes. How closely fitted should the corset be, and how tightly pressed should the body become? I find Bachelard’s chapter on drawers, chests, and wardrobes useful here, as he explores the hidden places of the house. The house that is the female form, whether comfortable in a “moderate” corset or pained with the effects of tight-lacing, has much to hide, and consequently much to reveal.
“Wardrobes with their shelves, desks with their drawers, and chests with their false bottoms are veritable organs of the secret psychological life” (Bachelard 78). The most obvious correlations between my project and Bachelard’s are here: chests, bottoms, and organs. He seems to be describing the corset in detail. But underneath the bodily images, Bachelard comments on the secret places of the house and the mind. Describing the various places to hide things in the house, he details the intimate space of the wardrobe. The secret spaces of the wardrobe are mysterious, sacred, and protecting. Most of all, the spaces are not open to just anybody (78). The corset shields the female form from public view. Only a select few may bear witness to what lies beneath the sturdy whalebone armor, and that is a virtue of the wardrobe.
The corset creates a physical barrier between the inside and the outside. Clothing, of course, achieves this as well. But the corset has a fortress-like quality about it that protects and keeps out, just as much as it keeps in. The famous story of the Romanov family’s execution shows the sheer physical power corset held. Those ordered to complete the execution took the family down to a room prepared for the murders. At the signal, the executioners each shot the family member he had been assigned to kill. According to an eyewitness, the females survived the first round of bullets. The executioners had aimed for the hearts in order to minimize the amount of blood spilled. Imagine their surprise when the women did not die immediately. During the second round of bullets:
“The bullets from the pistols ricocheted off something and jumped about the room like hail. When the tried to finish off one of the girls with bayonets, the bayonet could not pierce the corset. Thanks to all of this, the entire procedure, including “verification” (feeling the pulse, etc.), took around twenty minutes. […] When one of the girls was being undressed, it was noticed that the bullets had torn the corset in places, and diamonds could be seen in the holes.” (Bos 1)
The corsets in this story provided a shield against violence, one that gave a few extra moments of life to the Romanov women. The corsets confounded the men who were charged with the task of penetrating the life center of their intended victims. Like a modern day bulletproof vest, the corset held in the body as well as their stash of material wealth. Some suppose the women were trying to smuggle their own jewels out of the house to sell were they able to break free. But maybe they knew the corset provided, in this time of captivity and uncertainty, protection against the outside world. Again, like the bulletproof vest, the corset cannot protect completely, but it creates a powerfully protective barrier around the space that matters. When the corset is compared to a wardrobe, it carefully guards a woman’s prized possession of life—the heart.
Additionally, the image of the house also applies to the corseted Romanov women. Bachelard’s house can be a refuge against the external elements, a place where one can hide in solitude from the storm. The house, when under duress, can possess immense imagined as well as physical power to protect the inhabitants from the outside:
“And so, faced with the bestial hostility of the storm and the hurricane, the house’s virtues of protection and resistance are transposed into human virtues. The house acquires the physical and moral energy of a human body. It braces itself to receive the downpour, it girds its loins. When forced to do so, it bends with the blast, confident that it will right itself in time, while continuing to deny any temporary defeats.” (Bachelard 46)
It is hopeful, is it not? One might want to imagine and to believe that such unconditional protection could be available during times of great terror. But from the annihilation of the Romanovs to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, it is clear that some houses (the houses that protect our hearts individually and the houses that protect our families communally) have a limit to withstanding violence. The Romanov’s corsets provided limited protection against violence, and ultimately not enough for survival. Their corsets may have caused even more pain to the women; though the sturdy garments did allow them a few extra moments of life during the chaotic execution, these moments were wrought with horrendous pain and suffering of all kinds. The (relatively) quick death from a bullet to the heart may have been preferable to the slow, agonizing demise resulting from a bayonet to the throat. But however impending their deaths may have been, those few extra moments of life they experienced, thanks to the corset, were moments of life nonetheless. With life comes a flicker of hope, however dim that glint may be. Would they have chosen the certain, yet faster death from the gun, or the more excruciatingly slow, yet hopeful death from the knife? We can never know for sure. The corset may be an image of home, sheltering and guarding. But it still cannot fully protect its inhabitant from the world.
Inversely, women also required protection from the strength of their own corsets. “Corset shields” promised the buyers bodily protection from the dangers of a broken corset. A corset shield is two pieces of metal covered with material and riveted together in an “X” shape. Placed under the corset, the corset shield helped ward off impending breakage and consequent injury:
“The purpose of the corset shield was, according to patent lodged in 1893, “‘to preserve [the corset’s] shape and lessen liability of breakage of the [corset] ribs, and second to protect the body of the wearer from abrasion by the protruding ends of ribs in case of the breakage thereof’.” (Summers 28)
The corset protected the wearer from outside harm, but because of its sheer force caused damage to the wearer as well. The secret space of the corset/wardrobe protected as well as harmed while bringing the wearer a sense of safety as well as fear.
In addition to the occasions that the corset may have protected against physical harm (both from the inside and from the outside), the garment also protected the more intangible treasure of moral propriety as well:
“What was certain was that it was also a moral restraint: corsets ensured that women controlled their physical appetites and reminded them to restrain their moral ones. This is not a retrospective reading. Fashion magazines constantly pointed out to their readers that “‘the corset is an ever-present monitor indirectly bidding its wearer to exercise self-restraint; it is evidence of a well-disciplined mind and well-regulated feeling’.” (Flanders 309)
Loose women wore loose strings, so to speak. A tightly held female locked up with strong ties gave the appearance that the keys to only one man, her husband, would be granted. The body was closed up, and able to opened by the husband only. It was his wardrobe, his desk, and most of all, his chest. All the intimate space, all the hidden secrets belonged to him alone. Additionally, unlacing of the ties was often times linked with lovemaking:
“The erotic appeal of the corset extended far beyond its role in the creation of a fashionable and seductive figure. As an item of lingerie, it was associated with intimate moments and the act of making love. […] The act of unlacing a corset (as the prelude to sexual intercourse) or lacing it up (afterwards) was the theme of many erotic prints; and the pushing of stay lace through the holes of the corset was itself a kind of symbolic enactment of intercourse.” (Steele, Fashion and Eroticism 174-175)
Viewing the female body as the wardrobe, the husband can unlock the secret drawer, reach inside, and then close it back up when he is finished. As a precaution against a straying wife, the husband may lace up/lock up his wife tighter and tighter. Ironically, the small-waisted woman most likely garnered more attention from other men as a result of her tiny center (maybe to the chagrin of her husband). This attraction and attention may have been difficult for a woman to resist, but as surmised the corset brings with it an aura of moral goodness which could enable a woman make a statement of chastity without saying a word. At once sexually attractive and morally pious, the corseted waist most likely held the gazes of male as well as female passersby. Just like the mysterious wardrobe, it leaves the spectator thinking, “I wonder what’s inside?”
In many cases, the corset included ornate decoration and embellishments. These decorations did not serve to physically hold the waist in any tighter. But could they have served another purpose? Bachelard posits that a lock on a wardrobe or chest is more than just physical—it holds imagined power as well:
“These complex pieces that a craftsman creates are very evident witnesses of the need for secrecy, of the intuitive sense of hiding places. It is not merely a matter of keeping a possession well guarded. The lock doesn’t exist that could resist absolute violence, and all locks are an invitation to thieves. A lock is a psychological threshold. And how it defies indiscretion when it is covered with ornaments! What “complexes” are attached to an ornamented lock!” (Bachelard 81-82)
Corsets that included jewels or embroidery added to the imagined safety of the locked up wardrobe. The more ornately decorated a lock is, the greater the psychological power of the wardrobe. Imaginatively, the corseted woman presented a place of secrets, and a place of hiding. In the case of the pregnant woman, much more than just imagination could be in hiding. But even a non-pregnant body hides much in the hidden recesses. Man desires these spaces to be his own. The outline of a corset may have turned away would-be thieves looking to delve into the secret spaces of a woman’s chest. Like the treasured possessions that the man hides away in the spaces of the wardrobe, the body was to be hidden under lock and key, opened for secret pleasure to those with access:
“Chests, especially small caskets, over which we have more complete mastery, are objects that may be opened. When a casket is closed, it is returned to the general community of objects; it takes its place in exterior space. But it opens! […] From the moment the casket is opened, dialectics no longer exist. The outside is effaced with one stroke, an atmosphere of novelty and surprise reigns. The outside has no more meaning. And quite paradoxically, even cubic dimensions have no more meaning, for the reason that a new dimension—the dimension of intimacy—has just opened up.” (Bachelard 85)
Here Bachelard again invokes the image of the miniature, stating that smaller drawers give the image and the feeling of more control. A woman with a tiny waist can be more easily opened, closed, and in a sense more easily controlled. When the man unlaces the woman’s corset, all outside matter ceases to exist. The now uncontained flesh holds all power, and holds the dynamic value of the possessed core.
The translation into English from French gives a startling image to Americans, as the translator uses the word “casket” to mean “small box.” The word “casket” in America holds a very specific connotation that brings images of death, burial, and containment. Even though the first definition in the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language specifies “casket” as “a small box or chest, as for valuables”, I believe the second definition of “casket” prevails in most American minds: “a coffin, especially a costly one” (“Casket”). A woman in Victorian England may have been contained in her own casket after all. The main difference in translation though, is a crucial one: the American meaning of the word “casket,” as opposed to the British meaning of “small box,” is never meant to be opened after it has been closed. Was wearing a corset akin to being buried alive? In both places one must struggle valiantly for each coveted breath. It makes one wonder if the women wearing corsetry felt sealed for all eternity, trapped in a contained existence, unable to freely live.
“Home is Where the Heart Is”
And it is this very confined, solitary space that the corset ultimately shrouds. The center of the woman, and the center imagined by the man both find their way back to the small waist, the tiny core. At the center live strength, solidarity, and resolve, no matter what the size. Maybe it is this home-like space that Victorian women and men sought to inhabit. Bachelard muses:
“All the space of our past moments of solitude, the spaces in which we have suffered from solitude, enjoyed, desired, and compromised solitude, remain indelible within us, and precisely because the human being wants them to remain so. He knows instinctively that this space identified with his solitude is creative […] But in the daydream itself the recollection of moments of confined, simple, shut-in space are experiences of heartwarming space, of a space that does not seek to become extended, but would like about all still to be possessed.” (Bachelard 10)
The “heartwarming space” inside the corset is a physical space that warms and surrounds the organ of the heart. The analogy of the female form in this case is troubling. Bachelard describes a space that seeks to be “possessed.” Earlier I had surmised that the man desires to possess the tiny “toy” of the woman, the woman who feeds his imagination with her miniature waist. But maybe the corset represents a woman’s desire to possess her own body, physically and mentally. Binding herself up in tight corsetry is an act of will, one that protects that space of the center and of the heart, while keeping it small and contained at the same time. This inscription upon the body thereby creates a text for the world to read. A corseted body, when undressed, shows the red marks from the boning and tight laces. The body may have suffered permanent scars resulting from a broken corset. An internal imprint has been made as well, as the corset presses the waist inward while forcing the organs and flesh away from the center. It is as if the reader/writer chose to underline central words of the text, pressing deep into the body to make a lasting impression. The impression in turn radiates outward, as the woman walks through town, carefully parading her small waist. Frailer, now, and with limited mobility, the woman’s power seems to loosely fall away as the strings of the corset pull tighter and tighter. But far from powerless, the woman still holds the strength of imagination, as Bachelard suggests. And imagination is at the heart of home.
If the body is our home, we may agree with Bachelard in his conclusions about the embodiment of the house:
“The house we were born in is physically inscribed in us. It is a group of organic habits. […] But we are very surprised, when we return to the old house, after an odyssey of many years, to find that the most delicate gestures, the earliest gestures suddenly come alive, are still faultless. In short, the house we were born in has engraved within us the hierarchy of the various functions of inhabiting.” (Bachelard 15)
Bachelard returns in his imagination to the house in which he was born. What a fitting description for the home we find in the dynamic core of the woman. As each individual inhabits her body, the gestures unique to her become inscribed upon this house. The corset succeeds in engraving, physically, mentally, and metaphorically, a text upon the body that the world may read. The engraving of the corset draws many images of socially acceptable behavior, refinement, and virginity. As each string is laced up the back, the garment adds another layer of cloth and meaning onto the body. Deeper and deeper, the corset cuts, struggling to reduce, to condense, and to erase bodily excess altogether. Was the ultimate goal of corsetry to shrink the waist to nothing, to make it disappear? If this was the case, the body would eventually be split into two parts, each with no center. Corsetry took center stage in a fierce yet delicate battle, a labor to get at the core, closer and closer to the intimate essence of the center. Dynamic and valued above all, the core gives life and is life. Restricting or freeing? Killing or resurrecting? Enervating or empowering? The corset, at once so violent and so serene, is a nexus of images braided together to form a contested site that contains freedom, oppression, and all the complexities of home.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon P, 1994.
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Mactaggart, Peter and Ann Mactaggart. “Ease, Convenience, and Stays, 1750-1850.” Costume. 13 (1979), 41-51.
Steele, Valerie. Fashion and Eroticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.
---. Fetish: Fashion, Sex, and Power. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.
---. The Corset: A Cultural History. New Haven: Yale UP, 2001.
Summers, Leigh. Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian Corset. Oxford: Berg, 2001.
Hope Bernard holds a PhD in Theatre from Bowling Green State University. She was the assistant editor of Theatre Topics for two years and has work published in Theatre Journal and Theatre Survey. Hope is grateful to have the opportunity to work with Reconfigurations, as her interests often cross disciplinary boundaries in methodology and subject.
RECONFIGURATIONS: A Journal for Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture, http://reconfigurations.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1938-3592, Volume Three (2009): Immanence/ Imminence