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The corset is probably the most controversial garment in the history of fashion. Although regarded as an essential element of fashionable dress from the Renaissance into the twentieth century, the corset was also frequently condemned as an instrument of torture and the cause of ill health. Why did women continue to don steel and whalebone corsets for four hundred years? An The corset is probably the most controversial garment in the history of fashion. Although regarded as an essential element of fashionable dress from the Renaissance into the twentieth century, the corset was also frequently condemned as an instrument of torture and the cause of ill health. Why did women continue to don steel and whalebone corsets for four hundred years? And why did they finally stop? This lavishly illustrated book offers fascinating and often surprising answers to these questions. Valerie Steele, one of the world’s most respected fashion historians, explores the cultural history of the corset, demolishing myths about this notorious garment and revealing new information and perspectives on its changing significance over the centuries. Whereas most historians have framed the history of the corset in terms of oppression vs. liberation and fashion vs. health and comfort, Steele contends that women’s experiences of corsetry varied considerably and cannot be fully understood within these narrow frames. Drawing on extensive research in textual, visual, and materials sources, the author disproves the beliefs that the corset was dangerously unhealthy and was designed primarily for the oppression of women. Women persisted in wearing corsets—despite powerful male authorities trying to dissuade them—because corsetry had positive connotations of social status, self-discipline, youth, and beauty. In the twentieth century the garment itself fell out of fashion but, Steele points out, it has become internalized as women replace the boned corset with diet, exercise, and plastic surgery. The book concludes with insightful analyses of such recent developments as the reconception of the corset as a symbol of rebellion and female sexual empowerment, the revival of the corset in contemporary high fashion, and its transformation from an item of underwear to outerwear.


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The corset is probably the most controversial garment in the history of fashion. Although regarded as an essential element of fashionable dress from the Renaissance into the twentieth century, the corset was also frequently condemned as an instrument of torture and the cause of ill health. Why did women continue to don steel and whalebone corsets for four hundred years? An The corset is probably the most controversial garment in the history of fashion. Although regarded as an essential element of fashionable dress from the Renaissance into the twentieth century, the corset was also frequently condemned as an instrument of torture and the cause of ill health. Why did women continue to don steel and whalebone corsets for four hundred years? And why did they finally stop? This lavishly illustrated book offers fascinating and often surprising answers to these questions. Valerie Steele, one of the world’s most respected fashion historians, explores the cultural history of the corset, demolishing myths about this notorious garment and revealing new information and perspectives on its changing significance over the centuries. Whereas most historians have framed the history of the corset in terms of oppression vs. liberation and fashion vs. health and comfort, Steele contends that women’s experiences of corsetry varied considerably and cannot be fully understood within these narrow frames. Drawing on extensive research in textual, visual, and materials sources, the author disproves the beliefs that the corset was dangerously unhealthy and was designed primarily for the oppression of women. Women persisted in wearing corsets—despite powerful male authorities trying to dissuade them—because corsetry had positive connotations of social status, self-discipline, youth, and beauty. In the twentieth century the garment itself fell out of fashion but, Steele points out, it has become internalized as women replace the boned corset with diet, exercise, and plastic surgery. The book concludes with insightful analyses of such recent developments as the reconception of the corset as a symbol of rebellion and female sexual empowerment, the revival of the corset in contemporary high fashion, and its transformation from an item of underwear to outerwear.

30 review for The Corset: A Cultural History

  1. 4 out of 5

    Dmitry Kuriakov

    (The English review is placed beneath the Russian one) Корсет, один из немногих предметов прошлого, с которым связано огромное число мифов. И не удивительно, ведь о корсете писали как врачи, так и простая общественность уже где-то с XIX века. Одни проклинали корсет, в то время как другие считали его неотъемлемой частью женского гардероба. Как пишет автор, «В Англии же корсет был неотъемлемой частью повседневного гардероба простолюдинок. Даже у самых бедных был необходимый минимум – корсет и ниж (The English review is placed beneath the Russian one) Корсет, один из немногих предметов прошлого, с которым связано огромное число мифов. И не удивительно, ведь о корсете писали как врачи, так и простая общественность уже где-то с XIX века. Одни проклинали корсет, в то время как другие считали его неотъемлемой частью женского гардероба. Как пишет автор, «В Англии же корсет был неотъемлемой частью повседневного гардероба простолюдинок. Даже у самых бедных был необходимый минимум – корсет и нижняя юбка». Хотя корсет и не стал той определяющей гендер чертой, каким стала, по словам Энн Холландер, юбка. Корсет, тем не менее, стоит на втором месте среди одежды, которая характеризует женский пол. В отличие от той же юбки, которую мужчины никогда не носили, корсет всё же был предметом и мужского гардероба, пусть не каждого мужчины и пусть не настолько долго как у женщин. Но лично я думаю, что долгое существование корсета связано ещё и с тем, что этот предмет одежды невероятно сексуален. Валери Стил упоминает историю, как немецкая полиция конфисковала манекены одетые в корсет только из-за того, что они были выставлены в витрине магазина. В книге автор будет часто упоминать, что в те времена шнуровка могла рассматриваться как эротический акт, т.е. аллюзию на половой акт. Или когда автор подчёркивает присутствие в комнате мужчины, в то время как женщина зашнуровывает свой корсет, что тоже несет довольно эротический подтекст. Другими словами женщина в корсете воспринималась чуть ли не как обнажённая или частично обнажённая. Добавим к этому тот знаменитый факт, что функцией корсета было приподнимание груди. Тем самым корсет как бы подчёркивал эту женскую часть тела, т.е. действовал как нынешние пуш-ап бюстгальтеры. И третье добавление, это любители сильно утягивать свои корсеты. Автор уделил этому вопросу целую главу, показывая, что многие мифы об осиных талиях, якобы перерезанных органах и об удалённых рёбрах появились ещё в ту эпоху (это учитывая тогдашний уровень медицины, т.е. отсутствие анестезии и пр.). В том смысле, что только совершенно сумасшедший человек рискнёт своей жизнью ради такого довольно сомнительного предприятия. Сейчас, когда феминизм перестал быть только движением за права женщин, а превратился в политическое движение, все эти мифы обрели второе дыхание и многие люди их преподносят как истинное состояние дел. Разумеется, никаких повальных осиных талий в Европе не было! Не стоит думать, что наши предки были настолько глупые, а мы здесь такие умные. Автор великолепно показывает, что влияние корсета на здоровье женщины зависело от множества факторов. Например, насколько сильно женщины утягивались, в каком возрасте надевали костюм, как долго ходили в нём днём и спали ли в нём ночью. Это крайне важные факторы, которые необходимо принять во внимание, прежде чем браться за рассуждения о вреде корсета. И тут нельзя не отдать должное автору, которая описывает как реальную угрозу, которая поджидала владелицу корсета, так и мифы, которые были приписаны этим самым корсетам. К примеру, с одной стороны «современные эмпирические данные показывают, что, если начать носить корсет во взрослом возрасте, сдавливание рёбер будет лишь временным. Стоит снять корсет, и рёбра расправляются». Но с другой, кости детей могли деформироваться, и поэтому для детей корсет был крайне вреден. Так же автор подтверждает истории с падающими в обморок девушками. Автор описывает и причины, и какой опыт они проводили сегодня, чтобы понять, как работал корсет на девушках, к примеру, на балу. В общем, учитывая, что корсет здравствует и поныне, мы можем прийти к выводу, что это очень многогранный (пусть и не однозначный) предмет женского гардероба. А закончить я хочу цитатой из книги, которая лучше всего характеризует женщин носивших корсет в прошлом. «Знаменитую 40-сантиметрровую талию, конечно, не следует рассматривать как норму викторианской эпохи. Как мы видели, основная часть корсетов выпускалась от 45,5 до 76 сантиметров, да и более крупные размеры не были редкостью. Значим также контекст ношения корсета. Современные исследования говорят, что женщины среднего класса дома носили более свободную шнуровку, особенно по утрам, когда занимались домашними делами. В это время они часто надевали корсеты полужёсткие или вовсе без костей, так же как при занятиях спортом и в путешествиях. Днём, отправляясь за покупками или с визитами, они обычно затягивались потуже, однако во время чая снова немного распускали шнуровку. Особенно же туго утягивали корсеты перед обедом. Большинство, ложась спать, снимали корсет». The corset, one of the few objects of the past, is associated with a huge number of myths. This is not surprising, since both doctors and the general public have been writing about the corset since around the 19th century. Some people condemned the corset, while others considered it as an integral part of a woman's closet. As the author writes, "In England, the corset was an integral part of the everyday closet of commoners. Even the poorest had the necessary minimum - a corset and underskirt." Although the corset did not become the defining feature of gender as the skirt did, according to Anne Hollander. The corset, however, ranks second among the clothes that characterize the female gender. In contrast to the skirt, which men never wore, the corset was nevertheless also an object of men's closet, even if not every man was wearing it and even if not as long as women. But personally, I think that the long existence of the corset is also due to the fact that this article of clothing is incredibly sexy. Valerie Steele mentions the story of how the German police confiscated mannequins dressed in a corset just because they were displayed in a store window. In the book, the author will often mention that in those days lacing could be seen as an erotic act, i.e., an allusion to the sexual act. Or when the author emphasizes the presence of a man in the room while the woman is lacing up her corset, which also carries quite erotic connotations. In other words, a woman in a corset was perceived almost as naked or partially naked. Add to this the famous fact that the function of the corset was to raise the breast. Thus, the corset emphasized this part of the female body, i.e. acted as modern push-up bras. And thirdly, those who liked to tighten their corsets a lot. The author has devoted a whole chapter to this issue, showing that many myths about wasp waists, supposedly severed organs, and removed ribs originated in that era (given the level of medicine at the time, i.e. no anesthesia, etc.). In the sense that only a completely insane person would risk his life for such a dubious venture. Nowadays, when feminism has ceased to be only a women's rights movement and has become a political movement, all these myths have gained a second wind and many people are presenting them as the true state of affairs. Of course, there was no waspish waistline in Europe! We should not think that our ancestors were so stupid and we are so smart here. The author perfectly shows that the effect of the corset on a woman's health depended on many factors. For example, how much the women tightened their corset, at what age they wore the costume, how long they walked in it during the day, and whether they slept in it at night. These are extremely important factors that must be taken into account before discussing the harms of the corset. And it is impossible not to pay tribute here to the author, who describes both the real threat that awaited the owner of a corset and the myths that have been attributed to these very corsets. For example, on the one hand, "current empirical evidence shows that if you start wearing a corset as an adult, the compression of the ribs is only temporary. As soon as the corset is removed the ribs are spread out. On the other hand, children's bones could become deformed, and therefore for children, the corset was extremely harmful. The author also confirms the stories of fainting girls. The author describes both the reasons and what experiment they conducted today to understand how a corset worked on girls, for example, at a ball. All in all, given that the corset is still alive today, we can conclude that it is a very versatile (though not unambiguous) piece of women's closet. I would like to end with a quote from a book that best characterizes women who wore a corset in the past. "The famous 40-centimeter waist, of course, should not be considered the norm of the Victorian era. As we have seen, the bulk of corsets were produced from 45.5 to 76 centimeters, and larger sizes were not uncommon. The context of wearing a corset is also significant. Contemporary research suggests that middle-class women at home wore looser lacing, especially in the mornings when doing household chores. At that time they often wore corsets semi-stiff or no bones at all, just as they did when playing sports and traveling. During the day, when they went shopping or visiting, they usually tightened up, but during tea time, they loosened the lacing a little again. The corsets were especially tightened before dinner. Most women, when they went to bed, took off their corsets".

  2. 4 out of 5

    Michelle

    an interesting, if somewhat dry, look at the history of the corset. most interesting to me was the revelation that the corset was not, as is commonly thought, a cruel requirement of men imposed upon women. in fact, doctors of the time (all male) and many men argued that corsets were unhealthy and unnecessary, encouraging women not to wear them. it was, as it is today, pressure of women BY women, to look, dress, and act a certain way. we tend to believe that "body-shaming" is a new phenomenon in an interesting, if somewhat dry, look at the history of the corset. most interesting to me was the revelation that the corset was not, as is commonly thought, a cruel requirement of men imposed upon women. in fact, doctors of the time (all male) and many men argued that corsets were unhealthy and unnecessary, encouraging women not to wear them. it was, as it is today, pressure of women BY women, to look, dress, and act a certain way. we tend to believe that "body-shaming" is a new phenomenon in our current culture - but the truth is that it's been going on for hundreds of years. maybe we haven't come as far as we think.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Kate

    Very thorough, thoughtful, and extremely well researched, Valerie Steele looked into every myth, asked all the questions, and framed it all in context. The corset is old and complicated and the reasons are many as well as vast, and ultimately another reminder that we’re just human after all.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

    The Corset, a fascinating look at one of history's most culturally-charged costume artifacts, both benefits and suffers from the obvious erudition of its author. Valerie Steele, Yale PhD and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, brings meticulous research to the table in her step-by-step examination of the corset's development as an article of dress and her debunking of the many health-related myths that clung to its laces, providing excellent footnoting The Corset, a fascinating look at one of history's most culturally-charged costume artifacts, both benefits and suffers from the obvious erudition of its author. Valerie Steele, Yale PhD and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, brings meticulous research to the table in her step-by-step examination of the corset's development as an article of dress and her debunking of the many health-related myths that clung to its laces, providing excellent footnoting and an extensive bibliography. However her academic bent is more than obvious in her prose, which tends to be extremely dry even when discussing the most fascinating of cultural and sexual mores - even the intriguing suggestion that the "hard body" so emphasized by today's society's focus on physical fitness is a stand-in for the corset of the past is presented in such an anemic fashion that you might be excused for missing how inflammatory a comment it really is. The many illustrations presented here are excellent, though it's frustrating that she focuses her text frequently on things that don't get illustrated at all, and the opening chapters lack what would have seemed the most obviously necessary illustration: namely, that of a corset with its varying bits labeled so that when Steele refers to a "busk" you know precisely what she's referring to rather than having to puzzle it out from vintage photos. I also admit to being a smidge surprised that she made it through even the briefest of discussions of fetishistic uses of corsets without at least giving a nod to Rocky Horror, but that's probably just me. Jam-packed with information, but a bit of a style-snooze, this should be of interest to the afficianados in the audience.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Tatiana Gomez

    An extensive and rather dry overview of the corset in France, England, and the Americas from the Renaissance to modern times. A great place to start if the corset is of interest to you, but it is a bit shallow and extensively focuses on corset symbolism and sexuality rather than just history. This is an interesting read in that Steele favors some controversial opinions about the corset--i.e. that most women did not want dress reform but rather favored wearing corsets, that they were not worn only An extensive and rather dry overview of the corset in France, England, and the Americas from the Renaissance to modern times. A great place to start if the corset is of interest to you, but it is a bit shallow and extensively focuses on corset symbolism and sexuality rather than just history. This is an interesting read in that Steele favors some controversial opinions about the corset--i.e. that most women did not want dress reform but rather favored wearing corsets, that they were not worn only by upper classes--and she does well in backing these opinions up with research. I was also interested in her explanations of how corsets changed through time. I disliked what felt like an emphasis on the sexual nature of the corset and its changing symbolism in society throughout time (if you are interested in learning about that, however, this would be a good place to start.) I thought that space could have been better used, perhaps by better bridging the gap between corsets and modern day "foundation garments," but that is my particular area of interest so I might be biased. This also felt like more of an overview/introductory text to me, and might seem overly simplistic if this is a subject you know a lot about, but it had a great bibliography that helped me pick some more in-depth works to read next.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Becca

    Absolutely loved this. Break all the myths! Excellently researched. Loads of evidence and facts, plus fun pictures to go along with. Very interesting read! Highly recommend if you're interested in History, especially costume history. The perfect research book for historical projects. Would read again. Please movie industry, read this and stop putting annoying inaccurate corset scenes in movies. Thank you. (same with TV. I'm talking to you, Bridgerton writers) Absolutely loved this. Break all the myths! Excellently researched. Loads of evidence and facts, plus fun pictures to go along with. Very interesting read! Highly recommend if you're interested in History, especially costume history. The perfect research book for historical projects. Would read again. Please movie industry, read this and stop putting annoying inaccurate corset scenes in movies. Thank you. (same with TV. I'm talking to you, Bridgerton writers)

  7. 4 out of 5

    Stacy Montgomery

    This is a fascinating look at an undergarment that has evolved for centuries, as well as the torture women have put themselves through to achieve a certain look. Amazing and shocking images combined with famous women we know and love makes this a fantastic read.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Allison Thurman

    Busts the myths that tightlacing was ubiquitous, or that corsets have to be uncomfortable. And lots of gorgeous pictures

  9. 5 out of 5

    Wendy Stanley

    Very good overview of the history of the corset from the 1500s to WWI written by an experienced fashion academic. Lots of illustrations and factual history included.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Alisa Cupcakeland

    I enjoyed more Steele's book on fashion and fetishism, this one felt a bit more dry and with a slower pace. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book and I've always found Valerie's style is straightforward and well-documented. The biggest flaw I found is that it felt too based ont the upper western world (aka US and Western Europe), and I'd have liked to have at least a few pages referring to the use of the corset in other places, specially if the title says "a cultural history. I enjoyed more Steele's book on fashion and fetishism, this one felt a bit more dry and with a slower pace. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book and I've always found Valerie's style is straightforward and well-documented. The biggest flaw I found is that it felt too based ont the upper western world (aka US and Western Europe), and I'd have liked to have at least a few pages referring to the use of the corset in other places, specially if the title says "a cultural history.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Kara

    PopSugar Challenge - A book with an item of clothing or accessory on the cover

  12. 5 out of 5

    Kathleen

    This is less non-academic than Plucked but better than Consumptive Chic. The Corset: a Cultural history is, as the title suggests, about corsets, their development, their history, and their place IN history. Unfortunately, Steele is forced to spend most of the book disproving the myth that corsets are torture devices or unhealthy to wear. Turns out most of the evidence for tight-lacing in the late Victorian era? Yeah, actual porn. Doctors condemned the corset on a regular basis and yet women kep This is less non-academic than Plucked but better than Consumptive Chic. The Corset: a Cultural history is, as the title suggests, about corsets, their development, their history, and their place IN history. Unfortunately, Steele is forced to spend most of the book disproving the myth that corsets are torture devices or unhealthy to wear. Turns out most of the evidence for tight-lacing in the late Victorian era? Yeah, actual porn. Doctors condemned the corset on a regular basis and yet women kept wearing it; perhaps because it was a support garment and not an iron maiden? Steele also has a pretty interesting theory that the modern emphasis on women being in shape is the modern-day corset. Anyway, the book promises a broad scope and delivers, and while it gets pretty dry at times, especially for non-academic folks, I still found it fascinating.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Phair

    To be honest I have not actually read the whole book yet. My rating is based on the marvelous scope of illustrations outlining the history of corsetry, the various medical and social controversies relating to them and also covering modern fashion trends and fetishism. Even the endpapers are worth the price of admission...... Includes chapter notes, extensive bibliography and an index.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Marie

    Thought this book was a bit repetitive, which made it tedious to slough through. Would not read it again. Getting through it the first time was hard enough. I found the writing style dry. Would use it as a reference book.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Mati

    This book caught my attention for its very detailed insight in to the history of corsets from middle ages to the modern times and their influence on the culture. It is pity that this book did not have more pictures and schematics of corsets.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Kathryn Bedford

    A really interesting look at attitudes towards corsetry over the centuries. The illustrations are all relavent and intersting. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on the medical implications of wearing corsets.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Jill

    This book is by my boss. She is cool.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Hannah

    Read this for a research project, and it was interesting, but extremely detailed, and I could only use a very small portion of the information.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Jaye Sudar

    This was a very good book. Satisfied a desire to learn more history and also see some beautiful photographs. Worht the read.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Powder River Rose

    Excellent information

  21. 5 out of 5

    D

    A very interesting book about corsets through history. My BFF has gotten into tight lacing / waist training and encouraged me to read this as background information. I really liked it:)

  22. 4 out of 5

    Dot

  23. 4 out of 5

    Kate

  24. 4 out of 5

    Travis Kalina

  25. 5 out of 5

    Carlos

  26. 5 out of 5

    Kati

  27. 5 out of 5

    Bob

  28. 5 out of 5

    Kendra

  29. 5 out of 5

    Kaycee Manuaka

  30. 5 out of 5

    Collette

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