In June 2011, almost a decade ago now, I received an email with the tantalizing subject line—“A Call for Corsets!”—that has stayed with me. Marilyn Hall, a textiles artist, was asking for help. She had been researching corsetry and how it affected women’s lifestyles during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She was planning to use old corsetry as the focus of her next practical piece of work. Hall was looking for donations of corsets, girdles, and suspender belts. She suggested that her readers might find them “lurking in the loft, wedged in the wardrobe, curled up in the cupboard, or discarded in a drawer.” I was struck not only by the subject but also by the simple alliterations in the text. I read it aloud, and my tongue dealt deftly with the texture of the language. I read it out again, more slowly this time, and with deliberation. As I spoke the words and rolled them around in my mouth, I could almost feel the silk and the bone and the lace. Yet a third repetition formed itself more quietly, and the “call for corsets” became almost a whisper. Hall did not just want old corsetry however: “Items of any age and condition will be gladly received along with any stories they have to tell,” she wrote. Stories and secrets, I thought.
The language in which corsets were written about was certainly important in building a degree of excitation, and Hall’s seductive use of language in her original email was an obvious example. The corset and its histories invite such language. Rich in both texture and in meaning, alliteration seems to be the chosen literary technique of artists and historians alike who describe the corset. Their alliterations are so commonplace that I wonder if there might be something inherent in the ideas associated with corsetry that sets writers on this particular path—and, at the same time, tempts readers to imagine more than what’s on the page in front of them. It isn’t only the corset that attracts this sort of linguistic treatment. Other undergarments, it seems, are equally bound up in words, too. In May 2011, Leicestershire County Council, custodians of the important Symington Collection of corsetry, advertised an exhibition entitled “Support and Seduction,” suggesting that, “Naughty knickers and clever corsets [would] seduce visitors!” Elsewhere in my reading, I’ve encountered the “coercive corset,” the “cruel constriction,” “wasp-waists,” and “whalebone bodies.” I thought I had read mention of “silk and suffocation” too, but that turned out to be my own alliterative imagination at play.
The materials used to construct garments such as the mid-nineteenth century example you can see here (and normally secreted in the store rooms of the Victoria and Albert Museum) surely invite a textural analysis too. From the luxury of silk, satin, and lace, to the more functional use of linen and cotton—from the stiffness of whalebone, steel, iron, and even leather, to the decorative qualities of lace and bows, sometimes sequins and rhinestones—and from the fashionable to the fetishistic, the medical to the erotic, and everywhere in between, the corset has emerged in many guises over the last four hundred years or so and continues to attract controversy today. Why? Well, some histories have viewed the corset in simple and rather reductive terms; it is either oppressive or it is liberating; it is either a fashion item or it is a medical garment to aid health. Isn’t it? Maybe, but things are rarely that straightforward. If we consider the silk stretched tensile between seams sewn doubly strong to contain the body and its desires within, it is not long before we reach an impasse where the corset is not entirely constraining, for its stays might both constrain and heighten desire in one fell swoop. Neither is it totally liberating in its effect. The historical convention of corset training for even very young children, especially girls, is evidence enough of that.
The story behind any item of corsetry is often difficult to establish, and yet the lure of those hidden histories is already present in Hall’s original “Call for Corsets!” Why does she want to know the stories that might accompany these garments? Why should they matter? They matter, I suppose, because of the secretive undertones, their seductive quality, and they therefore gesture towards something irresistible in what is hidden from view. The surface of silk or satin, for instance, is plain enough to see. Hidden beneath that surface are rigid stays of bone or steel, secreted inside the garment like religious relics. Sometimes corsets appear much like instruments of torture: the medical, the fetishistic, garments of constraint and release in one way or another. Other examples are simply beautiful.
Here, the corset on the mannequin appears as if suspended against the black, like an irreverently fashioned reliquary hanging in some dimly lit side-chapel of a half-forgotten rural church. Made in 1864 in the United Kingdom, or possibly in France, this corset’s story is already unclear. There is no information recorded about who made it, or who wore it. It is known that the Burrows family donated it, and it is linked to a 1864 marriage in the family, but there is no further information. Its dimensions have been diligently recorded:
Circumference: 77 cm (bust)
Circumference: 56 cm (waist)
Circumference: 76 cm (hips)
Height: 33.5 cm (front)
Height: 34 cm (back)
Stitched in blue silk and edged with machine-made lace, this corset was reinforced with whalebone and metal eyelets, complete with a cotton twill lining. When I first saw it, the mix of textures in a single garment made my head swim with ideas and my senses tingle. In the photograph the light glances off the curves of this corset to reveal a satin sheen that must surely be accompanied by a silky smoothness the eye can only imagine. There are ribbed seams, too, which tell us something about the rigidity of its boned structure, hidden conveniently from view. It is stiffened with whalebone and machine-stitched with a swivel latch that locks the fastening at the front and a lace fastening at the back. So many locks and fastenings! The rich texture of language, the sensuous texture of corsetry, the secret texture of histories, all inextricably tied up in a single garment and a single “Call for Corsets!” I am still sorry I did not have a corset of my own to donate to Hall’s project, but perhaps this tangle of textures in words and stories here will have to suffice as my rather belated contribution.
Beth Williamson is a freelance art historian. Her core research concerns post-war British art and she has worked with Tate, Whitechapel Gallery, Tyne and Wear Archive and Museums, Warwick University, University of the Arts London, Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and Studio International. Her book Between Art Practice and Psychoanalysis Mid-Twentieth Century: Anton Ehrenzweig in Context (2015) is published by Routledge. She is currently writing on the artist and educator William Johnstone.