Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian Corset

Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian Corset

Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian Corset

Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian Corset

Synopsis

Corsets, and the corseted body, have been fetishized, mythologized, romanticized. This Victorian icon has inspired more passionate debate than any other article of clothing. As a means of body modification, perhaps only foot binding and female genital mutilation have aroused more controversy. Summers’ provocative book dismantles many of the commonly held misconceptions about the corset. In examining the role of corsetry in the minds and lives of Victorian women, it focuses on how corsetry punished, regulated and sculpted the female form from childhood and adolescence through to pregnancy and even old age. The author reveals how the ‘steels and bones’, which damaged bodies and undermined mental health, were a crucial element in constructing middle-class women as psychologically submissive subjects. Underlying this compelling discussion are issues surrounding the development and expression of juvenile and adult sexuality. While maintaining that the corset was the perfect vehicle through which to police femininity, the author unpacks the myriad ways in which women consciously resisted its restrictions and reveals the hidden, macabre romance of this potent Victorian symbol.

Excerpt

The private, lived, female experience of corsetry was (and still is) rarely documented. Henry Handel Richardson offers the historian a rare and realistic description of the ‘post’-corset body in her splendid short story, titled ‘The Bathe; A Grotesque’. The story reveals the terror of a small child whose aunts abandon their knitting to swim naked with her at a secluded beach.

The tide was out. [wrote Richardson] Dare we risk it? Lets. [said the aunts.] Tight high bodices of countless buttons went first, baring massy arms and fat creased necks of maturity. Thereafter bunchy skirts were slid over hips and stepped out of. Several petticoats followed, the undermost of red flannel, with scalloped edges. Tight stiff corsets were next squeezed from their moorings and cast aside: the linen beneath lay hot and damply crushed. Long white drawers were unbound and leg by leg disengaged, voluminous calico chemises appeared, draped in which the pair sat down to remove their boots – button boots and stockings, their feet emerging red and tired looking … Erect again they yet coyly hesitated before casting off the last veil, once more sweeping the distance for a . . .

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