Victorian Secrets
Created by ggrihn on 4/21/2014 4:18:51 PM

Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present, and Myself

by Sarah A. Chrisman


Reviewed by Gregory G.H. Rihn, Steampunk Chronicle Literary Editor

On the eve of her twenty-ninth birthday, Sarah Chrisman was conflicted. Having a very real interest in Victorian times, both she and her husband had acquired a very nice collection of wearable, authentic, period clothing—with one notable exception. Sarah had taken to heart all the mythology about corsets being bad for one, and so had ruled out the possibility of wearing one. Nevertheless, she was unhappy that her Victorian fashions, which of course had been made to be underpinned by corsetry, didn’t look right when she wore them.

For her birthday, her husband set aside her objections, and gifted her with a beautiful corset, which she decided to try. She was so pleased with the results that she became an immediate and enthusiastic convert to corseting.

In fact, her conversion is so complete that it strains credibility. Within days, she is wearing the corset almost full time. Within weeks, she is actually sleeping in it, something usually done in Victorian times only by fanatical tight-lacers and women extremely vain of their figures. As it is a couple of months into the somewhat more than a year covered by her memoir before she mentions acquiring a second corset, one has to wonder when and how she took time to clean it?

Ms. Chrisman’s book details her adventures and misadventures becoming a corset-wearer in a society where sloppy comfort is the expected norm, and it is not uncommon to encounter people who view corsetry as an instrument of female oppression and are not shy about saying so. That Ms. Chrisman finds the experience liberating is not to be countenanced by some, although she stoutly and fairly eloquently defends her choices.

Her book is also, perhaps unintentionally, a revealing character study. Ms. Chrisman would have made an excellent stereotypical Victorian, as the occasional narrowness of her viewpoint is matched by the certainty of her convictions. On the one hand, she is uncharitably dismissive of “costumers,” people who wear “plastic clothes,” and essentially anyone who isn’t wearing either actual vintage clothing or replicas made of natural fiber fabrics. On the other hand, she’s equally censorious toward the fanatical preservationist who argues with her that antique clothing should not be worn. She’s cheerfully willing to discuss corset mechanics with Chinese acquaintances, for whom she allows it is not part of their culture, but hostile toward ignorant Americans, who are mostly no more misinformed than she herself was when she began her metamorphosis.

Victorian Secrets is an interesting, though not totally satisfying, memoir. There’s much in the book which could be of use to anyone who wants to wear corsets, though less than there could have been: any advice on actual fitting, or care and maintenance of corsets, is lacking. It is a light read, and frequently amusing.

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Victorian Secrets

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