Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The shape she's in

Corset-wearer's memoir a lot of fun, except when she disses older women

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A little restraint never hurt anyone. Just ask your friendly neighbourhood dominatrix.

Especially if she is wearing a corset.

This woman's undergarment designed to hold the shape of the torso comes with a wild set of assumptions. Sarah Chrisman, who lives in Port Townsend, Wash., decided to examine them.

Chrisman, 33, is a massage therapist by profession and, along with her husband, a demonstrator of historical costumes by vocation. After receiving a corset from her husband as a birthday present, she decided to wear it all the time.

And she certainly learned something along the way.

As a memoir, Victorian Secrets is a straightforward read, although her prose is a little twee: "my dear husband;" "the dear mirror;" "my dear organs." My dear, please let it go.

Her historical research is fun and informative, and she debunks many of the nonsensical ideas that swirl around corsets -- that women broke their ribs to wear them (the "ribs" of the corsets would wear out and break, the simple physics of lacing a woman into one could not possibly break human bone); and that only the wealthy wore them (working-class women wore them, and they were designed to provide physical support for the labour they performed).

Chrisman describes what a corset does to the female form: it supports the bust without a bra, taking the weight off the shoulders and back. It pushes the intestines downward away from the waist, creating an hourglass figure.

Victorian clothes are made to fit that figure. Chrisman says the clothes are beautiful, functional and very well made.

"In my own mind, I reflected that part of why I enjoy wearing a corset so much is that it is an accentuation of this difference (between men and women)," she writes. "A woman is not an inferior man, so why should she dress like one? I am very proud to be a woman, and I had learned to enjoy flaunting that pride."

Her point is well-taken.

Wearing a corset not only changed her appearance -- her waist went from 32 to 22 inches -- but the way she acted as well. The constant physical reminder of the borders of the body lead to smaller food portions, more thoughtful movement through space, an assured, confident posture, and more attention to time and place and how it relates to one's own behaviour:

You cannot be slovenly in a corset.

While wearing her corset, Chrisman encounters lively encouragement and vociferous disapproval from both men and women of all ages, but unfortunately, she is truly venomous in her descriptions of the older women who cross her.

In one encounter, she writes, "a dumpy old woman glared at me with much the same expression I imagined she had turned on the Grim Reaper, several decades previously."

She describes this same woman by turns as "Grandma Biddy," "old crone," and "belligerent."

Another older woman is critical that she is wearing fragile "museum" clothing. She is referred to as "Polly Esther" for the rest of the book.

Yet another is described as a "lump-shaped baby boomer." And one more is "over-the-hill" with her jaw open "like one of the stupider breed of dog."

It is simply distasteful. A Victorian lady would never say these things out loud and certainly never would have committed them to print for publication.

The Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne observed: "Fashion is the science of appearances and it inspires one with the desire to seem rather than to be."

The social graces, with their attendant restraint, after all, have to be cultivated and refined from within. They cannot simply be "laced onto" the wearer.

Wendy King is an uncorseted Winnipeg freelance writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 14, 2013 A1

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