News & Articles
2004-2005, Volume 3
by Artistic Apprentice Alyson Roux
Esther, the seamstress in Intimate Apparel, creates beautiful corsets and underclothes for the ladies of Manhattan – from the Fifth Avenue socialite to the Harlem prostitute providing her a singular opportunity to learn about the lives of other women of her era. The corset, too, has a life of its own – one of beauty, sex and pain.
Corset stems from the French word corps for body. It is a cinching garment that wraps around the torso to either push up or flatten the chest, and tighten and shape the waist. The conception of the corset dates back much further than one may suppose. Drawings depicting women wearing laced up animal hide bodices were discovered at a Neolithic archaeological site in Brandon Norfolk, England. Anthropologists suggest that primitive corsets were formed to the body with freshly warm animal skins.
Esther embroiders the bodices of her corsets with exquisite flowers and beads, a practice which is rooted in the 17th century. The piece of wood, whalebone, ivory, horn or steel slotted into corset stays to hold the torso erect is known as the busk. This integral front section of the 19th century corset was shaped to control the abdomen. The removable busks of the 17th century could be fashioned into daggers and used as weapons, and were commonly given as gifts of endearment by a suitor to his sweetheart, often adorned with words of poetry.
During the 1800s, Dr. Daube, a French army doctor, invented a tiny little object that changed the undergarment forever: the metallic eyelet. The eyelet allowed the corset to be cinched tighter than had been previously possible without damaging the fabric or outer clothing. Corsets could get tight – and they did.
Tightlacing, the practice of applying corsetry to achieve as small a waist as possible, became the norm during the mid to late 1800s. Young unmarried women were expected to have a waist size in inches smaller than their age in years. Since most women married around the age of 20-22, one can expect that the popular 18-inch corsets were a daily struggle. Women were forbidden to show pain or discomfort, especially when being laced up by the maid. The dual identity of the virtuous female figure during the Victorian time was embodied by her severe daily pain contending with the necessary mission to the most delicate of waists.
Popular in the late 19th century, figure training was the custom of sending young girls to finishing school where part of the curriculum was reduction of waist size. The student would be forced to constantly wear a corset, even when sleeping. The result was a woman who was incapable of sitting or standing without the use of her corset, as the abdominal muscles and organs were deformed and women uncorseted were described as “appearing to snap in half.” In time, doctors advised against tightlacing, but to little avail. The Straight Front Corset, or “S” shape corset was made famous by the 1904-05 images of the “Gibson Girls,” with their rears lifted and protruding, their lower backs arched and their busts pushed forward and up by a straight and unbending busk. Intimate Apparel’s Esther would have been pressured to make such corsets by her most wealthy of clients. This type of corset was marketed as a cure for tightlacing, but proved to be even more injurious because of its unnatural configuration, and disappeared by the beginning of the first World War.
Mrs. Van Buren in Intimate Apparel confesses that her corset makes her feel “a bit naughty,” especially if she wears it under her gown. The concealment of corsets and skin projected both virtuousness and a hint of mystery about a lady’s appearance, thus creating an erotic dichotomy in the feminine presence. Victorian women wore an average of 11 pounds of undergarments, and undressing for sex took an extremely long time and was very complicated; perhaps the most historically effective mood killer. Prostitutes, like Mayme in Intimate Apparel, had many fewer garments to remove, and intimate relations with a stranger were more accepted and respected than finding sensual pleasure with one’s wife.
While corsetry was most popular during the Victorian era, recently there has been a resurgence of interest. The modern corset is often associated with fetish wear in sadomasochism, but can also be a simple fashion statement. The pop star Madonna has a celebrated history of making undergarments and corsets part of her wardrobe. There are also many groups in both moralistic and aesthetic support of contemporary tightlacing, despite the medical effects. Since the evolution of spandex and other stretch fabrics, the corsetry worn by the female characters in Intimate Apparel may seem archaic, but the preoccupation of the perfect figure is deeply embedded in our society.