Victorian Secrets – Book Review

Sarah A. Chrisman Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, Present, and Myself  Skyhorse Publishing (2013) Kindle Edition

Sarah Chrisman had worn historic and vintage (as in late 1800s) clothes for some time, as did her husband. But she refused to wear a corset. It was a sign of oppression, could break bones, caused health problems, deformed women’s bodies, and served as a tool of repression and the patriarchy. And then her husband got her one for her birthday, a lovely one in her favorite colors. And she did not want to hurt his feelings. And her whole view of fashion, style, and modern feminism got shifted along with her waistline.

Like many, I’d taken for granted everything I read about the horrors of corseting, probably in part because of reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s account of her problems with corsets. I’ve also read about the modern fetish culture around tight lacing, where people take corsetry to physical extremes. So had Chrisman. But the corset was not what she thought it was going to be. And she started liking how it made her look and feel.

The book is the story of her experiences over the year she went from “bad corset no no!” to wearing one every day, and in the process switching to wearing only clothes from 1870-1914. Chrisman takes apart many of the legends about corsetry and points out that the horror stories were just that – stories. You could not break ribs with a corset unless you had an underlying medical problem, like osteoporosis. The corset would break first. And if they were such horrible things and women hated them, why did the invention of the sewing machine lead to a surge in corset sales, followed by complaints that men couldn’t tell upper class women from working class women, since all were now sporting a trim figure?

As someone who wears Victorian reproduction clothes, and who has dealt with an ill-fitting stage corset (don’t recommend), the book was fascinating. it is not an academic treatise on the history of corsets. Chrisman recommends several, and cautions about several others. It is one woman’s story, and it makes you shake your head in places at the foolishness of other people. At least every two weeks someone, total strangers, verbally attacks Chrisman for wearing a corset and setting back the cause of women’s liberation and perpetuating the patriarchy and destroying her body and on and on. At least the woman who complained about wearing real 1800s clothes “because they are so rare and fragile” had a logical point. But the feminists yelling at Chrisman for choosing to wear a corset? The photos of Susan B. Anthony wearing a corset are worth 1000 words.

Would I wear a corset? I don’t know. From what Chrisman says, I’d need a custom one because of my odd torso-length to waist size ratio. But I know I will teach certain things differently. I suspect there will be a lot of “well, duh, that makes sense” moments if people read this. After all, ladies, why would you wear something that cost a good deal of your hard-earned money if it made you sick and caused medical problems? And who knows, if it will help trim my middle a little and make my skirts and blouses fit better . . . Goodness knows I could do with posture reminders, too.

The book is a quick, easy read, with lots of humor and a few painful moments (the ankle, the screaming harpies). I’d recommend it for anyone interested in historic costume, vintage dressing, and women’s history. As I said, it is not an academic history, but one woman’s real-life experience and observations.

I purchased this book with my own money and received no compensation, financial or other.


3 thoughts on “Victorian Secrets – Book Review

  1. I’d actually heard they were very good for broken or cracked ribs. I’m not sure where I heard that, but it makes sense.

    Also, what is the deal with the fad nowadays to wear the corset outside your other clothes?

    • Until a few years ago, if you broke ribs, the docs taped you into a sort of corset, or made you wear one. Now they say “Don’t do that again.”

      No idea. I think it comes from steampunk, and from people who want to look like they are wearing a corset or armor without getting fussed at for wearing a corset (or paying for a high-quality custom corset.) Plus corsets, bustiers, and merry-widows are very different things.

      • Yeah, I think the reason they don’t tape your ribs up now, is so that every time you move you REMEMBER, “Don’t do that again.”

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