Victorian Secrets by Sarah A. Chrisman (2013): perhaps some things are better kept under wraps.

victoriansecretschrismanBecause of my clear fascination with historical shapewear and undergarments, a number of people have recommended that I read Victorian Secrets:  What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present, and Myself by Sarah A. Chrisman (New York:  Skyhorse Publishing, 2013).  Although I am deeply interested in clothing and historical costume, and although I incorporate this kind of material culture into my work as a historian, I have never been tempted to become a historical re-enactor.  Ever.  Perhaps because of my utter disinterest in wearing historical clothing myself, I was eager to read Chrisman’s book, which is an autobiographical account of a relationship between a 30-year old woman  and her corset.  Chrisman is very insightful about the ways in which corseting herself forces changes in her body, posture, and wardrobe.  However, she is much less thoughtful about how the people of Seattle respond to her experiment in corsetry.

Chrisman and her husband Gabriel enjoy wearing real vintage clothing from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and she describes their growing involvement with the reenactor community in Washington state.  In wearing a corset, Chrisman reports that she was able to leave her tall, slouchy, not model-thin body behind and finally to feel at home in her body for the first time in her life.  Her breasts were relieved of the pressure of her bra straps, and for once her curves were flattering.  Furthermore, her corset limited the amount of food she could consume at any given time, removing another source of anxiety about her body:  “It was no longer a matter of biology, but of simple physics:  my stomach could not expand past the diameter of my corset.  If I started the day with my corset at twenty-eight, or twenty-four, or twenty inches, as long as I did not loosen it, I would have the exact same measurement at the end of the day, no matter what I ate or what I did in the interim.  I could eat until I was full at every meal,” (120-21).

However, Chrisman approaches her interests in corsetry and historical costume like a buff, not a historian.  And like many buffs, she displays an astonishing intolerance for any fellow buffs whose interest in historic costume isn’t as accurate as Chrisman believes it should be.  (Those of you who have read Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic will know what I mean when I say “total effing farb-fest.”  Chrisman believes that everyone aside from she and her husband are farbs, for sure.)  Unfortunately, this ruined the book for me.  Chrisman is completely intolerant of “farbs,” that is to say, of re-enactors or historical costume enthusiasts who are not up to her standards of authenticity.  In fact, she heaps a great deal of contempt on fellow buffs, most of whom are middle-aged and older women.  She mocks their use of man-made fibers and wigs.  To non-enthusiasts and non-re-enactors, this judgment is silly, and more than a little cruel.

Although she turns her body into an experiment in public history, Chrisman the author appears to be a very thin-skinned public historian.  She courts public interest in her body and clothing, but that interest in her distinctive figure clearly sets her off if it’s at all less than admiring.  When she informs random strangers who inquire that yes, she is in fact wearing a corset, she says that the typical response she gets from people is that corsets are damaging, bone-breaking, and most of all, clearly a tool of patriarchal subordination.  I get it that hearing that six times a day is irritating considering that one has made a choice to wear a corset.  However, one solution to that problem would be either to stop corseting oneself, or to stop engaging in these conversations. The reader might suspect that Chrisman wears a corset only to provoke public confrontation, from her accounts of the harassment she experiences daily on the streets of modern Seattle.

Stories?  She’s got a million of them in which she is the knowledgeable victim, and her antagonists the idiot aggressors.  Chrisman delights in recounting nearly every encounter she has had with an uninformed corset critic.  She cruelly caraicatures her mother throughout the book as an overweight, tattooed wearer of bluejeans–a costume choice that would in fact make her pretty unremarkable in the U.S. compared to her corseted daughter.  The taunting of her critics becomes repetitive and even heartless, such as when she reports triumphantly that a critic of hers (very compassionately named “Mr. Tomato Head” by Chrisman) was felled by a heart attack later the same day he dared to criticize her corsetry (129-30):

I again encountered the man himself several months later.  He was considerably more subdued as he confirmed that he had, indeed, experienced a cardiac attack after the last time he had seen me, when, as my friend put it, I had been talking and he had been screaming.

“I guess I gotta stay calmer, huh?” he concluded.

“Might be a good idea,” I agreed, nodding.  I fought against a devilish impulse, then gave into it.  “And maybe be more careful about telling other people their lifestyles are unhealthy?”

He had, after all, been quite nasty to me on numerous occasions.

And therefore clearly deserving of his nearly-fatal heart attack.

Chrisman outdoes herself in the Oppression Olympics when she tells a story about a vintage fashion show in which she and husband Gabriel are the featured attractions.  She is outraged when an elderly woman demands to use the restroom she has been given to use as a changing room.  She clearly thinks that the woman is just an unreasonable old bat, when I read this scene as an elderly and probably disabled woman desperate to avoid public humiliation:

I had just gotten out of my mourning outfit and was in my underwear when an angry knock sounded on the lavatory door.  “I have to use this bathroom!” called a belligerent woman’s voice.

My helper and I looked at each other, at my half-naked form, and at the fragile antique clothing carefully arranged over every available surface in the makeshift dressing room.  Is she kidding?

I poked my head out the door.  A dumpy old woman glared at me, with much the same expression I imagined she had turned on the Grim Reaper several decades previously, before saying that she was too old to have truck with him and slamming the door in his face.

“Let me in!” she insisted quite crossly.  Then she looked at all the clothing carefully arranged in sequence for our presentation.  “You have to move all this stuff! she snapped.  “Hurry up!”

“There’s another bathroom across the hall.”  I pointed to the door labeled WOMEN, not three feet behind and three to the right of her.  She had walked past it.

She looked at my indicating hand and scowled at me.  “I can’t use that one!  You have to move all this stuff!  Hurry up!”

I gave my young helper an incredulous look.  Is this dame for real?

Chrisman is clearly sensistive to the slights and insults of being a young woman in the world, especially one who dares to wear something that sets her apart.  She should perhaps also consider the ways in which the world is even unkinder to middle-aged and older women.  But no:  there is very little humanity in this book, especially not for any woman over fifty who crosses paths with the author.

Honestly, I tried to find things to like about this book.  For example, because she finds that modern women’s clothing isn’t cut to fit a corseted figure, she uses her own considerable needle skills to design, cut, and sew many garments for daily wear.  That’s resourceful and clever, as are her comments about washing, mending, and altering vintage clothing.  She also has a number of insights about Whig history ideology and the common assumption that corsets were invariably oppressive whereas modern women’s fashion is necessarily liberating.  She also has interesting things to say about the history of technology, and the dependence that we modern people have on cheaply produced clothing and automatic washers and dryers.  However, these insights are lost in the defensiveness and peevishness that characterize Victorian Secrets.

24 thoughts on “Victorian Secrets by Sarah A. Chrisman (2013): perhaps some things are better kept under wraps.

  1. Furthermore, her corset limited the amount of food she could consume at any given time, removing another source of anxiety about her body: “It was no longer a matter of biology, but of simple physics: my stomach could not expand past the diameter of my corset. If I started the day with my corset at twenty-eight, or twenty-four, or twenty inches, as long as I did not loosen it, I would have the exact same measurement at the end of the day, no matter what I ate or what I did in the interim. I could eat until I was full at every meal,” (120-21).

    That sounds fucken miserable!


  2. Maybe hunger and discomfort explain her peevishness?

    I absolutely take Chrisman’s great points about the absence of liberation in the skin- and body-revealing fashions of today. However, it sounds like the restrictions of the corset would make eating healthy foods (high-fiber, high-water content foods) potentially painful.


  3. Some story out of Sochi circulating on the “new” NBC “NEWS” website–which I refuse to navigate– about “Russian Speed-Skate Medalist Strips on Podium,” or something like that, blurbed on the front tile under: “Non-Wardrobe Malfunction.” Sounds relevant.


  4. @Indyanna– I actually did click on that (shame on me!). She unzipped her front to show less skin than many of the figure-skaters will be showing, because she couldn’t breathe well in the tight suit. (Then she zipped it back up because she wasn’t wearing anything underneath.) So I guess kind of relevant to corsets…


  5. I’m wondering how a corset is different from a pair of Spanx? Not that I have a personal interest in wearing either, as I like to be able to fully extend my diaphragm when I breathe.


  6. Good question regarding “spanx.”

    I read a newsy article Chrisman wrote about herself and perused the family blog. She writes that “like any good Victorian lady” she is college educated.

    This made me wonder how many people who “recover” memories of past lives and discover themselves to have been Cleopatra.

    If she was one of those fortunate ladies who studied at college, it would have been a subject approved by the men around her. The number of references to gifts and approvals from her husband give me the sense that this would fit right in with the fantasy life.

    I don’t think Chrisman would agree that she is making a choice that opens her up to special evaluation. She is quite clear that she is a (well to do) “Victorian lady.” She has no choice in the matter, she is who she was born to be.

    I wonder if she votes.


  7. ej: I’ve worn Spanx, and they’re basically just a super-reinforced “control top” from control top panty hose with the hose part cut off. They do pack you in a little tighter, but they certainly let you breathe and eat as you like. They’re much more flexible than whalebone or wood-reinforced corsets. They’re also much more focused on the core, with the center of gravity being the hips, whereas the center of gravity in the corset is the waist, I think.

    (I’m not a Spanx habitue, however.)


  8. I wonder if she uses leaches to treat her hysteria.

    So, let me get this straight. A corset physically compresses your internal organs, and restricts normal movement and activities all for the sake of making your supposedly unconventional tall body look more flattering …. And that’s not a tool of patriarchal subordination? How does that work?

    I always assumed that corsets were particularly appealing for middle aged and older women, who have watched their waists disappear with the effects of gravity and whatnot. Some of those old ladies she disparages may have worn girdles back in the day and might be more sympathetic to her harebrained ideas. Or maybe not.


  9. Anon–that’s a good point. The thought about girdles also occurred to me while I was reading her book–that perhaps the old ladies she despises for their dismissal of her corset might have some relevant experience with restrictive undergarments from the 1950s. (Which, admittedly, were not corsets but rather another very restrictive form of shapewear.)

    I this Chrisman’s argument boils down to choice feminism, which is that I choose it, so it’s my decision and therefore it can’t be patriarchy. Leaving aside the problematics of that kind of argument, she tries to make hay out of the fact that both Susan B. Anthony and Harriet Tubman wore corsets, ergo we should see corsets as not necessarily antifeminist because feminists wore them. That’s kind of a good point, although it overlooks the class and racial identity elements of corsetry in the late 19th century.

    In sum, it’s unsurprising to know that Anthony and Tubman wore corsets, and it doesn’t necessarily vindicate corsets as feminist.


  10. It sounds like wearing a corset is a little like having surgery on your stomach when it comes to the effects on eating – it physically requires you to eat less.

    I would agree that fashion/clothing standards today are not necessarily any more “liberating” for women than in past eras. In some ways, I wonder if standards in earlier centuries were more equal, since it seems to me that while women were expected to wear uncomfortable and restrictive clothing to conform to beauty standards, men were also expected to do the same thing to a greater degree than today.


  11. Hey, reenacting could be a fun disctration on the weekends and provide some Blogfodder. “VictoriAnn” or “Mad mAnn”. Though I have to admit the last Mad Men reenactors convention I went to was a total f’ing farbfest, what with the Lite Beer and everybody fretting who the designated driver was going to be.


  12. You know what D.D. stands for, don’t you BT Scrivener?

    Don Draper and Designated Driver, of course.

    Paul, you’re right on: being uncomfortable on purpose has really fallen out of menswear entirely. And it’s only fair!

    I too am very sympathetic to her arguments about what constitutes oppression and what constitutes liberation. Right now, I’m playing around a lot in the book I’m writing with the notion of finding liberty inside walls, boundaries, and cloisters, for example. I also don’t necessarily see revealing clothing as liberation. Chrisman is someone who has thought a lot about what it means for her to wear a corset and period clothing, and how that sets her apart from most Americans today, and she has some smart things to offer on these points and many others. However, I felt that her message got lost in her insistence that hers was the only reasonable viewpoint (& her overall defensiveness.)


  13. what constitutes liberation

    There are multiple meanings of liberation at play here and they muddy the water. Is the topic political liberation or spiritual liberation? Is the focus on the individual or the group?

    Chrisman is after her own personal opportunity to be who she understands herself to be. In pursuit of that, she has dressed in a way that forces her to confront a certain kind of oppression. This is interesting but it is hard for me to get past the SWPL feel of it all.

    With regard to walls, it’s not really liberation in the spiritual sense if the walls matter one way or another. Living in a way that expresses this understanding is the great challenge and the cloistered life is an age-old prescription for cultivating it.


  14. I definitely agree that Chrisman sounds a bit intolerant of other people herself.

    Re: Finding liberty inside cloisters, I remember reading somewhere (sorry, I can’t remember the source), about a debate among historians on how the Protestant Reformation affected women’s status in Protestant vs. Catholic countries. The traditional Protestant view was that eliminating convents freed women from confinement and a “tyrannical” regime, but a growing view of some contemporary historians is that convents, for all their strict and demanding rules, gave some women an opportunity to live a life where they were not under the direct legal control of men. It also gave some women a way to rise to positions of authority. In Protestant countries, where marriage was the only acceptable route for adult women, this limited opportunity to live outside the direct authority of men didn’t exist. Of course, Catholic European societies were still heavily patriarchal, and convents were still ultimately under male ecclesiastical authority. It sounds like an interesting topic – one wonders if a woman like the one you are studying would have been more satisfied as a wife and mother in Protestant New England or as a nun in Catholic New France. The question is probably unanswerable, but it makes one think about women’s roles in different cultures, even if those cultures are all patriarchal.


  15. cultivating it

    Arg. Bad, bad sentence. Should have been: Living in a way that expresses this understanding is the great challenge and the cloistered life is an age-old prescription for cultivating such understanding.

    Paul S.’s points are excellent. They are, to my mind, about liberty as a political concept, not liberation as a spiritual concept. It could well be that getting oneself to the nunnery is an avenue for approaching both.


  16. Don’t you think this has something to do with a literary market that privileges memoirs, and memoirs about unusual sh*t even more? Barbara Kingsolver’s book about living off the land was a superb version of this; the people who lived in Manhattan for a year “off the grid” — without heat, hot water or toilet paper, among other things, not so much. Then there was the girl making everything in the Julia Child cookbook, the girl who read a book every day for a year, the girl who lived as a man without being trans…. Because most of us are too boring to write about ourselves without some kind of weird gimmick. Except for you, Historiann.


  17. In relation to this, an interview with Jessica Brown Findlay in the Sunday NYT Arts & Leisure section. (She was Lady Sybil in Downton Abbey, and she’s also in “Winter’s Tale,” which is also set in the early 20th c. When asked if she had a fondness for corsets, she responded,”Corsets are sent from the devil.”

    I don’t see why you can’t think that corsets are confining without thinking that everything about modern fashion is liberating. And it sounds to me as if Chrisman is more about antiquarian accuracy than historical accuracy: that is, fashion is cut off from the other contexts of daily life.


  18. I did a lot of historical reenactment during my student days and that skillset even got me some guest lecturing gigs early on in grad school. There’s nothing like detaching your sleeves from your bodice to demonstrate how Renaissance elites really could have separate and highly valuable decorated sleeves!

    That said, I would not advocate wearing a corset regularly in the modern world. And, frankly, “freaking the mundanes” (as it was known in my day) gets old quick, as does being a card-carrying member of the authenticity police. But I guess it can buy you a book deal. . . .


  19. Janice–you might be interested in this book. Chrisman has a lot of insights about costume, clothing, and history, and her experiences as a freelance reenactor might be interesting for other reenactors (or former reenactors) to read.

    “Freaking the mundanes” = hilarious!


  20. Lots and lots and lots of ignorant comments on this thread. I encourage you to read the book for yourself. I think Chrisman is right on the money.

    This book review is really unfair. The comments may have taken you aback, but I tend to agree with her on most of them.

    Oh and yes. Chrisman does vote. She and her husband are liberal politically.


  21. I agree with Historian review. The tone of the writer’ s remarks toward others, esp. elders was uncalled for; and discredited the information .


  22. I am a historian and a waist-trainer. I wear corsets regulary and have for years. This book caused excitement through-out the corsetry community before it was even released… my library just purchased a copy.

    I am on chapter 4 now and I am astounded at her bitchy tone* and ignorance about history, conservation, how to put on a corset, and basic civility.

    *and considering that as the author its likely she reduced the bitch-factor in print makes me sad for everyone she’s encountered.

    I will make my best effort to finish this book. This review has echoed my sentiments exactly thus far into the book. Thank you.


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