Because 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.