Wisdom, Autonomy and Corsets

As many of my readers will know, I have scoliosis – curvature of the spine. It was discovered when I was a teen, and by the time I was in my twenties a respected Australian doctor had strongly suggested I have a rod inserted in my back. I said no – a view that has since been supported by a number of other specialists (in my case). I’ve managed my pain and back health in many ways over the decades, from osteopaths and Alexander Technique, to pain killers and yoga, even writing my books while reclining and surrounded by pillows (Hey, it works for me). Since October 2015, corset wearing has become an effective and rather miraculous part of my personal health arsenal. In this contribution to the anthology Solaced: 101 Uplifting Narratives About Corsets, Well-being and Hope, edited by Lucy Williams, I explain why, and how prejudices and misinformation about corsets and their function made it all but impossible for me to discover this inexpensive, drug-free method of pain relief until recently.

 

Wisdom and Autonomy

by Tara Moss

 

There is a reason the eye is drawn to the silhouette of a corseted form. First there

are the proportions, the curved lines. Then the shining busk pins, the pattern of

laces, the often sensuous, shining fabric, the contrast of soft curve and rigid boning.

There is more to a corset than aesthetics, however, and this is where my real

corset story begins.

 

I first came to view corsets as more than attractive additions to my wardrobe

last year. You see, headaches and back pain have been regular companions to

my career as a novelist and writer for the past twenty years, in part because of

scoliosis (curvature of the spine). After two full decades of wearing corsets for

pleasure and fashion, and collecting no less than 12 of them, I experienced yet

another of my “writing aches” and laced myself into an old underbust one afternoon.

Perhaps I had medical corsets in mind that day (they are often structurally

similar) and I unconsciously craved the stiff posture support.

 

Whatever the reason, by the end of that day, I discovered something curious—

my neck and upper back felt “lighter.” Despite long hours at the keyboard,

I was without a discernible headache or neck tension. The next day I tried it

again, to the same result. And so finally the penny dropped: the corsets I had

loved the look of for as long as I can remember could do far more for me than

I’d given them credit for.

 

Why had it taken me so long to make this obvious connection? I soon began

reading everything I could on the topic, from blogs and news articles to W.B.

Lord’s The Corset and The Crinoline, Ann Grogan’s Corset Magic, the work of Dr

Valerie Steele, and Lucy’s many informative web posts. Reading the bulk of the

literature on corsetry, it was easy to see that the terms “corset” and “medical

benefit” were rarely found in the same sentence—not since some questionable

Edwardian advertisements for the S-curve, anyway.

 

Search for “corset” and “pain” and the dominant story becomes quite clear,

with the mainstream narrative being one of corsets causing, never relieving pain.

Though I had not taken as fact the more outrageous claims about corsets causing

frequent broken ribs and more (I would guess they have caused somewhat fewer broken

bones than the far more accepted fashionable women’s heels) it was good to read

many of these hyperbolic claims forensically debunked step by step in the work of

Steele, Grogan, and on the website of the author of this book, among others.

 

Yes, it is possible to wear an ill-fitting corset and hurt yourself by making it

bruisingly tight, just as you could with another piece of rigid clothing—again,

shoes spring to mind—but the question is, why would you?

 

Legitimate issues of social pressure and body dysmorphia aside, the root of

the hysteria about women and corsetry seems to be the idea that women, as an

entire sex, cannot be trusted to know their own minds and bodies. There could

apparently be no comfortable or moderate corset wear for women, only masochism

and dangerous vanity. For this reason, perhaps, it was puzzling to many

dedicated dress reformers that all women didn’t simply toss out their corsets as

soon as it became acceptable to do so. Didn’t they all hate the things? Well apparently

not.

 

As Steele writes in The Corset: A Cultural History, “Behind the dress reformers’

belief that menswear was intrinsically superior to women’s clothing was the assumption

that men themselves were more rational than women.” (Citation:

Steele, Valerie, The Corset: A Cultural History, Page 61.)

 

Wasn’t it possible, at least for some percentage of women, that a life with corsets

was superior to a life without, and that they were reliable witnesses to their

own feelings and experiences on the matter? Could this be one of the reasons

foundation garments, from corsets to girdles to shapewear, have never quite disappeared,

even if they have gone underground, as it were, becoming hidden

elements of dress?

 

Tellingly, men’s corsetry is almost entirely left out of the “corset debate,” despite

their historically documented use for the military, in fine men’s dressing,

on the stage (more than a few male performers wouldn’t be caught dead under

stage lights without one) and of course, for personal expression and pleasure.

This speaks, no doubt, to anxieties about male identity, perhaps once the focus

on the corset as a feminine article became so entrenched in the collective consciousness.

No, the focus of the “debate” remains fixed on familiar anxieties about

women, namely notions of female frailty and women’s dangerous sexuality. Both

ideas have passed down from century to century, from the preposterous “wandering

womb” theory originating in the work of Plato and taught right up to the

modern era of medicine, to the antiquated but oft-taught idea that women need

masters, do not have the capacity for rational thought, and should not speak up

in public spaces or exert public authority, lest we all be led astray: Eve and the

apple; Pandora and her box.

 

What we find again and again is the idea of the corset itself—or the woman

who wears one—as a corruptor. A woman with a corset is a threat or a victim.

The femme fatale, the dominatrix, the masochistic maiden, but never, it seems,

the sensible writer. With this history in mind, it’s little wonder

it took so long for me to see the obvious benefits a corset could provide, beyond

what was aesthetically clear.

 

I have now, like many women before me, discovered the benefits of moderate

and regular corset use. It is something I do for myself—for my pleasure, yes, but

also to avoid chronic pain. My doctor is aware of this, and I am aware of both

the benefits and limitations of these lovely additions to my wardrobe. I exercise

to pick up what back strength I can, with the scoliosis I have, and I wear my

corsets as an aid to those parts of me bent by nature, not as a substitute to my

real back muscles.

 

In this way I can hike for hours without a corset, and write for hours with one,

both comfortably. Whether “stealthing” or proudly showing off a corset, I feel

good, and if I don’t, I know something is wrong. I know my own body.

And when my leggy 5-year-old daughter runs into my arms, and I pick her up

without hesitation, and I keep holding her thanks in part to my stays, I am grateful

for the special moments these steel-boned creations afford me. A contemporary

mainstream acceptance and understanding of it is of little matter. The sensation

of holding my child without fear of hurting my back is just one pleasure

among the many that I will not soon care to give up.

 

  • Tara Moss is the author of 11 books of fiction and non-fiction, a

journalist, TV presenter, human rights activist, model, and corset

collector. Visit her at taramoss.com and victorylamour.com

 

BS1_5895corset

Above: Lacing myself in to a custom fitted corset, before getting dressed. Contrary to representations in the movies, today’s corsets are easily self-laced by the vast majority of wearers, and don’t hurt. If a corset hurts, it is too tight, poorly made, or the wrong fit for your body. Loosen it up (those laces go both ways, giving you a lot of control) or take it off. Be kind to yourself.

Solaced: 101 Uplifting Narratives About Corsets, Well-being and Hope edited by Lucy Williams of Lucy’s Corsetry, is available on e-book, and includes 101 personal stories of corset benefits including detailed accounts of how corsets help to manage a variety of conditions.

4 Comments

  1. Theresa

    I wish I had heard about this before. I have suffered with back pain all of my adult life. Now where to find some? Do they need to be custom fitted or can you recommend an off the shelf supplier?

  2. Victory

    Dear Theresa,
    I recommend you read widely, and check out Lucy’s website at: https://lucycorsetry.com for info and for listings of corset makers in your region. Good luck x

  3. Tanya

    I am a bigger woman. Any idea if there are corsets to fit my size ?

  4. Victory

    Dear Tanya,

    In my experience a large proportion of regular corset wearers are larger sized women. There is no size limit at all on custom corsets, and off the rack corsets come in a broad range of size made by different brands. (Custom is always the most comfortable and suitable, if you can afford it.)
    I recommend you read widely, and check out Lucy’s website at: https://lucycorsetry.com/research-corset-brands/corsetiere-map/ for info and for listings of corset makers in your region. Good luck x

    Best wishes, Tara AKA Victory

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