Book Review: Victorian Secrets: what a corset taught me about the past, the present and myself by Sarah A. Chrisman
How do you make a book about wearing a corset gripping? Because I was gripped at two am, turning each page to find out what happened to Sarah Chrisman, adventuring though Victorian attire. Her book blends titbits about corsets and their history into a narrative of what happens when you wear a one in everyday life, and both aspects are surprisingly interesting.
Did you know that those skeletons they say had ribs deformed by corsets were actually bent out of shape by the preservation process? That they weren’t just for the wealthy—maids and labourers had corsets designed to support their work? That they were astoundingly cheap? Have you ever thought carefully about those claims that women had bones removed to make their corsets fit? Because it was the era before Florence Nightingale; a badly broken leg was usually a death sentence, they’d saw it off without anaesthetic and then you’d die of an infection. That corsets, in short, weren’t like you think they were?
While we’re learning about corsets of the past, we join Chrisman on a journey as she transforms from an ugly duckling to a swan during a year (and a bit) of tight lacing. She immediately learns to sit up straight and walk tall (corsets don’t allow slouching). She used to eat in restaurants known for their big portions (in America!) until her stomach hurt, but there’s no room in a corset for overeating, so her heartburn is cured and she begins to lose weight. As her wardrobe becomes more and more Victorian, she learns to walk elegantly in kitten heels, wash her hands regularly and not wipe her dirty fingers on her trousers.
It is a little drastic. I couldn’t help thinking that those lessons could have been mastered without steel or whalebone. To make up for it, though, she tells her tale with an enjoyable acerbic approach to, well, everyone except her husband. She isn’t going to let polyester and rayon at the Victorian fashion show go by without protest. It’s rather fun, being on the inside, reading all the things you don’t allow yourself the freedom to say, or think. Her reaction to “I crafted it from things at the thrift store,” is as scathing as the one I always wanted to give. Such fun!
Then one’s sympathies begin to shift. The tipping point for me is when Polly (I hope to God that isn’t her real name) turns up at a Victorian ball in a blue polyester ball gown. This monstrosity is so memorable as to be referred to chapters later, when she makes her next appearance, Polyester Polly. I begin to think: poor Polly. Polly has turned up at a social event with the outfit she can afford. How much should she be maligned for it? How many people should be lambasted for failing to live up to Chrisman’s standards of attire? How evil are her fellow massage class students who use too much oil, is her mother for questioning her choice to tight lace, is her mother in law for talking too much? She is so primed to take offense, she’s even sure that cardiologist in the coffee shop queue is looking at her funny.
Chrisman seems relentlessly negative about everyone around her. The following come under serious fire: people who drink coffee; people who have mobile phones; people who run cars; people who wear synthetic fabrics; modern medical practitioners; and most of all feminists.
Sarah began to seriously lose my sympathies exactly half way through the book. She travelled to a cheap custom corset maker, and despite her misgivings when she noticed a pair of handcuffs for sale, handed over much more money than she’d been quoted as a deposit for two corsets. Escaping, suitably fleeced, she writes the shop off with: “to me, corsets are about Victoriana, not sadomasochism. My idea of proper wrist accessories are jewelled bracelets, not handcuffs.” Because, yeah, it was the BDSM that went wrong in that transaction.
There’s a paradox at the heart of this book: the only person sufficiently motivated to write it must be a zealot, and a zealot cannot give the impartial view the book requires. Sarah Chrisman has all the enthusiasm of a convert. She believes in corsets enough to wear one night and day, to spend serious money on them and attend all the relevant conventions and high teas. Somewhere along her journey, she goes to a Victorian place where we can’t follow. Sure of the old fashioned method, she ignores medical intervention on her broken foot in favour of a concoction of camphor. She tells us women’s lib has gone too far and we should recognise our inherent differences (say, dontcha know that in oppressive societies women often have power in domestic settings?). She has any number of health tips, but I find it hard to take health advice from an era in which the main source of vitamin C was jam.
Precisely because the writer of this sort of book has to go to an extreme to do so, she also has to deal with everyone else’s reactions to her choices. Some of those are very positive, but that means that you have to read, again and again, of people telling her she looks lovely. By the last chapter I was ready to tear out the next page in which a stranger gives her a compliment. The negative responses are explored, too, and one gets the feeling that Chrisman is taking the opportunity to say to us everything she wished she’d said at the time. These are not reports of two way exchanges or opportunities for reflection, but opportunities to be indignant. The effect is a lack of balance that undermines Chrisman’s case. One side of the argument (hers) is well explored, and she often speaks of ‘educating’ people, but now I want to know more about the views she was arguing against, and until I do I shall take hers with a pinch of salt. Chrisman’s anti-feminism is tiring, but Polyester Polly’s omitted reasons for decrying the wearing of antique clothes would hold my interest.
Mixed in with all that, though, are some interesting nuggets. I rather liked her point that it’s underwear, not biology, that prevents women from peeing standing up. She makes many of the discoveries that I have about how Victorian clothing and practices are better suited to the world than modern things. Natural fibres are warmer, more breathable and stay cleaner. Ankle length skirts and petticoats are cosy and practical. Washing your hands gets them cleaner than sanitizing them. Kitten heels make for an elegant gait. She’s so enthusiastic about split crotch bloomers that I think I want a pair.
Nevertheless, I’ll keep some aspects of modern life. Central heating, say. And medicine. I’d love to go to one of Sarah Chrisman’s presentations of antique clothing. Just don’t put me next to her at a dinner party, she might find herself being ‘educated’ about feminism and the joy of handcuffs.