Book Review – Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present, and Myself
Sarah A. Chrisman’s Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present, and Myself first came to my attention via an article on Yahoo and shortly it seemed to be everywhere. After carefully reading the reviews on Amazon.com, I ordered a copy. Then Autumn of Dark Garden (my mentor/boss) posted her own, brief, favorable review on Facebook. A friend emailed me a New York Times piece about the book. As soon as I received my copy, I was immediately sucked in.
This book is many things. It is, largely, a book about corsets, of course, but that categorization is simultaneously too broad and too narrow. This is a book about corsets as a starting point — a foundation for clothing, lifestyle, and perception. It is part memoir, part waist-training guide, part well-researched analysis of corsets as a garment and their relationship to the bodies they shape and the clothes that cover them. There is a marked emphasis on historical (life)style, which borders on a dismissive attitude of a modern perspective as she romanticizes Victoriana. This is not a book for those looking for a contemporary how-to-waist train touchstone or fetishists (though Chrisman essentially tightlaces 23/7, she seemingly lives a decidedly unkinky lifestyle).
Sarah Chrisman takes us on a journey over the course of a year and a bit, from receiving a corset as an (unwanted) gift from her husband to wearing a corset day and night and building a historical wardrobe around it. Her waist shrinks from 32″ down to 22″. Along the way, her posture, diet, and overall health improve. She gains greater understanding of Victorian society as evidenced by its clothing, imparts us with general basic knowledge about corsets and their construction, and importantly, dispels many myths along the way (for one, she soundly puts to bed any concerns you may have had about corsets deforming your skeleton or breaking your ribs). She ruminates on feminism. At the beginning of the book, she believes all the generic lines about corsets being oppressive and torturous instruments of the male patriarchy. By the end, she finds a new perspective, as most of the criticism aggressively delivered and aimed in her direction comes from other women, allegedly concerned about her oppressing herself. I can’t say I see eye to eye with her on all of her feminist conclusions, but then, that’s part of the point of modern feminism. As she says herself, “That’s why I like living in a free country.”
Her tone as an author is warm and conversational, intelligent and entertaining. The book is a very easy read; not only is the reading easy to sink into, but the book is fairly short. About 250 pages long, it could be the pleasure of an evening or spread out over several weeks, depending on how prolific a reader you are. There are plenty of images that helpfully illustrate women, styles, and accessories of the period. Most of these are period illustrations, such as those by Charles Dana Gibson, fashion plates, or catalog illustrations. I did find myself wishing for more/better photographs of the author, as those in the center section universally had a bit of a snapshot feeling, small and poorly lit, many of them featuring the same outfit. Of course, as the author has such a specific perspective, she can occasionally come off as judgmental. I must confess I took umbrage at her dismissal of her custom corsetiere based on the fact that the woman wasn’t wearing a corset when they met (in my experience, most corsetieres don’t wear their wares daily). Especially as this was immediately following several paragraphs about the cost of custom corsets/the woman’s “reasonable” pricing/a throwaway remark about corsetmaking not being particularly lucrative, with no apparently realization for the hypocrisy therein.
If you’ve been stumped for wish list items this holiday season or want to get a treat for a corset lover in your life, I would highly recommend this book. If only I had known about it back when the author was creating hand-bound editions, as cited in Lucy Corsetry’s overview! (If you’re curious in yet another corsetiere’s perspective, there’s a review on Orchard Corsets as well.) The book is available in hardcover, ebook, or audiobook on Amazon.com.