Painful, barbaric and Victorian are the words I think of when someone says corset, and yet these torturous contraptions are enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Rigby & Peller, Marks & Spencer and eBay all report a huge increase in demand — corset sales on eBay, for instance, have risen nearly 200% over recent months. It seems that more and more women are willing to sacrifice comfort for a corset’s sculpted silhouette, with its tiny waist and rather larger upper region.
Ladies, before you lace yourself in, think back to Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Near the beginning of this enormous novel, Scarlett, bent on seducing Ashley Wilkes, decides to wear a low-cut green muslin dress with a tiny 17-inch waist. Even loyal Mammy protests, ‘You kain show yo’ buzzum befo’ three o’clock.’ Sage advice.
But Scarlett is insistent and so, ‘Mammy pulled and jerked vigorously and, as the tiny circumference of whalebone-girdled waist grew smaller, a proud, fond look came into her eyes. “Ain’ nobody got a wais’ lak mah lamb,” she said approvingly,’ before forcing her to eat ‘two large yams covered with butter, a pile of buckwheat cakes dripping syrup, and a large slice of ham swimming in gravy’. It’s astonishing that there’s room inside Scarlett’s tiny waist for this huge meal, but, as it was deemed unladylike to eat anything at a barbecue, she needs to be full to her corset-sculpted brim before arriving. ‘Why is it a girl has to be so silly to catch a husband?’ she complains, crossly chomping through it.
But the fact of the matter is, however tight her corset, Scarlett is neither coyly feminine nor delicately ladylike. She makes a fool of herself at the fateful party, and only becomes a heroine when she takes on masculine roles. She keeps the family plantation going through the civil war, shoots dead a Yankee marauder, runs her husband’s business, and even buys and runs her own sawmill. Despairing of her hopeless second husband’s laxity with his finances, Scarlett reflects, ‘He’s got to make money, even if I’ve got to wear the pants in the family to make him do.’ When times get tough, corsets, at least figuratively speaking, are a thing of the past.
But for those of you who, unlike Scarlett, still long to wear the corset not the trousers, let me leave you with the remarks of the marvellous Lady Mary Wortley Montagu upon entering a bagnio in Adrianople in 1717. She describes how the Turkish ladies, happily lolling around ‘stark naked’, urged her to undress too. Then, ‘I was a[t] last forced to open my shirt, and show them my stays, which satisfied them very well, for I saw they believed I was so locked up in that machine, that it was not in my own power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my husband.’
Do we really want to return to being locked up in machines so fearsome that only our husbands can open them? For me, at least, tomorrow is another trouser-wearing day.
— Emily Rhodes
Emily Rhodes is a blogger and bookseller. ‘By the Book’ is an occasional column on lessons from literature.