A Tight Squeeze

Fashion and Fetishism: A Social History of the Corset, Tight-Lacing, and Other Forms of Body-Sculpture in the West

by David Kunzle
Rowman and Littlefield, 359 pp., $27.50

David Kunzle has chosen an awkward moment to write seriously and in detail about corsets and tight-lacing. We are living in a period when, as he allows in his preface, the practice is viewed “as one of the quintessential Victorian social horrors, the forcing of young females into narrow corsets being regarded as morally and hygienically on a par with the forcing of small boys into narrow chimneys.” In the present feminist atmosphere the historical corset is associated almost entirely with the oppression of women, if it is taken seriously at all. Mention of it most often seems to conjure a vision of idle, neurasthenic ladies fainting on sofas and prevented by their stays from doing useful work or having serious thoughts.

Kunzle is brave to offer a full-scale history of the corset, but even braver to expand and elaborate his heterodox view of it—that “the corset gave in the past as it still does, vestigially, in the present not merely physical support, but positive physical and erotic pleasure.” He presents a huge body of evidence to support this view, which in turn leads to an even more heterodox theory that tight-lacing was an expression of both sexual and social revolt—a symbol not of repression at all, but of a sexual rebellion that was a significant aspect of the class struggle. To make such a claim convincing, Kunzle has had to proceed with care into disputed territory to establish historical connections among the realms of fashion, politics, sex, medicine, and morality without sounding cranky or fatuous. To see a tightly constricted body as an image of freedom takes not only imagination but historical tact and a fine anthropological detachment, and Kunzle displays all three.

Painful compression is glaringly absent from current female torsos, although standard erotic taste still runs to high narrow heels, long red nails, and multiple holes in the ears. Puritanical Americans still love the pleasures of self-punishment, although now the luxury of severe bodily discipline usually takes the form of stringent exercise and curtailment of food and drink, not the systematic application of tight corsets and starched collars. The new methods of self-torture seem to connote moral freedom and physical purification while the old habits suggest social tyranny supported by sexual hypocrisy. A good look at them in context is probably not such a bad idea, as a possible hedge against smugness.

Studying only the element of constriction in dress might seem slightly perverse, but Kunzle’s book has the virtues of certain other acknowledged classics, notably Steven Marcus’s The Other Victorians, in which matters once glossed over as unworthy are shown to have instructive connections with official history. Even most costume history contains spongy generalizations about the past meanings of clothes, copied without demur from earlier books. Rarely has an aspect of historical dress been intelligently discussed with enough reference to complex civilized life to engage an educated reader. David Kunzle is an art historian with a special interest in the arts of popular social protest,…

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