Lace Me Up Daddy: A Brief Glimpse Into Male Corsetry

 

The hyper-feminised silhouette produced as a result of corsetry is not one often associated with the notion of a male wearer. The corset acted as a means to drastically cinch the waist, lift and enlarge the bust as well as operating as a means to contour the hip and natural curve of the female body. In exaggerating the typically idealised ‘hour-glass’ silhouette it becomes almost unfathomable to think of the male body in relation to these traditionally feminised proportions.

As Valerie Steele argues in her book Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power however, corsetry and the male body have a long and interesting history. Steele first discusses a common theme amongst male corset-wearers: the underlying sense of masochistic pleasure derived from the restrictions of tight-lacing. She details how, historically, many men would borrow their wife of sister’s corset and thus ask to be laced into it. The desire to be submissive toward a dominant woman is certainly an interesting concept in relation to male corsetry however, it is much too limiting a view to take when considering the complexities of corset-wearing in the modern era.

Mr Pearl, a renowned tight-lacer, is quoted within Steele’s book in stating that he does not wear corsets in an attempt to be like a woman. For Pearl, corsetry is representative of control and the discipline one needs to wear such a garment. The corset dictates the way in which one behaves; movements are restricted and posture is refined. As the corset provides support for Mr Pearl’s spine it metamorphoses into and becomes his spine, thus providing the structure and discipline that he desires in everyday life. The corset becomes a second-skin for Pearl, acting as a marker for his identity.

These notions of structure, discipline and identity factor into Steele’s discussion of the use of corsets within military uniforms. She describes Austrian officers who tight-laced as a component of their military dress. In this sense it is clear to see how Mr Pearl’s association of tight-lacing and discipline manifests itself. The military is often seen as being affiliated with extreme restraint and regulation. It therefore seems appropriate that military men might find pleasure in wearing a garment that imposed rules and restraints upon the body to maintain orderliness and posture. Within this discussion of corsetry as a means of imposed discipline however, lies an interesting observation as to how the corset can actually promote a masculine silhouette. Although corsets have predominantly been used to maintain the ideally feminine ‘hour-glass’ shape, the corset can also bee seen as exaggerating inherent masculinity. When contoured to a male body, the corset cinches the waist, elongates the torso and broadens the shoulders; features often seen as being ideally masculine. While the corset may give the illusion of curves on a female body, it can actually produce harsh and angular lines within the male silhouette; a harshness that, I argue, exaggerates masculinity and the idealised male form. Whether male corset-wearers are expressing a masochistic desire for female domination or enacting a need for order and discipline, I believe there is no doubt that corsets act as a means to exaggerate the idealised masculine physique rather than transposing that of the feminine onto the male body.

By Niall Billings

 

Further Reading:

Valerie Steele, Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power, 1996

Luke Limner, Madre Natura versus the Moloch of Fashion (1847)

Cover

Madre

Summary

This ‘social essay’, published in 1874, documents the author’s views about the dangers of following fashion. The author, Luke Limner, starts by condemning the luxury and excess of fashion, and criticizing the wealthy classes’ taste when choosing to wear the latest styles.

Limner’s main concern is fashion’s utter disregard of, and attempt to better, nature. He comments that modern dress is becoming increasingly independent of climate or season, stating that ‘the English lady suffers in her corset and tight bottines in the tropical heat of Calcutta.’

Corset

The bulk of the essay charts his disapproval of modifications of the body. He comments that clothing, instead of fitting itself to the human form, demands that the body adapt itself to fit the garments. He feels that this ‘authority of fashion is a gross imposition on mankind,’ and specifically focuses on the corset. He believes that fashion is deforming natural bodies, with great health risks, that he outlines in detail. He is very knowledgeable about human anatomy, commenting on the impact of the corset on the lungs and liver, which serves to provide epistemological evidence and support to his claims, which may otherwise seem somewhat empty. He urges modern women to ‘aid Mother Nature to abolish that type of body bondage and cursed contrivance.’

Corset 2

Response

Limner’s concerns about the dangers of the excess of fashion, as well as attempts to modify the natural forms of the body are common themes in fashion writing. Particularly during this period, but even as late as the twentieth century, there is a concern about the frivolity of fashion and the impact, both physical and moral, that it has on women.  As is the case with a lot of fashion writing, there is a somewhat sexist tone to Limner’s essay. He expresses a concern that women’s heads are filled with ‘flounces and furbelows, ribbons and gauze’ and that female vanity is ultimately leading to the downfall of society. However, there also seems to be a genuine concern about the risks to women’s health as a result of following fashion too strictly, and he appears to blame the fashion industry more than the women themselves. He sympathises that fashion’s ever-changing demands make it increasingly difficult for women to adhere to trends. That is the main contradiction of this essay: Limner accepts that the fashion industry makes unrealistic demands of women’s bodies, but then also seems to blame female vanity for accepting these demands.

Spine

It is very telling of attitudes of the period that, despite the fact that women were generally accepted as the main consumers of fashion, it is men who are trusted to write about fashion in a critical way. There is much debate in dress history, about whether fashion is a liberating or enslaving force. When reading essays such as Limner’s, it is hard to imagine that it can be anything other than a subjugating, oppressive industry.  However, in the twentieth century, when women started to be respected as designers and later writers and curators, the tables turned and fashion became a means of female emancipation and expression of creativity.

Back

Beneath the Corset

X-Ray image showing the ill-effects upon the ribcage. Dr. Ludovic O’Followell, Le Corset (1908)

X-Ray image showing the ill-effects upon the ribcage. Dr. Ludovic O’Followell, Le Corset (1908)

X-Ray images showing the ill-effects upon the ribcage. Dr. Ludovic O’Followell, Le Corset (1908)

X-Ray images showing the ill-effects upon the ribcage. Dr. Ludovic O’Followell, Le Corset (1908)

The corset is a highly problematic garment that represents a multitude of signifiers. Imbibed with connotations of gender, history, and sex, the corset is an example of how dress can transcend mere sartorial choice, and come to represent more than just undergarments. In whichever context the corset is placed, the undercurrents of its history and its present are brought to mind in a clash of temporalities, whereby contemporary connotations of sex and fetishism are placed onto the historical garment. More so than any other object of dress, the corset raises questions of the body, pain, control and oppression as well as history. When thinking about the way dress shapes and changes the body, one automatically thinks of the extremes; implants, tattoos and piercings. However, body modification through dress, or the way that the body is altered through dress is not relegated to subcultures and foreign groups, but is part of the history of dress, and the present fashion system.

The nineteenth century fashion for tight lacing that gave women tiny, waspish waists through the aid of whalebone corsets is an example of how dress can change a person’s physiognomy through extreme body manipulation. Though these effects are evident in the altered external silhouette of the body, the internal, and often damaging, modifications are difficult to comprehend.

In 1908, Dr. Ludovic O’Followell, a French doctor interested in the long-term effects of corsets on the body, published x-rays of women’s bodies altered by the constricting items. The images show the movement of the rib-cage structure, with the lower ribs pointing downwards and collapsing towards each other in some cases. Medical images and testimonies such as these, along with stories of organs being shifted, women fainting, and the suppression of appetites, provoked debate and calls for Dress reforms in the nineteenth century; a call that was answered when the uncorseted designs of Paul Poiret and Mariano Fortuny were in vogue.

The images also help to cement the contemporary preconception of the corset as a tool of bodily constriction and nineteenth century social oppression of women. The contemporary association of the corset to the body in pain, its relationship to fetish subcultures and therefore its alignment to sex, heighten this notion of the corset as a gendered, taboo, and archaic object of dress. Images of contemporary tight-lacing enthusiasts such as Ethel Granger, Mr. Pearl, Fakir Musafar, and Cathie Jung show the body transformed permanently through corsetry. The defiance of modern hetero-normative gender roles, ideal body shape, and silhouette through their practice distinguish them as ‘other’, and not part of the mainstream, everyday fashion system.

However, the corset is an object that has arguably never left fashion. Corsets appear and reappear each season as items of supporting underwear and risqué outerwear. Even the subculture icons of Ethel Granger and Mr Pearl entered the conventional fashion system. Photographs of Ethel Granger appeared in Vogue Italia, inspiring and featuring alongside an editorial photo-shoot starring Stella Tennant. Mr Pearl, a corsetiere, is renowned throughout the fashion world for his craftsmanship and skill, with regular commissions from Jean Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen and Thierry Mugler. He also designs the corsets worn by Dita von Teese during her Burlesque performances.

 For the majority of people though the corset is no longer an item of everyday wear, however it is impossible to say that the sartorial choices we make do not impact our bodies. Though not to the bone-crushing extent of the nineteenth century, our clothes leave imprints and indents in our skin. Items of underwear like bras or the fashion for tighter and tighter skinny jeans leave imprints and lines in our flesh from the restriction of these garments. The photographer Justin Bartels documented women’s bodies that show the ephemeral traces of clothing. As examples of body modification in fashion the photographs oppose the concept of twentieth century fashion as a site of bodily liberation. They suggest that contemporary standards of beauty have simply replaced older regimes of discipline. Where once a framework held the body in place through fabric and laces, our bodies are now kept in line through exercise regimes and diets. Bartels’ photographs literalise the traces of the nineteenth century whalebone corset on the modern female body.

 Sources:

Joanne Entwistle, The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress and Modern Social Theory (United Kingdom: Polity Press, 2004)

Elizabeth Wilson, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity (United States: University of California press 1992)

Susan Vincent, The Anatomy of Fashion: Dressing the Body from the Renaissance to Today (United Kingdom: Berg Publishers, 2010) p.133.