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

Documenting Fashion Visits NYC, Dec 2016: Musings on ‘Proust’s Muse – The Countess Greffulhe’

Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe Installation View | Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. An exhibition developed by the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph © 2016 The Museum at FIT.

Following an incredible visit to the archives on Monday, we returned to the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York on Tuesday for the exhibitions – we simply could not miss out on the opportunity of seeing more of FIT’s work. One of these was Proust’s Muse- The Countess Greffulhe which is based on a show previously held in Paris entitled La Mode retrouvée: Les robes trésors de la comtesse Greffulhe. The exhibition focuses on Countess Greffulhe’s style and fashion and aims to highlight her role in inspiring the character of Oriane in Marcel Proust’s In Search of a Lost Time.

Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe Installation View | Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. An exhibition developed by the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph © 2016 The Museum at FIT

Located in the basement of FIT, the exhibition was separated into two rooms. One of these was a long entry hallway. Here, the show was introduced through photographs of the Countess and some of her contemporaries as well as by means of a video. This was extremely useful in setting the tone of the exhibition. Narrated by Valerie Steele, FIT’s Director and chief curator, it highlights the thinking behind the exhibition and outlines some of the key dresses on display. The exhibition itself was located in a large hall, which allowed for the clothes to be spread out generously. The black wall colour, high ceilings and dim lighting helped to highlight each garment, although some of the colours of the fabrics were a little lost as an effect. The exhibition showcases a selection of Countess Greffulhe’s clothes and accessories over the course of her lifetime, enabling the viewer to gain an overview of her personal style. House of Worth, Fortuny and Babani are just three examples of her choice of designers. Particularly insightful into the Countess as a style icon is the “Byzantine” House of Worth dress from 1904, which she chose to wore for her daughter’s wedding. The viewer is told that in it, she outshone the bridal dress of her daughter, having arrived at the wedding venue with enough time to spare to showcase her dress to any guests and bystanders.

Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe Installation View | Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. An exhibition developed by the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph © 2016 The Museum at FIT.

Countess Greffulhe, as an exhibition and as a person, seemed a perfect fit for our course as it reflects the breadth of the role that fashion can take. It sums up the personal element of style, reflecting questions of identity and representations as well as using dress as a mediator to express these. This is applicable to both, the Countess’ clothes as well as her staging of dress in photographs. As Steele sums up, ‘the Countess Greffulhe believed in the artistic significance of fashion. And although she patronized the greatest couturiers of her time, her style was very much her own. Today, when fashion is increasingly regarded as an art form, her attitude is especially relevant.’

Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe Installation View | Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. An exhibition developed by the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph © 2016 The Museum at FIT.

Proust’s Muse – The Countess Greffulhe will be on display at FIT New York until January 7, 2017.

 

Sources:

Proust’s Muse – The Countess Greffulhe Exhibition Handout

http://www.fitnyc.edu/museum/exhibitions/prousts-muse.php

https://flic.kr/s/aHskJYFyX2