Rachel's Reviews > Fashion Fetishism: Corsets, Tight-Lacing and Other Forms of Body-Sculpture

Fashion  Fetishism by David Kunzle
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Aug 04, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: history, read-unowned, social-sciences, the-romantic-agony, waistcoats-corsets-railways

I read this on Angela Carter's recommendation, which should tell you something. She wrote an engrossing review of it, which can be read among her collected essays, in Shaking a Leg. She raved about it, and she was very right.

It's a very Carterian book - sexuality and femininity as powerfully subversive tools, the complex (and often unexpected) power dynamics woven into everyday life. Kunzle traces the history of artificial waist restriction, from Minoan frescos to 20th century fetishists, and treats his often fraught subject with delicacy, sensitivity, and nuance. In our time, we have a common, received knowledge about the social 'meaning' of corsets - they are treated as the ultimate embodiment of women's subjugation, of impossible beauty ideals, of submission to the patriarchy. Third wave feminism has resisted this somewhat ("Though Victorian women were oppressed, my clothing choices are my own!"), but no one, to my knowledge has teased out the true complexities of corsetry and tight-lacing the way Kunzle has.

While corsets may have been standard in many eras, Kunzle shows, the extreme practice of tight-lacing (commonly described as corsetry taken to its most oppressive extreme) was actually radically subversive, as it defined the female body as something other than a vehicle for child-bearing. Contemporary medical arguments against it centered around its supposed deformation of the womb, relying on audiences' assumption that a 'real' woman was a fertile woman. Women's descriptions of the experience of tight lacing were not characterized by discomfort and restraint (what does the expression 'tight-laced' denote these days?) but by intense and passionately felt feelings of sensuality and pleasure. For many women, extreme tight-lacing gave them a deeply sensual intimacy with and control over their own bodies, one which placed their own sexual fulfillment within their hands.

...hardly the stereotype of frigid Victorians to which we are accustomed, is it?

Unsurprisingly, the language used to describe the pleasure of tight-lacing is very similar to that used by BDSM-ers to describe the experience of bondage.

By redefining tight-lacing as 'body sculpture,' Kunzle is also placing this female-driven form of body modification upon the same artistic level as a traditionally (in modern western society) male forms like tattooing. He is acknowledging the force of will and desire often necessary to maintain such a practice. This was wonderful to see.

Also, some wonderful definitions of fetish in general. I spent weeks after reading this teasing my ballet dancer lover about pointe shoes.

(Reading this was a fascinating experience for me: I study the dance of Isadora Duncan, who was probably one of the most vocal anti-corset advocates in history. I had to question a lot of assumptions.)

I would recommend this book to anyone who has enjoyed corsets and felt guilty about it, anyone who has made an offhanded comment about oppressed Victorian women, and anyone interested in the history of women's sexuality.
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Reading Progress

August 4, 2012 – Started Reading
August 4, 2012 – Shelved
August 5, 2012 – Shelved as: read-unowned
August 5, 2012 – Shelved as: history
August 5, 2012 – Shelved as: social-sciences
August 5, 2012 – Shelved as: the-romantic-agony
August 5, 2012 – Shelved as: waistcoats-corsets-railways
August 5, 2012 – Finished Reading

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