Our Soft-Shelled Condition

Katha Pollitt

  • The Corset: A Cultural History by Valerie Steele
    Yale, 204 pp, £29.95, September 2001, ISBN 0 300 09071 4
  • Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian Corset by Leigh Summers
    Berg, 302 pp, £15.99, October 2001, ISBN 1 85973 510 X

When New York Radical Women demonstrated against the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City in 1968, they dropped an assortment of ‘instruments of female torture’ into a ‘trash can of freedom’ and garnered for the feminist movement the label of bra-burners. Nothing had actually been set on fire that day – the town, which was worried about its wooden boardwalks, had refused to give a permit – and the label was highly selective: in addition to the offending undergarment, the women dumped copies of Playboy and Cosmopolitan, eyelash curlers, false eyelashes, home perm kits, high heels, aprons, girdles, and items used in secretarial work, too. The epithet – coined by the feminist Robin Morgan as a counterpart for ‘draft-card burner’ – shows how deeply the women’s movement both was and was perceived to be about female sexuality. What was it? Who would define it, shape it, control it? Who were women’s bodies for? To many feminists, the brassière, which simultaneously confined, shaped and presented the breasts, represented culture, conformity, discomfort and subordination, while bralessness represented nature, rebellion, ease and freedom – never mind that many women found going without a bra uncomfortable and embarrassing.

It’s difficult to get back to that mentality, and not just because today bralessness has a different meaning, advertising that a woman is young, thin and lithe enough not to need one. The notion that there is or could be a ‘natural body’, unmediated by culture, now seems only slightly less quaint than the view that a unitary class of people called ‘women’ are forced against their will into awkward, unhealthy and demeaning beauty practices by a unitary class called ‘men’. We are all Postmodernists now, conscious of the manifold ways people find to claim, remake and strategically deploy the material offered by their cultures. In this light, almost anything a woman does can be seen as empowering, if not subversive – wearing a chador or going topless, having a facelift or embracing one’s inner crone, becoming a nun or joining the Klan.

The corset – fascinating, alluring, enraging – has been a beneficiary of this revisionism. In the standard view, shaped by 19th-century feminists, dress reformers and medical experts, the corset was a source of weakness, ill-health, mental debility, sexual and reproductive problems and even death, from which women were freed in the early 20th century by feminism and modern styles of dress. In E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, the down-to-earth free spirit Emma Goldman gently removes the corset of the famous society beauty Evelyn Nesbit, gives her a wonderful massage, and instantly transforms her from sex object to sensuous liberated woman. David Kunzle challenged this narrative in Fashion and Fetishism: A Social History of Corsets, Tight Lacing and Other Forms of Body Sculpture in the West (1982), arguing that the dangers of corsets were exaggerated or even invented. Women, he claimed, wore corsets because they combined two things not usually found in a single article of premodern female clothing: sexual allure and respectability. The small minority who were true ‘tight lacers’, enduring torments to achieve a wasp waist, were not addlepated fashion victims but sexual fetishists.

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