It’s no secret that I love corsets, both for their aesthetic value and for the sheer pleasure of wearing them. I’ve worn cinchers, under-busts, Sweethearts and Victorians but none of them have felt so right or so comfortable as the custom corset I had made last year by the brilliant modistes at Dark Garden in San Francisco. It took three fittings to get my black brocade beauty to fit like a glove, but it does. It’s perfect and I would wear it every day if I could.
Someone once asked me why I love corsets so much – they’re commonly thought of as anti-feminist and uncomfortable (they really aren’t, if you’re wearing the right one). Plus, lets be serious here, I don’t exactly have full, swelling breasts to showcase. In fact, if anything, my figure is quite spare, or “minimalistic” as one lover once put it. What could a modern woman who wears yoga pants and workout gear most of the time possibly get out of something so lush and apparently torturous as a corset? Well, I’ll tell you. Power.
I didn’t wear my first corset until I was in a stage production of The Seagull in my early twenties. I’d done quite a lot of Shakespeare, but it wasn’t until I landed a role with an deeply funded, very established company in San Francisco that I got to wear proper period costumes. At the first fitting for a dress that would involve layers of petticoats and skirts, I was laced into a corset for the first time. The other actresses made a show of complaining about how hard it was to breathe, but I didn’t. I was quiet, because I’d never been so relaxed wearing anything in my life.
That corset was a plain, steel-boned muslin thing – there was nothing sexy or elegant about it, but I felt beautiful. My tightly compressed body felt efficient and spare – strong, for lack of a better word. I walked more gracefully, laughed more spontaneously and held my own in conversations that would have intimidated me had I not been wearing that old-fashioned, arcane thing.
A different part of me emerged. Suddenly, I was confident and socially nimble because, for some reason, wearing the corset made me feel like I could get away with it. I hadn’t yet realized that being myself was not something to get away with, but my natural right. For the first time in my life, I felt comfortable in my own skin.
After the production ended, I saved my money to buy my own corset. I didn’t want a one of the pretty fashion corsets I saw in clubs. I wanted the real thing, which would cost me more than $300 at a time when I could barely pay my rent. The scrimping was worth it though. After six months of austere living, I bought a rose and gold pinstriped silk over-bust that I wore with everything from slacks and suit jackets to white oxford shirts and pencil skirts.
The thing I’d been taught to think of as a torture tool of the patriarchy had, very ironically, given me access to the social autonomy that my young, insecure self so desperately craved. If I could find strength in something that had, historically, been seen as an oppression, maybe my love of red lipstick and high heels wasn’t such a cop-out either. Maybe real power came from pleasing myself, rather than worrying about the male gaze and what my fellow feminists thought.
A woman’s relationships with make-up, lingerie, high heels – all those things we think of as commercially “feminine” – are intensely personal; it’s too easy to dismiss them as simple bids for sex appeal. While it’s true, corsets have been fetishized, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, so long as the woman wearing it feels genuinely happy. Corsets are sexy, and I feel sexy when I wear them, but the reason I feel sexy is very specific to me.
Note: This isn’t meant to imply that not liking corsets (or make-up or heels or any of the rest of it) is a feminine failure. It just means that every woman should feel free to pursue the things that make her feel good, whether it’s Nike’s or FMP’s.
To me, corsets feel good, like very comfortable armor. When I’m wearing one, I relax and when I relax I am fully myself. My energy concentrates and drops into my hips and my dominant, predatory impulses rapid fire. I feel sharp an subtle. Far from being restrictive, corsets unlock me. I breathe more easily when I wear them. I stand taller. I let myself occupy all the space I want, which is generally quite a lot. For me, corsets have less to do with their effect on other people, and everything to do with their effect on me. They are a kind of second skin, one I no longer need to wear to feel like myself, but which I value and always will.
Though I love reading them, I don’t often have a chance to participate in any of the wonderful memes this writing community has to offer. This week, I’ve accidentally written a post that fits two different prompts – the Kink of the Week is corsets (which inspired this post) and Wicked Wednesday is all about trying new things. Given that my first time wearing a corset was so pivotal, I thought it would fit. Click the badges below to read more entries in both!