On Corsets

Vogue 1939. Corset by Detolle for Mainbocher

Vogue 1939. Corset by Detolle for Mainbocher

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.

Custom corset by Dark Garden

Custom corset by Dark Garden

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 goodwhether 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! 



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  1. Well I am suitably impressed, but not “surprised” at all, to learn about your Shakespearean acting career, Malin. A bit envious. As for corsets, love ’em, for all the reasons. And I think I was wearing that stuff in another life in the UK anyway. Sort of. You know. I just like all the old looks, Colonial, Medieval, etc.

    1. Thank you, lovely! I have to admit that Wicked Wednesday was a happy coincidence, but I was feeling very inspired by all of the research we’re both doing into the Victorian period!

    1. Thank you, lovely Tamsin! I love that one so much.. And may I say that if you ever decided to try wearing a corset, you would look gorgeous. I bet Mr. F would agree too. Just saying… 😉

  2. Love this! Oh Malin you’ve made my week.
    I am a corset fiend – there’s something so intense and feminine about them. I can’t get enough of them.

    You look simply breathtaking in yours. Utterly gorgeous.

    I love the transformation I feel as the strings pull tighter and tighter. I think I wanted one from when I read Snow White as a girl when the peddlar woman came to the cottage tied her so tight, she fainted…
    I now, like you, have many but nothing quite so special as your custom made one x x

    1. Thank you, Tabitha! I feel very much the same way – that sense of transformation as the strings are pulled tight. It’s very sensual in a quiet, private kind of way. I love that you have a collection, as well! I can imagine you wearing one and looking absolutely stunning.

      I have very strong memories of that moment in the Snow White story too – I remember the illustrations in a beautiful edition my mother bought me, where the corset was a deep blood red with dark laces.. she looked so beautiful, even as she lay there. I suspect that image ended up informing my aesthetic tastes as I grew older. I was fascinated by it. Thank you so much for reminding me of that – I’d nearly forgotten.. xx

  3. You are the first person I have ever read who articulated my feelings when trying on my first corset, found in the attic of a family friend’s abandoned home. I was just a girl, having absolutely no idea of my own personal power. I couldn’t have even told you what that meant. But lacing up was a transformative experience, mentally and emotionally. Beautiful post.

    1. Thank you so much. I love that so many other women seem to recognize that transformative experience. It’s such a powerful thing. I can imagine a girl in an attic trying one on for the first time. It’s a lovely image..

  4. I would really like to try a corset but feel a bit embarrassed about being fitted for one as I’m quite overweight.

    1. Don’t let that stop you! I’ve been to events at a local club, and seen some women who were big women for sure – and they looked stunning in beautiful corsets.

    2. Oh, I would hate to think of anything stopping you from trying one if you were of a mind! If there’s one thing to be said about corsets, it’s that they look beautiful on women of all shapes – I had to learn that first hand as I’d always loved the idea but felt that it would look silly with my flat chest. In fact, I think a corset on women with full figures looks tremendously striking. Depending on where you live, it might be lovely to go into a boutique and just try one on, just for the experience. There’s a very good chance you might like what you see 🙂 xx

  5. I was just thinking about the delight of wearing things that made me feel “other” – period dress, or the social edginess (for want of a better phrase) of full goth makeup or a tee that says “fuck your fascist beauty standards”). I think for me a corset plays into this, flaunting my alienation from a society of which I have never felt a part.

    1. Absolutely – I can definitely see that. It all goes back to that idea of dressing in a way that pleases oneself without worrying about what people think. There’s a certain defiance to that that can be very powerful…not that I’d ever call you defiant 😉

  6. The love you have for corsets radiates from this post, and you look gorgeous in it!
    I have a couple of corsets, but they are not custom made and after wearing them for some time, they actually hurt me too much. But, I love the tight feeling around my body and might just have to try to find something better than I already have.

    Welcome to Wicked Wednesday!

    Rebel xox

    1. Thank you! I’ve been wanting to join Wicked Wednesday for ages and I was so happy that this post fit so well with your prompt! I’ve had corsets that hurt me after awhile too – it always seemed to happen with ones that weren’t quite long enough so they pressed on my ribs. It’s amazing how much of a difference an inch can make. That tight feeling though..yes, that tight feeling is amazing! xox

  7. I’ve always tended to steer away from corsets because of my frame, gravitating instead towards knickers and suspenders, which I tend to feel are much more flattering to my body shape. But I must confess I can never look at corsets without a certain degree of longing. Ironically, I was married in one – a bright scarlet satin number – although the style I chose was neither tight nor uplifting. (With my modest proportions, I didn’t think a more restrictive style would do anything for me but, in hindsight, I really do wish I’d gone for something a little more structured.)

    Hmm. Perhaps, I need to start off with a waspie and go from there …


    1. I know what you mean about steering away from them. I did for the same reason, though I was so very attracted to them – I couldn’t imagine how compressing my size A breasts would look at all good. I think what shocked me was that, though I didn’t look at all the way I thought women should look in corsets, I felt beautiful all the same. Plus, it’s kind of nice to have such a pronounced a waist (I’m boyish with a long torso and narrowish hips). Waspie’s are especially nice, from the modest proportion point of view, I must say 🙂 You’re wedding corset sounds beautiful, by the way. I so wanted to marry in a red gown, but convention prevailed and I went with ivory. I always wished I’d held out.. xxx

  8. I love that you wrote about your love of corsets, Malin, because I know how very much you love them—and it’s so evident in this beautiful post. I myself have a mixed relationship with the damn things (I think we’ve discussed this—I love the look of them on others and the feel of them but have never really liked the look of one on me). But they definitely possess an elegance and power that match YOU quite well. XX

  9. I loved corsets from the first moment I laced into a little white Vollers waspie. I have two, wonderful, long line custom corsets I wear for special occasions and they really do make me somehow feel like the grand Edwardian lady I am sure I was meant to have been. But I also have a couple of more practical, underbust corsets that give me that quiet carapace and just slightly weird waist.

    I wear my corsets often enough that I don’t really pay all that much attention. Normally I have on a coat or jacket so the interestingly feminine things they do are not obvious. But it is fun to wear a well fitted skirt, a nice blouse or sweater and a belt. I am pretty fit so the three inch waist compression looks “almost” right. But a lot of people notice and I see women especially mentally doing the calculations and coming up with impossible numbers.


    1. Yes! I love that there are so many ways to wear corsets. My style tends to be pretty understated, so at first glance it’s not completely obvious that I’m wearing one. It’s always interesting, watching other women do the mental calculations and slowly realize how that structure is achieved. Very often I get asked questions like, “how can you do that to yourself” or “doesn’t it hurt?” The underlying implication is very often that it’s unthinkable for a modern woman to wear one unless she’s in costume. That said, there have been times when the woman in question has leaned in and confessed that she’s always wanted to try one. For my part, I’m always happy to recommend it!

  10. “corsets unlock me”

    That is a wonderful little phrase. I think that different things unlock different people. And often the things that unlock them are hyper personal, formed in the unconscious long before any of us knew about gender politics.

    Strangely enough, for me it is seamed stockings. Yet another piece of garb that someone might point to and say is worn solely to participate in my own objectification. I love seamed stockings. The non-stretchy, very old fashioned type. When I wear them, I feel – exactly as you describe – powerful. I walk through the world differently. They are curious form of psychic containment.

    I was so interested to know why stocking made me feel this way that, when I went into psychoanalysis, I wanted to know why. At the same time, I feared that discovering the origin of my inordinate fondness for seamed stockings would somehow ruin the magic they worked on me.

    When I was very young, about 6, I met a woman who was, in her day, a rather famous stage actress. She had incredible legs – they stayed incredible until the day she died at 80 something – and she religiously wore these perfect, seamed stockings. My parents farmed me out for a while to stay with her. We used to sit in her livingroom. I’d sit on the floor, next to the sofa, and lean my cheek against those stockinged legs while we did cryptic crossword puzzles. Here’s the thing. She was the most incredible, self-contained, independent, funny, life-loving woman. I honestly think I took a great deal of understanding about the person I wanted to be from her. And I’m fairly sure there was also a bit of unformed libidinous desire woven in there too. And maybe that was the pin that made the whole thing stick, for me.

    But that’s it. Seamed stockings make me feel like the woman I want to be. Not because they’re sexy, which they are, but because I so deeply associate them with this model of a woman, of a person, I admired so much and took so much of my template from.

    1. Thank you. I love the that you brought up the notion of templates, and the women we model ourselves on. I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently. My templates are women that I barely knew – a 3rd grade teacher who moved down the hall as if she were slicing the air with a fine knife and a great aunt who had a throaty, deep laugh like a man’s. There was a power to both of them, a sort of calm, sharp wisdom that was also undeniably sexual, though I wouldn’t have known what to call it then. I realized as I was reading your comment and thinking about the woman you stayed with and the impression her silk stockings made, that corsets make me feel connected to the confident, self-contained image of womanhood I so idolized as a girl. It’s interesting that these almost ostentatiously feminine items tap into wells of contentment and personal power while very often garnering skepticism from other women…

  11. This is a wonderful post, I love how you ‘found’ confidence in the corset. I won’t comment too much on that here as I have to write my own post on this but I can totally identify with that. Putting one on makes me feel calm.


  12. Beautiful picture, beautiful post. I adore corsets, especially on boys, and I remember well the first time I laced someone else up; that alone is a powerful feeling. Like a somewhat menacing fairy godmother transforming someone into a sexy Cinderella.

    Since you mentioned a Victorian manor being in The Briary, I’m going to cross my fingers that corsets play a role too.

    1. Thank you, Valerie. I love corsets on boys too! And you’re right – lacing someone up is a pretty powerful experience, as well. It’s very intimate, for lack of a bette word. As for The Briary, corsets definitely play a role, particularly as regards creative ways of getting a person out of one 😉

  13. I have only worn a corset twice and I do love how it makes me feel confident (though I do find them restrictive at first). Perhaps I just need to invest in a more expensive corset, but I just don’t find enough places to wear it to justify it.
    So very articulate about this, excellent reflection.

    1. Thank you so much. It’s true, corsets aren’t exactly the everyday items they used to be (and that’s probably a good thing!) That said, I’ve found I wear mine more than I ever would have expected, though I must admit it’s much less since we moved to the suburbs. It’s nice having one or two on hand for special dinners or other occasions though 🙂

  14. Your piece is a lovely jewel. Thank you for so thoughtfully reflecting on releasing ones power through restraint. Having a spouse who hates her body has taught me that we own the potential for our own release and that fear prevents many from ever searching for the the key that will loose our own lock. How beautiful your key is.

  15. I feel transformed when I’m laced into a corset too, I feel more confident but also calmer, the same calm I feel when I’m bound in rope.
    One day I will own a custom made one too, one that is fitted just for me, squeezing and push in all the right places.

    1. Yes – that calm is amazing. I get it too, though I can’t bear to be bound. There’s something about the way a corset cradles you tight while letting you move that is very soothing. As for a custom corset, all I can say is that for me, it was worth the expense. It feels amazing 🙂

  16. I love corsets and so does Jolynn. She got me hooked on them when I first met her. If we were going to do custom, I’d do Marvelous Mayhem in Atlanta. They go vend at kink events and we see them at least once a year. I have an underbust corset from them that is really nice.

    I always love your stories and need to pop over here more often. :/

    1. Thanks for popping by now! There are so many awesome blogs out there, I can’t keep up either. I’m always happy when you come by though. I’ll have to check out Marvelous Mayhem – I’m nowhere near Atlanta, but I do like to ogle corsetry online 🙂

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