When handed this book, I felt like I was intruding—the hand crafted spine creaked with hours of the author’s labor, and the muted green fabric frayed at the corners. I felt as though I had been handed a diary, and as it turns out, I sort of had been. Waisted Curves: My Transformation Into A Victorian Lady chronicles Sarah Chrisman’s journey from corset loather to Victorian garment educator and advocate in 250 hand-bound pages. We see Chrisman’s disdain for corsets melt away as she laces herself into the garment daily, and witness her transformation of thought and body, all brought about by an article of clothing.
Chrisman begins the narrative on her birthday, when her husband Gabriel gives her a corset as a gift. This spurs an extensive personal change, both physically and mentally. The narrow conception of corsets with which she begins the memoir quickly changes as she learns more about the history and practices of corsetry. Eventually, she dismisses the idea of the corset as oppressive as she records her changes in self-perception and self-esteem.
Despite this eventual change, the journey begins reluctantly. In the opening pages she admits to thinking, “At least he didn’t buy the most expensive version of a thing I’ll never wear.” But at the close of her story we see her in an “ankle-length wool skirt, three petticoats [and] cashmere-lined leather gloves.” She gradually adopts more Victorian inspired garments—and at times real vintage pieces from this era—into her day-to-day wardrobe. Waisted Curves is not simply a diary of what Chrisman wore each day, but is also full of historical and practical information about the garments she describes. In between stories of Victorian fashion shows gone awry, and stuffing a broken foot into kitten-heeled boots, Chrisman informs us about the history of not only corsetry but also Victorian apparel in general. In an often humorous tone, she examines the myths and misconceptions of the corset, and turns them inside out.
Reading this book reminded me of just how much what we wear shapes us—both figuratively and literally. Our feelings about our bodies are complex, and though we put on clothing every day, we don’t often think about garments as being able to address or reconfigure any of these feelings. If we hate the way a flap of skin sits on the top of our jeans, our disapproval is not likely transferred to the jeans themselves. We tend to think that our bodies should work around the clothing we wear, instead of the reverse.
Chrisman’s experience with corsets highlights the fact that clothing should work for your body and self-esteem, not against, and emphasizes the inseparability of clothing and body image. Throughout Waisted Curves, she becomes increasingly comfortable and proud of her corseted figure, until being without a corset leaves her feeling naked and uncomfortable. In the same sense, some women may feel foreign in their own skin when they unclasp the eyehooks of a bra. How clothing affects our perceptions of our own bodies is subjective, but as Chrisman’s book reveals, there is a direct connection.
What made me uncomfortable was how frequently Chrisman was approached or interviewed by complete strangers regarding her corseting practices—imagine the disgruntled woman sitting next to you on the subway asking you your cup size. At times, people’s audacity was shocking. It reminded me that, sometimes unfortunately, once what we wear enters the public domain, it becomes open for commentary—be it scrutiny or admiration. She handles both of these reactions with grace, never faltering or holding back as onlookers prod and pull at her petticoats. Chrisman’s experience pushed me to be not only confident in what I choose to wear, but knowledgeable as to why and how I am choosing to wear it.
Waisted Curves: My Transformation Into A Victorian Lady by Sarah A. Chrisman, AEGIS & OWL PRESS, 2010
reviewed by Casie Brown