Buns of steel

The Corset: a cultural history

Valerie Steele <em>Yale University Press, 199pp, £29.95</em>

ISBN

Thanks to the advent of Lycra, 21st-century women have all but abandoned the corset. A few dreamy girls still get kitted out for their wedding day, but otherwise, squeezing ourselves into a pair of Bridget Jones-style control pants is as close as we get to playing the dominatrix with our waistlines. We prefer the tyranny of the gym and the Atkins diet to the iron rule of gravity-defying undergarments. If we think of corsets at all, it is as instruments of oppression - as brutal, in their way, as the moustachioed bounders who for so long denied us an education and a vote.

But our ancestors thought rather differently, as Valerie Steele sets out to show in this lavishly appointed book. The first corsets, made from whalebone and horn, appeared in the 16th century. These strange, rigid carapaces may have been uncomfortable - perilously so, in some cases - but most women adored them, taking to their stays like models to mineral water. Corsets brought their wearers social status, respectability, beauty, youth and erotic appeal - virtues that were not to be sniffed at. By 1855, there were roughly 10,000 workers specialising in their production in Paris alone.

Even so, corsets were controversial. Dress reformers urged women to cast them aside in favour of something more comfortable (although, as Steele points out, comfort was a relative concept in the 19th century: a chafing corset was probably as nothing compared to chronic toothache). Doctors were keen for women to give up this dangerous addiction. Corset- wearing was said to be the cause of no fewer than 97 ailments, including apoplexy, consumption, haemorrhoids and sterility.

So how tight did women lace? "Women ought to measure from 27 to 29 inches round the waist," declared the Family Herald in 1848. "But most females do not allow themselves to grow beyond 24; thousands are laced to 21, some to less than 20." Steele thinks these figures entirely plausible; she urges caution, however, when it comes to written accounts of corsetry in which the waist has been cinched in to 18 inches. Many girls loved to boast about the diminutive size of their corset, even if the reality was that, once inside it, they had to leave it open an inch or two.

More thrillingly, Steele believes that stories in which a girl's waist has been trimmed to less than 16 inches are more evidence of the sexual fantasies surrounding tight lacing than proof that such practices went on. What started out as a fashion accessory - a simple means of pulling in the stomach and pushing up the breasts - had become, in time, a sexual fetish. A specialised literature sprang up in which men and women would detail the "delicious torture" involved in tight lacing, and advocate it as a means of discipline for wayward girls - and boys - at boarding school. Has flogging failed to tame your unruly child? Then try a nice padlocked corset.

"I was early sent to school in Austria," wrote "Walter" in the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine in 1867. "A sturdy Madchen was deaf to my remonstrances, and speedily laced me up. The daily lacing tighter and tighter produced absolute pain. In a few months, however, I was . . . anxious . . . to have my corsets laced as tightly as a pair of strong arms could draw them."

In spite of the best efforts of Coco Chanel, women continued to wear controlling foundation garments well into the 1950s, when the corset metamorphosed into the "girdle" - a grannyish contraption designed to stop the flesh jiggling. Finally, in the early 1970s, women discovered muscle tone, leotards and - oh, dread word - leg warmers. Since then, the corset has been appropriated by a slew of new designers such as Jean-Paul Gaultier and Alexander McQueen. More outerwear than underwear, the modern corset is a symbol of empowerment rather than oppression, and it openly plays on the garment's fetishistic history. I am all for this: the only trouble is, you must have buns of steel to get away with wearing one.

Steele is no great stylist as a writer, and her tone, sadly, is not half so racy as the sartorial secrets she unveils on every page. But it is a long time since I have so enjoyed looking at a book. Corsets, for all their faults, are still as sexy as hell - and Steele has the pictures to prove it.

Rachel Cooke writes for the Daily Telegraph