The Corset

A Cultural History

Valerie Steele

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The corset is probably the most controversial garment in the history of fashion. Although regarded as an essential element of fashionable dress from the Renaissance into the twentieth century, the corset was also frequently condemned as an instrument of torture and the cause of ill health. Why did women continue to don steel and whalebone corsets for four hundred years? And why did they finally stop? This lavishly illustrated book offers fascinating and often surprising answers to these questions. Valerie Steele, one of the world’s most respected fashion historians, explores the cultural history of the corset, demolishing myths about this notorious garment and revealing new information and perspectives on its changing significance over the centuries.

Whereas most historians have framed the history of the corset in terms of oppression vs. liberation and fashion vs. health and comfort, Steele contends that women’s experiences of corsetry varied considerably and cannot be fully understood within these narrow frames. Drawing on extensive research in textual, visual, and materials sources, the author disproves the beliefs that the corset was dangerously unhealthy and was designed primarily for the oppression of women. Women persisted in wearing corsets—despite powerful male authorities trying to dissuade them—because corsetry had positive connotations of social status, self-discipline, youth, and beauty. In the twentieth century the garment itself fell out of fashion but, Steele points out, it has become internalized as women replace the boned corset with diet, exercise, and plastic surgery. The book concludes with insightful analyses of such recent developments as the reconception of the corset as a symbol of rebellion and female sexual empowerment, the revival of the corset in contemporary high fashion, and its transformation from an item of underwear to outerwear.

Valerie Steele is chief curator and acting director, The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York. She is founder and editor of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture. Among her many publications are Fifty Years of Fashion: New Look to Now and China Chic: East Meets West (with John S. Major), both published by Yale University Press.

“A carefully researched, sensibly argued and lavishly illustrated book about the most controversial garment in history, which most women and, I suspect, many men, will find engrossing. . . . A fine, informative volume.”—Veronica Maddingley, Day by Day

“With corsets turning up on all the usual runways (Dolce & Gabbana) and some unusual ones (Calvin Klein), the timing couldn’t be better for Valerie Steele’s new book, The Corset: A Cultural History.”Elle

"Steele’s comprehensive work is many things at once, from a fine example of historical and contemporary research to a reflection about a garment as a source of inspiration to painters and sculptors. Dispelling myths and stereotypes, the author challenges readers to consider just why and how the corset might make its next appearance in fashion history. The book’s rich photographs, paintings, and illustrations enhance the text. The Corset will appeal to researcher and curious reader alike."—Andrea M. Kolasinksi, Feminist Collections

“[L]ively and readable.”—Library Journal

“Steele’s lucid and intelligent book is fascinating on the subject of psychological attitudes toward corsets. She discusses why women so willingly subjected themselves to tight lacing for 400 years—and whether the corset’s return to high fashion suggests a backlash against feminism.”—Suzy Menkes, New York International Herald Tribune

“[A] rigorous, readable and entertaining treatise.”—Polly Shulman, Newsday

“Steele’s coffee-table tome, which intersperses lucid academic prose with illustration, couldn’t come at a better time, since, as she notes, the once de rigueur undergarment is back in style. . . . According to the author, the corset is as much an instrument of women’s fashion fantasies as it is of oppression.”—Kara Jesella, Nylon

“[This] well-produced, heavily illustrated volume makes costume history accessible and, indeed, entertaining.”—Colin McDowell, The Sunday Times

“Glamour. Sex. Oppression. What could be more enticing on a fashionista’s coffee table. . . . In an attractive and readable style, Steele, a leading fashion historian, examines the garment’s controversies—from medical consequences, tight lacing and dress reformers to fetishism—with plenty of shocking and beautiful images along the way.”—Toronto Globe & Mail

The Corset is a compelling book both for its wealth of information and because of its array of illustrations of the corset as cultural artifact.”—Virginia Quarterly Review

Selected for inclusion in the 2002 "Books to Remember" list by the New York Public Library

Named one of the 2001 Best of the Year by the Globe & Mail of Toronto

Winner of the 2002 Millia Davenport Publication Award, sponsored by the Costume Society of America
ISBN: 9780300090710
Publication Date: November 10, 2001
240 pages, 9 x 11
110 b/w + 100 color illus.
Ralph Rucci

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