Victorian Sarah Chrisman: Living La Vida Corset Part 1

You may remember Sarah Chrisman from her column on Vox last week about her quest to live an authentic Victorian lifestyle. Because I am attracted to all things bizarre, I immediately stalked her website and found out that she’s written three books. I checked out book “Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present and Myself.”

Let us begin at the beginning, when Sarah and her corset come together:

*Note: This is not a direct quote from the book but is based on the events as imagined in bbqcornnuts’ mind.

Sarah and her Lord Gabriel have been mincing about with Victorian antiques for some time. Her 29th birthday dawns and Lord Gabriel presents her with her heart’s desire upon the morn. I believe it consists of some fusty lace and a slice of bread and scrape. The real treat, however, comes in the romantic evening, when Lord Gabriel twirls his manicured hands through her coiled hair and presents her with a mysterious wrapped gift.

“Open it, my pet,” he whispers.

His lady obeys and peels back the tissue paper to reveal the one item upon all that she specifically requested he never, ever purchase for her. A corset. She resists.

But brave Lord Gabriel will not be deterred and soon persuades his lady to don the corset and gaze upon herself in the mirror. Upon doing so, she is delighted by what she sees: the very image of a Victorian woman whose figure has been constricted to nearly unbelievably proportions. She is no longer an average, slovenly woman of the Northwestern Grunge People but the elegant figure portrayed on a fashion plate. Taken by the image, she decides to wear her corset for her birthday dinner.

The evening is just beginning and the lady struggles to find clothing to accommodate her ravishing new figure, but finds little. Alas, she must make do as Lord Gabriel is whisking her off to a palace of rare culinary delights called “The Old Spaghetti House.” Due to the pressure of the corset, she is only able to partake of a minuscule amount of dinner and must spirit away her bread in her purse.

Sarah pines to be a Victorian lady in a fashion plate. She admires everything Victorian and she and Gabriel collect all manner of antiques. Gabriel and Sarah pore over what they call “primary source” information about Victorians, meaning it was written by Victorians instead of about them, because they believe it provides more accurate information about the Victorian lifestyle. However, as we all know, people don’t tend to tell us everything about themselves. Also, they can’t analyze themselves in the context of history. For example, Victorians did not know that smallpox, the scourge of the age, would be eradicated in a relativity short amount of time. They weren’t aware that their plumbing, which seemed advanced at the time, put them at risk for any number of diseases. They can’t really be counted on to fully represent themselves accurately.

corsetsObviously, Victorians know more about how they used their dishes, wore clothing and conducted themselves. This is where Sarah and Gabriel shine in terms of gathering information. They know a lot about antiques, restoring clothing and how Victorians behaved on a daily basis. Sarah is also skilled at sewing and recreating Victorian items. If only she stuck to this sort of information in her book. Nope. Not a chance. Her exploration of modern life and post-Victorian, driven somewhat by her corset, is mostly critical and sometimes hysterically off base. She makes good points about people being over-engaged in technology, then goes on a diatribe about a girl who joined a group called “Texting people who are in the same room.” I’m pretty sure that group is a joke.

She and Gabriel titter at people who dress up for Victorian festivals in less-than-authentic clothing and remark that “They aren’t our sort of people.” They visit teas and events with Victorian themes and immediately rip them to shreds because they aren’t accurate. Sarah points out that she and Gabriel don’t force their opinions on others but will correct and bring people to the truth when necessary.

The issue of corsets and health comes up repeatedly. Sarah gets a lot of unsolicited feedback about her corset. Considering how many alternative lifestyles are present in the Pacific Northwest, one would think she could go about her business without being constantly pestered. Friends and family (except for Gabriel) express concern about her health, especially as her waist shrinks dramatically to around 21 inches. At first, she wears the corset during the day but later wears it at night. Then, she has a bad foot injury. Putting on her corset is a nightmare. However, she won’t stop wearing it because she has made so much waist-shrinking progress and she doesn’t want to take a step backwards.

Sarah will absolutely not accept any information that implies corset-wearing is a bad idea health-wise. She claims it is good for posture, which does seem to be the case. If you look at pictures of Victorian women, they certainly do sit up straight. But, that’s about the end of it. I don’t care what she presents, it goes against all reason that smashing your internal organs is a good idea. She feels that as a massage therapy student, she is a member of the medical community and is qualified to contradict anything she may read. It is true that there are misconceptions about corsets out there, but arguing that corsets provide health benefits is a shaky premise.

Here’s how she attacks any contradictory information:

  • You’ve seen maimed skeletons from wearing corsets? They weren’t preserved properly and aren’t actually maimed.
  • Lightheadedness? Corsets actually make wearers more alert. The blood rushes to your brain. Take it off and the blood rushes to your stomach like a swollen Thanksgiving pig.
  • Discomfort? The corset wasn’t put on properly.
  • Broken or fractured ribs (especially the floating ribs)? Ribs are almost impossible to harm. Can’t be done. Never mind that ribs get broken all the time during childbirth and pregnancy and hard coughing.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux? Stop eating so much, you piglet. The corset restricts your eating so you can have a mini-waist. If you eat like a bird, you won’t have this problem. Have a dinner of lettuce and an olive and you’ll be fine.
  • Internal organ damage? This is just hysterical fiction created by the medical community. If you find books from 1910, they’ll confirm that this is shenanigans. There are plenty of sites on the web from corset wearers that contradict this as well.
  • Restricted lung capacity – Women can do plenty of things with corsets on. This is true, evidently. Even household workers could wear corsets (and I bet they were thrilled.) Women rode bikes, took walks and did many things with corsets on.
  • Weakened muscles – Will you people stop with your corset attacks? These garments could save the world. Those of you who sit around sloppily and lazily could benefit from a little posture training. A narrow waist wouldn’t kill you either.

Tune in next time and I’ll delve into Sarah’s theories on voting, sexuality, white trash bus drivers. I also have some concerns about body dysmorphic disorder. I’ll also share some tidbits on why Gabriel should be shot into the sun.

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