A Conversation About Corsets

If there is one article of clothing associated with the Victorian Era, it is the corset. This Sunday, March 11, we continue our exclusive series of public programs for The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860–1900 with Visions of Beauty—Inside the Victorian Artists Salon, presented in partnership with Dark Garden Corsetry and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood Artist Salon. We recently sat down with Autumn Adamme, the owner of Dark Garden and your guide to all things corseted, to discuss this controversial fashion icon.

Dark Garden black dress

Photo courtesy of Dark Garden

There is a lot of speculation about why women started to take off their corsets during the time of the Aesthetic Movement–why do you think women stopped wearing corsets?

I believe there were several contributing factors. Leaders of the Aesthetic Movement considered the over use of decoration and adornment in clothing ugly and lacking grace, favoring instead the idea that the female body in its natural form was beautiful. I imagine that the women of the Aesthetic Movement were free thinkers and enjoyed being able to break some of society's rules. Perhaps their morals were a bit looser than that of the tightly laced middle class, perhaps not.

Burne-Jones

Edward Burne-Jones, Laus Veneris, 1873–8, oil with gold paint on canvas. Laing Art Gallery, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, Newecastle upon Tyne.

Whatever the case, they clearly chose to wear clothes that expressed something outside of the latest trends shown in the periodicals of the time. While I personally enjoy wearing corsets, I am glad I have the ability to choose whether or not to wear them.

What are three contemporary myths about corsets?

The three things that people ask when they see our staff in corsets are:

  • Can you breathe?
  • Have you had a rib removed?
  • Doesn't that hurt?

Yes, we can breathe, because our corsets are comfortable and have been made to fit modern bodies, allowing for the ribs and lungs to expand with natural breath.

Sever black back

Photo courtesy of Dark Garden

That said, there are a lot of corsets on the market these days built for dress forms rather than for bodies, and these do compress the ribs and hips uncomfortably, making breathing uncomfortable. Just like high heel shoes–a higher heel is possible in a well-made shoe, whereas cheaply made high heels don't take the anatomy of the foot into consideration.

How did you become interested in corset design?

I came to know and love corsets when I was quite young. My mother and I traveled a fair amount through most of my childhood, so much of my education was through books. I enjoyed the works of Louisa May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Frances Hodgson Burnett. Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain and Charles Dickens were also favorites. I didn't really feel like I belonged in 1970s America, and spent a lot of time in my imaginary world of Victorian England, where all young women wore corsets and high-buttoned boots.

Red Corset

Photo courtesy of Dark Garden

I started learning to sew at the age of 8 and when I was 12 my mother helped me to make my first corset. Around this time we started attending the Dickens Christmas Fair, where I was able to wear this corset with a dress I created to go over it.

What is your favorite part of the process of making a corset?

In my twenty-three years of corset making, I have become most fond of the patterning process. I enjoy the way corsets form the body and I’m endlessly fascinated by what is possible to achieve. In addition, I enjoy working with people to create designs that reflect their individual personalities, enhancing and flattering their bodies and bringing out their favorite features.

Sailor

Photo courtesy of Dark Garden

It is incredibly gratifying to hear a client say "I've never felt so beautiful!" I love the confidence that wearing a corset instills in me. Not only is my posture improved, but so is my mood—I feel protected, supported and flattered.

Learn more about corsets, Dark Garden and the evolution of Victorian fashion this Sunday, March 11 at the Legion of Honor! The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860–1900 will be on view through June 17.