on artifice

on

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I read a quote on tumblr a while back about “making our bodies into corsets”, and while I can’t find or remember the exact wording, I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I’ll do my best to paraphrase.

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I’ve noticed a weird kind of pity toward women who use shapewear. Google “corseting” or “waist training”, and you’ll find all manner of condescending articles by authors who “can’t believe women are doing this in 2016”. Something about that always chafed me, and the quote I found helped me put my finger on why.

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Women of old cinched their waists slimmer, yes. They padded their bottoms and laced panniers to each hip. They poured their breasts into bullets. But at the end of the day, they took it all off. The artifice was acknowledged and set, consciously, aside. Many ’50s dresses are ridiculously, practically cartoonishly proportioned. An 18″ difference between bust and waist? That’s nigh impossible. But here’s the rub – no one expected a woman’s actual figure to look like that.

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Dress: 1940s vintage, via War’s End Shop

Everything else: vintage and/or thrifted

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And there’s something so equalizing in that. You don’t like what nature gave you? Lace up a girdle and move on with your life. Can’t quite squeeze into that dress? Lace said girdle a few notches tighter. Done! Nowadays? We’ve made our bodies the corsets. We shun cinchers and count calories instead, as though the latter were any less a deliberate effort.

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At least you can remove the former. At least you get a break. When we collectively acknowledge that hey, very few of us actually look like this, it lets everyone off the hook. We indulge a shared artifice, and at the end of the day we unhook and unzip and let our bodies breathe. I don’t think modern fashionistas have that luxury. If you want a wasp waist in a vintage one-piece, you cinch and suck. If you want a wasp waist in a string bikini, you have to work for it. There’s no room to hide. You’re living in a panopticon, and nothing is private.

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Most of my dresses require a body shape I simply do not have. My waist is squidgy; my breasts are widely set. So what? I wear a corset and a bullet bra and a pair of spanx over my tights. Boom, done. It’s far, far easier than spending hours at the gym, trying to make my actual flesh something it isn’t. If I eat too much Thai food or drink too many Manhattans, my clothes will still fit the next day, because I’ll make them fit.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we’re all wearing costumes. It’s just that some of us admit it.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Jake Fisher says:

    Love this post- one of my favorites. I think I’ll go corset shopping now šŸ™‚

    Also, LOVE your eyeliner, and your hat, and your gloves. You are the absolute cutest.

  2. Superb and very well presented point. I’ve thought about this before, too, and am rather glad I’m not the only one in the vintage world with similar views. Bodies are perfectly imperfect, always have been, always will be and if one can safely alter such in a way that makes them feel better and their clothes fit all the more attractively, why not embrace shapewear? We are a million miles away from being the first generation to do so, and even with the continual casualization of fashion, I promise you that we won’t be the last.

    ā™„ Jessica

    *PS* Splendid outfit! I love the scallop edges on the wrists of your gloves.

  3. SaraLily says:

    Wow! This was such a well written post – bravo! I couldn’t stop reading. You make such good points! At the end of the day, as long as you’re happy, you do you! Right? I mean, we are all such different humans. We all need to focus on our own happiness and do what we want – we have to stop caring so much what others do!! It’s crazy if you think about it!

  4. Rowenna says:

    YES! I have made this point many times–that every era has a fashionable silhouette, and none is more “liberated” than another when you really dig into it. We’ve ditched the corset and the girdle, but we haven’t left the idea of conforming to a particular silhouette behind. As you say, it’s now a 24/7 endeavor.

    I think the book V&A book on corsets was one of the first places I saw this concept explored–the final chapter is on contemporary body shape and how we create corsets from musculature instead of baleen and spring steel in our “modern” age. The whole thing is worth a read if you haven’t yet.

    For my own part…I’d rather be wearing 18th century stays than conform to the kind of diet and exercise regimen I would need to attain a truly fashionable modern ideal.

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