I am so gleefully happy that the new season of Project Runway has started. Still the smartest of the reality shows (in that it tests the creativity and knowledge of the contestants and their ability to realize their designs), the new designers are much more articulate and have stronger personalities than the first season’s designers. (I love the tempermental Santino.)
Season Two is already a few weeks old, and each time it comes on I do the same thing: I leaf through my copy of Valerie Steele’s The Corset: A Cultural History (one of the books for a class that I TA’d.) In particular I look over the few pages on men’s corsets in the nineteenth century, a short-lived phenomena in which manufacturers produced undergarments for men that allowed them to control their proportions and achieve desirable bodies.
Steel sees the use of corsets as an essential part of the modernization of fashion. As the Industrial Revolution made various types of clothing more readily available, the ideal of the ‘aristocratic’ body type became the ‘feminine’ body type. Garments were constructed with the feminine body in mind, which made corseting essential to fitting in (indeed, filling) the clothes.
Corsets belonged men’s sartorial regimens since the eighteenth century. Military officers, particularly cavalry men, felt that they were an indispensable means of back support. According to Steel, dandyism put the notion of men’s corsets into the public sphere, but not without controversy.
The number of dandy caricatures produced between 1815 and 1820 indicates that at least a conspicuous minority of fashionable men wore stays or corsets … . Nevertheless, the idea of a man wearing stays struck people as truly ludicrous, especially as it could easily evoke the complimentary idea of women in breeches.
Fashionable menswear continued to emphasize the cinched waist throughout the 1830s. One French dandy of the era insisted that “the secret … of the dress lies in the thinness and narrowness of the waist. Catechize your tailor about this … Insist, order, menace … Shoulders large, the skirts of the coat ample and flowing, the waist strangled – that’s my rule.”
Steele argues that although men’s fashions emphasized the slender waist, use of corset was frowned upon. Discussions of male corseting contributed to discourses on the dissipation of national strength and military prowess. Another fashion history, Elisabeth Hackenspiel, notes that the tailoring of men’s clothing necessitated corseting, even though society associated it with effeminacy, contributing to an incongruity between ideals of masculine beauty and sartorial practices. Throughout the century the practice disappeared to the peripheries of men’s fashion.
After 1850s, men who wore corsets usually claimed to need them for medical reasons, often back support. Not only had fashionable menswear become looser, obviating the potential need for figure controlling garments, but the prevailing bourgeois worldview increasingly held that men should not think about trivialities such as fashion.
Unfortunately, Steele does not explain positive reasons why the practice waned. I suspect that the rising popularity of gymnastics offered a ‘natural’ alternative to body contouring that improved the strength of the body rather than depleting it. Researching my MA thesis, I came across numerous discussions between Zionist physicians about how with properly tailored gymnastics programs could help achieve the corseted look without the ills associated therewith.
The Corset, Valerie Steele, p. 35-39