I am wearing a corset as I type this. It is a Friday evening and I am dressed to attend a masquerade ball. It is such a new and curious feeling that I pause, before going out, to record the sensation before it disappears. It’s an underbust corset with pinstripe fabric. It would be the perfect steampunk outfit but I have no boots or goggles. At the moment, I look like a cross between saloon barmaid and 1940s vamp.
It is a rather sexual feeling to wear a corset. You have to walk with mincing, dainty steps – no running for the bus with this on! Your hips sashay from side to side as you move. You are at all times aware of your physical body. It’s no where near as uncomfortable as I had imagined it might be. And I feel somewhat guilty about this as I have always seen the corset as something that was invented to restrict women and that it has a much vilified history. I can see how it is good for people with scoliosis and posture issues as you have no other choice but to sit very straight and upright. I usually slouch so it’s a useful piece of clothing for me. It’s incredible to see myself with such a defined waist. Genetically, I am lacking in a waist so it’s a delight to see my outline so changed. Siri Hustvedt in her 2006 essay Pulling power says that the corset helped to ‘create the notion of femininity.’ I feel wearing corset that I can finally fulfil this notion. The corset is an example of how we use clothing to gender ourselves. In her essay, Hustvedt states that: ‘But the feeling of a corset is only part of its effect. Like all clothing, it is, more than anything else, an idea. In this case it promotes an idea of a woman’s body as radically different from a man’s.’ This makes me think of those bald babies made ‘girls’ by the addition of a ribbon or bow on their downy heads.
I have also seemingly grown breasts. As Hustvedt says, ‘The corset takes the difference between men and women and runs wild with it. The inward slope of a woman’s waist becomes extreme, and the tension of lacing the waist pushes the breasts upward. Suddenly I had new breasts.’ As a fifteen year old, I watched enviously the heaving, corseted breasts of Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Decades later I now look in the mirror and marvel at the transformation that has occurred. Later at the masquerade ball, my friend jokes that she can’t take her eyes off my ‘boobs’. I am finally Lizzy even if only for a night.
The potential for clothes to transform is limitless. Hustvedt alludes to this when she writes: ‘In the end, wearing clothes is an act of the imagination, an invention of self, a fiction.’ As my friends and I wait for a taxi to take us to the ball, I allow myself to slip into an alternate persona, someone, something radically divorced from my day to day self. As we dance at the party, we can finally embody the dreams and fantasies of self that our costumes have articulated for us.
Have you experienced transformation through a particular piece of clothing?