The Corset by Valerie Steele
A Cultural History

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The corset is probably the most controversial garment in the history of fashion. Although regarded as an essential element of fashionable dress from the Renaissance into the twentieth century, the corset was also frequently condemned as an instrument of torture and the cause of ill health. Why did women continue to don steel and whalebone corsets for four hundred years? And why did they finally stop? This lavishly illustrated book offers fascinating and often surprising answers to these questions. Valerie Steele, one of the world’s most respected fashion historians, explores the cultural history of the corset, demolishing myths about this notorious garment and revealing new information and perspectives on its changing significance over the centuries.

Whereas most historians have framed the history of the corset in terms of oppression vs. liberation and fashion vs. health and comfort, Steele contends that women’s experiences of corsetry varied considerably and cannot be fully understood within these narrow frames. Drawing on extensive research in textual, visual, and materials sources, the author disproves the beliefs that the corset was dangerously unhealthy and was designed primarily for the oppression of women. Women persisted in wearing corsets—despite powerful male authorities trying to dissuade them—because corsetry had positive connotations of social status, self-discipline, youth, and beauty. In the twentieth century the garment itself fell out of fashion but, Steele points out, it has become internalized as women replace the boned corset with diet, exercise, and plastic surgery. The book concludes with insightful analyses of such recent developments as the reconception of the corset as a symbol of rebellion and female sexual empowerment, the revival of the corset in contemporary high fashion, and its transformation from an item of underwear to outerwear.

About Valerie Steele

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Valerie Steele is chief curator and acting director, The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York. She is founder and editor of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture.
Published November 1, 2001 by Yale University Press. 240 pages
Genres: Health, Fitness & Dieting, Arts & Photography. Non-fiction

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The Guardian

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The Corset: A Cultural History Valerie Steele 200pp, Yale, £29.95 Crucial evidence in the true history of the corset was first published in 1949 by Doris Langley Moore, whose collection of clothes eventually wardrobed the costume museum in Bath.

Nov 10 2001 | Read Full Review of The Corset: A Cultural History

Publishers Weekly

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In The Corset: A Cultural History, Valerie Steele, chief curator and acting director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology and editor of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, takes on an item of clothing that has achieved notoriety among many historians.

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London Review of Books

I had to suffer the indignity of wearing them to school and well remember, fifty years on, my attempt – at the age of eight – in a mixed changing room to conceal the ghastly garment before anybody saw it.

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Project MUSE

Throughout its history, says Steele, the corset has been condemned as an “instrument of torture,” a “major cause of ill health and even death,” and above all, as a “coercive apparatus through which patriarchal society controlled women and exploited their sexuality.” Drawing upon a wealth of visua...

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