For the month of August, I’ll be living in Virginia on a fellowship with the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies. During this fellowship, I’ll be conducting research for my novel-in-progress, which is set in 18th century America during the Revolutionary War. These blog posts will record my musings on research, travel, and life in general during my fellowship.
Today, myself and another fellow here at Monticello, Chet’la Sebree, travelled down the labyrinthine passageways of the University of Virgina’s theatre department into their costume shop. We passed crates of shoes designed for every era, racks with colorful dresses waiting to see the spotlights again. We were there for one purpose: to try on corsets. Both of our projects deal with the lives of women in the 18th century (Chet’la’s looking specifically at the life of Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman who had a longterm romantic relationship with Thomas Jefferson). One of the historians here at the International Center for Jefferson Studies, Gaye Wilson, had suggested it might be interesting for us to try on corsets, to learn a little more about this item of clothing that so many women wore on a daily basis. My goal for this experiential research was to consider how a corset might have affected a woman’s movements, her composure and perhaps even her thoughts about her own body.
We were greeted by a friendly and incredibly helpful costumer called Dorothy who helped us pick out our chemises or shifts, the long loose dresses that we were going to be wearing under our corsets. Loose cotton or linen dresses like this would have been the undergarment that many women in America wore in the 18th century (no bras in the 18th century, ladies!). We picked out our shifts and started the process of putting on our corsets.
I was very tempted to just wear my shift as one of those trendy off-the-shoulder dresses, but I resisted!
After we’d put on our shifts, we pulled our corsets over our heads. Then the process of lacing began.
Gaye explained how corsets were laced by starting with the middle laces and then working your way up and down.
Corsets are designed to cinch in the waist, all the while pushing the breasts up. Elite women would often have a servant lacing theirs up behind them, while working class women might have stays they could lace up on their own. Gaye explained how the narrowness of a woman’s waist could be read as a status symbol, because a very narrow waist would indicate that she’d had someone assist her with her corset.
After we’d finished lacing, we examined ourselves in the mirror, enjoying the transformation.
The material was a lot firmer than I thought it would be. When I crossed my arms in front of me, it felt like I was resting my arms on a table!
Chet’la and I discussed how the corsets affected our composure overall. For one thing: it’s constricting (obviously). To do anything like running, or even walking very quickly, would be difficult. Especially when you consider that elite women back then would also have been wearing lots of skirts and a heavy gown (like the ones pictured below).
Another thing we both noticed was that it keeps your posture upright, particularly if trying to sit down. As I sat in a chair, my instinct was to slouch a little bit, but that wasn’t possible. Gaye joked that she should get a corset to keep her from hunching at her desk in the office. But an improved posture was perhaps one of the only benefits I perceived in wearing something like this all the time.
As a 21st century woman, I found the overall feeling very restricting. It was easy to reach for symbolism: clothing restraining women, keeping them contained. These outfits made women take up less space. Made it more difficult for them to run away, to move, to breath. I was surprised by the stiffness of it, my difficulty breathing out. Difficulty relaxing. Women these days talk about the great relief they feel when they take off their bras to relax at home at the end of the day, I can’t imagine the INCREDIBLE relief someone would feel removing this after a long day. That must have been a good feeling.
Yet, in addition to feeling constrained, the corset also made me feel more poised, more dignified. Perhaps that’s because it’s a period costume, but it’s also something to do with that design that makes you feel more upright, more important. Perhaps for women of the gentry it helped them to play a certain part, to present a certain character to society and, in the end, isn’t that what clothes still do?
Thanks to Gaye for suggesting this wonderful experience and to Dorothy at UVA. Also thanks to my mom for all the lovely snaps!
Check out my previous blog post, Notes from Monticello (I): Some thoughts on Homesickness. Follow my adventures in Virginia on Twitter or Facebook.