Victorian Secrets

A few weeks ago an article had been floating about the interwebs.  It was an article about a woman who wears Victorian garb as many of us vintage gals rock the 40s and 50s.  I was so intrigued, having an interest in the Victorian era in addition to the mid-20th century.  The woman, Sarah Chrisman, mentioned how wearing her corset every day for a year reduced her by waist ten inches, improved her posture and reduced her migraines.  As a migraine suffer myself I was enthralled by the notion of a corset curing migraines, yes, more so than the trimming of the waist! I was even more excited when I read that she had recently written a book about her transformation as a daily corset wearer, and promptly purchased it!

Chrisman’s book, Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present, and Myself, is an insightful look into how today’s society looks upon the corset, and those who dress differently.  Always interested in the Victorian era, Chrisman had collected clothing of the period, and when her 29th birthday arrived, her husband, Gabriel, gave her a corset.  Initially she wasn’t happy with the gift, but as she looked at her corseted figure in the mirror, she was enthralled, quickly wanting to wear her corset as much as possible.  Wearing the garment lead Chrisman to do research about corsets, and quickly learned that much of what she had heard about the corset were pure myth, and as she began to get a smaller waist, her wardrobe slowly transformed to become more in line with what women of the Victorian era wore.

As Chrisman’s waist shrank, she began to receive a wide range of comments, from gushingly positive to horrifically negative and some that she just didn’t know how to take! Many people were intrigued by her deep interest in the period that would take her to the lengths to wearing a corset 24/7, but others, mostly women she noted, were appalled, calling the corset a symbol of oppression.  As Chrisman and her husband got deeper into their manner of dress, they began to be invited to events as participants, and were then able to educate, and dispel stereotypes of the Victorian era as depicted in films and crush flat out lies, such as broken bones (which refer not to human bones, but the bones of a corset, originally referring to the fact that the stays were originally made of whale bone).

I enjoyed Chrisman’s comparison of dressing in period clothing to that of being from a different country. She quotes a book which states that “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” How true that is! But unlike foreign countries, which have ambassadors and such, Chrisman notes that “[h]istory has no emissaries.” And I would like to think that historians, and those who choose to dress in a manner from the past can be those emissaries, to become a “[h]istorial ambassador”, and Chrisman and her husband do just that.

Dressing out the norm on a regular basis has its own daily struggles, but sometimes there are special circumstances that can make it even more difficult, and in that case some, like myself, make concessions.  One example is air travel (for more on traveling for the vintage loving gal, read this post).  When the holidays approached, Chrisman had been corseting herself every day since her birthday, and had altered her clothing so much that there were “few clothes left that would fit me without my corset”, and chose to go through with their holiday flights to the east coast in her corset.  The flight to the east coast was met without too much issue, and the TSA apologized for the inconvenience, but between their arrival and their departure, Newark, the same airport they were to fly out of, had a bomb scare (Chrisman’s book, while contemporary, much, including this visit takes place in 2009, post-9/11, but pre-common use of body scanners).  When flying back to their home state of Washington, Chrisman’s corset set off the metal detector and was subjected to a strip search, and feared a body cavity search, but was spared that.  After this case, Chrisman makes no mention of deciding upon different arrangements for future travel, or to select a specific travel wardrobe that does not require her corset.

While Chrisman enjoys the Victorian era, and I myself the mid-20th century, I still found her book extremely easy to relate to.  Dressing out of the past’s closet, regardless of era, is often met with odd comments, many of which I face on a daily basis.  People wonder what you’re doing “all dressed up” or if you’re “in a play”.  Chrisman’s corset and the comments surrounding it were similar to how some react when the topic of girdles is brought up.  Some are quick to bad mouth them while I stand there in one! Then those who lived through the days of seamed stockings inquire why on earth I wear them.  Tired of checking for straight seems, and attaching the garters, they rejoiced when seamless stockings, followed by pantyhose became the norm.  Chrisman also recounts moments of “a special kind of self-torture” when looking at garments on-line that are out of budget, something I’m certainly guilty of!

Victorian Secrets isn’t without issues though.  Chrisman isn’t afraid to describe people physically that she comes in contact with in an negative light, describing a man with “triple chins”, a woman as “dumpy” and as a “crone”.  She also assumes someone’s education based upon their manner of speech, and declared that the person should be “weeded from the gene pool”.  There were other moments I had issue with as well, such as a moment when a hostess’ hair whips through a cake’s frosting, and instead of informing her hostess of the issue, Chrisman instead makes a “mental note” not to eat any of that cake.  While such descriptions of people may add to a fictional story, it comes across as unnecessary and cruel in a memoir which is to focus upon wearing a corset on a daily basis.

Overall, I found Victorian Secrets book a very quick and easy ready, finishing it in just five days (possibly a new record for me!), and could be easily completed in one sitting.  Her style of writing is similar to that of a blog in many respects, but I will admit I did bump into two words I was utterly unfamiliar with and had to look up!  The book is accompanied with images from various catalogs of the turn-of-the-century, Gibson drawings, and photographs of the author herself.  Ultimately I found Chrisman’s mini-memoir to be inspiring, and encouraging.  She has armed herself with numerous sources as she steps outside her front door to quickly thwart those who know only the stereotypes of the period, and has become a Historical Ambassador! I find myself now more eager to speak up for myself when one talks about the annoyances of girdles and/or stockings and other matters of “oppression” with regards to dress.

You can purchase Victorian Secrets on Amazon.

Speaking of corsets and girdles, now is a good time to mention tomorrow is the last day to enter the What Katie Did book giveaway if you haven’t already! It closes tomorrow night and the winner will be announced on Thursday!

A Visit to The Foundation

In making my Dixie Cousins costume, I came to the realization that the undergarment I was planning on wearing was just not working out, and I felt that a true underbust corset would be better suited towards my needs, as well, as, heck, I just wanted one.  So I returned to The Foundation: From Billie to Bettie, where I purchased my first steel boned corset last year.

I really can’t express how much I not only love this store, but how thankful I am that Portland has such a store.  Tami, the owner, is extremely knowledgeable, helpful, and as sweet as could be.  She’s also a kick! Did you get a load of her fab 1964 Chrysler New Yorker parked out front? Her shop is stocked with bullet bras, modern bras, a-lines, girdles, all-in-ones, garter belts, panties, corsets, flouncy crinolines, and of course, stockings.  Her corsets range from the practical to the fantastic, including some stellar steampunk inspired ones.

The Foundation also has a photo studio! You can work with their photographer, who is exceptional! Her work is scattered throughout the shop.  I greatly admired the work she did of Tami especially.  They have a host of goodies for one to play dress up, and find their inner pin-up.  You can also rent the studio space too! Bring in your own camera equipment and rent for as little as three hours or for the whole day! How fabulous is that?

Sadly, Tami didn’t have my size in the style of corset I wanted, but she was able to order it for me! And it will be here shortly! I can’t wait! But I did find a few treasures to tide me over. I purchased a fabulous Rago six-point girdle, and a pair of Birkshire stockings, a brand I haven’t tried before, and I’m really excited to take them for a test drive.  To top things off, both Rago (who has been in the foundation business since for over 65 years) and Berkshire items are made in the US!

I also heard from a little birdie that The Foundation will be having an amazing Small Business Saturday deal!  Spend $50 and get 10% off your order, spend $100 and get 20% off, or $150 and get 25% off! So it’s time to either splurge for yourself, or get something special for your significant other, or even for that best friend of yours!  For more info, please visit The Foundation’s Facebook page.

The Foundation

Recently my dear friend Angelica introduced me to what has become one of my new favorite shops in town. The Foundation: From Billie to Bettie. It’s a little shop located at 4831 SE Davision here in Portland that sells everything (and more) that I included in my Vintage Must Have Foundations Series (Read more on bullet bras, girdles, seamed stockings, slips, and crinolines).

If you’re a Portland gal who has ever been hesitant to purchase a bullet bra off the internet, then The Foundation is the place to go! Not only does the shop carry the What Katie Did bras, but a selection of new-old stock 1960s bras, all in addition to more modern bras.  When I walked in I felt like a kid in a candy store. Corsets, garters, stockings, girdles, bras, crinolines! Even pasties and tiny burlesque hats!  There is a wide array of shape-wear available, including vintage inspired Rago girdles.  There is also a large selection of stockings, crinolines of varying lengths, and steel boned corsets! Since I’ve been dying to own a steel boned corset since I was a freshman in high school, I went ahead and purchased one, along with a few bras.

And for those of you who have ever wanted to bring out your inner pin-up girl, shop owner, Tami has teamed up with Tammy Kravitz, a photographer who does classic boudoir and pin-up photos in their portrait studio.

Proprietress Tami is a wonderful gal who doesn’t just cater to the specialty market of bullet bras and corsets, but she also sells beautiful contemporary slips, sleepwear sets and panties. So there’s something for the vintage gal as well as the modern woman.  She was also very nice and patient with me when I was trying on my corset. She explained the best way to loosen the laces, how to properly fasten the front, and tighten the back.  The Foundation is open Wednesday through Sunday, twelve to seven.

What this all brings me to is a new series I am starting on bullet bras.  There are a few out there, and most with mixed reviews, so I figured I’d throw in my two-cents on various ones on the market.  So tune into tomorrow for the first in my new Bullet Bra Review Series!