Valerie Steel, 2001


The definitive authority on pleats, plaids, and platforms, Dr. Valerie Steele was one of the first scholars to apply academic rigor to the frothy world of style. Her numerous books include the steamy Fashion and Eroticism as well as the more enigmatic Shoes: A Lexicon of Style. As chief curator at The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Valerie has presented highly focused shows like the recent Belgian Fashion Design: Antwerp Style. Valerie is also editor-in-chief of the review, Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture.

index: I’ve heard that you know a lot about corsets.
I included chapters on the corset in my books Fashion and Eroticism and Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power. And now I’ve finally finished a book dealing with the whole history of the corset — the medical aspects of corsetry, the things people found erotic or prestigious about corsetry. That book will be coming out in the fall.

index: What led you to thinking about corsets in the first place?
My approach to studying fashion has always been focused on issues of the body, sexuality, and gender. The corset is a very direct way of fashioning the body. It had an enormous impact on women’s lives for four hundred years, so in any discussion about what fashion does to women, the highest power is the corset. It’s the single most controversial and notorious piece of clothing in the history of fashion. I’m interested in why so many people demonize fashion like it’s some sort of malignant power, and studying the corset brings that into focus. I mean, people talk about the evils of corsetry the way they talk about the evils of drug addiction or masturbation.

index: Were corsets really so medically unsound?
It’s often supposed that the corset was responsible for women’s ill health, even death, because of tight lacing. But the medical evidence doesn’t support such an apocalyptic view. The corset simply could not have caused most of the diseases for which it was blamed. Not to say that there were no dangers involved, but I think it’s important to be realistic about what they were. What’s interesting to me is why people have remained so stubbornly wedded to these myths, like the idea that Victorian women would have their ribs removed. There isn’t one scrap of evidence that this operation was ever performed on any women in the nineteenth century. There’s also the idea that women’s livers were split in half by corsetry. Again, not an accurate picture.
index: I imagine you spent some time with documents from that era.
Valerie: Yes, including a lot of personal letters. Several chapters are straight history, and then I have specific chapters which focus on contested issues, like: How tightly were women really laced?

index: So how tightly were they laced?
Mostly just a few inches tighter than their normal waist measurement would be. But you have all these literary accounts talking about a fourteen-inch, fifteen-inch, sixteen-inch waist.

index: Why was there such an exaggeration?
Well, it’s part of a whole pornographic scenario that gets built up around the corset. Some of the letters I looked at were part of a fetishist correspondence from an English magazine. These were primarily about male corsets and tight lacing fetishes. They took elements of the practices of women and then created erotic scenarios around them — very elaborate fantasies about boarding schools and the evil, sexy governess.

index: Was it well known at the time that this subculture existed?
These letters caused quite a scandal when they were published. A lot of people were like: “These are not real.” But they still found it very agitating to have the sexual subtexts of corsetry dragged out into the light.

index: Do you write something for every issue of Fashion Theory?
Oh god, no. I would die! I write the letter-from-the-editor.

index: Do you commission pieces?
Sometimes, but everything has to be peer-reviewed, even if we commission it. If I hear someone give a good talk at a conference, I’ll try to solicit an article.

index: You really manage to bridge academia and the high fashion world. Is that hard?
Because academics are so hideously badly dressed and fashion people are such airheads? [laughs]

index: Maybe that, yeah. But also, academia is usually so closed off to something as populist as fashion.
When I started working on fashion, it really was the “F” word. Academics thought of the fashion world as sexist, bourgeois, and consumerist. That’s changed considerably, I think partly because of gay studies, and partly because of body studies. Students now, maybe more so than professors, explore fashion as something that can say a lot about identity and body politics. I know one grad student at Columbia who, when the first issue of Fashion Theory came out, ran to her dissertation committee waving a copy, going: “See, this is a legitimate topic.”

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