Striped top – Banana Republic, hand me down
Dress – thrifted and chopped by me
Belt – thrifted
Tights – TJMaxx
Pendant – Anthropologie (the original chain broke and I thrifted a ‘new’ chain for it)
Loafers – Michael Kors, thrifted
Bike – 1970s Peugeot Mixte
In thinking about how belting has been discussed on our site and on other blogs, I can’t help but draw parallels between the debate on ‘belting’ and the discourse around ‘corseting’ today and in the past. Perhaps you haven’t given this particular comparison much thought but since I am devoting a chapter of my dissertation to the practice of corseting, I don’t even know how to contain the thoughts I have on this to one little post. So I will try…
Ready to up the nerd factor?
Here it goes: Corseting is as much a topic of contention and debate in modern scholarship as it was at the time that it was being practiced. Writings and arguments about the corset – then and today – fall into either of two categories; the corset as tool for the oppression and subjugation of the female body or the corset as symbol of freely expressed sexuality and empowerment. Nineteenth-century medical opinions, popular writings, and fashion advertisements competed as voices of authority on what the corset meant in terms of function and its signification. Today, scholars are equally at odds in how to read this symbol. Most writings fall into either of the two above mentioned camps; first, those that denounce the corset as yet another example of how the female body was molded and coerced into an artificial and man-made object of desire and, second, those that argue for the corset as a symbol of autonomy, self-determination, and sexual empowerment.
Are you starting to see where I’m going with this in terms of belting? It seems that both in the comments we have received in the past and in discussions on other blogs, the belt has fallen victim to a similar debate. Is belting a way to draw attention to an idealized ‘hourglass’ female body? (One that of course is not representative of many body shapes). Or is it a way to enhance and showcase a particular aspect of one’s appearance in an act that is empowering and self aware? And what happens when I use my belt to showcase my ‘baby bump’ in an obvious flaunting of something that is commonly thought of as a symbol of maternity and domesticity? But what happens when I am doing that while owning the title ‘feminist’ on this blog and publicly discussing my involvement in academia and the workplace? (And to further complicate that – while biking to work and posing next to my bike for these pictures?).
To briefly return to the corset – did you know that the corset also played volatile role in conjunction with the pregnant body? While there were corsets meant for pregnant women, there are documented cases of women wearing non-maternity corsets to attempt abortion through tight-lacing. It’s easy to see then why the corset was (and still is) largely demonized as an object of immorality and sexual deviance. This, however, does not take into account the other ways that corseting can be read in relation to motherhood and pregnancy. Becoming a mother (or parent) is not for everyone. That seems to be a more accepted way of thinking today but certainly wasn’t for many centuries when women were reduced to their reproductive capabilities and often only seen as extensions thereof. According to art historian and cultural critic David Kunzle, the practice of corseting in the face of charges of immorality and anti-motherhood (in general and not only when matters of abortion came into play), can be read as a powerful message from women refusing to be visually marked as ‘maternal’, ‘domestic’, and ‘naturally feminine’. Their adoption of the corset challenged the notion that these former categories were fixed and essential and the only way that a women ‘should’ be.
Well, if you’re still with me on this, then here is my conclusion: I agree with critics such as Kunzle who argue that there is no one way of interpreting the corset and its pluralistic function in our society, past and present. Neither do I believe in vilifying the belt for enforcing a certain type of body aesthetic since it can have many functions based on context and situation. In this case, I’m using a belt to bring definition to an otherwise shapeless dress in order to communicate that I am proud of my bourgeoning baby bump and my position as a working woman who has also chosen motherhood for herself.
And let’s be honest, this thrifted dress really needed a belt and a good five inches chopped off the bottom, right?
I would love to hear from you if you have given ‘belting’ any kind of theoretical consideration and whether you’ve found yourself objecting to belting or embracing it despite/because of certain associations or ideas? ~S.
And what kind of academic would I be if I didn’t leave you with a few resources for further reading should you be intrigued by the topic of corseting and fashion thory…
Steele, Valerie. The Corset. A Cultural History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
Kunzle, David. Fashion and Fetishism. A Social History of the Corset, Tight-Lacing and Other Forms of Body-Sculpture in the West. Totowa: Rowman and Littlefield, 1982.
Perrot, Philippe. Fashioning the Bourgeoisie. A History of Clothing in the Nineteenth Century. Trans. Richard Bienvenu. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Summers, Leigh. Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian Corset. New York: Berg, 2001.