PRINT October 1994


the Corset

Like God—as the etymology of the word tells us—the Fetish does not reply.
—Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse, 1977

THE FETISH DOES NOT REPLY because the fetish is so eloquent that words are irrelevant. A case in point is the corset, newly fashionable (again), as a cursory glance at the fashion press will tell you. This taste for the close-fitting was inevitable, I suppose. Once women’s clothing had been deconstructed about as far as it could be and still sit on a hanger, the pendulum was going to swing back the other way. So we are entering an Era of Reconstruction.

Construction means structure; construction means an altered consciousness of the body and that body understood in a particular way. The sylphlike waif is making way (again) for the creature with rounded tits and ass and a defined “natural” waist. But not to worry. If Mother Nature didn’t bless you with Venus-like curves, Karl Lagerfeld’s new “Wundercorset” (designed for Chanel) can give them to you—if you can afford it. Cheaper ways to get that “firmer line,” as Women’s Wear Daily calls it, will soon be in your neighborhood store, hanging right next to the by-now-famous “Wonderbra.”

Whether women will buy into the structured look is not yet certain. Many of us, however, will admit to an independent (and prior) fondness for the corset, and for the mild restraint it provides. It’s nice to know you have a body, and a corset will never let you forget. Then there’s the erotic resonance of the object, and of the word itself, conjuring scenarios of ancien régime licentiousness, hidden Victorian sexuality, etc. And finally a well-made corset, with its complex construction and its multiple laces, buttons, and bows, is a thing of beauty, an object worthy of the voyeuristic or narcissistic gaze. Almost able to stand on its own, it makes you stand up too (and we all know what that means). God, or the fetish, is in the details.

This preamble leads me away from fashion and the ever-fetishized female body to the story of Pearl, corset-maker extraordinaire and himself a devotee of the discipline of tight-lacing. When I first saw Pearl, at the press opening of the “Waist Not” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he was standing before a drawing of a woman’s torso marked to show where the fashion waist has fallen during different historical periods. Then he quietly doffed his suit jacket and, just as quietly, blew my sleep-encrusted, caffeine-deprived mind. (It was about 10 A.M.) The astonishing Pearl, you see, has a 19-inch waist, and looks as if he could he snapped in two.

That morning Pearl’s waist was embraced, its narrowness accentuated, by a brown-leather belt made to the pattern of one belonging to Jeannette, the “lady” who is giving Pearl, as he later told me, “a corset education, among other things.” After all, the 17-inch example of Scarlett O’Hara notwithstanding, you don’t come by a wasp waist “naturally,” or easily either. Tight-lacing may or may not be a perversion; it is certainly a vocation, a discipline, a triumph of the will. And it takes time. Pearl has been in training with Jeannette, London’s principal disciplinarian, for three years—24 hours a day. He sleeps in his corset, which he wouldn’t show me, though he did say it was designed by Aris Norris, a noted English corsetiere.

Pearl made me see the simplicity of excess—and its obscene depths. I’ve read my Bataille and my Sacher-Masoch, been to the Dungeon, know my share of dominatrixes. But printed words and role-playing cannot convey the experience of the “real” fetish. One has to fall silent—like the fetish—before enacted belief, rethink one’s attitude toward this esthetic of deformity. For tight-lacing surely is an esthetic, and just as surely involves castigation of the flesh.

Activities like Pearl’s involve a transfiguration of the self, a metaphysical transaction between self and other in which flesh is deformed to be perfected, as a saint is perfected in martyrdom. Talking to Pearl, I felt myself in the presence of something sacred, almost expected to see his palms stigmatized and his eyes roll heavenward as he wafted away from me to a better place. Kant thought of fetishism as the degraded sublime.1 Maybe the degraded sublime is a good thing; maybe it’s all you need.

The fetish is often derogated because of its intimacy, as if that were the source of its perverseness, its obscenity. What Pearl does, though, is private but not necessarily antisocial. He sees the corset as part of a ritualistic pas de deux of desire, one you don’t have to be into tight-lacing to share; erotic satisfaction is guaranteed for all. (I figure Jeannette is getting something out of it too. So much for the fetish’s onanism.) During our evening together, in fact, Pearl spoke of the corset as a “sociable garment,” because he feels you really need a friend to dress you in it and release you from it, preferably a friend with a “sure hand.” Just think of it as safe sex.

Pearl makes corsets for fellow (or soror) initiates, but he also makes less demanding, and equally beautiful, fashion versions for Thierry Mugler couture and private clients. The fetishist may wear the corset not so much for itself as for its work on the body—its ability to make a mark, to leave a trace on fallible flesh. For those of us born—that is, made—women, proficient in the masquerade, a corset is the perfect thing to wear while musing not only on the construction of the “perfect” body but on what that body might mean.

Deborah Drier is a freelance writer and editor who lives in New York.



1. Emily Apter, “Specularity and Reproduction: Marx, Freud, Baudrillard,” in Sarah Whiting, Edward Mitchell, and Greg Lynn, eds., Fetish, New York: The Princeton Journal and Princeton Architectural Press, 1992, p. 23.