Female Sensuality in Contemporary Victorian Fashion

Antonija Primorac

Antonija Primorac

Think of the word “Victorian” and the first images that come to mind invariably include a corseted female figure. Whether the apparition sports a bell-shaped mid-century crinoline, the skirts of which fan over the cage-like construction beneath, or whether its silhouette is transformed into the suggestive turn of the century “S-bend”, its form and allure are determined by the firm grasp of a corset.

In this article, I will argue that, in the current, visual-media dominated times, this image of a tightly-laced corseted female figure owes more to the contemporary Victoriana on film, and its appropriation and interpretation of what “Victorian” means, than to any other source. By “Victoriana”, I imply Cora Kaplan’s definition of the term, which therefore — besides referring to the remains of nineteenth-century material culture — also includes the contemporary understanding of the nineteenth-century, since from “the late 1970s its reference […] widened to embrace a complementary miscellany of evocations and recyclings of the nineteenth-century” (Kaplan 2007:3, my emphasis).

It is this contemporary production and recycling that interests me when looking at recent examples of Victoriana on film, which here include both those films that adapt nineteenth-century texts as well as those contemporary films which use the nineteenth-century for their setting. I shall analyse certain elements of Victorian material culture that are invariably recycled in the contemporary representation and reconstruction of the Victorian era. In particular, I shall be looking into the use of corsets — with an emphasis on the practice of tight-lacing — and crinolines for a depiction as well as characterization of the film heroines in contemporary Victoriana. The analysis of filmic uses of these items of clothing will be informed by recent debates revolving around the symbolic use of clothes in material culture studies.

While a study of clothes and fashion trends can undoubtedly reveal new data about an individual’s identity formation within a certain historical period, I would argue that studying the use of period clothes in costume dramas can often reveal more about contemporary views of the historical period in question than anything else. Therefore, I shall point to the metaphorical and literal connections between corsets and crinolines on the one hand and cages on the other, as well as their symbolic use in contemporary Victoriana. By tracing the tangled roots of these symbolic usages to specific Victorian topoi of the fallen woman and the embowered woman, I shall show how Victoriana uses parts to stand for the whole: the representation of the nineteenth-century in Victoriana on film often relies heavily on unquestioned visual stereotypes and assumptions that reinforce rather than question the received notions about the nineteenth-century.

In genre terms, examples of film Victoriana usually get referred to as costume films. Generally speaking, such films directed by female directors, whether self-proclaimed feminists or not, often focus on a heroine who is either a character in the adaptation of a nineteenth-century novel, such as Henry James’ ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ (Campion, 1996) or a creation of the directors themselves, such as, again, Jane Campion’s ‘The Piano’ (1993) or Sandra Goldbacher’s ‘The Governess’ (1998). In contrast, the films directed by the male directors, like Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Moulin Rouge!’ (2001) or Timothy Walter Burton’s musical ‘Sweeney Todd’ (2007) and his animated feature ‘Corpse Bride’ (2005), have male protagonists whose maturation and development depend on a sacrifice of or by a female character. In other words, the latter films — in a neo-Victorian fashion — rely heavily on that most typically Victorian of genres: melodrama. That a feminine sacrifice should be at the heart of their plots comes as no surprise since, as Christine Gledhill points out: “Central to the moral world of Victorian melodrama was the symbolic role of woman as persecuted innocence and representative of virtue. The heroine is the occasion of the climactic conflict between hero and villain; her perseverance through social and psychic threats, loyalty to and efforts on behalf of an often imperceptive or incompetent hero and steadfast resistance to the villain make everything come out alright at the end.” (Gledhill 1992: 110)

While the female directors engage with this stereotype of Victorian femininity and try to deconstruct its facets with differing results, the male directors exploit them as givens. Baz Luhrmann’s heroine in ‘Moulin Rouge!’ — Satine, the courtesan — is probably the best example: her death serves as the spark that will ignite the heartbroken hero’s writing career. However, what all of these films have in common is the remarkably prominent role played in them by the costumes — more particularly, by the corsets. In this article, I shall, therefore, take a closer look at the use and abuse of corsets in the portrayal of (neo) Victorian heroines in Jane Campion’s ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ and, to a lesser degree, ‘The Piano’, Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!’ and Timothy Walter Burton’s ‘Sweeney Todd’ and ‘The Corpse Bride’.

When looking at the role played by corsets in these films, Stella Bruzzi’s distinction between costume films made by feminist directors, which use period clothes merely as signifiers for a particular historical era, and those which “focus on the fetishistic value of history and historical clothes” and “look at the clothes rather than through the clothes” (2002: 246, my emphasis) comes in as a particularly useful distinction. Stella Bruzzi stresses that “[W]hen costumes are looked at rather than through; the element conventionally prioritized is their eroticism” (247). The attention paid to the clothes in such film adaptations highlights various aspects of the otherwise silenced sexual discourse in the adapted text.

Expanding Stella Bruzzi’s claim, I would suggest that the examples of film Victoriana in which clothes play an important role, such as the above-mentioned films by Jane Campion, Timothy Walter Burton and Baz Luhrmann, do not just focus on the clothes to express the emotional and the sexual subtext left out of, or presumed to have been silenced in, a Victorian (con)text. Having been culturally recycled in the popular imagination over the last hundred years, certain elements of historical costume — such as the corset, the corset-created cleavage or the accompanying hourglass silhouette — all serve as instant signifying triggers, as kinds of visual shorthand used to metaphorically and metonymically represent embodied Victorian female subjectivity. It is easily forgotten today that the corset did not only serve as a waist-cinching or a slimming device but that it also had the function of a contemporary push-up bra, lifting the bosom upwards and controlling its shape and size. Padded corsets were made especially for thin, flat-chested women, transforming the body into the voluptuous ideal of the time.

Ever since that primal filmic waist-cinching scene in Gone with the Wind (Fleming, 1939), the image of the tightly-laced woman as representative of Victorian Every Woman has persisted, despite the copious debunking of the myth of tight-lacing’s popularity by clothes and art historians in the last couple of decades (Scarlett O’Hara’s fictional 18-inch waist included). This persistence in imagining the Victorian feminine silhouette as a tightly-corseted hourglass goes hand in hand with a reluctance to question the received ideas about Victorian sexuality as either sexually repressed and ignorant, or hypocritical and fundamentally perverse – all this despite the meticulous deconstruction of Victorian sexuality begun by Michel Foucault and Stephen Marcus and, more recently, taken further by mainstream social historians such as Matthew Sweet (2001) and Michael Mason (1994). The reinvestigation of the Victorian private lives and gender roles has also been undertaken by feminist and queer cultural historians such as the late Eve Kossofsky Sedgwick in her Between Men (1985) and, most recently, Sharon Marcus in Between Women (2007).

Studies of Victorian everyday life and its social and sexual interactions, such as Sweet’s, Marcus’s or Mason’s, contribute to a sobering realisation that most contemporary ideas about Victorians often speak to our own needs to define ourselves as more liberal and liberated, open-minded and knowing. 2 The analyses of these contemporary perceptions of Victorians are crucial for an understanding of contemporary Victoriana, and the related production of current definitions of the contemporary as the opposite to the Victorian, which – in different ways – all prove that the Victorians still serve as the ideal historical Other. Moreover, I would add that this view gets further entrenched with the help of contemporary Victoriana on film, and its use of rarely questioned clichés and visual stereotypes.

When depicting Victorian female subjectivity the visual stereotype usually deployed is that of the tightly-corseted, repressed woman who is prone to fainting or over excitement, her weakness exacerbated by the wearing of the tightly-laced corset that is — paradoxically — supposed to control, restrict and suppress that unruly female body. Despite all the historical evidence, this stereotypical image of the tightly-laced, corseted woman today is still taken as the representative of the Victorian female subjectivity in the popular imagination and is continuously used in film adaptations and Victoriana on film.

As for clothes historian Valerie Fahnestock Steele has shown through a careful examination of the actual material evidence — in the shape of surviving orders from corset makers, corset catalogues and the corsets and dresses in fashion museums worldwide — an average Victorian waist was far from the mythical 16-inches in circumference. Taking into consideration that Victorian illustrations and the few (mostly retouched) photographs cannot be a reliable source, Valerie Fahnestock Steele’s analysis of the said material evidence leads her to conclude that the great majority of Victorian women laced their waists to a circumference between 20- and 22-inches (1985: 163–4) while many (predominantly young) women bought 15- to 17-inch corsets for the sake of appearances, and wore them loosely laced in the back. In addition, Valerie Fahnestock Steele debunks the myth that the suffragette movement was directly linked with the dress reform movement and gives evidence of how prominent suffragettes actually encouraged women to “stick to their stays” (Lydia Becker, editor of the ‘Woman’s Suffrage Journal’, quoted in Steele 2007: 59). She also shows how the conservative press and satirical cartoons eventually lampooned the New Woman as the tightly- laced woman — linking tight-lacing with women’s desire to control their own bodies as well as their destinies.

Most importantly, Valerie Fahnestock Steele stresses that the tightly-laced women were not a common sight in England (or the United States of America for that matter) of the Victorian period. She highlights the crux of the matter in her book ‘Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power’ by pointing out that: “[…] it is crucial to distinguish between ordinary fashionable corsetry, as practised by most nineteenth-century women, and the very different minority practice of fetishistic tight-lacing, which sometimes overlaps with sadomasochism and transvestism. Although most Victorian women wore corsets, they were not usually tight-lacers with 16-inch waists, any more than most women today wear fetish shoes with 7-inch heels.” (Steele 1996: 58)

Tight-lacing was a practice that was socially ostracized in a number of publications and public campaigns, some of them led by prominent doctors who labelled it as a perverse habit practised by vain women at the cost of their fertility and respectability. During the reign of Victoria — that least wasp-waisted and un-maternal of monarchs! — a tightly-laced corset was the attire of the courtesan or the demimondaine and the occasional scandal-inducing aristocrat, and of those “vulgar”, “attention-seeking” upwardly-mobile girls from lower classes (often working as milliners or shop-assistants) who aspired to marrying into a higher class. As a consequence of the campaigns, tight-lacing carried an exceptionally strong public stigma and was arguably mostly limited to the private sphere as a fetishist practice. Valerie Fahnestock Steele reminds us how very few women would publicly admit to tight-lacing: it was always “somebody else”.

Despite the historical evidence, the tightly-laced corseted female figure is taken as representative of the Victorian woman in contemporary Victoriana on film. Women’s corseted hourglass silhouettes can invariably be found inside dark, narrow corridors and dimly lit interiors in general, bringing to mind the common motif in Victorian poetry and painting — that of the embowered woman. Constantly in the camera’s focus, the corset becomes the metaphorical cage within which a female subject’s sexuality and agency are imprisoned, and the cinched waist draws the attention to the suppressed erotic feelings and restricted, strictly limited social avenues for the expression of one’s desire.

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