La Gêne (1868) Stories Memoirs of a corset (1880)
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My first corset (1870)

by a Parisienne, La Vie Parisienne 11 June, 1870, pp. 464-5, abridged

The first of my dreams when I evoke distant but undying memories, was to wear a corset, the dream of every Parisienne over twelve years old, I imagine - formerly, at least - for today they accept it as natural that they should come into the world with false hips, false calves and false hair. We were less spoiled in my childhood, which is not all that long ago, and artifice was limited to the bouffant petticoat which, together with a little bodice innocent of boning, comprised our underwear. We were very comfortable, supple, agile, but modelled about as much as a piece of board, and the coquettes suffered a great deal ...

I will always remember a torture of my childhood. At dinner they made me show my décolletage, that is a little pair of rather red shoulders, with jutting collar-bone and shoulder blades; how I envied the round bust of mother and the other ladies! I observed that several of them had deceptive corsages, to judge by their hands, neck and face. .. One of my class-friends revealed the mystery to me. Until then, I had seen her as a tom-boy, badly built, frumpish. One day she arrived transformed: 48 cm (19 inches) around the waist, and such contours!!! ''What's happened to you, for heaven's sake?'' I asked her. ''Nothing'', she replied, ''I have a corset on.'' That explained it all! But everyone at home said I was too young for one.

There is nothing like a good old ruse. My ambition, a few months before, had been to get a lorgnette which represented, in my view, the summit of coquetry, impertinence and audacity. I pretended to be short-sighted; but they gave me spectacles instead! So, the following day, I was to be found more short-sighted than ever, crouching over my desk, head bowed, body twisted, and I obstinately refused to abandon this uncomfortable position despite the cries of my entourage, the threat of those horrid spectacled, the prophesy of a hunched back and a certain pink ribbon by which Miss Penn, who was proficient in tortures, tied me to the back of my chair. On the point of suffocation, I did not yield. The vision of a corset, surrounded by an aureole of rewards, sustained my efforts, lent me the necessary heroism. Finally I wore down the opposition, with the complicity of my maid, Mlle Julie, who would repeat every morning, ''Mademoiselle is turning. And to take one's first communion without a corset ... well!''

I was measured for a corset. I shall never forget that ceremony. Curious to say, it was a man who came to certify that the time had come to prevent me from becoming hunch-backed and who noted minutely the proportions of my little person. He asked for a week to create his masterpiece, a week during which I thought I would die of joy. We all die of joy while we wait.

The disappointment, the corset I mean, arrived alas only too quickly! A horrible absolutely straight sheath, of which only the back was boned and which pulled my arms backwards, with no other busk moreover than an elastic, which looked horribly like rubber. I, who have never been able to think of rubber without nausea!

Hardly had I entered this prison, than I would have given everything in the world to be out of it. This has been the fate, you see, of all the dreams realised in my life. It was called ceinture de grâce, no doubt because it rendered me ungraceful, and that was proper, they said, for my age. My complaints, my tears, were in vain. I had wanted a corset ... that was it!

Little by little, as I developed, the instrument of torture was modified and became progressively a fairly gentle mentor, then a support, almost a comrade with which I lived on the best of terms. At that point it should have been elegant and beautiful: I wanted it in white satin, and over a long interval of time, this corset successively coveted, cursed, tolerated and forgotten for other fancies, became once more my idée fixe: in white satin, stitched in cherry silk along the edge, swansdown trimming on the hips, silver fastenings, the whole tiny enough to fit in a fan-box.

''When you get married,'' said my mother.

Thus it was that I began to dream of marriage, because in my head marriage was indissolubly bound up with a satin corset. Even today the most precise memory I have of that morning which decided my future, was the gentle crackling of the silk which Mlle Julie was lacing respectfully, I should say piously; and the harmonious silhouette of that frail iridescent cuirasse which bowed to and trembled at my slightest movement. The veil, the orangeflowers, the lace dress, those were my right; but this was the satisfaction of a caprice!

And to think that I profited from my marriage in order to leave them off altogether!


La Gêne (1868) Stories Memoirs of a corset (1880)
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