Bound By Fashion: Four Clarkies unravel the story behind the corset’s role in European art (and how it affected Worcester)

“…One cannot have beauty without goodness. Only rarely does an evil soul dwell in a beautiful body, and so outward beauty is a true sign of inner goodness.” So said Italian humanist, Pietro Bembo in 1527. Just what constituted a beautiful body in the sixteenth century? Ever wondered why so many women throughout the ages have gladly compromised comfort for the elegant constriction of a corset?

These were some of the contemplations that led four Clark students to endeavor upon the Worcester Art Museum’s new exhibit, Bound By Fashion: The Corset in European Painting. The exhibit, made possible with the help of Clark’s Assistant Professor of Art History, John Garton, the Higgins School of Humanities, and James A. Welu, the Worcester Art Museum’s Director of the European collection, follows the students’ research through the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, going across Europe and back to Worcester.

The museum’s director admitted that, “Even after seeing these pieces over and over, I am now seeing them with new eyes.”

Students Sara Geller, Susan Herringer, Maeve Hogan, and Alexander Richardson worked tirelessly last spring, searching through the centuries to find how ideal beauty and the rigors of fashion have changed in Europe over the years.

Senior Art History major, Sara Geller reflected on the task, saying that the most challenging parts came from organizing the research. The students focused on thirteen works in the museum in conjunction with the Worcester Historical Museum, and the WAM’s Conservation Department to cover many aspects entailed in the paintings. They also gathered outside sources, including Valorie Steele’s book The Corset: A Cultural History.

The process was daunting, Geller said. “Even putting together the flier [for the exhibit] was a challenge. There was just too much information.”

The students were also the curators at the museum, and gave tours on the night of the opening in appropriate garb. Two of the three wore 1830’s recreations made by Clark affiliates involved with set design on campus, and one student, Maeve Hogan, sported an authentic corseted dress from the early 1900s.

What these students found was that the corset, a unique garment that literally reshaped ideals of beauty, goodness, loyalty, and appropriateness has many reasons and connotations behind it, making it a staple of one’s character, social standing and even nationalism. But who would have thought that the corset would have a direct connection to Worcester?

Director, James Welu suggested the general concept behind the project, but the rest was up to the Clarkies. The students’ task consisted of spitting up the time periods, picking out portraits to use, identifying the different garments in the paintings, and finding out exactly what implications were attached to each detail.

Another important job at hand was to choose the themes they would expand upon. Geller elaborated on their many choices: “Posture and mother-child relations were two very important focuses. We also thought about the amount of wealth they portrayed. It was all about being appropriate with your social status, your gender, your country and dressing to fit these obligations.”

One other topic of consideration was an “ex-rated” view: using x-rays of the paintings to find images under the final works.

When asked to explain the title, Bound By Fashion, Geller explained that it was all about being “…socially bound and obligated in dress – being modest.”         Figuratively, the corset, which was often supported by whale bone, was a constriction on self- and sexual control. Women were made to look as pure, pristine, and pious as possible. Even children were made to wear corsets.

She recalled a quote the team stumbled on in doing their research that summed up the exhibit’s findings: “Beauty is a harmony of parts.” Wealth, age, gender, and nationality were all too important, unspoken parts of fashion.

As she explained, especially in Renaissance-era Europe, one’s nation was held in high regards. At the time, French and Italian cloths were very popular, but with nationalism in full swing, it wasn’t uncommon to be bound by loyalty to your country, its customs, and its materials. Some thought that dressing in foreign fabrics would cause one to adopt bad qualities from that area. If you weren’t dressing to impress whom you were around, you were frowned upon.

It sounds like it was much more difficult to show one’s individuality at the time. Geller agreed, saying, “It was more about dressing for a role. You were more of a doll on display, representing your husband, your wealth, your family, as well as yourself and your modesty.”

Thus, more attention was paid to details; things as minute as jewelry carried very heavy meaning. As the curators explained during their tour through the galleries, when a woman was depicted wearing a certain object, it was for a reason. “Pearls represented purity, and the ruby – being red and intense – symbolized passion. If stones cracked, it was considered a bad omen, emeralds especially. This symbolized lost virginity and chastity.” This conflicting importance of modesty and flamboyant wealth is a recurring theme seen in the exhibit.

What brought all this high class fashion back to dingy little Worcester? Research by the students led them to The Royal Worcester Corset Factory, started by David Hale Fanning. It was originally established in 1861 as a hoop skirt factory, but by 1912, had changed to production of corsets. They became an international supplier, and the corset industry was just as supportive to the Worcester economy as it was to its customers.

Women mainly worked in these factories (90% to be exact), industriously sewing away at what was ironically used in constraining women as far as Cape Town, Stockholm, Shanghai, and Buenos Aires. Worcester’s industry, specifically, once boasted of being the largest corset manufacturer in the world, as well as the largest employer of female workers in the country.

Were women perpetuating this sense of confinement, willingly? After researching the issue, Sara Geller saw things differently. “Women were affecting fashion, and it gave them power. They had the ability to control it.”

Bound By Fashion will remain up in the WAM for the rest of the academic year, along with the labels and brochure written by the students. Held in conjunction with the exhibit will be Worcester Waists, a discussion at the museum hosted by the Conservation Department on Sunday, October 11, at 2:00 p.m. Meet with Preservation Worcester Docent Kelli Blank to hear more about the corset industry in Worcester, from 1860-1940.


About Ashley Klann

Clark masters student. Local reporter. Photographer. View all posts by Ashley Klann

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