After a very long time, I’ve finally finished David Kunzle’s Fashion and Fetishism. I’d say it’s pretty much the last word on corset history, though Valerie Steele’s work is a lot shorter.
There’s really only one area of Kunzle’s book I question. In the 19th century, there clearly was a subculture of corset tight-lacers, often lower-class, upwardly-mobile women, and their admirers. But were there families and schools in which women were customarily introduced to tight-lacing in their early teens, as described in the fetishist letters in magazines like Englishwomen’s Domestic Magazine and The Family Doctor? It seems clear to me that most of them were exaggerations or outright fabrications, but were all of them?
Kunzle presents a handful of contemporary accounts that mention fetishist families and schools. For example, here’s a letter postmarked in 1892, written by a woman who would have been about 17 at the time.
…he happened to feel my waist, and said how small it was! Why didn’t I show it more. Then I explained to him that Miss — [her governess] woudn’t let me do so until I came out with a really small waist. I then found that he was really interested and like a very small tightly laced waist. He told me his mother had a beautiful figure and was beginning to do something about his two younger sisters who are 15 and 16 1/2 but that they objected very much to being laced at all tightly.
This particular letter is significant because, unlike most fetishist correspondence, it is a communication directed to one person instead of an audience, and it is referring to a current event, rather than something remembered from years ago. This diminishes the possibility of performing for an audience or time embellishing memory with fantasy.
Based on the evidence like the Munby-Cullwick diaries, the fetishist correspondence, the life of Sacher-Masoch, the case histories in Psychopathia Sexualis and so on, I think it can be reasonably argued there was a European proto-BDSM subculture in the 1870s, if not earlier. Yet again I wish there were more, and more solid, evidence. Kunzle has interviews going back to the 1960s, but even people who were small children at the tail end of the corset era are probably dead by now.
Were there really tight-lacing families and schools, the subject of so many fetishist letters? It’s not that big a part of my thesis, so I think I could just leave it as saying they might have existed as a fringe subculture.