The popular image of the archetypical nineteenth century middle class woman is that of consummate homemaker who was denied access to the public sphere. Since the mid-twentieth century, the separate spheres paradigm has underpinned inquiry contending that middle class women were relegated to the domestic sphere. According to the doctrine of separate spheres middle class women were denied access to the economic world of production; however, this reified image has meant that the activities of middle class business women have tended to be overlooked. This thesis adds to the body of work that critiques the notion that nineteenth century middle class women were confined to the domestic sphere by examining some of the women who made corsets in England and Australia during the long nineteenth century.
A number of influential feminist corsetry studies are also informed by the notion of separate spheres. These works focus on the subordination of women, and contend that corsetry was implicated in the maintenance of patriarchal domination. The conflation of corsetry and subordination results in an image of middle class women as submissive and quite literally bound, not only within the home, but by their clothing.
The presence of successful corsetieres in the business world negates this hypothesis that middle class women were confined to the home. Scholarship contending that women were denied access to the economic world of production focuses on structural constraints resulting from patriarchy. This concentration on the restrictions placed on women is problematic as it casts them as victims and denies their agency. I propose practice theory as an alternative conceptual tool for the investigation of middle class nineteenth century women because it allows for the acknowledgement of agency. Rather than concentrating on the structures of society alone, practice theory addresses the articulation of social structures and human action. In particular, Ortner’s (1996) concept of “subaltern practice theory” in which actors play a serious game of life that is pervaded by power and inequality, provides an opportunity to acknowledge the agency of nineteenth century corsetieres.
This anthropological investigation of the lived experience of corsetieres examines the activities of women who appropriated the corset as a means of entering the male dominated world of business. It contests the idea that corsetry signified the subordination of women and highlights what nineteenth century middle class women were able to do rather than what they were not able to do.
I have found that although the corset is often thought to be a quintessentially nineteenth century item of material culture, it actually originated at a much earlier period, and is a multifaceted item with diverse meanings for different individuals. While the corset is obviously a device designed to create a fashionable shape, it was also considered by some corsetieres to be of benefit to women’s health. In fact, a significant number of corsetieres, who availed themselves of popular notions of science, were engaged in the manufacture of “hygienic” corsetry which was intended for bodily support. Some of these women sought to promote themselves as health care professionals rather than simply identifying with the fashion industry.