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Bound for Glory

"Amazon." Black leather, $400. Model: Jennifer Kristi.

Is wearing a corset an act of liberation?

Writer: Christa Palmer
Photographer: Tala Candra Brandeis
Models: Anna Christine Campbell, Jennifer Kristi, Anne Lemur
Corsets: Dark Garden

'A woman's waist, left to itself, will grow larger and larger every year until it measures nearly or quite so much as the bust!" an 1888 fashion magazine declared. The solution for this allegedly inexorable spread? One variation or another on the corset, also known as stays, bodice, girdle, belt or corselette.

But whatever the particular name the laced contraption went by, the corset has been around for a very long time. The earliest Western records date back to ancient Crete (3000 B.C.E.), where the Minoan women and men (the folks who also gave us the Minotaur and the flush toilet) idealized and trained their bodies with tight belts and corsets to attain an aesthetic ideal. In more recent European history, corsets were more analogous to Chinese foot binding--power objects used by a misogynistic society to subdue, control and oppress women. Popular corset mania reached its height during the Victorian era. The reigning 20th-century corset champ is Ethel Granger, who laced her waist down to a mere 13 inches.

"Eighteenth Century." Bronze-on-black brocade corset based on a pattern from 1780, $300. Model: Anne Lemur.

But in an age where nearly every signifier of female oppression and objectification, from virgin/whore gender roles to go-go dancing, is being reclaimed as being somehow liberating or feminist, the corset's comeback was inevitable. And indeed, there are corset wearers today who don't seek a long-term commitment to diminish their waist size, but rather enjoy a corset's Victorian elegance and nipped-in waist, exaggerated bust and hips.

With the appearance of this season's crop of sheer and transparent lingerie-like clothing, as women are increasingly wearing their undergarments on the outside and baring some serious skin, the corset looks right at home. Advocates say that, like the romantic slip dresses of this season's designers Dolce & Gabbana, Isaac Mizrahi and Gianni Versace, the modern corset displays both a delicacy of design and a keen understanding of the fact that women today can choose where to the draw the line between their own modesty and a garment's transparency or sexual connotations.

"Corselette." Leopard print rayon, $235. Model: Anna Christine Campbell.

A woman's choice to wear a corset, as opposed to being forced into one, is the inspiration for Monique Motil and Autumn Carey-Adamme's Dark Garden, a Victorian-era corset shop on Fulton Street which has produced well over 1,000 custom-made corsets and wedding dresses since 1992. "Everyone wants to wear a corset for a different reason," says Motil, raising her voice over the hum of sewing machines. "There are those who wear them for historical re-enactment, fashion or weddings, and then there are the transvestites and dominatrix-oriented people.

"About 50 percent of our business depends upon our fitted leather lines, an apparent favorite of the gay community," she adds. "Cross-dressers like corsets too, because they use the piece to reshape their physiques. Anyone, male or female, can reduce their normal waist size three to four inches by lacing."

"Corselette." Plaid gabardine, $235. Model: Anna Christine Campbell.

Still, corset wearers need to prepare for breathing shallowly, standing up straight and eating lightly. "Imagine your feet stuffed in shoes for days that are three sizes too small for you," Motil says. "Well, that's what it's like to wear a tight-laced corset that isn't custom-made for your measurements. A corset needs to be custom-fit, because it can be dangerous otherwise. One made specifically for your measurements can be remarkably comfortable."

From functionally traditional to blatantly fetishistic, Dark Garden's custom corsets are sewn together from leather, silk, brocade and satin. All corsets are fully lined with spring-steel bones and closed with sturdy two-piece grommets. "We guarantee that the quality of the product will stand the test of time," says Carey-Adamme. "Even for some of the weird requests we get, like this one man who looks like Santa Claus, big beard and all. He wanted a black leather corset that went up to his neck and into a hood over his head with two holes cut out for the nose. He later ordered thigh corsets. He mentioned that he likes the feeling of constriction."

"UnderBust Edwardian." Green iridescent taffeta, $250.00. Model: Jennifer Kristi.

The image of Santa in bondage gear might strike some as more comic than sexy, but many full-time corset wearers find an undeniable eroticism in lacing themselves every day to train their waists (or other body parts) from Roseanne down to Kate Moss proportions. And it's Motil and Carey-Adamme's unjudging acceptance of an individual's unique needs that makes them such successful businesswomen. Without questioning anyone's fetishes or motives, they allow each customer to choose or create a corset that best suits the wearer's needs, whatever those may be.

"We work with the imagination to create the extraordinary," Motil says. "People have a choice today. And we don't have to conform to what's forced upon us, as men, and specifically women, had to so many years ago."

To receive Dark Garden's new color catalog, send $10 to 2215 Market St., Box 242B, SF, 94114. Retail location: 321 Linden St. Call for appointment, 567-6265. Another made-to-measure corset retailer is Romantasy, 199 Moulton St., SF, 673-3137.

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From the June 1997 issue of the Metropolitan

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