Theorizing the body: Understanding Practice.

The body is shaped and molded, directly and indirectly, by aspects of the environment and culture it inhabits. 1c9cc5f2f9550e43b6eabff2c3f27706Corset are a prime example of this cultural effect on the body. First making an appearance in the 16th century, corsets were highly popular up until WW1; When corset, which had been made using steel bones since the 1860s, declined as women took to brassieres and girdles which used less steel in their constructions.
Worn in order to decrease the waist and emphasise the chest and posture of the wearer, corsets were, by nature, extremely constricting; the tighter and smaller the waist of the corset, the more attractive and fashionable it was deemed to be. Due to this, prolonged use of corsetry cause a alarmingly drastic change within the body. This disfiguration of organ-repositioningthe body, while culturally an attractive fashion, had adverse effects on the female body. For about as long as they have been worn, their use has been discouraged by doctors citing drastic risk to the wearer’s health; though their claims were often based on the limited medical knowledge of the day, and incorrect assumptions about the female body.
These self imposed restriction on the body effect both movement and posture quite drastically. Owning a few modern corsets myself, I can say from experience, that when wearing a corsets you are made to sit and stand with a very straight back, as the steel bones support your back in such a rigid way. In addition breathing and eating are also effected, both are restricted when wearing the corset; as the corset puts pressure on both your lower lungs and stomach, meaning that you must breath more shallowly and eat less (illustrating how corsets were a popular diet aid in the victorian era, as you simply cannot eat a great deal when wearing one). The most telling side effect of wearing a corset, however, is how after prolonged use, the corset makes your ribs ache and strains your stomach and back muscles. This is, of course, why they’re not advised for prolonged wear; much like a modern binder, any tight constraint on the chest and ribs is detrimental to one’s health.
When relating this kind of body modification to artist practice, I considered what it might feel like to do my own illustrative work while wearing one of my own corsets; how the change in posture and movement would alter my usual slumped posture when drawing. I concluded that without a proper slanted drawing desk, it would be far to uncomfortable to sit for so long when bent so oddly at the waist. This is mostly due to the simple fact that it is far more comfortable to stand when wearing a corset than to sit, as standing lessens  and distributes the pressure placed upon the torso. This is perhaps something that I will try at some point just to truly explore the physical effect upon my work, but for now the mere thought of how uncomfortable it would be is too off putting.
However, as a simple thought experiment, I feel it is safe to assume that the wearing of a corset would cause a huge amount of discomfort and limited movement when drawing. The constant constriction upon breathing and the forced posture would hugely distract from the mental processes of creativity; it would be hugely difficult to allow your mind to wonder and become enwrapped within the activity when you are in such discomfort. In addition you would be forced to compensate for a lack of movement in the torso and, to some extent, the upper arms (though this of course subject to style; under bust or full corset).
When considering this scenario, it of course has to be taken into account that practising female artists of the 16th century would of had to do their work in such garments. For example, Sofonisba Anguissola, an italian Renaissance painter born in Cermona, whose apprenticeship with local painters set a precedent for women to be accepted as students of art. In this self sofonisba_anguissola_a.jpgportrait, showing herself at work painting, she is shown to be wearing a full corset; as is obvious, due to her posture and full dress. Whether or not this is based on the actual attire she would have typically painted in or if this was done simply for vanity and convention, is unclear. But it could be construed, from this painting, that women did in fact wear corsets when painting. As it obvious that Sofonisba would not have been the only female artist to do this, it would then be interesting to consider, how this might have altered their practice and affected their technique, in a way that would not have affected the male painters of the time.




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