Enthusiasts, Fetishists: Perceptions of Corsetry

Musings on perceptions of corsetry, as the Folsom Street Fair is upon us...

One of the perks of working at Dark Garden (there are many) is the library in our break room. Recently, I availed myself to Valerie Steele's "Fetish: Fashion, Sex & Power," a circa 1996 tome on the intersection of – you guessed it – fashion and fetish. Just a few pages in, this excerpt caught my attention:

After the publication of Fashion and Eroticism, in which I described certain nineteenth-century figures as corset and tight-lacing “fetishists,” one man wrote to me to say, “We prefer to be called enthusiasts.” This term, however, is rather vague, and euphemisms cannot gloss over the fact that the entire subject is controversial. Other enthusiasts, moreover, proudly use the term fetishist, which has the advantage of immediate recognition value. Nevertheless, words such as fetishism need to be placed within mental quotation marks, since this medicalizing language inevitably carries more or less pejorative connotations. As a friend of mine put it, “I can’t accept ‘fetishism’ because I would risk being called a fetishist myself – and I hate the imputation . . . of sexual perversity.”
— Valerie Steele, Fetish: Fashion, Sex & Power
 Dark Garden corset featured in a 1999 Detour magazine editorial.

Dark Garden corset featured in a 1999 Detour magazine editorial.

What interests me here is the dichotomy. The letter writer eschews the word "fetishist" because of the associated stigma. Others instead enjoy the term for the same reason – flying their freak flag high and proud. I can see both points. BDSM and lingerie are pretty common on the fetish spectrum, though the degree of interest can vary widely! So essentially, both interests are pretty normal, if such a thing as normal even exists. On the other hand, naturally there's an entire fetish community and subculture. Using the word fetishist is inclusive as well as exclusive.

 Corset: Pop Antique "Bombshell." Model: Victoria Dagger. Photo © Sam Guss.

Corset: Pop Antique "Bombshell." Model: Victoria Dagger. Photo © Sam Guss.

Of course, not all corset wearers are fetishists! Some really are simple "enthusiasts." The fetishistic/sexual element is not even a factor in their decision to wear or collect corsets. Like most articles of fetish clothing, corsets also exist outside of that context, both currently and historically. This is especially true with corsets increasing in popularity over the past several years. As corsets become... well, not commonplace! ...but less rare, the array of styles in which they're made widens.

 Corset: Pop Antique "Shirtwaist Corset." Model: Victoria Dagger. Photo © Alyx Ryan.

Corset: Pop Antique "Shirtwaist Corset." Model: Victoria Dagger. Photo © Alyx Ryan.

How do you identify as a corset wearer? Enthusiast, waist trainer, fetishist, maker, hobbyist, tightlacer...? What connotations does the word fetish have to you?