- Le Corset: A Material Culture Analysis of a Deluxe French Book
When I was a student in Jules Prown’s course on the interpretation of objects, I had occasion to analyze various nineteenth-century garments, including several corsets. I am deeply indebted to Jules for introducing me to research in material culture, which has continued to be an essential part of my work on fashion history. For this essay, however, rather than examining an article of clothing, I have decided to look closely at another type of artifact: a book in the collection of Sterling Library at Yale University.
Usually a book is interesting primarily as a textual source, but as Jules has taught us, a great deal of significant information can also be conveyed non-verbally, by objects as objects. Published in 1933, Le Corset dans l’art et les moeurs du XIIIe au XXe siècle was written by Fernand Libron, president of the Chambre Syndicale des Fabricants de Corsets en gros de Paris, and Henri Clouzot, conservateur of the Musée Galliera, better known today as the Musée de la Mode et du Costume. Clouzot wrote other studies of fashion history; but to the best of my knowledge this is Libron’s only book. Note that Le Corset was published in 1933, some years after the heyday of corsetry, which, with hindsight, we identify as the nineteenth century. This would not have been so obvious at the time, however, since the term “corset” was then still applied to garments which we would now tend to refer to as elasticized “girdles.” Le Corset is, unsurprisingly, a pro-corset text and a nostalgic history of corsetry. Despite this intrinsic bias, it is overall a reliable source of historical information about corsetry.
Le Corset was published in a limited and numbered edition, and has accurately been described as a “very expensive and magnificent work.” 1 It covers the history of corsetry from the thirteenth century through the early 1930s, and contains 85 plates, some in color; there are also a number of line illustrations. More precisely, the book consists of 179 pages, plus six introductory pages, plus 85 plates that are on unnumbered pages. Each page of the large-format volume measures 28.5 * 39 cm.
A bibliophile, or a rare book dealer, would note that this publication, like many other deluxe French volumes, was published simultaneously in several versions: 25 copies on Holland paper by Van Gelder & Sons, with extra [hors-texte] illustrations, these copies numbered 1–25; 775 copies on French vellum [vélin d’Arches], numbered 26–800; an additional 80 copies on the same paper, but not for sale, numbered in Roman numerals; and five copies on handmade Japanese paper, signed rather than numbered. Clearly this book was an instant collector’s item...