The corset used to be the piece of clothing wore by many women in various European royal courts (mostly the French one) during the 18th and 19th centuries. Clothe is, by definition, a piece of design that covers the body and therefore, that needs to adapt to it to serve its purpose. The corset, however, imposes an ideal silhouette upon the body that wears it. In this case, it is the body that needs to adapt to it. As I have often stated in the past, it is interesting to consider extreme cases such as the one embodied by the corset to understand something larger about design in general.
First of all, let us not mistaken, the corset, when wore on a regular basis for several years, did modify the body in tremendous extents: muscular atrophy, reduction of the lung and stomach’s operativity, ptosis and prolapse are among these effects. Jean-Jacques Rouseau, in medical journal The Lancet (“On Tight Lacing, ” 1785) described it as a “body press.” It is not surprising that this piece of clothing was designed by men for women, as it allowed a literal modification of the female body into one, idealized by the men. For this matter, it is interesting to observe that the 1789 French revolution made it disappear from society for a while — probably less for ‘feminist’ purposes than for its association to the former nobility — before it came back during the Napoleonian Empire, despite the fact that Napoleon himself called it “the human race assassin.” This last point seems peculiar, just like the fact that many priests have also contributed to fight against it. It can nevertheless be explained by the fact that the corset prevented women from carrying children. Part of its criticism was therefore not so much addressed to the violence that it embodied on the female body, but rather to the impossibility for women to efficiently accomplish their task in society: giving birth to perpetuate the human species. This argument is a quintessential component of biopolitics: the idea that life, as a material value, needs to be organized administratively and normatively regardless of society’s individual aspirations.
The corset could be seen today as a paradigm of a society in which it is no longer an actual material piece of design exercising violence on the body, but the symbol of the capture of the imaginary related to the body: one that presents a clear image of the ideal body — more often the female one but not always — that each body should try to reach despite the thanatopolitics (see past article) that it incarnates, anorexia being its climax. As always the processes of idealization of the body or its behavior, is directly linked to the processes of normative constructions. The notions of ideal and normal, despite their apparent contradiction, are the two aspects of the same process: the one that administrates the “civil peace” of a society, one that favors uniformity to the idea of difference. Architecture as well has an important role to play in this process, and we should simply allow only one difference between a design that surrounds immediately the body (clothing) and one that surrounds it slightly less immediately yet, just as effectively (industrial design and architecture): the only difference is that clothing add to it a dimension of appearance that is directly associated to the body (once again I recommend the reading of Threadbared). I have been writing in the past about this idea of “normatized ideal body” that architecture considers to conceives itself. We should consider the paradigm offered by the corset seriously here: designs that acts on the body and that are conceived with the presupposed idea of what a body is — i.e. what a body should be — will force literally any body subjected to it into this presupposed form. Like any other species, ours is always embedded within processes of evolution. However, when design forces the body to adapt to a conceptualized form, evolution operates in favor of the weakening of the body.
All biological considerations apart, there is also an obvious social violence in how design consider the idea of a given body as a standard. Not only no body actually fits this standard, but for each body there is a graduation in how far from this ideal one body really is. The further it will actually be, the more violent design and social apparatuses will constitute for this body in their struggle to make it adapt to this ideal, like the corset day after day struggle to act as a prop on the female body to (never) reach the material and social ideal imagined by the designer.