Friday, October 06, 2006


Siri Hustvedt

The corset did not live alone, however. In the 1860's, the time during which James set his novel, it was joined by other garments essential to the American bourgeois woman: the hoopskirt and the petticoat padded at the hips. The padding exaggerates the tiny waist created by the corset, and the hoop turns a woman into a kind of walking bell. The hoop's threat is real. You sit, and if you are not careful, it flies up over your head. If you're wearing one, it's a sign that during the day you are never on your knees. It is possible to arrange flowers in a hoop, lift a teacup, read a book, and point out tasks to your servant. The hoop was a sign of class; it's restriction meant luxury. Like the Chinese aristocrat with fingernails a yard long, it tells a story: "I do not work for money."
And I did notice among some of the extras a touch of envy among those of us who swished along in our private balloons. Our movements might have been hampered, but we took up a lot of space, and that space, I realized, was a matter of pride.