Gender fluidity in high fashion is nothing new, although it’s been particularly prominent in recent collections. But as the avant-garde filters down into the culture — and street-level culture creeps up — the old binaries have eroded in ways not seen in Western culture for decades or centuries. This year, during Pride month, I saw more male-bodied people wearing corsets than ever before. Be it at explicitly fetish-oriented events or as part of a trashy-fabulous genderfuck ensemble at clubs, cinched waists — sometimes with chest hair poking out the top — are no longer a rarity.
Figuring there’s no better place to ask than at Dark Garden, Hayes Valley’s 28-year-old boutique for corsetry, Edwardian wear, and other forms of “uncommon beauty,” I went for a fitting with Marianne, who laced me up in two “tailored cinchers,” the shop’s line for people assigned male at birth.
“Corsets were originally designed for men, and you have multiple historic referents that converged and split off to become the corset as we know it today,” she said. “But functionally, it was something that men wore under their dress uniforms and for horseback riding, and it really emphasized that shoulder V.”
Apart from any aesthetic considerations — and my hourglass waist looked nothing if not striking, if only because it’s usually a spare tire — there are the advantages of better posture (which you experience immediately upon the tightening of the third or fourth lace). It also made my shoulders look very broad.
“You look like you should be posing for your portrait with a sword and a horse,” Marianne said, noting that corsetry helps train the muscles to do what they should, hopefully mitigating some of the damage from years of slouching as your eyes flicker from screen to screen.
Dark Garden has a sizeable trans and non-binary customer base, but the “strong majority” of the clients are women. With men, Marianne says the ones who “carry a lot of toxic masculinity and are easily threatened just don’t make it into the shop,” so she can usually convince about half of the men who come in with their girlfriends to try one on.
“It’s this amazing, transformative experience,” she says. “It really grounds you in your body. We think we’re living this life of the mind, just floating around like brains in space, and a corset really pulls you back into your sense of self, and gives you this confidence.
It’s not just because you might be more conventionally attractive, either.
“Suddenly, your posture is better, and that does all these things in your brain,” Marianne says, “Everything is happier in your body when your posture is good, so even aside from the lovely effect of this lovely nipped-in waist, you can get all these other benefits. We have a lot of medical clients who are men. They might have scoliosis or diastasis recti, or maybe they just work a construction job and they really like having that support on their back.
“Definitely, the fetish clients are a little more adventurous in what style they go for or what kind of waist reduction they want,” she adds. “It’s interesting in that, for someone with an assigned-male-at-birth body, if you don’t have a uterus up in there, you can compress more. The natural shape might not be as hourglass-y, but we tend to put them in a smaller back than we would for an AFAB body that comes in.”
That would be “AFAB” as in “assigned female at birth.” Irrespective of gender, there are misconceptions about what corsets can or can’t do for all the various types of human bodies out there.
“People also come in with a lot of assumptions, like, ‘Oh, I’m really small, there’s nothing to put in a corset, there’s nothing to squish,’ or ‘I’m really big so there’s not going to be a corset that fits me,’ ” Marianne says, observing that Dark Garden owner Autumn Adamme has 28 years of experience — and she herself has nine — so between styles and tailoring, there’s something for virtually everybody up the size run.
Although I could only inhale about three-quarters of the way, I felt like I could wear the cincher for the rest of the day — but then again, I was on my bike. Marianne respectfully disagreed with that assessment, too.
“Actually, in Victorian times, there was a slightly different cut that was worn for horseback-riding and it was pointed,” she said. “So if we get someone who comes in and rides a bike a lot, we’re going to go more for that riding corset. It’s still got the length to give you support in your your stomach and diaphragm — but it’s going to be cut on the hips a little bit lower, so you have a little bit more mobility.”
In other words, any objection that contemporary urban males might have about going about their day upright and with good posture had already been answered more than a hundred years ago.