The Corset Waist:
A waist is a terrible thing to waste
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A Vancouver corsetière is reviving the lost art of lacing up

By LIANNE GEORGE

Melanie Talkington got her first glimpse of Dolly Parton's outlandish proportions as a child watching The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. That film, she says, sparked her interest in corsetry: the art of designing garments that instantly transform an ordinary woman into a curvaceous femme fatale. Now, at 33, Talkington is building a reputation as one of the world's most skilled creators of Victorian and Edwardian-style corsets made with authentic steel boning. Her store, Lace Embrace Atelier in Vancouver, has attracted fetishists and performers including the burlesque star Dita Von Teese, a.k.a Mrs. Marilyn Manson. But Talkington is also piquing the interest of average women looking to tap into the pin-up-girl aesthetic that's experiencing a popular resurgence.

As a corsetière, she is entirely self-taught. "It's definitely a lost art," says Talkington, who began her career designing wedding dresses. At the time, she says, brides-to-be complained about a dearth of undergarments that would give them the precise shape they wanted for their wedding day. So she decided to experiment with making them herself. In 1996, after a lengthy search, she tracked down her first antique corset in a vintage store, for $65. "It was made of red wool from the 1860s," she says. "It was completely moth-eaten and much too fragile to try on, but it had a whalebone and it was everything I could want in a study piece." (She has since accumulated more than 100 antique corsets on which to base her designs, making hers the largest private collection in Canada.) Soon, she was getting so many requests--particularly from the burgeoning Vancouver burlesque scene--that she dropped her bridal wear business altogether to focus exclusively on corsetry.

In the history of fashion, few items have been more contentious. Corsets were viewed in their early days as symbols of status and beauty. In the 18th century, they were strapped onto young aristocratic women to literally remould their torsos into a classic hourglass shape. With their steel boning and psychotically tight lacing, they sometimes cinched a woman's waist to the point of crushing ribs and damaging internal organs. By the time women collectively abandoned them for more forgiving undergarments in the early 20th century, the notion of wearing them for recreation was probably far-fetched.

But 10 years ago, around the time Talkington opened her business, burlesque shows --in which dancers in colourful costumes perform elaborate striptease dances--began to experience a renaissance in cities across North America. The Pussycat Dolls, a burlesque group formed in Los Angeles, attracted guest performers such as Gwen Stefani and Christina Aguilera, and in 2005 recorded a best-selling pop album. This year, Dita Von Teese published her glossy book Burlesque and the Art of the Teese to much fanfare. And most recently, actress Gretchen Mol has attracted attention for her role as a sexy '50s pin-up in The Notorious Bettie Page.

Talkington attributes the renewed interest to a combination of casualwear fatigue and a desire among women to rediscover femininity "after decades of trying to establish themselves in a male-dominated workplace." Either way, she says, it's meant a boom in sales. "Corsets got a bad rap in the past because women were forced to wear them," she says, "but today, people who decide to wear them are healthy, active people."

Her custom-made silk and leather garments, which start at $400, can sculpt and cinch a woman in an alarming number of ways. "You could create cleavage and do a sharp, nipped waist," she says. "Or you could do a longer, hourglass waist." She recommends that women order their corset four inches smaller than their natural waist size. (There are extreme examples: among her most famous clients is Cathie Jung, a 68-year-old American who holds the record for the world's smallest waist at 15 inches--even on the rare occasions when she removes her corset.)

In some cases, men are buying them for their wives and girlfriends. "They can be very specific about what they want," says Talkington, "the separation of the breasts, the shape of the waist, the colours and number of garters. They have me building all types of things. In fact, they're usually men who are engineers."

But mostly women lead the charge, she says. Many find corsets erotic in a way that pornography isn't. "All that stuff is so in your face," she says. "But it's the stuff you can't see--the provocative art of the tease--that's the kind of thing that's being rediscovered."

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