The muscles reveal (corsetry/anatomy parallels)

Studying equine anatomy and biomechanics again, specifically around the notion that as time goes on the musculature of a ridden horse reflects the correctness of the work/care it receives. A couple of quotes from the super-interesting Manolo Mendez will illustrate nicely. 

“To the eye that takes the time to see it, the body of the horse tells the story of its entire training.”  


“[…] we must recognise that [the horse’s] body is like clay, it looks in the end exactly as the potter shaped it.”  

For the sake of my readers, and just because this is how my head works, I thought, “I wonder if you could use these concepts to describe hand-made corsety too?”  

You sort of can. There aren’t muscles to develop, but there are fibres to be put under strain, to ease out, to create tension or to gently support. And your handling of all other corsetmaking aspects largely determines whether those fibres can do their required job as needed. There is a sliding scale here (at least one), since the “required job” is different from maker to maker, as are the materials chosen. For sure there are probably some materials that I would never consider appropriate for corsetry, but that is because of the type of corsetry I make. Other makers might look at my work and think the material choices inappropriate because they have a different concept of what corsetry should be. Likewise, working animals have different jobs to do and different demands put upon them. They need to be strong enough to do the work with longevity. For sure, an endurance rider does not want a henched-up Lipizzaner to ride… 

At any rate, it’s all about appropriateness, I suppose. And the analogy still shows us something, that the corset (its stitches, its tensions, its softnesses) reveals how well it was made, just as the animal’s musculature reveals the quality of its handling. 

The second quote is a lovely one and in particular I like it for the fact that it says the outcome will be as the potter “shaped” it, not as the potter “intended” it.  

For better or worse, people will leave their mark through their interactions with the world. I can have the best ideas, but if I use a cheap thread that snaps every two seconds it doesn’t matter. The endless scars from re-done lines of stitching will reveal the mistake. And a mistake isn’t a bad thing. An imperfection isn’t a bad thing… But you should use it to inform your future choices. There should be fewer and fewer instances of scars as your understanding and skill develops. What you do matters more than what you intend, in terms of the overall outcome.

I’ve written about this before… the things you focus on, the things you let slide. The small choices you make which accumulate and become your aesthetic. That picture becomes internalised. As your aesthetic develops, you know what pleases you when you see it. As your understanding grows, you can explain why it pleases you and what you’re looking for. For a corsetmaker, this might be that if the ribcage were a 1cm smoother on the side the silhouette would suddenly “sing”. For someone like Manolo Mendez, it might be a certain quality of muscle tone that, through what it represents, seems to shimmer with harmony and beauty. The rest of us perhaps can’t see it, don’t know what to look for, or aren’t aware that anything was different. But often it’s those imperceptible differences that matter the most, your audience just doesn’t necessarily realise it. So then, when you do have an audience that has educated their eye it’s a real treat. 

Your eye becomes more developed the more you look, experience, study, and do.

Now I couldn’t personally weight those methods of developing the eye with any sort of hierarchy as I think it would be different for each individual. But I would say to the blossoming corsetmakers and people tentatively considering giving it a go… don’t underestimate the importance of just looking. It’s not only the least expensive way of learning(!), it’s also truly valuable. Look for harmony. A design might be exciting or jarring, in its own way, but for most functional corsetry design you want an underlying harmony. Is the item comfortable to look at? Is it pleasing? Does it draw you in? Could you carry on looking at it for hours? As your eye develops your tastes will change, but this is a great starting point.  

To circle back, I’m sure I’ve seen it said that the most baroque expressions of horsemanship (the Spanish Riding School, for example) have animals who, through their idiosyncrasies or physique, reveal the identity of their rider/trainer. Hand-made items like corsets obviously do this too. In possibly irreducible ways, the corset reveals how it was cut, held, and worked. The more freely the initial pattern was made the more true this is, as with bespoke cut suits on Saville Row, deftly drawn directly straight onto fabric and relying on the “rock of eye” the cutter has developed over years of work. 

With all these conceptual parallels, I’m beginning to see why it is that structural anatomy is the aspect of the equestrian world which has most grabbed me since returning to horses. It also explains why structural items like corsets hold more interest for me than “regular” clothes. I’ve a natural inclination to use my eyes (and hands) to figure out how a thing was made. My brother (a carpenter/builder) is the same I think.

I always say, “structure and surface embellishment” are the cornerstones of good work. But it could be shortened to simply “structure and surface”, since the embellishment part is just my particular quirk. My brother cares about quality work in quality materials, whether that be timber, slate or something else. The surface is simple, but it’s an unavoidable result of the structure and relies upon it. For myself, the structure is a framework for the surface, which itself is a site for (though I sometimes find the concept problematic in a broader way) individualism. I think we both enjoy truth to materials, it’s just that perhaps my materials are sillier and so their truth is rather ornate and frivolous! Lastly, I suppose for the horse people I admire most, beautiful functional structure equates to health and harmony, which is expressed at the surface in a lovely coat, skin, eyes, etc. If you know what you’re looking for, the structure of a corset reveals what you need to know about quality. The details of a wooden joint and the muscles of a trained horse, likewise. 

John has just come through the stern so I asked his thoughts on the topic. Sadly, after a day of inspiring young minds (he teaches on the weekend), his response was a blank expression and a shrug of the shoulders. Ah well, maybe later.  

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