Toronto Metropolitan University
McKnight_Alanna_M_M.pdf (3.71 MB)

Shaping Toronto: female economy and agency in the corset industry, 1871-1914

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posted on 2021-05-23, 17:48 authored by Alanna M. M. McKnight
In amplifying the contours of the body, the corset is an historical site that fashions femininity even as it constricts women’s bodies. This study sits at the intersection of three histories: of commodity consumption, of labour, and of embodiment and subjectivity, arguing that women were active participants in the making, selling, purchasing and wearing of corsets in Toronto, a city that has largely been ignored in fashion history. Between 1871 and 1914 many women worked in large urban factories, and in small, independent manufacturing shops. Toronto’s corset manufacturers were instrumental in the urbanization of Canadian industry, and created employment in which women earned a wage. The women who bought their wares were consumers making informed purchases, enacting agency in consumption and aesthetics; by choosing the style or size of a corset, female consumers were able to control to varying degrees, the shape of their bodies. As a staple in the wardrobe of most nineteenth-century women, the corset complicates the study of conspicuous consumption, as it was a garment that was not meant to be seen, but created a highly visible shape, blurring the lines between private and public viewing of the female body. Marxist analysis of the commodity fetish informs this study, and by acknowledging the ways in which the corset became a fetishized object itself, both signaling the shapeliness of femininity while in fact augmenting and diminishing female bodies. This study will address critical theory regarding the gaze and subjectivity, fashion, and modernity, exploring the relationship women had with corsets through media and advertising. A material culture analysis of extant corsets helps understand how corsets were constructed in Toronto, how the women of Toronto wore them, and to what extent they actually shaped their bodies. Ultimately, it is the aim of this dissertation to eschew common misconceptions about the practice of corsetry and showcase the hidden manner in which women produced goods, labour, and their own bodies in the nineteenth century, within the Canadian context.





  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Communication and Culture

Granting Institution

Ryerson University

LAC Thesis Type

  • Dissertation