Magda Matwiejew’s animation ‘Wasp Waist’ portrays a continued fascination in historical representations of female beauty and narrative journey.
The onlooker is introduced to a female protagonist from behind dressing herself in a pure white tight-laced corset, which becomes increasingly constricted. The corset acts as the central point of departure in this work investigating the human urge to decorate and renovate the body in order to become more attractive and appealing. Throughout the 19th century many women aspired for a perfect hourglass figure and were able to achieve this through the convention of the corset. The corset, an undergarment made from stiffened material with lacing and boning, extended beyond the chest to the lungs allowing support for the spine and stomach, binding and shaping the figure to cultivate an extremely small waist. The corset was initially heralded for its benefits in improvement of posture and ability to accentuate a women’s bust and hips. The corset assisted in transforming women into exotic objects of desire.
‘Wasp Waist’ makes comment on social and cultural modes of fashion and explores motivations and ideals of beauty, body image and self-idolatry. The film’s rich and beautiful imagery depicts women adorned with ribbons, lace and jewellery dressed in luxurious red, pink and purple dresses and costume posing nude and participating in decadent and indulgent activities while fanning and examining themselves in mirrors. In one scene a plume of peacock feather - the symbol of vanity - floats into view.
Matwiejew’s skilled use of researched source material in the form of historical diagrams, drawings and photographs of corsets is utilised. Imagery is overlayed and blended with documentation of a life model emulating poses from and placed into historically significant late 19th century paintings. The lead female character finds herself gliding from an art museum salon hang of masterpieces to postulating in a grand ballroom. The dexterity and organic beauty located in this dense multi-layered moving pastiche is expertly drawn together, conveying an air of seamlessness.
Female figures become likened to mannequins, rotating, gazed upon and objectified. Their bodies reduced to the profile and silhouette of a wasp waist, or in French, ‘Taille de guêpe’. The wasp waist refers to the natural-width rib cage being reduced to an exceedingly small waist with the hips curving out below. The sharply cinched exaggerated waistline took its name from its similarity to a wasps segmented body. Ancient European lore recognises the wasp as playing a major role in pollination and the continuation of certain plants and flowers, and thus these encased and bound women become likened and confined to the role in reproduction; as fertile vessels.
The classical music of the violin and piano in this film evokes a melancholy nuanced sadness. A French poem seductively read aloud speaks negatively about the corset as an accompaniment to the soundtrack with selected English translations visually interposed: ‘Bodies confined…poisoned and shackled…prisoners…sacrificed women for their beauty..’
The perversity and pain of body disfiguration is investigated beyond the façade of elegance and allure. The prolonged use of the extreme body shaping force of corsetry had injurious effects on women’s health. Through the lengthening and tightening of the torso it became impossible to draw deep breath creating respiratory ailments. Women wearing a corset became incapacitated and often fainted. Back ache was common as abdominal muscles became weak and unable to support the spine without the support of the corset. Damage and strain to internal organs and ribs was also common. Connections with historical attempts to alter the body can be drawn from foot binding in China which was considered highly erotic for men to the employment of neck rings to create an elongated neck in African and Asian countries. Modern day body modifications such as plastic surgery and cosmetic medical procedures to amplify and accentuate or reduce certain areas of the body such as breast augmentation, or liposuction also hold parallels to the motivations behind the use of the corset. Connotations to bondage, fetish and sadomasochistic culture are also evident.
Seemingly encased and controlled by the corset the movements of the protagonist become more robotic and mechanical as a new bridge of piano music is introduced. A floating transformation from human to wasp signifies an escape from the confines of the corset, and the expectations of female presentation. The reality of the debilitating consequences of wearing the corset is re-iterated as the stunningly beautiful central figure sitting on a chaise lounge is emptied of her internal damaged organs. A high price for beauty and perfection is paid.
The audience is left with the final frame after the film’s credits: A black and white photograph documenting a women’s tiny wasp waist profile from behind bound in a corset. This disturbingly real image resonates with the viewer and forces us to question our own social and cultural values.
© Rachael Watts, April 2012
Wasp Waist is an animated film about women of the late 19th century who practiced tight lacing by wearing corsets to attain an unnaturally small waist.
This small waist was likened to that of wasps segmented body.
The ideal of feminine beauty was to have a tiny waist of 16 to 15 inches. Hips were enhanced with bustle’s and breasts with padding . Thus creating ideals of sadomasochism, sexuality, frailty and even death celebrated by Victorian art, music and literature.
This practice called “tight lacing” started at puberty . The tightness was increased over time to achieve the desired body shape of a “Finished figure” . These corsets were fitted in early childhood and worn until death.
This eventually resulted in medical problems such as, cracked and deformed ribs, weakened abdominal muscles, deformed and dislocated internal organs and respiratory dysfunction. The disfigurement and displacement of the reproductive organs, increased miscarriage and maternal death. Lower back injuries were a constant source of misery, the muscles of the back and stomach atrophying making it impossible to go without the corset.
The rib cage being flexible made the “wasp waist” possible. To achieve this hour glass shape lower sections of the rib cage were pushed inward by the corset, with ribs sometimes overlapping each other. The internal organs being softer could be further constrained. Lungs were crushed restricting lung capacity with women fainting on much needed fainting couches. Debilitation no les than asthma and emphysema. Smelling salts were needed with any excitement. The stomach squeezed so small that little food could be accommodated resulting in heartburn and indigestion.
The price for beauty and perfection was high, body modification with all its potential dangers were endured.