Living Victorian in Port Townsend: Sarah Chrisman's corset gains international attention

By Megan Claflin of the Leader
Posted 12/23/13

It was her first time in a limousine. A surreal experience, said Sarah Chrisman, of Port Townsend, and one that did not become tangible until she stepped out in front of the ABC Studios in New York …

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Living Victorian in Port Townsend: Sarah Chrisman's corset gains international attention

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It was her first time in a limousine. A surreal experience, said Sarah Chrisman, of Port Townsend, and one that did not become tangible until she stepped out in front of the ABC Studios in New York City.

Dressed in the Victorian style that is now gaining her international notoriety, she walked through the doors and onto the set of The View, a popular, morning television talk show.

"That was the moment it finally sank in, that this was real and it was really happening to me," said Chrisman, 33.

On Dec. 4, Barbara Walters, Whoopi Goldberg, Jenny McCarthy and Sherri Shepherd interviewed Chrisman about living as a Victorian woman in the modern day and the release of her book Victorian Secrets: What a corset taught me about the past, the present, and myself.

She completed the book in 2012 and has been selling hand-bound copies since the spring, but it wasn't until Chrisman joined forces with Skyhorse Publishing, Inc., that her life and writing began to gain attention outside Jefferson County.

"I was never expecting any of this, it's been truly gratifying," she said of her recent success.

Now available in most bookstores and online retailers, Chrisman has been contacted by media outlets and fans from as far away as Italy. There are even talks of a reality television show starring husband Gabriel and herself, she said, but the proposal is still on the drawing board.

Despite the attention, Chrisman remains grounded. She maintains her massage practice in Port Townsend; she and Gabriel are slowly restoring their 1888 Victorian in Uptown; and she still sews the majority of her garments.

And, back in New York, when she looked up to see Whoopi Goldberg holding the door for her, she simply smiled, thanked her, and walked past. "I always try to interact with people as people, so despite the impulse to stop and stare and say, 'Wow, you are Whoopi Goldberg!', it was important to me to treat her as a person and not a celebrity."

True to form, Chrisman wasn't afraid to playfully slap away Walters' hands as the talk show host reached out to apparently handle her 22-inch waist.

"She totally deserved it," Chrisman said, smiling. "I'd admire the Mona Lisa but I'm sure I'd get in trouble too if I was to start fondling it."

'Ugly duck'

Victorian Secrets begins on March 12, 2009, Chrisman's 29th birthday and the day that her husband presented her with her first corset. (The two married in 2002.) At first, she admits, she wasn't pleased with the "unwelcome" gift.

"In the beginning, I believed many of the stereotypes surrounding corsets and didn't have any interest in wearing one," she said.

A year later, Chrisman was wearing a corset every day (even while sleeping). She says it has transformed her waist from 32 inches to 22 inches, improved her posture and her balance, helped her to improve her diet (eating smaller, more thoughtful meals), and built her self-confidence, results that are all chronicled in her book.

"I feel like the ugly duckling waking up and seeing his beautiful feathers," she said.

Home and hearth

Rare is the trip to the store or about town when Chrisman isn't approached and questioned about her attire. "After a certain point there is a certain lack of pragmatism when answering the same questions over and over," she said.

But sharing information and dispelling myths regarding the corset, and the greater Victorian era for that matter, is a cause close to the Chrismans' hearts. They both continue to research their particular areas of interest and regularly host educational presentations on topics such as the corset, or in Gabriel's case, Victorian-era bicycles.

"Gabriel is my gadfly and I'm his gadfly," she said. "We love to converse over topics that interest us; it's a big part of our relationship."

So, when transforming her daily journals into the novel, Chrisman also made a point to "flip preconceptions on their head" and have an honest conversation about the good and the bad of the 19th century.

"So many of the books I've read have presented Victorian life as good or bad," she said. "But it's not black and white. There are a lot of 19th century stuff that is really earnest and there are a lot of modern aspects of life that are not as convenient as people like to think."

At home, the Chrismans are steadfastly reverting to a simpler lifestyle. Retrofitting their home with oil lamps and heaters, utilizing an icebox, hand-washing clothing, and dressing each day in their traditional attire gives the couple a sense of fulfillment, Sarah said.

"Our home is a work in progress. But the changes we've made have already made such enhancements. The greatest aspects of many of the Victorian additions is that they allow us to maximize the efficiency of the resources being utilized."

A person, not a persona

While the presentations and Victorian Secrets have offered audiences a different perspective on an uncommon lifestyle, the author said criticism is still common. Sentiments of anti-feminism are tiring, she said, and perpetually being told by strangers how to live her life can be frustrating.

"I do get sick of the negativity. Often I'll try to walk away, or if I can't, I'll address them in as concise a manner as possible," she said. "But I am not going to change who I am for anyone. Believe it or not, my underwear has nothing to do with you."

She added, "Something I've come to realize: The people who come up to me and start screaming, the people who try to grope me, the people who have a positive reaction, they're not really interacting with me; they are interacting with the preconceived notions of what they think I represent."

To learn more about the Chrismans, Sarah's book and her upcoming appearances, visit chrismancollection.weebly.com.

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