Nov. 15, 2013 at 9:08 AM ET
Sarah Chrisman never wanted to wear a corset, but after her husband gave her one for her 29th birthday, she says the old-fashioned undergarment changed her life.
"It was actually a moment of great revelation," the history lover, now 33, told TODAY.com of the experience, which allowed her to finally take advantage of her longtime obsession with Victorian-era attire.
She was inspired by the corset to delve deeper into wearing women's fashions from the Victorian age, and began to dress that way exclusively.
These days, she and her husband, Gabriel, are committed to living as Victorian a life as possible, within modern-day constraints. "We're as immersed as we can be," Chrisman said.
That means she washes herself "with a pitcher and basin every day," hand-sews all of her own clothes (from natural fibers), doesn't drive a car, and uses oil lamps for most of the lighting in their Victorian home in Port Townsend, Wash. When it comes to cooking, Chrisman uses a book of 19th century recipes, and said translating the centuries-old descriptions into modern-day measurements has proved the biggest challenge.
"It's involved a lot of experimentation to see what works and what doesn't," she said.
The couple had always been fascinated by historical clothing and collected it, but while he could wear the vintage items, she couldn't find anything to fit her 21st-century body — all the clothes were tailored to a woman cinched in by a corset.
So, after years of resisting the shapewear over concerns it was unhealthy and uncomfortable, Chrisman was thrilled to find that putting it on wasn't nearly as bad as she'd imagined. "It was tough at first, but it just took some getting used to," she recalled.
As a massage therapist, she says her clients are very understanding and kind about her clothing. Gabriel joins in as often as he can, wearing Victorian clothes to his job at a library and on his days off, but abstaining on the days he works in a bicycle shop across town. They currently use a refrigerator to store their food, but are hoping to switch to an ice box for even more authenticity down the line.
Chrisman says they channel the Victorian era as a way of better understanding history. "The clothing is a really interesting window into everyday people's lives," she said. "It's a different way of looking at the world, and that was their world."
Ironically, she sometimes has to turn to modern technology to be transported to the past. Finding historically accurate light bulb replicas of what people would have used at that time, for example, entails shopping online.
"In the 19th century, it would have been very easy — we could have ordered it all from Sears and Roebuck," she laughs. "The 21st century Sears and Roebuck is the Internet."
In a book released Nov. 1, titled "Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me About the Past, the Present, and Myself," Chrisman offers insight, and explains her choice.
She says she was inspired to write the book after constant questioning about her appearance. "The reactions we get run the full gamut...everything from people who are wonderfully complimentary and kind to the ones that are incredibly vitriolic," she said.
"We've had everything from people stopping me to tell me I'm beautiful, or people stopping me to scream at me that I'm oppressing women. I never expected my underwear to be such a polarizing issue for complete strangers."
But despite the criticism, she says the experience has been incredibly positive, and she hopes other people who hear her story can apply some of the lessons she's learned to their own lives: "It's important to follow one's own interests and one's own dreams, and one should never let strangers dictate one's life," she says.
And for those who think it's just a gimmick, Chrisman says living this way is no experiment: "It's just our life."