By Diane Urbani de la Paz
Peninsula Daily News
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Author Sarah Alma Chrisman and her business, Gilded Age Massage Experience, can be found on Facebook.
Chrisman will give a reading from "Victorian Secrets" at Eagle Harbor Book Co., 157 Winslow Way, Bainbridge Island, at 7 p.m. Jan. 9.
She and her husband, Gabriel Chrisman, will give a free presentation on Victorian fashions at the Jefferson County Library, 620 Cedar Ave., in Port Hadlock at
6:30 p.m. Jan. 28.
For details, phone the library at 360-385-6544.
Peninsula Daily News
But for Barbara Walters and her cohosts on the ABC-TV talk show “The View,” this Port Townsend woman was a bit of a curiosity.
So much so that in Chrisman's Dec. 6 appearance on the program, Walters reached out to touch her tiny waist — and was promptly brushed away.
Chrisman, who's recently become a celebrity thanks to her book "Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present and Myself," took a red-eye flight to New York City for a taping of “The View.”
From there, the experience grew increasingly surreal.
Chrisman had flown through the night, arrived at JFK Airport at 5 a.m., then slept just a little before being whisked to the ABC studios in Manhattan.
There, Whoopi Goldberg, cohost of “The View,” held the door open for her.
“She was the sweetest person imaginable,” Chrisman said.
Goldberg asked the first question: “How wide is your waist?”
Twenty-two inches, Chrisman replied.
“And you work, you keep house, in this [corset]?” asked Walters.
Yes, answered Chrisman, who is a massage practitioner in Port Townsend.
As many here know, Chrisman's practice is called Gilded Age Massage Experience; she works out of her home mostly, but also gives chair massages at Pippa's Real Tea downtown Thursday afternoons.
She pedals her bicycle around the city in a long skirt, Victorian blouse and corset.
Except she hasn't been able to do that lately, what with the trips to Seattle and New York City to read from and discuss Victorian Secrets.
On “The View,” Chrisman answered the same questions she hears on a daily basis — from people who are fascinated, flabbergasted and sometimes full of venom about her corset.
How can you move in that thing? Does it hurt? Is it suffocating you?
She's heard just about everything from those who were absolutely certain that this garment is restrictive and downright unhealthy.
And so on national television, Chrisman had a golden opportunity to demonstrate otherwise.
As Walters and Goldberg sat, she popped up from the “View” sofa, fairly skipped toward the camera, windmilled her arms to touch her toes and then did full-on jumping jacks.
This wasn't all rehearsed, Chrisman said in an interview last Saturday.
A producer at “The View” did try to feed her answers before she went on camera, but “I was having none of that,” she said.
Nor was Chrisman about to put up with Walters' attempt to touch her waist. During the reign of Queen Victoria — the mid- to late 19th century — the waist was considered the sexy place on a woman.
Since the breasts have taken over, mostly, Chrisman noted, people don't just reach out and touch a woman's bosom.
She said as much to Walters: “If you had a woman with large breasts on [“The View”], you wouldn't grope those.”
“You told me off, and you're right,” said Walters, folding her hands in her lap.
Such is the life of this 33-year-old woman, who earns her living as a massage therapist while pursuing her passion: the Victorian lifestyle.
Chrisman has been sewing since before she could read; today she makes her own old-fashioned apparel, and layers it over the corset she wears every day.
It feels exquisitely suited to her body, Chrisman says, and this way of dressing is a much more interesting way to study Victorian culture.
In recent weeks, Chrisman has told her personal story to The New York Times, an Australian television station, a crowd at Seattle's University Bookstore and media outlets around the world.
Skyhorse, publisher of "Victorian Secrets," has been busy setting up these interviews even as Chrisman arranges local appearances.
She did a reading at Pippa's Real Tea on Nov. 30 to a small but attentive group that included two men.
Strikingly slim figure and straight posture in full view, Chrisman read her prose and smiled brightly enough to light up all of downtown Port Townsend.
Yet Chrisman, at first look, is a study in contradictions.
Her voice and manner are girlish. She is an unabashed lover of Victorian ways; in her book she writes about how couples of that era may well have been closer because they had to help each other dress every morning.
Ask her whether she espouses corsetry for today's woman, though, and Chrisman gives a decidedly feminist reply.
“Everyone has to make their own choices for their own bodies,” she said. Each woman is free to “examine her own desires and what she really wants to do.
“If you do want to give the corset an honest try, make a full thought-out decision about it.”
In "Victorian Secrets," Chrisman recounts how her waist, along with portion sizes at meal time, have reduced. A lot. And the corset, besides trimming her waist size several inches, supports her back.
It makes her sit and stand up straight — and she looked both tall and tiny beside her sofa-mates on “The View.”
"Victorian Secrets," meanwhile, is also a love story.
Chrisman met her husband-to-be, Gabriel, while a student at the Evergreen State College in Olympia. They married in 2002 after Chrisman had returned from studying in France.
They share a keen interest in history and a love of language, evidenced by Gabriel's master's degree in library science and Chrisman's own research into the cultures of the past.
Oh, and she has two degrees: in international studies and French.
“We sort of bumped into each other in the hall” in her dormitory at Evergreen, Chrisman recalled. The next day he walked her to work — 6 miles from campus to the Capital Mall, where she had a job in a card shop.
Gabriel's first job after finishing his master's was at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. And while that came with a lot of prestige, the Chrismans didn't care much for life in the District of Columbia.
Gabriel had grown up on Bainbridge Island while his wife was from Renton; they returned to the Pacific Northwest after a short time in D.C.
While living in Seattle, the couple liked to visit Port Townsend, where they could stroll downtown and uptown, admiring the Victorian buildings. In 2011, they took the leap and moved here.
Both work two jobs: Chrisman as a massage therapist and writer — "Victorian Secrets" started as a handmade book assembled in her home — while Gabriel works at the Jefferson County Library in Port Hadlock and at BI Cycle on Bainbridge Island.
Chrisman doesn't drive. She's never wanted a license bad enough.
Instead, she walks and bicycles around Port Townsend and, when she needs to get to Seattle, she can take the Jefferson and Kitsap Transit buses.
When Gabriel's not working, he can drive her to Seattle or to Sea-Tac International Airport, much like he walked her to work all those years ago.
It was Gabriel who, against Chrisman's express wishes, gave her her first corset. It was a gift for her 29th birthday — one that did not make her particularly happy.
It was made of sturdy cotton, with steel ribs — the same material, Chrisman says, that girls' barrettes are made of.
“I had heard the old wives' tales” about corsets as wretched things, cages that rendered their victims weak to the point of fainting.
So “I was quite surprised at how comfortable it was . . . I did not immediately keel over dead,” Chrisman recalls.
Four years after that birthday gift, she's as ardent a corset advocate as ever.
She sleeps in it, exercises in it and The New York Times ran a photo of Chrisman atop a mountain, resplendent in Victorian dress and hiking boots.
Gabriel, meanwhile, dresses in 19th-century garb these days too.
Like his wife, he's an avid student of Victorian culture. And he would rather like people to know that they're not dressing this way for any reason other than they enjoy it.
“If you have an interest in something, you shouldn't feel constrained to go for it,” Gabriel said. “Try things. Do it your way.”
Pippa Mills, owner of Pippa's Real Tea, is likewise a fan of Chrisman and her choices.
“She combines the best of both worlds,” Mills said.
The closest modern fashion comes to a corset is Spanx, she added. And that undergarment “certainly not as gorgeous” as its Victorian counterpart.
Yet in the wake of the many media appearances, despite seeing "Victorian Secrets" displayed at the front of a Manhattan Barnes & Noble bookstore, Chrisman isn't planning on quitting her massage business.
“Lets be perfectly honest. I know it's a bubble,” she said.
“I would love for my book to be successful. But I'm a realistic person, and I know the old saying about 15 minutes of fame.
“I certainly dream” about success as a writer, “but I'm not hubristic enough to expect it.”
If there's one message Chrisman hopes her readers receive from her book, it's to thine own self be true. Don't try to conform to what other people think you should or should not do, or be, or wear.
So as ironic as it sounds, corseting is a way this woman exercises her freedom to choose. She'll just have to keep explaining that to people — verbally and otherwise.
On “The View” and on the street, “I can talk myself blue in the face,” she said. Sometimes, physical demonstration is called for.
That, Chrisman said, is where the jumping jacks come in.