“The corset is probably the most controversial garment in the entire history of fashion”, or so says about the history of corsets renowned fashion historian Vallery Steele in her seminal work on the corset. Poised as a symbol of both female oppression and liberation at varying points over the last century, this torso-shaping, bustier-boosting hard-lingerie piece occupies a grey area of feminism. While the corset may have once been a constraining and homogenising underwear piece, it has more recently been reclaimed as a fashion symbol of liberated female sexuality. As Steele insightfully points out, “the meaning of any item of clothing is not embedded in the clothing itself; it’s something we create and are constantly renegotiating”.
History of corsets: before and after the Victorian Age
Accentuating female physicality and sharpening the gendered body, the corset has been upheld as a symbol of preeminent and patriarchal standards of western femininity since its conception. First popularized by those aristocrats who adorned it in the 1500s (Catherine de’ Medici went so far as to ban thick-waisted women from attending court), the corset or stay, as it was formerly known, has changed shape and social-class over the centuries according to the mode du jour. By the 18th century this stiff bodice was being boasted by the bourgeoise, while by the age of the invention of the industrial sewing machine, corsets were available en masse, donned by scores of working class women. They evolved from V-shaped, to the hour-glass silhouette in the Victorian era, to a longer, more slender cut that covered the thighs by the 1910s. From plaster, to boning, to metal rods and tight-lacing, no manner of methods and materials were exhausted in the corset’s evolution. By the 1890s – the age of lingerie – underwear was becoming increasingly decorative and eroticized, with corsets taking on vibrant colours and embellishments. During world war I, women were actually asked to refrain from corset-purchasing so that metal could be saved for military purposes.
History of corsets: the first wave of feminism
First-wave feminist dress reformists, doctors declaring the health risks of tight-lacing and men claiming corsets to be promiscuous, frivolous and morally repugnant were all anti-corsetry. Women were frequently subject to crude caricatures lampooning their underwear. Even dress reformists viewed tight-lacing as improper, promoting greater movement and comfort in their reforms. And by the 1920s, corsets were indeed falling out of favour, the more androgynous flapper-figure in ascendency. This stiff bodice somewhat disappeared, replaced by brassieres and girdles, but the confines of the standardized female figure did not. The corset was internalised: rather than use clothing to adapt one’s body, women began to adapt their bodies to fit clothing.
“Burn up the corsets!”
Inherent in the history of corsets and corset’s nature is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ ethos; the piece quite literally constraining the wearer to a homogenized female body shape – tiny waist, bountiful breasts, large hips. It contains the space that women occupy, exercising subjection and regulation over their bodies, in an almost-perfect symbol of male-gaze control. And certainly feminists have rebuked the corset: “Burn up the corsets!”, chanted Elizabeth Stuart Phelphs in 1873, in an uncanny premonition of her bra-burning cohorts of the 1960s. Indeed, included in those items tossed into the freedom trash can at the Miss America protests were corsets.
History of corsets: how Vivienne Westwood eventually revolutionised them
Then enter iconic Vivienne Westwood, who gave the corset a revolutionising comeback in the 1980s, her runway creations radically popularising the empowering underwear-as-outerwear look. Her legacy is evident: from Madonna in her striking and weapon-esque conical corset during the 1990 Blond Ambition tour to Caitlyn Jenner, poised subversively and symbolically in a corset on the cover of Vanity Fair in 2015. The corset is clearly no longer a black-and-white symbol of passive and rigid femininity.