A cultural look at the corset unveils a controversial history. Since its origin in the 1500s, the garment has undergone a radical metamorphosis, blossoming into a revolutionary element of modern day fashion. Whether as underwear or outerwear, the corset is a masterful tool of transformation, which few designers have had the ability, or proclivity, to resist.
Initially called "payre of bodies" and later "stays," corsets were typically worn with "farthingales," which held skirts out in a stiff cone. The original corset worked to transform the upper torso into a mirror image of the farthingale's cone below. They had shoulder straps and ended in little flaps at the waist, but were very tight and flattened the bosom and pushed up the breasts. These corsets focused on the contrast between the stiff vertical of the bodice, and the curving breasts bursting from its top.
The corset developed out of this rigid form, and by the mid-16th century had become a common undergarment worn by most women. Stiff layers of linen with wooden bones or shafts were slotted into a pocket at the front of the corset's bodice in order to constrict and control the woman's shape, sometimes crushing her ribs and organs in the process. Nevertheless, the corset remained an essential element of dress for the next 400 years, from the Renaissance period into the 20th century.
From its inception, the corset was developed, along with other items such as hosiery and bustles, to augment a woman's physique to better portray the ideal body image. The corset, however, isn't as innocent as some of the other transformative items. Studies have shown that it was linked to significant health risks and detrimental to the woman's overall well-being, causing breathing difficulties, cutting off oxygen to the brain and resulting in that delicate damsel fainting, familiar to us now from Hollywood movies. From Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara to Kiera Knightly as Elizabeth Swan, many of the silver screen's leading ladies have been tightly bound up by corsets only to have a swashbuckling hero release their tightly bound bosom - and allow them a deep breath!
Aside from being physically oppressive, there is another facet of the corset's lasting controversy. There are also some elementary stigmas, stereotypes and general perceptions embodied in the simple structure. As a symbol, it expresses contradictory messages of constriction and freedom, dominance and submission, and weakness and power. However, it is largely viewed as denoting the female's status as the inferior gender.
Books like Bound to Please and Support and Seduction: A History of Corsets and Lifts look at the sexually explicit nature of the garment's history. But in The Corset: A Cultural History, Valerie Steele, chief curator and acting director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology and editor of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, challenges the popular view that corset-wearing women were merely the victims of fashion, and delves into the "complex gender politics surrounding the corset controversies of the past."
She explores the cultural history of the corset not framed in terms of oppression vs. liberation, but rather argues that women's experiences varied considerably and cannot be fully decided within these narrow parameters. She questions the beliefs that the corset was dangerously unhealthy and was designed primarily for the oppression of women.
|Singer, songwriter and poet, Jewel, poses
for the camera in a carefully selected outfit,
for a photo spread called "girls gone wild,"
giving strength to the stigma that the corset
is sexually lascivious (Source: Blender
Other authorities believe that feminism has suffered because of its views on fashion altogether. Feminist theory has often presented the argument that a woman's attempt to promote her appearance makes her a sucker of consumerism, the plaything of men and thus a collaborator in her own oppression. However, while this wisdom may have held ground in past feminist paradigms, more than ever, this stance has always produced a level of dissonance among women, and women alone - essentially, leaving us arguing amongst ourselves about what we wear, instead of embracing each other for our strengths and attributes.
Regardless, the presence of the corset in contemporary wardrobes, in spite of such a dark history, suggests that somehow the image of the corset still finds an echo in our societies, though its meaning has evolved.
During the latter part of the 20th century, designers and icons looking to shock the world regularly revived the corset as outerwear. This was party also to the re-conceptualization of the corset as a symbol of rebellion and female sexual empowerment - followed shortly by its acceptance in high fashion as a method of pushing the proverbial envelop. This change, exposing what should be kept hidden by propitious standards, has continued and has often, in some way, involved the corset. On the one hand, it maintains the lascivious stigma of sexual deviance, and on the other, its undeniable elegance, favoured by Victorian-style dresses, is irresistible.
For instance, in contemporary fashion, the corset is multi-faceted. Incorporated into lingerie and wedding gowns, party dresses and even office-wear, the corset appears everywhere.
In fact, women, more often than not, are wearing the corset as an outer garment. Bustiers are readily available in all shapes and sizes from the Victoria's Secret runway to H&Ms everyday wear collections. In 2009, according to a sales representative of luxury fashion, girdles were up 70 percent at Selfridges in the UK. 
Simply, the corset shows no sign of ever going out of fashion, whether behind the bedroom door, or at the bakery, it continues to be popular with both consumers of fashion, and those designers that create the collections, which inform the trends.
There was a dip in the corset's history at the beginning of the 1900s, when a dropped waist and flapper-style was in vogue. But in the 1930s, fashion brought the waist back into focus, and by the end of the decade soft bodices on evening gowns became part of a Victorian revival. From then on through to the late 1980s, designers would attempt to achieve the same corseted silhouette through innovative cutting, padding and boning, as in the iconic "Bar" suit designed by Dior.
The elegance and grace of a corseted
Then, in the mid 1970s, Vivienne Westwood became the first designer of the 20th century to use the corset in its original form. Her theatrical neo-Victorian look was both elegant and hostile, but definitely set a new trend in motion in the fashion world - her use of the corset re-connected women with a feeling of sexual power and old-Hollywood glamour.
Other designers, including Jean-Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler, would incorporate their own versions of the corset into their designs. The corset became a foundation, an essential from which to launch powerful, startling designs. It became the "object d'art du jour" and was seen more as an expression of power, its former role as an oppressive torture a shadow of the past. Pop icon, Madonna, whose attitude perfectly reflected the era's zeitgeist, took to the corset with fervour on her world tour in the 1990s.
And from there, the corset had nowhere else to go but up. It cut into the fabric of bespoke macabre corsets, goth corsets, it transitioned into chic day-wear, office wear and was everywhere. From Christian Lacroix to Balenciaga, no designer seems able to resist the corset at some point in their career.
"The corset is a beautiful object, with harmonious lines and volumes and it celebrates the beauty of women's bodies. In the 'minute culture' of our societies, dominated by the ephemeral (Lipovetsky, Gilles, L'empire de l'éphémère, Poche, 1991), the corset remains a timeless element of seduction and will continue to inspire future generations of designers."
A modern day fashion essential, the corset has matured, settled and seems perfectly in harmony with itself and the women it clothes. It remains an indelible fantasy; fitting and flattering the female silhouette. So full of paradox, the corset is timeless, but continues in its evolution. From underwear to outerwear from corsets to bustiers, from constriction to power, from lingerie to armour, the corset is here to stay.
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