They were a staple garment of the Victorian upper classes, and seen by some as a symbol of an oppressive desire to control and stifle the female form to suit the male gaze. But well over a century later, corsets are making a comeback, suiting the spirit of a very different age.
Reclaimed most notably by high fashion’s feminist designer Miuccia Prada, as part of her AW16 collection last year, corsets have become the biggest look in the street-style universe this season. Punk, of course, got here first in the 1970s, with its overtly sexual – and anti-establishment – take, as Vivienne Westwood famously brought corsets to the runway. And when Madonna wore a Jean-Paul Gaultier conical-busted corset on her 1990 Blond Ambition tour, she was making a case for it as a symbol of female sexual empowerment.
What feels new and potentially feminist about some of the current corset variations is their lack of adherence to traditional ideals of the female form, to “sexiness”, or any notion of what the so-called male gaze might usually choose to linger on.
Kim Kardashian was an early adopter: she was most recently spotted wearing a corset teamed with tracksuit bottoms and a puffer jacket. Now they have reached the high street, too – stocked from Asos to Mango, Zara, Finery and Topshop. And they are big business. Sian Ryan, head of design at Asos, says sales have been “amazing” since the end of last year, with the corset belt proving particularly popular.
It may seem an unlikely trend, especially given the current spotlight on feminism, both on and off the catwalk, but this last bastion of fashion is undergoing a very modern retelling. Designers aren’t doing the whole whale-boned thing, but corset belts, T-shirts with corsets overlaid, shirts with corset lacing, or those awful 1990s corset bags we thought were long gone, are very much in. Garments such as Kitri’s lace-up-sleeve shirts are playing with the look, if not the cinching. And today sees the release of Rihanna’s Fenty x Puma collection, complete with pink trousers with laced-up slits down the side, another nod to the corsetry aesthetic.
But can the garment ever fully shake off its patriarchal trappings? It seems unlikely. However, as with the reclamation of pink by modern feminism, might it be possible for the symbolism of the corset to be subverted and given a more feminist-friendly narrative?
Valerie Steele, a fashion historian and author of The Corset: A Cultural History, thinks it can: “The meaning of any item of clothing is not embedded in the clothing itself; it’s something we create and are constantly renegotiating.”
But for the corset to come to represent something other than fainting Victorians will take a powerful rebranding. Kardashian-esque waist-training to one side, the rigid, rib-crunching undergarment of the 18th and 19th centuries has given way to softer fabrics and looser fits. Natasha Goldenberg, one of the street-style stars summoned for inspiration, likes to wear hers “on a sweater, on top of a fitted coat” or over a dress.
Another, Sofie Valkiers, wears hers over black leather or a gingham dress, or pairs it “with a simple turtleneck and cropped trousers”. Valkiers says what first attracted her to the corset was a very modern preoccupation. “The trend is perfect for adding a sophisticated touch to oversized clothes.”
Corsets fit, loosely, with the shape that has dominated the catwalks this season – a sort of softened hourglass, where waists can be fitted but are certainly not cinched. At the Prada AW16 show that jump-started fashion’s current fascination, fabric corset belts were worn over chunky overcoats, or wonky and loosely laced adorning oversized shirts.
Madonna’s version was a distant cousin of the garment designed “to be respectable or look upper class”, says Steele. “It was seen as a kind of defiant wearing of taboo clothes … It was sort of saying fuck you, I’m a sexual being.”
Of course, one person’s two fingers up to the patriarchy is another’s “pandering to male sexual fantasies”. But underwear as outerwear caught on and grew to be something as likely to be seen in your local shopping centre as on stage.
Some of this season’s street-style stars are keenly aware of the corset’s “sexy” side. There is, says Goldenberg, “nothing sexier”. And yet it was Prada’s almost anti-sexy version that inspired her to wear it. “When Miuccia Prada showed us how to wear the sexiest thing in all of fashion history with socks, chunky sweaters, big coats and massive boots – that’s when I fell in love with it.”
And for Steele, it boils down to choice. From Madonna’s raunch to Prada’s more reined-in approach.
“The point is that it’s not something that others are deciding for us any more. You don’t have the pressure of society, or your mum, or grandma saying you’ve got to wear a corset or people will be shocked. It’s like, I’m doing this myself – say it’s a mistake if you want, but it’s my choice.”
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