For years, the corset garment has been tied to controversy. Emerging from the Western world in the early 16th century, the tight fitting undergarment wasn’t always the harmless regency style trend as we know it today. Corsets were long derided as a patriarchal instrument of torture that deformed the female body. Nowadays, the once degrading garment has transitioned to symbolize empowering women in fashion rather than binding them.
First off, let’s take a quick trip back to 1600 BC. Around this time, the corset started out as a sleeveless bodice that evolved into an undergarment with stays made of whalebone and steel that encircled the ribs in order to compress the natural waist. Why would someone ever agree to squeeze themselves between a sleeve of metal you may ask? Two words - body image.
To this day, men and women struggle with body image. We’ve all been brought up watching television and viewing magazine covers that portray unrealistic expectations on how we should look. Everyone has had that moment when one looks in the mirror just to pinpoint something to change.
The business world loves this. They take insecurities and eat them for breakfast, proceeding to invent a new and improved waist trainer that’s guaranteed to make one skinny or a new formula of mascara to make one pretty. This is where the corset came in.
The shape of the corset changed throughout the centuries depending on what “style” of body type was in. Want a slimmer waist but bigger hips? Wear a corset. Want perkier boobs or no hips at all? Wear a corset. The product relentlessly evolved between longer varieties that covered the upper thighs and shorter versions that centered around the waistline. From the hourglass shape popular in the 1800s to the “S’’ shape of the 1900s, corsets were meant to shape the body into distinct silhouettes depending on how women were supposed to look at the time.
The transition from corsets being malicious to an empowering fashion statement commenced as discussions arose about the detrimental effects they have on women’s health in the 19th century. The corset was at its peak and worn by all classes when the first negative claim came to public attention. Doctors began blaming the corset for respiratory diseases, deformity of the ribs, damage to internal organs, birth defects and miscarriages. Needless to say, they were not wrong.
During the 1960s, there was a sudden shift towards healthy lifestyles that led to the abandonment of the corset as an undergarment. While they may no longer be a part of the average woman’s everyday routine, they have never truly disappeared from fashion.
In the 1970’s, Vivienne Westwood began using corsets as part of her historicist punk aesthetic to promote the empowerment of women. Since then, Stella McCartney, Yves Saint Laurent, Tom Ford and Nicolas Ghesquiere at Balenciaga experimented with corset-like tailoring in their designs. A big trend of 2021 is even wearing corsets over garments rather than under them to represent its evolution into a symbol of free female sexuality. This transition may be one of the most inspiring in the fashion world, arduous journey and all.