The corset – a garment with a rigid bodice that incorporates boning and is laced together in order to shape the torso – has a controversial history. Long derided as a patriarchal instrument of torture that deformed the female body, historians now argue that that there was no one experience of wearing a corset, and that some women may have found them positive.
Corsets were worn by women — and sometimes men — in the Western world from the 16th to the early 20th century, although corset-like garments appear as early as 1600 BC. What began as a close-fitting sleeveless bodice evolved into a undergarment with stays made of whalebone, and then steel, that encircled the ribs and compressed the natural waist. The shape of the corset evolved over its 400 years in use, alternating between longer varieties that covered the hips to shorter versions that centred on the waistline. Corsets helped shape the body into distinctive silhouettes, from the hourglass shape popular in the 1800s to the “S” figure of the 1900s.
Discussions about the corset being detrimental to women’s health came to a head in the 19th century, when corset use was at its highest. Available in a wide variety of price points, corsets were worn by upper- and middle-class women and, increasingly, by working-class women as well. Some doctors blamed the corset for respiratory diseases, deformity to the ribs, damage to internal organs, birth defects and miscarriages, while others approved of “moderate” or “health” corsets that were less rigid and helped support the body.
Fashion historians Valerie Steele and Colleen Gau have argued that while corseted women may indeed have suffered from depleted lung volume and changes in breathing patterns, this would not necessarily have led to respiratory diseases, but may have caused fainting and lowered vitality. Steele also argues that examples of tight lacing, or the practice of lacing corsets to create the smallest possible waist, cannot be taken at face value. The letters, descriptions and images that describe this practice may have represented sexual fantasies rather than descriptions of authentic experience.
The introduction of elastic in the 1920s gave rise to flexible sports corsets used by women attracted by a new active lifestyle. However, ads for corsets and articles about the newest corset styles appear in Vogue throughout the early 20th century, showing that women still sought these external garments to shape and support their body alongside girdles, compression underwear and brassieres. With the shift towards sport and healthy lifestyles in the 1960s and 1970s, the corset as an undergarment was abandoned, but its focus was already internalised. Instead of relying on a garment, women turned to diet, exercise and plastic surgery to shape their bodies and trim their waists.
Today, corsets are still worn by enthusiasts and as part of fetishistic, cross-dressing and burlesque practices; and while they may no longer be part of the average woman’s everyday routine, they have never truly disappeared from fashion. In the 1970s, Vivienne Westwood began using corsets as part of her historicist punk aesthetic; Westwood imagined her corsets as empowering women rather than binding them. Jean-Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler incorporated corsets into their designs in the 1980s. Madonna made Gaultier’s pink satin corset (above) famous on her 1991 Blonde Ambition tour.
Stella McCartney, Yves Saint Laurent, Tom Ford and Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga have all experimented with corsets or corset-like tailoring in their designs, sometimes layering the corsets over garments rather than under them, subverting them from underwear into outerwear. Corsets also have a long tradition in fashion photography, where they are used to symbolise female sexuality. And if the autumn/winter ’29/’20 catwalks are anything to go by, corsets are still very much on trend.
Carmen Dell’Orefice in 1947
Karl Lagerfeld and Claudia Schiffer in 1993