Centuries before Madonna made headlines in pink satin Jean-Paul Gaultier, women (and sometimes men) were lacing themselves into corsets

The corset – a garment with a rigid, boned bodice that 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 even have found them positive.

A corset in the pages of a 1939 issue of Vogue

Corsets were worn by women – and sometimes men – in the Western world from the 16th to the early 20th century, although corset-like garments can be traced as far back as 1600 BC. What began as a close-fitting sleeveless bodice evolved into an 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 the centuries, alternating between longer varieties that covered the hips and 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.

The introduction of elastic in the 1920s gave rise to flexible sports corsets, used by women attracted to 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 ’60s and ’70s, 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 ’70s, 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 Muglerincorporated corsets into their designs in the 1980s. Madonna made Gaultier’s pink satin corset famous on her 1990 Blond Ambition tour. Stella McCartneyYves Saint LaurentTom 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 AW19 catwalks are anything to go by, corsets are still very much on trend.


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