CORSETS, TRULY BREATH-TAKING?
Are corsets set for a revival? CUFLBS Secretary Mia Warren reflects on the complicated and politically charged history of this seemingly innocuous fashion accessory.
The corset has long been a provocative symbol of feminine beauty and couture fashion. However, Vogues’ recent editorial spread on Billie Eillish who is pictured dressed in a custom Alexander McQueen corset dress has prompted a sudden resurgence in the popularity of the corset. But this begs the question, what is the history behind this staple of women’s fashion and how has its legacy endured?
So Why Did People Wear Corsets?
Historically, bone support garments like corsets and stays were worn for a number of reasons, namely chest support, posture correction and the accentuation of the female silhouette. Despite the changing sensibilities of female fashion from the overstated French rococo-inspired gowns to the more modestly styled dresses of the Imperial era, the corset has remained a fixture of ladies’ dresses for centuries. It was simply modified to create an entirely new silhouette whether conical or hourglass. Its continued relevance despite dramatic changes in style is likely due to the fact that (historically speaking) fashion was concerned with shape and proportionality rather than more contemporary concerns over size. Corsetry and padding meant that a woman’s shape could be easily altered to accommodate changing trends. In this way, the versatility of corsetry was actually liberating rather than restrictive. In fact, Historian Cecil Willet Cunnington in his amusing 1941 treatise Why Women Wear Clothes describes his astonishment at the ingenuity of the female bodice, creating “curiosities of shape”, among these extraordinary shapes he claims women sometimes appeared like “the Great pyramid …. a camel, or even of a wasp!”.
The Origin of the Corset
Before the introduction of bone support garments in the late Elizabethan era, women wore bodied petticoats or tight-fitting kirtles that could be laced up to support the bust. The earliest surviving examples of boned bodices date from around 1595 and belonged to Dorothea Sabina von Neuburg. Curiously though, these bodices only provided partial support as there was no boning to lift the bust, creating the illusion of a flattened chest. This was likely done for aesthetic reasons as boning or the conspicuous placement of seams would distract from the beautiful patterns of the embroidered fabric. By the 1630s we see the arrival of fully visible, smooth-covered stays that offered far greater support before finally in the 17th Century we see something that resembles what most of us would think of as a corset. The addition of mantua’s (long, loose-fitting robes) and highly decorative stomachers (the ornamented front panel of a bodice) in the late 17th Century saw corsets become less prominent, but their design still purposely complemented the overall ensemble.
The next major development would come in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution, a new unpretentious dress style replaced the extravagant ruffles and bright pastels that had been so popular in the court of Versailles.
Now for the first time the use of the corset was scaled back and simplified, the rigid boning was removed and the garment was elevated to create a slender silhouette. The stripped-back simplicity of the so-called Empire era chemises were supposed to evoke the imperial elegance of the Roman Republic.
It wouldn’t be until the 1830s that the corset would return to its original position, accentuating the woman’s natural waistline. This trend would develop into the impossibly small waistlines of the 1860s, more commonly known as the ‘wasp waists’. Corsets largely fell out of style by the turn of the century and despite making some sporadic appearances over the 20th Century they did not enjoy a wholesale revival.
The Politics of Corsetry (yes really.)
However, in recent years corsets have once again become a provocative and somewhat politically loaded symbol of feminine power in the fashion world. Cunnington notes that the sharp decline of the garment’s popularity around the turn of the 20th Century was a testament to the “appearance of semi-captivity”, it had come to be seen as an “emblem of servitude“ that no longer reflected modern conceptions of a woman’s status. Indeed, even today the corset has a reputation for being a highly restrictive garment and the age-old adage beauty is pain has almost added to its novel appeal. But is this assessment of the corset entirely fair? Well in short – no.
Generally speaking, corsets were actually relatively comfortable to wear. The garment itself did not actively compress or constrict the wearer but rather retained its shape independently from the body, functioning almost like a secondary suit of armor (picture the Roman style cuirass with their false musculature). In this way, corsets created the all-important illusion of a desired silhouette without manipulating the body itself. The corsets also provided vital structural support, not only for the bust by functioning like a modern-day brassiere, but they also relieved the incumbent weight of heavy petticoats. The rhetoric around the alleged dangers of corsetry emerged in the Victorian era largely due to the popularisation of the tight-lacing trend, this practice created the accentuated ‘wasp’ waistline that was so desirable at the time. Physicians soon published medical reports and horrifying diagrams that supposedly established a link between the practice of tight-lacing and physical deformities in women. One such pamphlet from 1830 reads “NATURAL WASTS OR NO WIVES.”, calling on husbands to enforce the eradication of corsetry altogether. But these sensationalised claims had no real medical basis and were often motivated by moral or political concerns.
The Final Verdict?
Perhaps then the famous image of Scarlett O’Hara clinging to her bedpost, struggling for breath as her maidservant tightly laces her bodice does not do the corset justice nor meaningfully reflect historical reality. Corsets and women’s fashion more generally were among one of the few legitimate expressions of feminine identity over the course of history. For this very reason it is hardly surprising that the corset found itself at the centre of a heated public debate in the late 19th Century with the growing momentum of the Women’s’ Suffrage Movement and new questions about the place of women outside the domestic sphere. It is fitting then (no pun intended) that someone like Billie Eillish, who’s signature style of loose-fitting clothing has challenged the voyeuristic gaze of the male media, should be the one to reclaim this formerly vilified symbol of femininity and sexual empowerment.
Cambridge University Fashion & Luxury Business Society