In this retrospective, we pay homage to a timeless garment that has literally given form to the female figure throughout history: the corset. This popular accoutrement, simple in design, has inspired fashion trends as early as 1700 BC and has continued to been employed as markers of status and seduction. Historically, it was not the most expensive, or ornate article worn. Yet, the fashion industry has a fascination the corset, reviving it often with only minor changes in design. Despite the well known arduous process of tightening, lacing and breathing in these with this originally-intended undergarment, they were rarely seen by anyone other than the model, her maids and eventually her lovers. However, since the corset’s inception, modern fashion has demystified the process of donning these satin armors but not the allure and intrigue that comes with them.
Neolithic Era, England, Custom Tailoring”: The earliest representations of corsets were found in Brandon, Norfolk. The construction of these primitive versions made of animal hides and string, defined custom tailoring by molding still warm and pliable leather to the figure of the individual.
1700 BC, Crete – Boyish-Figures: Early Cretean pottery depicted Greek corsets found in Minoan artworks. Covering only the abdomen, the corset was merely an undergarment designed to narrow the waist to accentuate other body parts. Interestingly, archaeologists have discovered they were not only designed for women. Yes ladies, it’s true! These Minoan male counterparts also wore corsets, emphasizing human form rather than simply female anatomy.
1000 BC, Rome – Slave to Fashion: In Rome, a lady of society would never be seen wearing a corset; instead she would choose richly dyed flowing draped robes that suited her leisurely lifestyle. A lady may, however, require her slaves to be dressed in binding garments similar to corsets, to represent their “bound” status.
600 BC to 3 BC, Egypt & Rome – Sporty and Stylish: At this time, corsets played a very different role for women than later fashion was accustomed to seeing. Because women regularly engaged in athletics such as gymnastics and bullfighting, corsets served a utilitarian purpose of physical support and protection rather than simply aesthetic. Ole!
13th and 14th C – Wearing your Sunday Best: In the Middle Ages, where religious themes ruled politics as well as fashion, corsets were worn as an acetic symbol. Dark heavy woolen cloths wrapped tightly around the figure hid rather than accentuated the body. Fashion, as we know, reacts to any extreme swing of the pendulum and even more, loves scandal. As external and more revealing versions of the corsets became en vogue religious leaders threatened to punish those who dared to wear such sacrilege clothing. Not surprisingly, Italian designers created the first form of artificial support for corsets.
16th C – Where Every Inch Counts: During the early parts of this century, the corsets began taking the form that we know today. Busks, solid plats of wood, ivory or even iron were sewn into stretches of fabric to help craft the shape of women, specifically the width of her waist. Corsets became integral to claiming rank in society. No proper woman of title would think to appear in court with a corseted waistline wider than, say, 13 inches?
This painful measure of status was short lived in some countries, in the later part of the century, ladies opted for more flattened elongated stomachs – think Gwenyth Paltrow in “Shakespeare in Love”.
18th C – Straight from Paris: France is attributed with having designed the first shoulder-strapped corset introduced into mainstream corset fashion.
19th C – No Pain, No Gain : Who can forget Winona Ryder’s tiny hourglass figure perfectly corseted under layers of lace and bustling silk in the 1993 film version of The Age of Innocence? No 1800s period film is complete without the token tightening of the corset scene. Girding for social warfare, unfortunate ladies in waiting suffered over the demands of their mistresses to endlessly tighten strings laced through delicate metal eyelets running up and down the back of the corset. By this time, women of all classes wore corsets. Coincidentally, the scenes always seem to occur during a moment of scheming for our heroine to either maintain or rise in rank and social hierarchy. Naturally, as her ability to climb the slippery social ladder depended inextricably on her diminutive waistline.
Early 20th century – A Kinder and Gentler You: The sexual revolution brought with it, the kinder (and optional) corsets. As women gained autonomy and power in society, corsets verged on obsolete. Soon women preferred wearing bras, providing the hourglass figure without the unhealthy contours of the corset.
1947 – Old is New: In 1947, Christian Dior launched his first of many couture shows, bringing back the popularity of the corseted silhouette, in what became known as “The New Look.” The model of femininity, called referred to as a “flower woman” was described to have small shoulders, a “waspy waist” and hips hidden under billowing calf-length skirts – think Lucille Ball. Maintaining this figure required modernized version of corsets, called girdles, also common in bathing suits and made with stretch Lastex or elastic ruched waffle nylon.
1980s: Cheers!: In 1987, Vivienne Westwood launched her English inspired “Harris Tweed collection” (Autumn/Winter 1987-88), including ready-to-wear corsets adorned with jewels. Her Swarovski-crystalled Stature of Liberty corset, stood as the focal point of this collection, credited to be the first corset to be formally introduced into outerwear.
1990s: Female Ambition: One of the most significant revitalizations of the corset can be summed up with one word: Madonna. In her Blonde Ambition Tour, Madonna’s costume literally pierced though current fashion with a sexy black corset designed by Jean Paul Gaultier. Her conical breasts represented a wielding of power over female sexuality that had never before been so overtly by demonstrated by corseted women.
Corsets in 2000s:
Now, corsets are a well-accepted staple in contemporary lingerie collections.
To explore today’s corsets, I spoke to Crystal Kiteveles, Shannon Olson and Alison Mannix designers of Donna L’oren lingerie in New York. They believe that it was women, and not, as history has previously seen, misogynistic politics, who brought back corsets as sexy fashion statements; this time they reflected a meaningful pride that women feel about their bodies. That feminist fashionistas of our times who are financially and socially autonomous, choose to wear corsets articulates something about the way corsets are perceived and worn. As described by the Donna L’oren group, the perception to the observer is “classic and feminine”; and the perception to the wearer, “sexiness and confidence.”
The designers state that the formula for corset perfection is “a little structure and a little stretch.” Citing advanced technology as a means to creates fabrics that gently hug, not constrict, the natural female form, Crystal Kiteveles describes the importance to her customers of using materials that “give” just enough while maintaining the silhouette of the traditional garment.”
Who can get away with wearing corsets (other than Madonna, Vivienne Westwood models and 19th C social-climbi
ng femmes glutton for punishment)? Everyone. “Everyone from celebrities, fashionistas, party girls, and “good girls”, to the woman next to you on the train are wearing corsets. [There are] corsets that flatter every body type and [we] offer several different styles, anywhere from long-waisted to just above the waist. The most important thing about a corset is how it makes you feel. When you feel sexy, you exude that sex appeal, whether your corset is on under your clothes or all by itself.”
How to wear them? Follow the advice of the experts:
“Corsets are a must have closet staple. If you’re going out for a night on the town, pair it with your favorite jeans. Accessorize with some wedge heels, and a bright envelope bag for a no-miss look. If your feeling daring, try it under a fitted dress shirt with a pair of capris and some killer boots. For a hot date, try your corset with a pretty knee length A-line skirt and a cardigan.”
The variety in which corsets are available in strip mall lingerie shops, custom boutique shops or on-line, demonstrates its resurgence as a fashion must-have. Although considering all the options, may leave you a little jaded. According to these designers, what’s hot for this and next season in corsets are “[o]pen weave lace, stretch satin, and of course some mesh. Trims aren’t just lace and bows anymore. Charms, beads and gems add a little sparkle.” Let’s not forget though, the all-important DIY design, so you won’t need someone to help you put it on. Getting it off, well, that’s the point.
Where to buy: