Trends have always been cyclical; what’s old is inevitably new again. The corset is the latest item going from passé and outdated to a must-have modern accessory.
The history of the corset is complex. Its modern revival speaks to fashion’s increasing love-affair with undergarments as well as the favoured female body shape of our time.
Corsetry in more of less its current form, dates back to the 1500s. European women would squeeze their bodies into such tight frames that it sparked the invented the “fainting couch”. Victorian corsets were made from whalebone or steel stays and laced tight enough to inflict damage on internal organs.
The style and form of the corset has evolved over time. The undergarment has remained a part of our collective fashion consciousness, appearing and disappearing from popular culture through the decades.
A Punk Staple
In the 1980s, Vivienne Westwood popularised the basque worn as outerwear as a powerful feminist statement. It gave the wearer the ability to use and portray traditional feminine aesthetics without the items exuding patriarchal domination. It was a punk, up-yours to gender constraints. As such, the corset has been a staple within punk and goth subcultures ever since.
Madonna famously worse a cream-coloured silk corset designed by Jean Paul Gaultier on her Blond Ambition Tour in 1990. The piece stunned audiences with its subversive, fashion-forward take on the classic undergarment. Paired with black tights and unclipped garters, the item presented a highly idealised version of the female form. Worn as outerwear, Madonna turned an item traditionally seen as restrictive into a symbol of empowerment.
Catwalks and Couture
Dita von Teese is another notable proponent of corsetry, using the vintage staple as an integral part of her burlesque performances and her daily life. It is an exaggerated, luxurious version of old-fashioned trends.
Corsets have had their high-fashion and couture moments, appearing on the runways of Alexander McQueen, Prada, Mugler, Balmain, Thom Browne and Giambattista Valli.
However, the corset has in recent years fallen out of favour in mainstream fashion. In the 90s and 00s it was replaced by the boyish skin-and-bone, heroin-chic look. Famously skinny stars like Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie portrayed a silhouette with minimal curves.
In 2019, the corset is in the midst of a revival, but not in the way you might expect.
The full bust, slim waist and round hips created by the silhouette of the corset matches contemporary aspirational beauty ideals. The Kardashian-inspired curves that are now the basis of feminine beauty standards can, for many, only be replicated through cosmetic surgery, photoshop or corsetry.
The rise of Spanx in the past decade is part of this. The once secretive cinching and lifting item is now openly spoken about. Clothes are designed to accommodate them. The company has now launched a mens range, increasing their reach in the fashion world.
Following in their footsteps, Kim Kardashian caused controversy earlier in the year with the launch of her shapewear brand, formerly known as Kimono.
The waist trainer, much like a corset/girdle hybrid, is the contemporary incarnation of the corset. This is an item which moulds the body into the fashionable hourglass shape, a practice which has been going on for centuries.
The waist trainer looks set to bring the corset back into daily wear, whether its used for long-term training or short-term shaping. With all the recent casual, streetwear incarnations of the corset, worn by models such as Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid, Karlie Kloss, it seems that fashion will continue making the previously unseen, seen.
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