Katie O’Brien explores the constant reinvention of the restrictive garment beloved among nobility, the punk movement and Madonna.
Corsets have been an item of clothing that have been shrouded in debate for centuries.
Questions about their necessity, safety, and inherent sexism have engulfed this garment, but a recent resurgence in popularity has made fashion lovers and the fashion industry itself wonder. Have we reinvented what this piece of clothing means or have we just decided a piece of clothing is devoid of historic meaning?
Corsets have been around in the Western world since the 16th century and were worn by women and men alike. When you think of corsets you tend to think of women of wealth parading around in opulent ball gowns with tiny waists, but the corset trickled down to the working classes too. Most women of the 19th century wore corsets in some form or another which left many medical professionals worried for women’s health.
(Vivienne Westwood) dressed her models and punk enthusiasts in corsets as a way to redefine how women were regaining their sexuality and embracing their body image for themselves and not others.
Corsets would have traditionally been made from whale bone before transitioning to steel, meaning prolonged wear could interfere with breathing and rib placements. Fashion historians, however, seem to think that the effects we are told about were more than likely overstated.
By the 1920s the world was beginning to change its views on women and fashion alike, clothing had become more fun and less form-fitting, with the birth of loose-fitting knee length, sequined and beaded dresses. Corsets of the 1920s also got involved in this change and ditched rigid materials, opting for elastic which was more comfortable and malleable to the body. The need for corsets dropped off during the 20th century but the internalisation for a small waist remained and women would opt instead for diet and workout crazes of the 1970’s and 80s associated with the birth of the home workout video and low-fat food.
Musical artists like Madonna who famously wore Jean-Paul Gaultier’s pink satin corset on her Blonde Ambition tour gave a new sense to how women can still be feminine and taken seriously.
As with most objects abandoned by time, music and popular culture reclaimed it and gave it a brand-new meaning. Most famous would be Vivienne Westwood, rising to popularity during the 1970s when her brand cashed in on the punk movement. She dressed her models and punk enthusiasts in corsets as a way to redefine how women were regaining their sexuality and embracing their body image for themselves and not others. Films like The Rocky Horror Picture Show also gave corsets a new image that was not defined by gender but instead by choice and sexuality. Musical artists like Madonna who famously wore Jean-Paul Gaultier’s pink satin corset on her Blonde Ambition tour gave a new sense to how women can still be feminine and taken seriously.
Today people are wearing corsets in a less extreme way socially and are instead enjoying them in a more relaxed nature with jeans or even layered over t-shirts with a sense of the more everyday. Corsets are garments that will continue to be redefined, and since fashion tends to circle around who knows how we will be wearing them in ten years time.