The Corset is Now Empowering Women Instead of Oppressing Us by Lydia Kaye

Features. Posted 3 years ago

Lydia Kaye
Image: Blac Chyna, Kim Zolciak, Lindsay Lohan and Kim Kardashian show off their waist trainers. Via Instagram.Image: Blac Chyna, Kim Zolciak, Lindsay Lohan and Kim Kardashian show off their waist trainers. Via Instagram.

The corset is making a major comeback.

Celebrities post images on Instagram of their ‘waist training’ efforts and performers including Beyoncé, Madonna and Miley Cyrus wear elaborately decorative numbers on stage. Kim Kardashian’s famous curves have been bringing the hourglass figure back into fashion with a vengeance and the release of ‘Cinderella’ last March with actress Lily James’ itzy bitzy waist has led to a cascade of crazed corset consumers.


Image: Lily James as Cinderella. Image source.

eBay has reported a 185% rise is corset sales since December. British department store Marks and Spencer says they sell one item of their new corset-inspired ‘Waist Sculpt’ lingerie every three minutes. Clearly it’s not just the Kardashians who are working on their waists.

Image: Kim and Khloe Kardashian in their waist training corsets. Via Instagram.

The corset’s revival actually started around 30 years ago and is specifically linked to fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and the Punk movement of the Eighties. The designer introduced the concept of ‘underwear as outerwear’ and exploited the corset’s innocence, yet sexual and fetishistic significance.


Image: Corset designs by Vivienne Westwood. Image source.

After Westwood, the corset was firmly back on the fashion radar and it has been prominent ever since.

So why have fashion designers and women the world over been reacquainting themselves with this historic garment after it had seemingly been well and truly stamped out in the early 1900s? With its overt connections to femininity, sex, submission, liberation and feminism, the corset is known to be one of the most controversial garments in the entire history of fashion. The rise and fall of the garment’s popularity tells a story about feminism and body image over the centuries.

But are these recent corset wearing women oppressed or liberated? Suckers or Saints?


Image: 19th Century woman lacing a corset. Image source.

The corset was an essential element of fashionable, and honourable, dress in the West for around 400 years and became a component of ‘civilisation’. Women were considered indecent without one on.

Whilst corsets throughout history were designed to accentuate curves and exaggerate the sexually dimorphic shape of the female body, they also paradoxically acted as a sign of respectability because the garment was seen to bound and control the body and, by extension, the body’s sexual desires. However, this paradox has been one of the factors that made the corset so controversial, as it resulted in a ‘modesty/immodesty’ ambiguity due to its conceal and display nature. Rather than containing or hiding the female form, it accentuates the shape of the body.

The specific structure of the corset has changed throughout history with the fashions of the time. However, during the 19th Century emphasis was placed on the waist and corsets were designed to create the hourglass silhouette that became the sought after appearance in Victorian society.

Towards the end of the 19th Century, hysteria grew around the craze of ‘tight lacing’, which involved the extreme practice of tightly lacing a corset to achieve an overly small waist.


Image: Polaire (1879-1939) was a French actress with a waist of approximately 14 inches. Image source.

Medics viewed the craze as dangerous as it compressed and distorted the figure. The ribcage was crushed, making breathing difficult. The organs were constricted and were thought to be forced into different areas of the body.


Image: The assumed medical results of tight lacing. Image via Wikipedia.

Tight lacing became highly competitive between women during the Victorian era, but this form of body modification has been popular throughout Western history.


Image source.


Because of the medical implications, women who practiced tight lacing were often regarded as vain and irrational. The act was seen as a perverted desire to arouse envy in other women as well as deliberately obtain the gaze of men, at the cost of ill health.

But feminist historians have argued that women are in fact oppressed by fashion systems, and that corsetry in particular functioned as a coercive apparatus through which patriarchal society controlled women and exploited their sexuality. What’s more, the tightness and discomfort of the corset made women docile, even immobile, which was deeply implicated in the 19th Century construction of a ‘submissive’, ‘masochistic’ feminine ideal.

During WW1 there was a practical assault on the corset. With many women working the land and in factories whilst the men were at war, restrictive clothing was a hindrance. With this new found freedom and independence, women started taking ownership of underwear, and designing what they wanted to wear. Health and dress reformers, feminist education reformers and an increased popularity in women’s sport also contributed to the corset’s decrease in popularity.


Image: Women workers during WWI.

The rejection of the corset is now regarded as an extension of the Suffragette movement. Its elimination symbolises the liberation of women – from their social restrictions as well as their physical restriction.

Does the corset’s recent come back mean women are moving backwards and allowing themselves to be oppressed and their bodies to be objectified?

In the late 1980s, fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier reaffirmed the re-birth of the corset as outerwear when Madonna performed her ‘Blond Ambition’ tour in a variety of flamboyant Gaultier creations, one of which was the infamously outrageous gold corset with exaggerated conical breasts.


Image: Madonna during her Blond Ambition Tour. Image via Wikipedia.

It’s clear that Madonna felt far from oppressed or objectified in a corset. In fact Madonna’s status and influence as a strong, independent and powerful woman has been articulated by her adoption of post modern corsetry. The same can also be said for Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga on their more recent tours.


Images via Google.

The corset undeniably still holds strong connotations with sex, femininity and fetish. In fact, the corset’s affiliation with fetish desire and sexual restraint is so bound up with the female form that it would be impossible to separate the two. However the difference now is that women are reclaiming its use and therefore outlining how their sexuality and femininity are displayed.

The corset’s come back was perhaps only possible when the garment had been well and truly established as out-dated, sexist and unnecessary, and that the concept of women’s choice could be brought into the corset equation.

Fashion designers such as Thierry Mugler and Alexander McQueen contributed to the construction of the post-modern corset as a symbol of strength and power rather than weakness or fragility.


Image: Corset designs by Thierry Mugler and Alexander McQueen. Image source.

These designs read as statements about the power of the female and, perhaps even more so, the female’s powerful hold over the male.

These designs and others introduced the idea that corsets allow for the female body to be simultaneously worshipped and retrained, accentuated yet concealed, ultimately signifying women’s control over their own objectification.

The corset’s comeback is part Renaissance, part fashion evolution and throughout its lifetime it has been enjoyed, enforced, rejected and reborn.

Follow Lydia on Twitter @Lydia_Kaye

Liked this? Read these articles by Lydia Kaye:

1) A Big Butt is Hot, But Only if You’re White

2) Unpacking Female Hysteria: From Women Being Witches, to Women Conjuring the Devil

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