I remember watching Titanic and looking at Rose holding onto the bedpost for her dear life, as her mother tightened her corset. She gasps and holds her breath as her mother relentlessly keeps on pulling and tightening the garment to give her body the perfect hourglass figure. This was the first time I encountered the garment called corset.
This was also the same time when my opinion of a corset got influenced by those of my mother. I distinctly remember her saying “You see that? Those were corsets. The western women used to wear them to push their breasts out and pull their waists in. These were like torture devices, look at poor Rose, she can’t even breathe.” So this was exactly what I grew up thinking, that corset are torture devices resonating ideas which were much similar to those of 19th century feminist who condemned the garment as repressive patriarchal tools to shape the woman’s body to the liking of the men.
Corsets have a dark and twisted history, full of myths and prejudices. But maybe it’s time we re-examine the garment, especially with its comeback in its original as well as modernized form-like the infamous waist trainers-and look at it as any other garment, worn by women at their own prerogative.
Contested History of Corsets
Corsets originated in the mainstream roughly around the 16th century in the western world, although evidence of corset looking garments can be dated back to the 1600 BC. The garment worn mostly by women – although some men also wore it – has a long history of evolution from a loosely fitted undergarment to one even made of steel and with front clasp to remove the need of assistance in wearing it. It also changed many forms, from a longer garment which extended beyond the hips to a smaller waist cinching band. What remained constant though, are the myths surrounding this scandalous garment.
The rise in popularity of corsets also led to an increased an interest in it by medical professionals who stated that tight-lacing of corsets had adverse affects ranging from minor respiratory problems such as shortness of breath to more serious health complications like breaking ribcage and even chronic illness like endometriosis.
The recent comeback of corsets challenges all these notions. Fashion and textile historian Katie Werlin says that it is a highly stigmatized garment. She continues “Like with any fashion trend there are, of course, extremes (and the corset and tight-lacing has definitely been fetishized more than most), but for the most part the corset is just a regular foundation garment and I wish it was treated that way. And there are legitimately harmful things that women (and men) do to their bodies in the name of fashion. Squishing yourself into a slightly different shape with a corset isn’t one of them.“
Steel also asserts that the corset trend has not vanished, that it has been ‘internalized in a transformation of disciplinary regimes’ – such as controlling dietary habits and even starving oneself for a smaller waist – which can even be more harmful than wearing a corset.
Valerie Steel in her 2001 book, The Corset: A Cultural History says that the detrimental effects of wearing corsets- such as organ failure and spinal deformity – were exaggerated. Only a small minority of women tight-laced the corset to attain the unnaturally small waist, while the majority of women wore it to simply emphasize their figure for a small duration. Steel also asserts that the corset trend has not vanished, that it has been ‘internalized in a transformation of disciplinary regimes’ – such as controlling dietary habits and even starving oneself for a smaller waist – which can even be more harmful than wearing a corset.
The Celebrity Trend
I noticed the comeback of corset on the pink carpet of Met Gala this year. Kim Kardashian turned up in tight, dripping, latex Thierry Mugler dress, which turned heads. Other than the awe-inspiring wet look, the emphasis was laid on her tiny waist and ample bottom and breasts in the tightly corseted dress.
While the look may have gotten her on many best dressed lists, Kardashian had to be transported to the venue standing up with the support of a post. She couldn’t even use the washroom or sit down for the duration of the event! The star later revealed that “I have never felt pain like that in my life’ and that she had several indentations on her waist and back after she removed her dress.
Ella Fanning fainted at the Chopard dinner during the Cannes film festival this year, for which she blamed her 1950’s style corseted Prada dress. However, while many celebrities have spoken about their awful experiences with the garment, other have been incorporating the garment into their daily wear and claiming it to be ‘empowering’.
Rihanna, Gigi Hadid, Victoria Beckham are some of the few who have embraced this renewed trend of corsets. However these modern corsets are not the hidden underwear or overtly sexualized garment, instead they are redesigned to be worn by women as on their own terms.
Prada revealed a line of re-designed corsets to be worn loosely over heavy coats or jackets to give it a more feminine look. Corseted belts are all the rage now, finding their way into the closets of not only the celebrities but also common people. It’s a powerful styling move, which has been called by some a feminist reclaiming of a garment which traditionally was used to control – and restrict – female bodies.
What must not, however be confused with the comeback of corsets is the trend of waist-trainers, popularized by the Kardashians. Waist trainers are corset-like bands which are to be worn around the waist, either all day or while exercising, and promise to reduce the waist size. A lot of reports call out the ruse of waist trainers – you cannot squeeze your waist into submission.
An Empowering Garment?
The corset might just be the most misunderstood garment in the fashion industry, but efforts to reclaim it should not go unnoticed. As a modern woman, one can choose to wear a corset simply because one feels sexy and feminine in it. Why must we still keep the image of the corset as a torture device in mind?
In this Bustle article, Mrs.Woodyard, a daily corset user, makes the distinction between a tight and fitted corset – claiming that if your corset is tight, it’s harmful but if it’s simply fitted, it actually aids daily functioning by keeping posture upright.
Katie Thomas, a corset designer who set up her company in 1999 says that corsets are “not focused on losing weight, it’s just about emphasizing your body shape and celebrating the curves you have. I wear a corset every day because I like the shape it gives me. We have a lot of transgender clients who want a more feminine figure.”
(Corset is) just about emphasizing your body shape and celebrating the curves you have. I wear a corset every day because I like the shape it gives me. We have a lot of transgender clients who want a more feminine figure.
For those who like emphasizing their curves, for a transgender woman who wants to look at herself in the mirror and see an hourglass figure – a corset is no longer torture device but an empowering one. In the end, it boils down to choice. Corset is a garment fitted for the needs of those who choose to wear it, not tangled in historical misconceptions.
What women wear – in clothes, cosmetics, or heels– will always come under scrutiny from the male gaze, the society and everyone will feel entitled to give their opinion on it. In this case, what’s better than to reclaim the corset as garment as any other? A corset should be normalized and wearing it should be like a choice as any other, just like wearing a bra or heels or lipstick.
Featured Image Source: The Guardian