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Corsets: From constriction to protection and empowerment

By Ricky Toledo and Chito Vijandre, The Philippine STAR Published Mar 30, 2022 5:00 am

You would think that the pandemic would put the corset to rest but, wonder of wonders, the undergarment with a controversial history has made a comeback. Even as early as January last year, after Bridgerton aired on Netflix, searches for the corset increased by 100%, reflecting the switch from quarantine-friendly pastoral dresses and cardigans of #Cottagecore to the rise of 19th-century-inspired #Regencycore.

The corset has quite a storied past. Altering the body’s shape to conform to the silhouettes of fashion, it often gets a bad rap as a patriarchal relic that tortured women. The earliest known image of a possible corset was from 1600 BC in a Minoan figurine wearing it as an outer garment with the breasts exposed. They have also been in existence for centuries among the Circassian and Abkhaz tribes of the Caucasus, who used them to “beautify” women and to ensure modesty—laced tightly with up to 50 laces, worn from childhood till the wedding night, a test for the groom’s self-control since he had to slowly and carefully undo each lace.

Stays in linen stiffened with baleen, 1780

Waist-shaping garments were actually used by both men and women in Europe during the Middle Ages. The term “corset” was in use in the late 14th century, from the French meaning “a kind of laced bodice.” Known as bodices or stays in the 16th and 17th centuries, Catherine de Medici introduced them to France in the 1500s, whereupon women of the French court considered them “indispensable to the beauty of the female figure.”

Although first associated with the aristocracy, it was adopted by bourgeois women by the 18th century when it had an inverted conical shape, worn to create a contrast between a rigid quasi-cylindrical torso above the waist and a full skirt below.

Sophia Loren in The Millionairess, 1960

It went out of fashion with the ascendancy of the high-waisted Directoire and Empire styles after the French Revolution but regained popularity again by 1815. Subsequent corsets, reinforced with whalebone and metal, were hourglass-shaped during the Victorian era in the 19th century and S-shaped during the Edwardian era at the start of the 20th century. Tight lacing was used to achieve the tiniest waist, raising medical concerns that it was injurious to health; and moral concerns that it was excessive vanity leading to promiscuity.

Fil-American singer Saweetie in concert

By 1908, the corset slowly fell out of favor as the silhouette became more natural, leading to early forms of the brassiere and the girdle. Designers tried to revive the boned corset in the late 1930s, but World War II would cut short most fashion innovations.

Madonna in Jean Paul Gaultier for her Blond Ambition tour, 1990

With the sporty and healthy lifestyles of the 1960s-’70s, the corset as an undergarment was abandoned, but the ideal of a small waist was still ever-present, achieved through diet, exercise, and plastic surgery, if needed. Vivienne Westwood revived it in the ’70s as part of her historicist punk aesthetic and Thierry Mugler incorporated it in his ’80s glamazons. Fetish fashion would revive it in the 1990s, like in Jean Paul Gaultier’s sexed-up look for Madonna. Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano, Nicholas Ghesquiere, and Tom Ford, among others, would experiment with corsets as well, subverting them from underwear to chic outerwear.

The corset has actually evolved from its patriarchal reputation to one of female empowerment, giving women the choice as to what to do with their bodies.

The corset has actually evolved from its patriarchal reputation to one of female empowerment, giving women the choice as to what to do with their bodies and how they want to dress. Period dramas like Bridgerton have evolved as well, with women taking center stage instead of being supporting characters to a world of men.

Lizzo performing in a corset

The corset, with modern technology and materials, as well as a more inclusive design, has also been re-engineered for post-pandemic comfort. Of course, there’s still nothing as comfortable as sweats and caftans, but quarantine fatigue has set in and people now want to go out and dress up, so it’s no wonder that the structure of a corset has become desirable again, as worn by women with all body types, from the pre-Raphaelite-nymph-like model Bella Hadid to the more Rubenesque singer-goddess Lizzo.

Prada SS2022

Reflecting this need, the current SS22 collections and recent fall 2022 runways had corsetry in abundance, from abstract versions like Loewe to deconstructed ones at Eckhaus Latta, to subtle references of lacing and boning at Prada. But whereas the look was constrictive in the past, it now has a protective veneer-like armor.

Christian Dior FW2022

At Dior, the inner pads of a corseted Bar Jacket were exposed but they had a protective cooling purpose against extreme weather caused by climate change, thanks to a collab with D-Air Lab.

Balmain FW2022

Olivier Rousteing of Balmain, inspired by the bandaging and recovery gear he was forced to wear after suffering burns in his house fire, also did corsets looking like futuristic protective and tactical gear.

Burberry FW2022

Burberry’s corset tops may have been daintier in pink but had a strong, solid look nevertheless when matched with monochrome pleated skirt and thigh-high boots.

Gucci FW2022

At Gucci, in a collab with Adidas, the corset turned sporty with cut-up elements of sweats turned into corsets incorporated in dresses reminiscent of DIY upcycling projects undertaken by Gen-Z Instagrammers while on lockdown.

Corsets can be fun, after all, and need not be the serious, rib-breaking variety of yore.