If there was ever a fashion trend to stand the test of time, it would be the corset. The first appearance of the corset can be traced back as far as 1600 BC in the art of the Minoan civilisation, where women are depicted wearing corset-like metal plates. The corset came into its heyday in the West from the 15th to the 19th centuries, considered a staple of womenswear meant to narrow the waist and accentuate the bust in contrast to full skirts below. Since women were regarded as the weaker sex, the corset was first seen as a support garment beneficial for an upright posture. Over the centuries, it evolved into more of an element of style, helping to squeeze the body into the breath-taking (literally!) hourglass and S-shaped figures favoured during the late 1800s to early 1900s.
The corset went in and out of fashion in the 20th century – out during WWI when women needed greater comfort and range of motion to work, out in the 1920s with the drop-waists of flappers and loose-fitting silhouettes of Coco Chanel, in during the 1950s when Christian Dior introduced the nipped-waist contours of his ‘New Look’, and out with the feminist movement of the 1960s, when the corset was decried as an instrument of torture imposed on women by the patriarchy, But its death was short-lived; Vivienne Westwood incorporated the corset into her designs in the 1970s as part of her punk aesthetic, as did Thierry Mugler and Jean-Paul Gaultier in the 1980s. Madonna famously wore Gaultier’s conical-bra corset on her ‘Blond Ambition’ tour in 1990, popularising the ‘underwear as outerwear’ trend.
It seems the corset won’t be going away anytime soon either, having come back into favour with both designers and celebrities. Like the colour pink, the corset has been re-appropriated by women, transformed from an item of restriction and oppression to one of empowerment. Always a bellwether for fashion, Miuccia Prada included the corset as part of Prada’s Fall 2016 collection, featuring corsets laced loosely over dresses, shirts, and coats.
The corset was all over the Fall 2019 runways, with designers from Etro to Saint Laurent to Zimmermann and Zac Posen alluding to the corset in their collections.
Bella Hadid and Kylie Jenner were recently spotted wearing corset dresses, as was Elle Fanning at the Cannes Film Festival. And who can forget Kim Kardashian’s get-up for this year’s Met Gala? Wearing a bespoke Thierry Mugler dress with a Mr Pearl corset underneath, Kim’s undergarment was so snug that it left deep indentations on her back and stomach and there were even rumours that she had to remove a few ribs to fit into it!
The comeback of the corset, however, hints at something rather more worrying. The curvaceous forms of celebrities like the Kardashians and Beyoncé, with the help of corsets or not, give the (wrong) impression that the only way for a so-called bigger woman to be attractive or desirable is if she has a figure like theirs, with voluptuous curves but a tiny waist. The corset trend – along with others like thigh gaps, hot dog legs, bikini bridges, and ab cracks – sends out the wrong message about women’s bodies. Such shapes aren’t natural or achievable for the majority of women, at least not without the detrimental heavy exercise and restricted diet it takes to look like that. Save yourself the pain, your clothes should fit you, and not the other way around.