RECLAIMING THE CORSET
COVER ART: KENDALL SINGER
The corset top has been recycled and reinvented since the 17th century, and is now a closet staple for young women in 2021 who keep up with the latest fashion trends. The corset which was once a restrictive, societal norm, has transformed to an empowering, sexy piece of clothing due to contemporary designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Thierry Mugler.
In the 1800s, the corset was created by a patriarchal society as an organ chamber that held women back both figuratively and literally. It was worn under layers of fabric by prominent women in society, and the contraption was restrictive and painful to say the least.The corset was also a way for society to regulate the standard of female beauty: having a tiny waist was not only coveted but demanded.
The evolution of the corset from underwear to outerwear first came about in 1987 by anarchical designer Vivienne Westwood. Westwood changed the initial purpose of the garment, reviving the classic corset, first literally, by altering the shape and design into something more punk and edgy, and figuratively by turning it into a symbol of freedom and sexiness to be worn with pride. By doing this, Westwood unshackled the corset and turned it into a fashionable piece of clothing that was now championed by women. What made Westwood’s corsets covetable by all women in 90s was her “waist-whittling numbers featuring passion-soaked paintings by 18th-century artist Francis Boucher, like the image of Daphnis and Chloe that hails from the Vivienne Westwood Fall 1990 collection, and currently lives in the Victoria and Albert Museum of London, or the corset that shows the lip-locking close-up of Hercules and Omphale from the Fall 1993 collection” (Vogue Magazine). Now, these same pieces are being worn by celebrities like Bella Hadid, FKA Twigs, Sofia Richie and more who have caused an upheaval in prices of the corset on vintage websites like TheRealReal, Farfetch and more as women everywhere want to get their hands on her iconic creation.
In the 1990s, Jean Paul Gaultier made corset fashion popular and relevant by displaying his designs on celebrities and influencers. Specifically, Madonna, an icon for sexual freedom, wore Gaultier’s corsets on her world tours, showing women that the corset can be liberating, not restrictive. Madonna’s 1990 Blond Ambition Tour showcased the subversive power of the corset as she wore reimagined corset designs with sheer pride and pomp.
Thierry Mugler, known as the 20th century’s King of Camp, created some of the most bold and audacious looks of all time. His creativity and work still lives on today and is showcased on some of the most famous influencers such as Kim Kardashian, who has recently donned many of his “corset reminiscent” designs. Her Met Gala “wet dress,” designed by Mugler himself, shocked the world because of her obscenely small waist in the skintight dress. There is no doubt that some of Mugler’s looks resemble archetypal corsets, as they appear uncomfortable and somewhat insane, but women now choose to wear corsets rather than society choosing for them. Women wear Mugler’s designs to feel confident in unique, eccentric and modern corsets, like this motorcycle inspired bustier. These pieces allow women a freedom of expression that was once prohibited by their 17th century ancestors.
Trailblazers such as Westwood, Gaultier, and Mugler have shown women that a corset can be embraced, creative, and beautiful. Today, designers and influencers continue to design and wear corset looks that come in many different forms, designs, and prices. Some corset designs are more loose fitting while others are more traditional, but both styles are popular and represented in retail today. Specifically, brands like For Love & Lemons have collaborated with Victoria’s Secret to create a selection of corset tops, some of which are more traditional than others. Other retail and fast fashion brands like Princess Polly, Pretty Little Thing, Missguided, Zaful, and even Amazon are creating corset designs that are chic, versatile, and affordable. Back when corsets were undergarments, they were very exclusive to the rich and elite. Now, fast fashion and even high fashion have reimagined corsets, and consequently have opened up an entirely new market for the product. In the 1800s, a woman’s corset was sold for about 5 dollars, which is equivalent to around 104 dollars today. Now, one can buy a corset from amazon for $18, but if you want a professional, handmade corset like they did in the olden days, you might have to pay 300+ dollars, as mentioned in The Lingerie Addict. The point is, there are various price options compared to before.
Social media and television has also brought light to corsets. Recently, the popular Netflix show Bridgerton has caused a reemergence of the traditional corset, as women have tried to emulate Daphne’s, the main character in the series, iconic look. Although the show is set in a period where there was a traditional view of corsets—and there are even scenes where girls struggle to be tied into them prior to debutante balls—Daphne exudes confidence as she explores her sexuality; as a result, her viewers feel similarly. Bridgerton, and the corset trend that it launched, has influenced the retail market, showcasing how the meaning of the corset has changed for women across the globe. According to Business Insider, “Orchard Corsets [whose average corset price is around 80 dollars] reported an increase in sales since the show began airing. Traffic to the retailer's website grew by 71% in the same time period.” Even Amazon was stormed with corset requests as they reported that their corsets have many sizes and styles sold out following the popularity of the show.
Women have reclaimed corsets as a piece of clothing styled and designed in their image.The corset has fully transitioned from being an exclusive, dreadful garment established in patriarchal society to being an empowering, multipurpose piece of clothing for women to own.