The Controversial History of the Corset and its Return
Corsets were introduced as a body-manipulating instrument, predominantly utilised by women between the 16th to the early 20th century, however, corsets were sometimes sported by men too. The true origin of the corset can, however, be traced even further back to 1600 BC.
The purpose of the corset was to train the torso to a desired shape, usually a smaller waist that caused an hourglass silhouette. The desired silhouette evolved over the centuries along with beauty standards. The idea of the corset remains controversial, as many of the beauty standards of the past were developed in a patriarchal society, therefore corsets were suggested to be torturous instruments that caused pain and illness, all to fulfill the unrealistic ideals about women.
It was not until the 19th century that the concern of health was introduced to the conversation on corsets. At the height of their popularity, corsets were starting to be blamed for health issues such as organ damage, respiratory damage, fainting, rib damage, and, tragically, miscarriages. However, some doctors approved of less rigid and restrictive corsets. Despite the claims, more recent discussions have suggested that the effects of the corset may have not been as detrimental as implied.
“I’m one of those strange beasts who really likes a corset.” – Cate Blanchett
The body shaping trend continued less severely into the 1920s, however, the popularisation of materials such as elastic, paved the way for more comfortable ‘sports’ corsets.
Film stars such as Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe flaunted enviable hourglass figures that strengthened the beauty standards of the 50s and 60s, further popularising the desire for a body-changing corset. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, corsets were not popular, but instead, women focused on other body shaping methods such as exercise, diet, and surgery.
“If you look at it, the corset is a very beautiful item, but when I put one on, I realized how little you could actually move. And I'm a very physical person: I talk with my hands. And I felt how the clothes took that away from me. And that was the idea, I think. It was a way of limiting women.” – Florence Pugh
However, despite its questionable past, corsetry did experience a revival in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, with designers such as Thierry Mugler, Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood reintroducing them in revolutionary, awe-inspiring collections. Madonna also played a role in the re-popularisation of the corset, as she wore a satin Gaultier corset for her 1990 tour. Along with the revival, corsets lost their practicality and everyday importance, and instead became a daring, vintage fashion statement, therefore a message of empowerment rather than oppression.
“I don't mind wearing a corset, it informs your posture, changes the way you move, you can't slouch.” - Michelle Dockery
Today, corsets have surged in popularity following the release of historical shows such as ‘Bridgerton’, and the further reintroduction by designers such as Prada and Thierry Mugler. The bustier, the corset’s less restrictive sister, has become popular due to the increased comfort and lack of waist compression.
Celebrities such as Billie Eilish, Bella Hadid, Gigi Hadid, and Hailey Bieber, have all flaunted corsetryinspired looks, as they are now being seen in a different light. The importance of the modern corset is the choice to wear one, rather than the pressure to fall into societal expectation and beauty standards, as different body types are wearing corsets to embrace natural curves and introduce a vintage style, rather than force themselves into an unrealistic ideal.
WRITTEN BY HANNAH MAE WEBSTER