Corsetry is en vogue this season. Should we embrace its bony grip, writes Rachel Marie Walsh
“It left me in the worst pain of my life,” said Kim Kardashian — a woman who has experienced childbirth — said of a garment she chose to wear in May. The injurious item? A corset constructed for the Thierry Mugler dress she wore to this year’s Costume Institute Gala at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
That combination of a corset, shimmery gown and wet-look hair gave her the look of a mermaid who’d just swapped fins for feet, as well as the stabbing sensations experienced by Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid.
The corset heralded a major trend for this season as well as Spring/ Summer 2020. Corsets formed the bodice of tops and dresses at shows by Missoni, Vera Wang, Matty Bovan and, of course, Vivienne Westwood, a long- term proponent of the garment’s feminine appeal.
The autodidactic Dame deconstructed 19th-century corsets as a young designer, absorbing tricks that still influence today’s ready-to-wear suits and dresses. Kardashian also wore a corseted Westwood gown to the Emmys in September.
Corset revivals have inspired some of the most innovative and fun fashion moments. I have always liked how fashion designers play with this garment, subversion and reinvention are ways to honour the wearers that came before us (evolutions of the corset were popular from 16th to the early 20th centuries, although corset-like garments can be traced as far back as 1600BC) while celebrating our hard won physical and sexual autonomy.
Corsets are so shackle-like that any experiment with them instantly becomes a rebellious statement, usually one that still manages to flatter your figure. As a 90s kid, Stella McCartney’s boned “horse” dress for Chloé and Tom Ford’s corset-laced Gucci stilettos are my formative fashion memories.
In the 2000s I wore a lot of corset-look camisoles by Wheels & Dollbaby, a 50s pinup inspired Aussie brand favoured by London football WAGs. Those who were teens in the 70s tend to baulk when I bring up corset tops, recalling the depressing beige casings of their mothers’ underwear drawer.
This is contempt prior to contemporary investigation, as even practical corsets can be attractive now. Fashion options, such as structured hook-and-eye fasten tops and “boned” bustiers (with flexible, bra-like wiring forming the curves), borrow some pretty from them without the restriction.
Respecting the history of the garment means acknowledging that a lot of it was unpleasant, however. Even if you see corsets as Austenian and romantic rather than patriarchal torture devices, there is evidence that early models caused circulation problems, respiratory issues, and even miscarriages.
The endurance required to wear one is similar to that of women forcing their feet into vicious designer shoes now, as they were once the “privilege” of upper-class ladies and a status symbol. We all remember Meg March’s snobby frenemies laughing when they discover she can’t afford to wear one in Little Women.
There is, of course, an entire product category that’s emerged to fill the gap between modern corsetry and flimsy lingerie. The introduction of the elastic in the 20s meant corsets themselves became more comfy and even sports friendly, though still nothing like as freeing as Spanx.
Shapewear has its own army of celebrity fans, including Blake Lively, Oprah, and apparently every Kardashian-Jenner but Kendall.I applaud any innovation that keeps women confident in a favourite dress but basques, long-line bras and other modern takes on the corsetry still have it beat.
This is because shapewear does not look or feel sexy. You can dye sausage briefs crimson and cover them in lace: over two decades since Bridget Jones made them famous, they are still as alluring as long johns. Corsets, on the other hand, have an enduring burlesque appeal that keeps them in Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty lingerie range, as well as collections by Victoria’s Secret and Agent Provocateur.
This new vogue for corsets is not to be confused with that for lace-up waist-trainers — another Kardashian endorsement. Nothing exceeds like excess, especially on social media, so its no wonder the slightly cartoonish images of females celebrities in these devices get attention.
But the connection is misleading — waist-trainers are neither corsets nor fashion but a weight-loss fad that doesn’t achieve anything, even in the short term. Women (and men) still have to rely on diet, exercise, and sometimes plastic surgery to physically reshape their bodies and trim their waists.
Kardashian’s Met Gala dress impressed style savants who would sniff at her otherwise because it’s the collaborative work of Thierry Mugler and Mr Pearl. No discussion of ready-to-wear corsets would be complete without saluting Mr Pearl, the East London club kid turned haute couture collaborator.
A discreet and reclusive man, he is still fashion-famous for wearing authentic corsets daily to enhance his own 18- inch waist, the size for which Scarlett O’Hara struggled. He’s created corsets for performers at the Royal Opera House in London, worked with the late Leigh Bowery, and collaborated with Dita Von Teese, Alexander McQueen (for whom he once walked the runway in 1995), and John Galliano on waist whittling dresses.
When the Beckhams got married in Clonsilla in 1999, Victoria wore Vera Wang but that waist, the waspish, man’s handspan waist with which she’s not naturally blessed, was the work of a Pearl corset.
His clients truly suffer for his art, as Kim explained, but the looks are hard to forget. They are just looks, though, and while the extremes of any fashion trend can look scary, they’re not the standard. You can take your version as far — or as far in — as you wish.