I HAVE a photo of my great-grandmother in all her strait-laced Edwardian splendour — good coat, flamboyant hat and an expression full of gravitas.
I often wondered why she looked so serious — having donned a corset, I now know the reason for her severe demeanour. A corset not only changes your dimensions and your deportment, the sense of constriction when wearing one is pronounced, even painful. My great-gran wasn’t just adopting a pose for the camera, her face probably reflected the discomfort she felt contained in her whalebone corset. Corsetry and 12 children is a difficult combination.
Most modern women have no experience of corsetry and no conception of the intense sense of physical restriction and compression a corset creates. My generation has grown up unperturbed by lacing, whalebone or steel bands — for them fashion has been about freedom, comfort and self-expression. Why then would they find themselves drawn towards the controversial cult of the corset and dreaming about hand-span waists? Is it because in the past 60 years, women’s waists have grown by six inches? Are we tired of lycra and dressed down informality?
In the past a slender waist was perceived as a natural sign of belonging to a superior class — Wallis Simpson quipped that “You can never be too rich or too thin”. Now, in the midst of a contemporary obesity epidemic, slenderness is again being seen as indicative of social status, self-discipline and erotic allure.
Corsets have always been controversial and have been blamed for curvature of the spine, rib deformities, displacement of internal organs, respiratory problems and puncture wounds. And yet there is something incredibly alluring about seeing your shape sculpted into an hourglass so you get an appreciation of the “wasp waist mania” that drove some Edwardian women to indulge in “tight lacing”, reducing their waist span by as much as eight to 10 inches. Such extreme manipulation had fetishistic undertones and to this day S&M subculture (as popularised by Fifty Shades of Grey) maintains a fascination with corsetry.
The most famous modern corsetier is Mr Pearl, who has created tight-laced corsets for private clients, such as Kylie (he got her waist down to 20” for her Showgirl tour) and Posh Spice (for under her wedding dress), as well as for couturiers Thierry Mugler, Jean Paul Gaultier, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen. By wearing a corset constantly, he has trained his own waist to a tiny 18 inches. He has stated in a previous interview: “People are fascinated with the body and there has been a great movement towards plastic surgery and intervention.
“Corsetry doesn’t require one to go to a hospital, it just requires a little discipline and the results can be spectacular. You do not need to have liposuction, you do not need to have breast enlargement, you do not need to go and have your thighs drained.” Perfect logic for the gym-phobic who still desire killer curves
A number of influences have inspired the corsetry revival. Kate Middleton and her diminutive waist in her McQueen wedding dress was a revelation to a new generation. In times of financial uncertainty, feminine curves have always been fetishised, so bearing in mind the scale of the current meltdown, it’s unsurprising that a defined waistline has become the principle erogenous zone and tightening your belt a style statement as well as an economic necessity. A small waist has always been a fashionable asset: the Edwardians crushed their lower ribs and internal organs in S-bend corsets: Scarlett O’Hara held onto her bedpost while Mammy pulled and strained for the desired 18-inch span and Horst’s black and white image of a corseted, female back still retains its erotic charge decades after its appearance in 1939.
Post World War II, Dior’s extravagantly romantic New Look of 1947 was heavily influenced by Edwardian style and built on his belief that “without foundations there can be no fashion”. It ushered in the elegant, structured ’50s, a decade of neat waists and hourglass curves, courtesy of roll-ons, corselettes and boning.
Contemporary popular culture has been channelling the ’50s for the last couple of years: Mad Men, The Hour and the burlesque revival as epitomised by Dita Von Teese have all drawn on the era. As Susan Hunter, lingerie retailer acknowledges: “I noticed a great interest after Mad Men, the 1950s curvaceous figure is attainable through corsetry. The actresses come across as very sexy, in an old fashioned way.” The trend is set to continue with Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal of Janet Leigh in the new Hitchcock biopic, Sienna Miler as Tippi Hedren in HBO’s The Girl and Nicole Kidman’s turn as Grace Kelly. These films will all influence fashion, so the waist-cinching ’50s silhouette is destined to be a major influence for Spring Summer 2013, expressed via wide cummerbunds, elasticated waspies and obis.
In 1959 designer Anne Fogarty, the author of Wife Dressing advocated wearing a girdle “with everything” even when scrubbing the floor. Bearing in mind that I could hardly sit down in my corset, I can’t contemplate how women did anything while trussed up tightly. Once encased in my corset, my breathing was shallow and rapid so I could understand why Edwardian ladies were known to suffer the “vapours” and kept smelling salts to hand. Although corsetry did evolve and become less restrictive into the 20th century, the pressure to display a curvaceous figure endured: my mother wore a roll-on during her first pregnancy in the late ’50s, which from a modern perspective, seems bizarre. The eventual disappearance of the corset in the ’60s coincided with a decline in the birthrate, the development of the pill and the arrival of a new form of hosiery — tights. The sexual revolution generation discarded corsetry as emblematic of the rigid sexual code of their parents and grandparents — to them corsets were an orthopaedic device for the ageing and the overweight.
After the ’50s, diet, exercise and plastic surgery replaced conventional corsetry and an athletic body beautiful replaced the boned corset. In a way the corset was internalised and it took the Punk and Goth movements, decades later, to revive the garment as a symbol of rebellion. Vivienne Westwood, the Queen of Punk championed the corset and soon other designers like Thierry Mugler and Jean Paul Gaultier followed. Madonna flaunted a conical corset by Gaultier on her Blond Ambition tour in 1990, as a potent manifestation of her sexual empowerment. Suddenly Granny’s underwear had a whole new subtext. On her most recent tour Madonna is still sporting a corset, and other younger celebrities who have been inspired by her include Christina Aguilera, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift and Emma Watson. Even Will Young has donned one for his West End role in Cabaret.
So the corset is cool again almost a 100 years after its Edwardian heyday and 60 after its ’50s revival — it’s ability to create sexually alluring curves as potent now as then. If the 70% ratio of waist to hips is still the barometer for female attractiveness and fertility, then the contemporary Venus will no doubt be seduced anew by corsetry’s shape-cinching silhouette. Ladies suck in and smile and forget that diet: in a corset those post Christmas pounds will soon be a distant memory.
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