Corsetry – an item of fetishism? A garment from a by-gone era? Or, the most influential item of clothing in western culture? The answer to these questions could be hotly debated. In this issue Designer Amy Broatch takes us through a personal artistic exploration of this most alluring and mysterious of garments.
We interview the international theatre designer and costume academic Anne Curry, the American Actress and cult celebrity Victoria Lane
Compressed, uplifted, flattened, pointed. Women’s breasts have been the subject of endless whims of fashion for centuries
The corset: fascinating, alluring and controversial. A cinching garment that encases the middle torso to push up or flatten the breasts, hug the waist into shape, or both. An instrument of female torture or a symbol of empowerment and sexual confidence? Never has a garment taken on so many conflicting meanings as the corset. It is a fashion mainstay that has been in use in one form or another for thousands of years. No other garment in western history has assumed such political, social and sexual significance. Centuries of crusaders, divines, doctors, moralists and misogynists exaggerated the physical dangers of corsets, when what really disturbed them was that women were seeking attention through beauty, fashion and sexual display rather than settling down to their natural and God-ordained role as modest mothers and household workers.
In my hourglass corset I’m laced every day, My little wasp waist is shrinking away. The stays squeeze me inwards so small and so nice, In a pattern of lacing that grips like a vice.
When the subject of corsetry is mentioned, many people often think of the tight lacing of the Victorian era and the horror stories of practices that took place in order to achieve the “wasp waist” fashion. Tight lacing was the subject of many medical warnings, sermons and humorous prints. Victorian doctors opposed to fashionable display were eager to attribute to tight corsets to every illness from tuberculosis to breast cancer, and every deformation from overlapping ribs to split livers; these effects associated with corset wearing are clearly myths. Many of the severe stories which include girls having to lie on the floor whilst their mothers tightened their corsets, and women having ribs surgically removed so that their corsets could be fastened tighter are often subject to invention or exaggeration. The small minority who were true “tight lacers”, enduring agony to achieve a wasp waist, were not fashion victims but sexual fetishists.
The phallic symbolism of the corset may have been a major source of its erotic fascination. A tightly laced corset produced physical symptoms that mimicked both sexual arousal and illness – panting, a rapidly rising and falling bosom, a flushed or pale complexion and the fainting fits that were such a dramatic feature of Victorian ballrooms. The corset sculpted solid flesh and enabled the plump and rosy to transform into the popular romantic ideals of fragility and delicacy. Victorian women were trying to attract Victorian men, who prized the hourglass figure which few women naturally possess: the up-thrust breasts and rounded hips divided by a tiny circular waist which made them seem both bountiful and childlike, sexual and virginal, and above all controllable, as is suggested by the fetishistic “hand span” waist. So how tightly were the corsets laced? There are many reports of waists between 18 and 14 inches, even 12 inch waists are mentioned. However, it is believed that most accounts of these very small waists represent fantasies. Measurements of corsets in museum collections indicate that most corsets of the period 1860 to 1910 measured from 20 to 22 inches. Furthermore, these sizes do not indicate how tightly the corsets were laced. They could easily have been laced out by several inches because it was impressive to buy small corsets, much as it is for women to buy smaller sized clothes today.
Not surprisingly, an era which simultaneously eroticised womanly curves and childlike waists, found pregnancy disturbing. Maternity corsets – elaborate contraptions of straps, buckles, panels, laces and bones – had the dual purpose of supporting the swelling belly, some corsets even had painful looking internal extensions to support prolapsed wombs, while also concealing it (something even respectable wives might desire, given that pregnant women were expected to give up their social lives when their bumps began to show). Warnings that corsets starved foetuses of oxygen and crushed them could be counterproductive; women not only used corsets to hide an illegitimate pregnancy, but also to induce a miscarriage or stillbirth. The corset market itself was minutely graded, from expensive models adorned with rich laces and ribbons for the well-off, to plain ones made of stout cloth for working-class women; there was one for every income.The early 20th century brought female liberation. Poiret introduced the corset-free, high waisted dress in 1906, when the S curve silhouette was still popular, suggesting the shift from the ostentatious artificial forms of the nineteenth century to a revolutionary style which brought out the natural beauty of the body. The result was a great transformation in fashion. However, women were not completely free from the corset until after World War I, when Poiret’s new style totally took over the The brassiere then replaced the corset as the supporting undergarment. The brassiere was more suitable for the free and active fashion of the 1920s, because of its less restrictive structure and flat silhouette.
Alexander McQueen, Thierry Mugler, Hussien Chalayan Women have, and still continue to shape and compress their torsos with an array of undergarments. It’s clear that, like their great-grandmothers, women today still accept pain and constraint in order to look beautiful. Today’s ideal female body – thin, toned, and narrow hipped, with big breasts, is as unlikely to be produced by nature as an hourglass figure with a hand span waist. The corset still serves as inspiration from which designers create powerful and sophisticated designs. Whilst still capturing its essence, the features of the corset become stylised, and exaggerated. The corset remains a timeless element of seduction and will continue to inspire future generations of designers.