The Corset: Individuality or Oppression?

“The body is a reflection of the society that presided over its creation,” wrote Denia Bruna, curator of the Bard Graduate Centre’s exhibition ‘Fashioning the Body. It would then follow that in a patriarchal society, women were made to mould, shape and disguise their form to appeal to the male gaze and to fit the aesthetic of the time. Corsets ,by design, uplift the breasts to allow them to look perky and full, flatten the stomach area with the pulling the entire bodice together tightly, and set off the hips, thus creating a hyper-sexualised version of the female form.

The view of the corset as a symbol of female oppression is exacerbated further when we consider the fact that in 1675, Louis XIV incorporated a guild of female dressmakers to make all clothes for women, except for riding habits and corsets, which were to be made only by men. This epitomised the male hold on women, both figuratively and literally. In addition to being a means of control over women, historically corsets also reeked of classism as they were meant only for the wealthy since the wearer would often have required the help of servants to be laced up properly.

Although hourglass figures were idealised in European literature as far back as the 12th century, it wasn’t until the 15th and 16th centuries that women began wearing garments that helped them achieve this look. By the 18th century century, these torso-cinching undergarments were everywhere. Corsets were first made from layers of linen and then began incorporating whalebone and even steel. Although they briefly went away after the French Revolution, owing to the rejection of the aristocracy and by extension its attire, corsets came back with a vengeance around 1810, this time with an even curvier silhouette that made it even harder to move or bend over. It was during this time, in the Victorian era, that tight-lacing had come into fashion. Women were often laced so tightly their breathing was restricted leading to faintness. Compressing the abdominal organs could cause poor digestion and with time, the back muscles may atrophy. In fact, long term tight-lacing even led to several cases of rib cage deformation.

These issues led to negative attitudes towards the corset and by the 20th century, these attitudes came to a head.During the Age of Enlightenment, intellectuals began questioning the corset and its artifice, arguing that it was at best, the physical embodiment of censorship, and, at worst, a way of deforming the natural body. This paved the way for designers like Paul Poiret and Coco Chanel to proudly denounce the corset and ‘free’ women from this form of oppression. But this victory was indeed hollow at best: women instead traded in their corsets for the girdle, which while less confining, still shaped the body to fit a specific ideal.

It is therefore interesting that the corset, with it abundance of historical baggage, has re-emerged now, in a time when women’s roles are far more and challenged and malleable than ever before.The inversion of the corset and its reclamation as an item of feminism, came in the 1980s. A new generation of designers came along and rather than eschewing the sexual politics of the garment, they embraced it, and in a way, manipulated it. In 1989, Jean Paul Gaultier famously dressed Madonna in a pink satin corset with conical-stitched breasts, resembling the “waspie” foundation garments of Dior’s time.This concept that underwear should be worn over clothes, not under them, or even by itself, strengthens the arguments of sex-positive feminism that have been bubbling over since the early ‘80s.Rather than reshaping the silhouette, as Dior did, designers today tend to just fiddle with the visual components of the corset in a deconstructed sense, like the inclusion of corset-style lacing or in the form of leather bustiers.

However, I can’t help but feel that the advances made by the fashion industry to reclaim the corset and mould it into this empowered, post-second-wave feminist attire has been called into question lately, most recently at the 2019 Meta Gala. Kim Kardashian West received huge backlash for her choice of garment at the event themed ‘Camp: Notes on fashion’. In a rather distressing behind-the-scenes video detailing the lengths to which Kim went to squeeze into sexism, West jokingly tells Anna (Wintour) “if I don’t sit down for dinner, now you know why, I'll be walking around, mingling, talking, but I can't sit.. I can only half sit”. The corset she wore, designed by Thierry Mugler who came out of retirement to craft the couture item, crushed her midriff in so greatly that the reality star had to take ‘corset breathing lessons’ in order to prevent her from blacking out. Kim who ,along with her sisters and others such as Amber Rose, has previously promoted waist-training as an exercise and weight loss aid, once again proved that the corset, in this form, is unquestionably repugnant to feminist ideals and furthermore is an unnecessary danger to women’s health.

 Looking at images of her unnaturally tiny waistline, I was unfortunately reminded once again how women’s bodies are never good enough, have never been good enough-a fact that has repeatedly reasserted itself throughout time. Note that corsetry isn’t alone in highlighting this. From foot binding in Eastern Asia to modern Spanx, we are yet to see a true acceptance of the individuality and unique beauty of the female form.

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