The Corset Has Always Been Controversial—Here’s How It Went From Oppressive To Empowering, Real Quick

Often associated with physical oppression and sexual commodification, the corset has acquired different meanings through time. There’s no denying that we all have a sort of love-hate relationship with it. On one hand, it’s sexy and flattering, on the other… you kinda need to breathe. The shapewear piece has been seen on everyone lately, from Lizzo to the Hadid sisters, and with it becoming such a trend, we wanted to unpack the history behind the iconic garment. 

Whether they lace-up or button-down, corsets are the sexy shapewear that we all associate with a sultry, fetishistic look. 

The corset has gone from an object of discomfort, oppression and commodification, to one of erotic enforcement and empowerment.  “While the corset has historically signified both beauty and oppression, corsetry, as we know it today, has been reclaimed by women who feel empowered and proud of their sexuality,” explains Patricia Maeda, editor of Fashion Snoops.

Originally, the corset was used to enhance the female body. 

The corset was a bodice used in European civilization to enhance the female form by tightening the waist and perking up the chest as well as improving posture. 

Since females were thought to be the ‘weaker’ sex, women were expected to wear corsets to keep their bodies from becoming deformed.

“The primary function of corsets was to hold the breasts in place and to create a smooth foundation for the fashionable silhouette,” says Audrey McKnight, a Paris-based fashion historian. What few know, is that boys wore it until they were about 10 years old to train their bodies, while women wore it throughout their entire lives.

They were a symbol of “civilzed” dress.

“Corsets were used as a site of colonial control, a symbol of ‘civilized’ dress, and acting as a means of subtle physical control over subjugated peoples,” says McKnight. “For the majority of middle-class women, however, corsets were necessary for the fashions of the day, and not worn to an extreme size.”

Corsets also helped differentiate the noble from the worker. 

The corset was an instrument of social domination that helped the noble or the rich, from the worker. “A subsequent dress reform movement spoke out against the evils and health issues spurred by wearing a corset.”

The corset has been used in pop culture to make a point about how certain clothing can become a symbol of the patriarchy.

Corsets were thought to safeguard internal health and to promote good posture. But with the beginning of the women’s dress reform which began in the 1850s, a growing number of people including feminists, health advocates, physicians, artists, and educators began to believe that women’s clothing, particularly fashionable dress, was harmful to women’s health.

In the 60s, the anti-bra movement obliterated corsets.

In the 60s, the youthquake and second-wave feminism movements brought the “barely there” underwear and anti-bra movement, which established a youthful, “natural” figure of which Twiggy was the highest representative. 

It wasn’t until the 80s an 90s when designers started incorporating the cinched figure in their designs again.

Designers including Vivienne Westwood, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and Thierry Mugler brought back the corset in a new era in which it became a symbol of sexual empowerment as opposed to one of oppression. By showing the corset as outerwear rather than underwear, it was like they were reclaiming and repurposing its significance. The corset became liberating and subversive. And they were being worn by pop stars like Madonna, Janet Jackson, and Christina Aguilera.

Fast forward to 2019 and we’re seeing a resurgence of corsets in fashion. 

With views on sexuality being more open and expanding nowadays, corsets and their connection to the fetish community, are something that fashion has recently been drawn to. 

Corsets are being reimagined to fit the contemporary woman.

Today’s designers have been modifying the bodice silhouette and using it in new ways, including the adding of utility pockets, zippers, harnesses and the use of different fabrics.

Most importantly though, the Kardashians have been credited with the resurgence of corsets. 

“if you make Kim Kardashian disappear, you will make the corset disappear,” explains millet. The number of youtube videos, Instagram posts and articles of people’s experiences with waist trainers like the one famously popularized by the Kardashian family is pretty high.  Kim’s Thierry Mugler dress, which she wore to the Met gala this May was deeply cinched at the waist, and she received a lot of backlash for being ‘irresponsible’ and ‘unrealistic’. Kim has even gone on to launch a whole shapewear line, Skims. 

Today’s shapes however, are less constricting. 

The pieces that incorporate elements of the corset tend to be much less constraining nowadays. Characteristics like boning, paneling, lacing and hook-and-eye closures are what’s often being used as reminiscent of the much more classic and rigid garment. Elements of the corset offer an empowering feeling to women who wear it, and it. Yes, there is still pressure for women to conform to beauty ideals, but isn’t it encouraging to see women reclaim patriarchal elements, subvert them and make them their own?

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