Despite its twisted, dark history, this fashion piece is making a comeback
For much of the past century, when people thought "corset," it was likely that the first image that popped into their head was Scarlett O'Hara getting her corset laces tugged and tightened while holding onto a bedpost for dear life in Gone With the Wind. Or, they could have thought of someone like Marie Antoinette at a dinner party with her fan, fainting. Or, they could have thought of disturbing images of women who've gotten their waist down to 15 inches.
But when people today think "corset," more modern images could pop into their heads, and that's because the corset has managed to find a new generation to embrace it.
Most recently, at the Fenty x Pumashowat Paris Fashion Week, models walked the runway wearing lace du-rags, chunky pearls and loose corsets with shirts and dresses tucked underneath.
The theme of the show was "if Marie Antoinette went to the gym," so the corsets were apropos. They also came at a smart time, when the corset is being rethought and embraced by designers. Though it isn't so surprising that a garment that's been around for hundreds of years is coming back en vogue, given the cyclical nature of trends, what is surprising is how 21st century women have started to embrace corsets off the runway for everyday wear.
"Every so often a new accessory enters the playing field and becomes an object of lust. The most recent? The corset." Vogue U.K. wrote on Monday.
Women are embracing corsets yet again, and perhaps unbeknownst to them, simultaneously interjecting themselves into the complicated history and legacy of the corset itself.
Even still, it'd be easy to look at a corset and think it represents torture, harmful beauty standards, women in pain and overall oppression.
But when women like Rihanna and Kendall Jenner wear corsets willingly, they're helping us question the corset's image as a torture device. It's possible people will come to think of it as nothing more tortuous than the bra or even shapewear, garments which don't come with the same historical baggage.
To understand the significance of this event, though, we need to go back in time.
The corset's origins are murky. Though women around the world had practiced binding their bodies for an "ideal" silhouette before, the first corset, as it is known today, made a wider appearance across Europe in the 16th century.
At first, corsets were made with heavier fabrics. Steel and bone stiffeners were inserted in them by the 18th century. At that time, they were worn in order to reduce breasts and hips so women's bodies had a sort of cone-like shape. They were not mandatory for women to wear during this era, though women who skipped wearing them were sometimes, according to i-D, seen as indecent or promiscuous (see: Marie Antoinette).
But then, in the 19th century, the innovation of eyelets, those tiny, strong metal clasps that can run vertical on a corset, led to the garment's booming popularity. With eyelets, the corset could be pulled tighter than ever before, be longer than ever before, since it worked so well with the slimmer silhouettes of gowns at the time.
The sudden rise in popularity found a number of health professionals taking a closer look at corset's affect on the bodies of those who wore them. They found that wearing them too tight squeezed the ribcage, which led to bruising. There was a call for the corset itself to change its shape, going from a cone to more of the commonly known hourglass shape. At first, doctors thought that would be safer, but it ended up still causing worry among those who thought that it could cause bones to break or chronic conditions like endometriosis.
But it's important to note that the most extreme examples of tight corseting were not the norm.
"Like with any fashion trend there are, of course, extremes (and the corset and tight-lacing has definitely been fetishized more than most), but for the most part the corset is just a regular foundation garment and I wish it was treated that way," Katy Werlin, a fashion and textile historian, said in an interview. "It's not some scary beast!"
"The corset molds and changes the shape and silhouette of the body, and anything that modifies the body, even if it's only slightly and non-permanently, will always elicit an extreme response," Werlin continued. "And there are legitimately harmful things that women (and men) do to their bodies in the name of fashion. Squishing yourself into a slightly different shape with a corset isn't one of them."
But still, the pervasive opinion that corsets were fundamentally unhealthy for women stigmatized the corset, leaving it with a reputation that still lives on today.
"The corset was most known as a women's garment so of course it's loaded with all sorts of stigma," Werlin continued. "The moment a woman puts anything on her body everyone and their mom will have an opinion on it. Every day dress today isn't as structured as it was back then, so it's easy to assume that the structures of clothing were all for oppression."
In reality, men were the ones against them.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, men turned the garment into tabloid fodder, with exaggerated cartoons printed in newspapers and doctors theorizing about whether or not they could improve women's attitudes or cause women to become infertile.
"In the Victorian era, many men in positions of power opposed the wearing of corsets, which is why there are plenty of newspaper reports and books referencing doctors saying they're bad for women's health," Lori Smith, a fashion researcher who also works at the London College of Fashion, said in an interview. "Tight-lacing was not as common at this time as many would have you believe, plus our ribs are flexible and internal organs are designed to move around."
So, what changed? What made women start to become less enthusiastic about corsets? The answer: Fashion. By the turn of the 20th century, designers were pushing for women to ditch the corset for a more natural look. Chanel, for instance, pushed for no corsets at all, and so the well-to-do women who had until then embraced corsetry suddenly had second thoughts.
Over the course of the 20th century, corsets' reputation moved from a necessary piece of underwear to a sign of oppression and the extreme lengths individuals will push their bodies for the sake of fashion. With more and more people ditching them, they became outdated.
That doesn't mean they completely vanished, though. Designers throughout the 20th century would call on the corset for the purpose of harkening back to a certain Victorian era. The same goes for pop stars too.
But still, the images of women's bodies being turned into human hourglasses lived on, and it's that twisted, morbid history that still has people squeamish and questioning of corset's intentions today.
"Corsets are such a striking garment," Cora Harrington, the founder of the blog The Lingerie Addict, said in an interview. "They immediately draw the eye to the body and I think that's why they're popular with celebrities. If you want to stand out in a crowd, which is kind of their job, then a corset is a great piece to wear."
Now, it's more about wearing an object that may draw attention.
"I wear shaping garments because I like how they make me look and feel. I dress for me," Werlin said. "Why couldn't women in history do the same? I know it's never that simple and there are a billion factors that go into dress and fashion and gender, but I think the angle that women engage in fashion for their own pleasure, and that fashion itself is a worthwhile pursuit, often gets forgotten."
Corsets are, after all, not a required item of formal dress, not even for the royals, so if a woman is wearing one now, it's because she wants to wear it, much like how most women wore them in the 19th century too. Nothing more, nothing less.
"There are no requirements on women wearing corsets in the modern era, so if you see people wearing them now, it's not like they were ordered to do that," Harrington said. "So it's strange to me that people talk like this is something that people don't chose to wear. It's wild to me how people will talk to me about how corsets are oppressive but not talk about all these day to day beauty standards like makeup or even bras."
Although corsets may have a more extreme effect on the body (if worn a certain way, of course), the act of wearing them is no different than wearing a bra or shapewear. It's just that it comes with a whole lot of historical baggage.
And this new idea of what a corset is is precisely what these images of Rihanna and Kim Kardashian, who loves to wear them over clothing, enforce.
Now, images of women fainting while wearing a corset, or being sucked in so tight that their ribs break are replaced with images of Kendall Jenner going to lunch in Paris or Rihanna dancing on stage at the Video Music Awards. And that, in turn, may be helping to remove the negative connotation many people have for corsets, and correcting history.
Famous women now have the ability to reclaim a garment seeped in incorrect, twisted history.
So, thanks to women like Rihanna and Kendall Jenner, more people know this: Corsets aren't garments that are definitively harming women or being forced upon them at all. They're what they've always been: an undergarment that some women just like to wear, just like bras or underwear.Scroll through to see the small-waist challenge women are participating in: