Women wear corsets today

The corset: its exciting story in the Vogue lexicon

The corset - a piece of clothing with a rigid bodice that has webs worked into it and that is laced to give shape to the upper body - has a controversial history. For a long time it was considered a patriarchal instrument of torture that deformed the female body. Today, however, historians argue that there has not been a single, universally valid experience with the corset and that some women have even found wearing it to be positive.

Representation of the lacing process

© Heritage Images

Corsets were worn by women - and sometimes men - in the western world from the 16th to the beginning of the 20th centuries, although corset-like clothing dates back to 1600 BC. Appeared. What began as a tight, sleeveless bodice evolved into a garment with herringbone webs and then steel that encircled the ribs and squeezed the natural waistline.

© Chicago History Museum

The shape of the corset has changed over the course of its 400-year history, ranging from longer versions that covered the hips to shorter versions that focused on the waist. However, corsets always helped to shape the body into striking silhouettes, from the hourglass shape popular in the 18th century to the "S" figure of the 19th century.

19th century advertisement

© Universal History Archive

Discussions about the negative effects of the corset on women's health came to a head in the 19th century when its prevalence was greatest. Corsets, which were available in different price ranges, were worn by women of the upper and middle class and increasingly also by women of the working class. Some doctors blamed the corset for respiratory problems, rib deformities, internal organ damage, birth defects, and miscarriages, while others advocated "moderate" or "healthy" corsets that were less stiff and able to support the body.

Actress Veronica Lake in Miss Susie Slagle's film

© Peter Stackpole

Fashion historians Valerie Steele and Colleen Gau argue that while some women have actually suffered from decreased lung volume and a change in breathing pattern, it would not have necessarily led to respiratory disease, but "only" to fainting and decreased vitality. Steele also notes that references to extreme lacing to create the smallest possible waistline cannot always be taken at face value. They may have been sexual fantasies rather than descriptions of authentic experiences.

Photo by Horst P. Horst from 1939

© Horst P. Horst via Condé Nast Archive

The introduction of elastic in the 1920s eventually led to flexible sports corsets for women who wanted a modern, active lifestyle. Advertisements for corsets and articles about the latest corset fashions continued to appear throughout the early 20th century, proving that even then women were still looking for ways to sculpt and support their bodies in addition to belts, compression underwear and bras.

Sophia Loren's extreme hourglass figure in the film The Millionaire owed her to a corset

© Snap / REX / Shutterstock

With the trend towards sport and a healthy lifestyle in the 1960s and 1970s, the corset was finally abandoned as underwear, but the ideal of beauty that had shaped it remained. Instead of relying on one item of clothing, women now turned to diet, exercise, and plastic surgery to trim their waistlines.

Claudia Schiffer in a dress with integrated corset by Chanel

© Daniel SIMON

Corsets are still worn by some enthusiasts today, and they are part of fetishistic and burlesque practices; and although they are no longer part of the everyday life of the average woman, they have never really gone out of style. In the 1970s, Vivienne Westwood began using corsets as part of her historicizing punk aesthetic; where she wanted women to feel empowered rather than restricted.

Designed by John Galliano

© Guy Marineau

Jean-Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler added corsets to their collections in the 1980s, with Madonna Gaultier's pink satin corset making it world-famous and an important moment in fashion history on her "Blonde Ambition Tour" in 1991. Stella McCartney, Yves Saint Laurent, Tom Ford, Nicolas Ghesquière and many more also experimented with corsets or corset-like clothing, which they sometimes used as underwear and sometimes as outerwear. Last but not least, corsets have a long tradition in fashion photography, where they were used as a symbol of female strength and sexuality.


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