Corsets are back in – the Kardashian’s are wearing them, the Hadid’s are wearing them, and they played a big part in everyone’s favourite show to binge in December 2020: Bridgerton. They had a brief Renaissance with Madonna’s cone bra in her 1990 Blone Ambition tour, but were still thought of as “underwear”. Now they’re very much “outerwear” and most fashion retailers have something corset-y to offer.
Historically corsets have gained a bad rep: they’ve been physically constraining to the extent that some women would faint, they are often simplified as just kinky props for BDSM, and they’ve been viewed as an oppressive weapon to force women into ‘ideal’ shapes. But in reality, they were just early shapewear bras.
Some form of corsetry has existed on Earth since ancient Greece, and in the middle ages front-lacing belts were worn but not in the cinched-in extremes we’re familiar with. Corsets as we’d recognise them today were first seen in 15th Century France. Over the centuries, the high-necked dresses of the middle ages started to become progressively lower cut, emphasising the breasts and causing a stir in the courts of Western Europe.
Corsets became stiffer into the 18th Century, using long whalebone, ivory, or metal to perfect their shape. By the 19thCentury the necklines of dresses had raised again, and although your waist was still heavily pulled in, corsets were more forgiving to the natural curves of the rest of your body.
Society’s idea of the ‘ideal’ female has changed consistently over time, and by the early 20th Century the hourglass shape was out and slim hips were in. Corsets dipped below the waist to cover the top curve of the bottom, helping wearers get that chic and slim look for their flapper dresses.
Once the bra became separated from the one-piece corset (first accompanied by a separate girdle for the waist and hips) by the end of the Second World War, women’s lingerie began to become truly ‘fashion’. Modern lingerie designers tend to work towards an “invisible” feel – bras without underwires and seamless pants to avoid VPL. However, the allure of the tight, posture-improving (and waist-training) corset has remained a favourite for modern women both in the bedroom and on the stage. Corsets create a dramatic silhouette which is ideal for things like the Super Bowl, the catwalk, and going viral on social media.
Author: Verity Babbs