Corsets have been around since the 16th century and have recently worked their way back into the current trend cycle for 2021. In the past, there was much negative stigma surrounding women’s corsets, labeling them as restrictive, harmful, debauched, and even dangerous. However, the unlearning of Victorian-era misinformation coupled with Instagrammable outfits from modern it-girls and the rise of regency-core have turned corsets into this century’s latest trend that might have been timeless all along.
A trip down memory lane
Historically, corsets were undergarments worn by men and women to shape the body into different silhouettes. In men, the conforming garments smoothed their torsos and controlled what we now know and love — the dad bod.
Women’s corsets served aesthetic and practical solutions by shaping the body and supporting a woman’s needs in an undergarment. For women, the structure of a corset helped evenly distribute the weight of their breasts, lessening the pressure on their backs. The boning and flare of the hips were also strategically placed not only to give the illusion of a curvaceous figure but to properly support the heavy layers of petticoats and bustles that women wore.
One of the largest misconceptions still heard today is the belief that wearing a corset was “torture”. Although I doubt it was as comfortable as my Calvins, women depended on the garments, and wearing them was not a chore designed by men. In fact, at this time fashion relied on and was run by women. Madams ruled the fashion world, and negative stigma was spread by men utilizing the impracticality of corsets to denounce women’s agency and means of integrating them into society.
Examples of the misguided but regularly accepted rumors about corsets included the belief that they squish the skeletal structure, often cause cancer, can split the liver in half, could lead to oxygenation problems, and generally caused “bad behavior”.
However, multiple fashion experts, as well as feminist historians, agree that this backlash had more to do with women entering the workforce and fighting for the right to vote over the corsets themselves.
Frankly, some corsets did alter one’s range of motion, but this was then equated with women’s inability to vote, respectfully enter the workforce, and be seen as equal to men — all because they couldn’t touch their toes. I doubt men performed with acrobatic ease and flexibility either, but of course, they were not under society’s meticulous microscope.
In the 1970s, the corset returned, but this time as an outer garment ready to be flaunted. The punk subculture used corsets as a symbol of rebellion and sexual liberation. In the counterculture revolution, many women also wore elasticized Vivienne Westwood corsets as an anti-mainstream, reclamation of their power and freedom.
21st Century Corset
Nowadays, corsets can be cropped, boned, elasticized, and anything you want them to be. The year is 2021, and the world is still recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic, and as such, it has impacted everything from our daily tasks to fashion trends.
One of the trendiest television shows that premiered during the pandemic was Netflix’s Bridgerton, produced with Shondaland. This show took place in the regency era, also known as 18th century England. With escapism on everyone’s minds, the petticoats and corsets were a lovable fantasy away from mask mandates and indoor isolation.
Furthermore, as time went on and the world started opening up, people became enamored with going outside and started getting extra dressed up for mundane events. These corsets and corset style tops have become a staple in trendy fashion as they provide new takes on the age old corset.
Patriarchal Elephant in the Room
While corsets are rising again in popularity, many bystanders can’t help but think of the symbolism behind corsets equating restriction and patriarchal oppression. However, what needs to be remembered is that even though they were thought to be ghastly, torture devices making women immobile, the reality is these limitations are overplayed in history and are falsely reinforced through films and television shows.
The resurgence of waist trainers and unattainable body standards popularized by the Kardashian-Jenner clan has also led to the revival of corsets as women vie for the “perfect” hourglass figure. This is undoubtedly founded in the male gaze, and unfortunately, this truth, while hapless, continuously pushes corsets from trends towards timelessness. As Mina Le, a fashion Youtuber states in her deep-dive on corset video, “Control garments [like corsets] never go out of style because body standards as a concept never go out of style”.
This aspect of corsets has been revitalized on TikTok as harmful trends resurface, showing girls tight-lacing corsets. Tight-lacing was historically not worn in everyday settings and can be harmful if the corset is worn for long periods. This trend reinforces the importance and stigmatized beauty of a small waist and hourglass figure that is more regularly attainable through facetune than anything else.
Luckily, not all of Gen Z thinks this way, and they have reclaimed the corset as a celebration of femininity, extravagance, and style rather than a tool to fit into unrealistic body standards. In the TikTok below, the user utilizes corsets to demonstrate her personal style and fun with fashion rather than strictly emphasizing the size of her waist. This video also goes to show how corsets can be styles into casual wear for one’s day to day lifestyle rather than waiting for a regency era- ball.
In Biz Sherbert’s Document article, they note “like [Vivienne] Westwood, Gen Z is interested in creating their own interpretations of historicized femininity. Their obsession with corsets, or at least tops that kind of look like them, represents their larger reexamination of traditional and exaggerated forms of femininity, evident in concurrent trends”.
We’re changing out of the sweats and into ball gowns — if we had anywhere to wear them. As the world nears the hopeful end of the Coronavirus pandemic people are getting the opportunity to dress up again. Several factors have us reaching for corsets including the exciting feeling of getting to dress-up, the inspiration from Netflix hit Bridgerton, the rise in the cottage-core aesthetic, and the objective beauty of a well-made corset top.
Many celebrities (and fashion lovers alike) are using this time for the sidewalk to be their runway as they sprout look after look. Everyone’s favorite it-girls are hitting the streets channeling new and old takes on the corset.
Pictured below is superstar, Dua Lipa participating in the corset trend in various ways showing how one could pay homage to the ulti-feminine and historical roots or reinvent the corset into trendy streetwear.
Other examples of it-girls dawning corsets or corset style clothing are Hailey Bieber, Zendaya, Bella Hadid, Kim Kardashian, Billie Eillish, and every trendy Instagram baddie from coast to coast. Whether it is a longline corset or the increasingly popular cropped corset style tops and bustiers, women are taking back the corset and doing so flawlessly.
The new age of corsets celebrates personal style, mobility, and power as women go about their daily lives while happening to be serving looks. These corsets are made for modern women and their everyday lives from riding subways to running errands and leading work meetings — the corset is as versatile as anything else.
What was once a symbol of the patriarchy is now a staple for trendy, post-pandemic it girls. But when looking back at history, the corset has not gone completely in and out of fashion as much as it has peaked and plateaued in popularity. From practical underwear to rebellions outerwear, or restrictive symbolism to sexual liberation the corset remains an understated but figure in understanding the rise of fashion, women’s role in history, the counterculture movement, and now the deliverance from isolation. Trends come and go and from what I’ve seen corsets seem to have stood the test of time. The garment meant to make women feel controlled by society and body standards has transformed into an empowering tool into their personal style and celebration of femininity, edginess, and overall agency. It turns out the biggest trend of the last few years was timeless all along, and I for one am excited to see the different ways the corset is reinvented next.