Corsets as a symbol of oppression and emancipation

Corsets as a symbol of oppression and emancipation
Horst P. Horst, Mainbocher Corset, 1939

“Hold on and suck it in,” are Mamushka’s orders for the unruly Scarlett, who grabs the bed post with both hands and holds her breath. A few laborious tugs later and her tiny waist becomes even tinier in the merciless grip of whalebone plates. You would likely recall this scene from Gone with the Wind. If not, you are sure to have come across countless such episodes in other films, where corsets are not just a prop but a protagonist in their own right.

Over the centuries this indispensable element of the female wardrobe has been perceived as a symbol of oppression, a health hazard but also a sign of independence. We look at the history of this ideologically divisive element of fashion which made its way back in.

Gone with the Wind Corset Scene
Scene from Gone With The Wind, 1939

How it all began

A 33 cm waist was the official beauty standard introduced by the French Queen Catherine de' Medici in the second half of the 16th century. The aristocrat was convinced that waist size should echo the size of a lover’s neck. She was also obsessed with corsets, which became an everyday essential for well-off young women. Anyone that refused to lock themselves in a corset was looked down upon.

Queen Elizabeth I In Coronation Robes
Queen Elizabeth I, Unknown artist, ca. 1600
Image: National Portrait Gallery

Another royal gesture in favour of popularising corsets came from the English Queen Elizabeth I. During her reign the female gown was firmly split into a bust and skirt which promoted a firmer top part and a voluminous skirt. It was then that corsets gained a specific purpose that was to be adhered to for centuries to come: by lifting the breasts the bra itself was flat in the interest of showing off the material of an expensive fabric in the top part of the dress. Another important element of an Elizabethan corset was the use of whalebone, which made it more durable and helped contour the body’s silhouette.

How corsets entered the male wardrobe
Laceing [sic] a Dandy, Unknown artist, 1819
Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

How corsets entered the male wardrobe

For women the first chance to catch a breath from wearing corsets came during the Regency period which brought the empire silhouette into fashion. The waistline was raised up to just below the breasts and corsets were no longer essential elements of clothing. A further trend for realism popularised dresses which showed off the body’s natural curves. With it came one of the main paradoxes of fashion history as corsets migrated onto the waists of men.

The first man to borrow this item from a female wardrobe is thought to be King George IV. He likely acted upon the counsel of one of the fashion trend setters of the time: a certain dandy named George “Beau” Brummell. The decision to seal himself into a corset was not a fleeting thought. As a fan of gourmet food and drinks, he was pretty obese and by 1824 his waist measured at 130 cm. On the day of his coronation George nearly fainted from the lack of oxygen and, likely, an overly tight corset he wore.

Tight lacing, or Fashion before ease
Tight Lacing, or Fashion Before Ease, John Collet, ca. 1770
Image: The Lewis Walpole Library

It was not long though until this shaping garment made its way back into the female wardrobe. The corset reappeared with its new companion in the form of crinoline.

The Victorian era became known for making corset an essential element of clothing that no woman would leave her house without. Around this time, it became popular to add metal plates inside the corsets to hold a fluffy skirt with a structure of heavy rings.

Anna Held by Aimé Dupont
Actress Anna Held by Aimé Dupont, 1900
Image: Corbis via Getty Images

Emancipation of women

At the beginning of the 20th century corsets acquires an S shape as they slips further down onto the hips and highlight the body’s curves. But it is not long until it disappears altogether. It is all to do with the appearance of designer Paul Poiret on the French fashion scene who introduced a new type of loose shirt dress for women and has gone down in history as the one who freed women from corsets for good.

To be fair, it was also Poiret that came up with another garment that imposed restrictions on the way women moved. One of his signature garments happened to also be one of the most uncomfortable ones: a narrow ankle-long skirt which made it impossible to move in any other way than shuffling.

Coco Chanel’s idea of comfortable fashion, losses associated with the first world war and the straight silhouette dresses of the roaring 20s pushed corsets out of the wardrobes for some time. And despite their occasional return (such as in Dior’s “New Look”), the accelerating emancipation of women and an obsession with healthy lifestyle at the beginning of the 60s have written corsets off completely as an item of clothing associated with female oppression. But that is not to say that it left fashion completely.

Thylda Corset
Thylda Corset, 1908
Image: Felix Lingerie

Not the doctor’s orders

The history of women’s battle against the tyranny of corsets would not be complete without a detour into its health implications. So, what was truly so terrible about them? The doctors addressed this question back in the 19th century when the issues of the impact of tight elements of clothing on health first came up.  By then corsets have already made their way into the wardrobes of all women irrespective of their class background and were referred to by medical experts as nothing other than dangerous.

These fashionable items were typically first worn at the tender age of five, suppressing the bodily organs and interrupting the normal functioning of the reproductive system, often leading to rib deformities, lung deterioration and chronic fatigue. Not to mention that overly tight corsets limited blood flow and often were the cause of fainting. In Victorian times this even manifested in the popularity of the so-called fainting rooms, equipped with fainting couches to help women recover and take a break.

Soon corsets gain a political undertone and become the object of resistance. Getting rid of corsets was one of the suffragettes’ main demands on par with equal voting rights.

Vivienne Westwood portrait collection
Vivienne Westwood 'Portrait' collection, 1990

Back in vogue

It was thanks to Vivienne Westwood and Jean-Paul Gaultier that corsets underwent a revolutionary transformation from a synonym of women’s oppression to a symbol of female empowerment and sexuality.

“Westwood’s revival of the corset may be one of her most important contributions to late twentieth-century fashion,” – writes fashion historian Valerie Steele in her book dedicated to this element of clothing. The Queen of Punk showcased her first corsets in the 70s, introducing a whole new way of wearing them. This involved putting them on over other clothes, highlighting its different function which was no longer about restricting women.

Madonna, Blond Ambition Tour
Madonna, Blond Ambition Tour, Rotterdam, 1990
Image: Gie Knaeps/Getty Images

In the 1990, the icon of feminism Madonna took off on her world tour as part of Blond Ambition with costumes designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier. The singer’s famous stage appearance in a corset with cone-shaped bra cups was revolutionary and has gone down in the history books. This triggered the appearance of corsets in the fashion collections of many other houses: from Dior and Louis Vuitton to Balenciaga and Prada. But the latest episode of corset fever was not a result of haute couture trends but a consequence of popular culture.

The 2020 rom-com series Bridgertons set in the Regency era of empire line dresses promptly brought corsets back into fashion. According to Lyst, the demand for corsets increased by more than 100% as a result, despite there being only a handful of characters actually wearing this garment in the series. Corsets quickly migrated from the screens onto the streets around the world. And so, this centuries-old element of clothing is once again paired with modern shirts and dresses or worn as it was originally intended. But whatever its purpose today is, it stands for nothing other than freedom of choice.

Related Posts