“Corsets have evolved esthetically and symbolically: from underwear to outerwear, from corsets to bustiers, from constriction to power, from lingerie to armor. The corset expresses contradictory messages: constriction and freedom, dominance and submission, femininity and power.” – Victoria and Albert Museum
he 2020s are recycling some of the most iconic fashion staples of the past decades—the chokers of the 90s, the flared pants of the 70s, and corsets of the 20s. The 1820s that is! Corsets becoming a widespread fashion trend was not on many of our bingo cards for this season, considering the controversial history behind the garment. In the span of a few years, how did the fashion-conscious go from believing corsets were devices of restriction and oppression for women to reclaiming those same devices to express their sexuality? The answer isn’t so black and white. During the eras in which corsets were worn, they were not restrictive, painful garments women were forced to wear. They were simply undergarments. But to understand the dynamic, we must delve into the history of the corset.
Corsets were not common practice until the early 19th century, only becoming popular in the Victorian era. Until then, women wore what was called stays. Very similar to the corset, but its functions and silhouettes were slightly different. Stays of the late 16th century were meant to keep the bodice (an article of clothing for women and girls, covering the torso from the neck to the waist) compact, leaving the frontside straight without curves. This was a popular silhouette, of course, but it served as a functional fashion as well. Much of this history is told from the perspective of royals and nobles, people whose words were regarded as more important. But it doesn’t give insight into the majority of people. Commoner women were often working outside and in the fields, and the structure that stays gave them kept their spine intact. If you ever try to curve your spine in an early stay, I can guarantee you’ll have a significant bit of difficulty. Later stays were much more lackluster. Nearing the end of the 19th century into the Georgian and Regency era, stays took on a solely functional purpose. The fashionable silhouette of the time was the empire waistline, bringing the waist to right below the bust. Stays were even less curvy now and made with no boning (long, flat, and stiff components inserted inside the clothing to give it stiffness and structure) for the first time. The natural waist had no need to be synched, as it wasn’t even seen with the styles of this time.
After the Regency era, between 1820 and 1830 is where we begin to see the first corsets. The waistline slowly moved back downwards, and all of a sudden lady’s undergarments had boning again to accommodate for a new silhouette. Corsets of this time and beyond had a new purpose. Aside from acting as a modern-day bra, being a very supportive garment also gave the body a different silhouette. Corset styles vary from decade to decade, but they synch the waist and lift the bust at the base of most of them. Later corsets had an “S” curve, because of the exaggerated bust and bustle pair, looking like an S from the side. While these undergarments were much more relevant in terms of fashion than their predecessors, at the very core of it, corsets were still supportive garments like any bra today. The idea that corsets were painful on an everyday basis is simply not accurate. Modern media enjoys pushing that narrative to make historical people seem less advanced. For example, Netflix’s Bridgerton is one of the most popular period drama’s nowadays; however, they do not accurately portray corsetry either. One scene show’s how the back has been rubbed raw by the undergarment, which was unlikely to happen because it was standard practice to wear a chemise under a corset to keep the corset clean and prevent rubbing. Another scene showcases tightlacing. Tightlacing is the practice of synching a corset so tight that it surpasses the body’s natural measurements.
Many people who want to sport the synched waist look will look to a commercial seller such as Amazon to receive their corset as soon as possible. But that’s another reason why corsets have been demonized. Before the industrial revolution, all garments were made using bespoke tailoring. Women might only have one or two nice corsets, but they were made with her exact measurements. When a garment is made to fit the body correctly, it should not hurt in any way. After the industrial revolution, clothes were made in bulk for the first time. There wasn’t enough time to take every woman’s measurements accurately, so industry sizing entered the picture. Nowadays, many women complain that bras are uncomfortable and never fit quite right. Well, if bras are the modern equivalent of the corset, you can’t expect industry sizing to fit the wide variety of women’s bodies. You cannot equate the comfort of a truly bespoke corset to a cheap knockoff from a sweatshop. You can’t look at the past through the lens of modern technology.
The idea that corsets are oppressive comes from a wide variety of sources. Fashion historian Karolina Żebrowska states much of the misinformation probably comes from the simplification of history because the general public likes things that are easy to comprehend, which “erases a lot of fascinating nuances and details and turns historical facts into weird stereotypes.” Tight lacing is the perfect example of this. While normal corset wear was not overly dangerous, tight-lacing absolutely was. A normal functioning corset distributes the tension all around the corset, not just on the synch of the waist so that it can serve its multiple purposes. Unfortunately, tight-lacing was the practice that relieved all the publicity. Similar to the media today, only extreme cases often make it to the news, warping our perception of reality. That’s a big factor in beauty standards for women. Corsets became a device to fit a standard instead of a functional piece of fashion.
“If there is anything women are good at, it’s reclaiming our narrative.”
When looking at it from a bigger perspective, it’s easy to see how the oppressive narrative of corsets came to light, being restrictive physically and from a societal standpoint. But if there’s anything women are good at, it is reclaiming our narrative. Corsets have taken a new function in modern fashion. Before the corset was a fashion trend, the closest thing we had was waist training, popularized by celebrities such as Kim Kardashian. Love them or hate them, the Kardashians must be given credit where it is due for the resurgence of corsets. At the base of their function, corsets are designed to give you a certain silhouette. The most popular silhouette of the present day has been dubbed the “BBL effect,” in reference to the “Brazillian Butt Lift” procedure that gives that Kardashian-esque look. In the past years, that figure has grown more and more popular, and in no time the fashion week collections of 2019 and 2020 had corsets and corset adjacent garments popping up all over the runway. Now, modern-day corsets have turned from waist trainers hidden away under clothes to a statement piece in an outfit. Because of this resurgence, people are also learning to wear corsets in a safer way than the tight lacing and waist training of the past.
It’s no secret that women have historically been mistreated and repressed, whether that be our basic human rights, domestic life, or beauty standards rooted in misogyny. But when it comes to fashion and how the patriarchy affects women, more often than not it all comes down to whether or not you want to be wearing what you’re wearing. If an Edwardian woman is tight-lacing for her own pleasure, then all the power to her. It becomes a problem once she is doing it for someone other than herself. Corsets are not inherently evil, it is the world around them that can either give them an oppressive meaning or a liberating one. As Karolina Żabrowska said, women of the past “were speaking up all the time. They just weren’t necessarily heard.”