When celebrities walked down the Met Gala red carpet a few weeks ago, one thing quickly became apparent: the easiest way to make something look a little old is to simply put on a corset. There was Billie Eilish channeling John Singer Sargent’s Madame Paul Poirson in recycled satin GucciBella Hadid in custom Burberry (courtesy of artisan leather craftsmen Whitaker Malem), Gigi Hadid in boneless burgundy VersacePaloma Elsesser in the 1920s-dating-50s-dating-90s Coach, Precious Lee in pure Joseph Altuzzaraand Maisie Williams in the sculpture Thom Browne. Some guests explicitly referenced the 19th century in their silhouettes. Others opted for a bolder, more contemporary sex appeal.
Much loved, very hated, very fetishized and very obsessed, corsets have become almost impossible to avoid in recent years. With a long and provocative history as both underwear and outerwear, the corset has recently made another comeback. Maybe we can blame the pandemic. In the depths of lockdown costume drama fever last winter, shows including Bridgerton and Great brought quivering boobs and cinched waists back into the limelight, sparking a surge in online searches for corsets.
Image courtesy of KNWLS
But even before this point, there were signs that the fashion world was ready to get back on track. Brands including Meow, Dion Lee, TO KNOWand Dilara Findikoglu were already looting their ancestors’ costume boxes: reinventing Vivienne Westwoodhistorical prints and zip stays, and jean paul Gaultierangular parodies of femininity. They were corsets that oscillated between the minimalist and the sensual. Some were designed to flatten the body, others to accentuate it.
Those rumblings have since turned into a roar. Today the corset is very common, appearing in many fashion shows and adorning the famous left, right and center (as Madonna proved thirty years ago, it is an especially useful item of clothing for popstars) . However, something changed in the process. While there are still all kinds of bralettes, bustiers and frilly corsets that are feminine and more suited to costume drama, in the upper reaches of the fashion world things have gotten stranger.
Image courtesy of Versace
For AW22, Versace – a veritable assortment of corsets in every color and pattern – was perhaps the simplest offering, following in the familiarly high and overly sexy footsteps of Gianni Versace. But to Fendi, tailored corsets were less va-va-voom, more smooth and sculpted. Featuring asymmetrical peplums and clean lines, these corsets seemed to stray (depending on your industry) into workwear formality. Gucci’s collection in collaboration with Adidas went the other way, with mixes of logos and fabrics that lingered somewhere between corset and hoodie. To Balmain, they looked like robotic armor. At Dior, they were positively orthopedic: padded and attached to the models’ bodies as if intended to relieve back pain. This is an interesting paradox: where previously the corset might have been seen as a symbol of constraint, in 2022 it seems explicitly designed to support the body.
There’s something nice about these weirder iterations of the corset. Like Daniel Roseberry’s muscular breastplates at Schiaparelli – released in a range of shades including black, brown and Hulk green – they not only suggest an attempt to transform the body into a conventional hourglass, but a desire to reshape it completely.
In his book The corset: a cultural history, fashion scholar and curator Valerie Steele writes about the general perception of the corset, which is often seen as “an instrument of women’s oppression”, existing as a “coercive device by which patriarchal society controlled women and exploited their sexuality. “. Much of this image rests on the perceived discomfort of the corset: the garment is often listed alongside heels and crinolines as a restrictive tool designed to keep women in their place. However, as Steele adds, “much of what we think we know about corsets is wrong or exaggerated.” It’s not good to assume that women were mere victims of fashion and didn’t derive pleasure and support – as well as inconvenience – from what they wore.
Image courtesy of Fendi
Today’s corsets are designed to go beyond the stereotype. At this weirder end of the spectrum, they follow the great tradition of designers who used corsets not to reinforce an ideal but to lean into the possibilities of transformation and exaggeration. Think of Thierry Mugler’s sci-fi fever dream corsets that turned women into robots, insects and motorcycles, Hussein Chalayan who took rigidity to the next level by encasing his models in wood, at Alexander McQueen merging the organic and the manufactured in a grotesque transparent plastic corset that contained dead worms. Although no one seems to have reached the same macabre heights as McQueen, what remains is an interest in the sheer physicality of the corset: what it contains (or does not contain), how it exists in relation to the body underneath.
This is a question that presides over the work of seamstress and artist Michaela Stark, who specializes in surreal self-portraits in corsets. In Michaela’s photos, flesh is everything. Corsets and other forms of lingerie become devices that crush, compress and contort. Like a sculpture by Hans Bellmer, Stark presents his body as something infinitely malleable. As she previously told iD, “My job…is to celebrate the parts of the body that society typically makes us uncomfortable with, creating unique pieces of lingerie that accentuate perceived body imperfections: fat bulges, bulges, cellulite, uneven breasts, body hair, etc. This use of a corset is symbolic. Despite all that we can today defend it, the intended purpose of a corset has always been largely to smooth the body and make it smaller: to tighten the waist, to create a clean line under the fabric. There’s something a little exhilarating about seeing that goal ignored. Like Sinéad O’Dwyer’s silicone body molds, Michaela’s pieces can change the body, but they don’t try to hide it.
Of course, many people who currently choose to wear corsets do not do so for provocative or even particularly playful reasons. As with any trend that hits a mainstream tipping point, it becomes just another wearable as it matches the current mood. But in these bolder designs, we see a sustained engagement with the corset as a shapeshifter: something that can make the body soft or coat it with hard layers like armor, something that can reveal as much as it hides, something something that is unconstrained potential even as it tightens its embrace.
Image courtesy of Dior