The Complex And Controversial History Of Corsets

When Billie Eilish was announced earlier this month as British Vogue’s June cover star, people had a lot to say. The 19-year-old singer has been known up until now for her rejection of clothing that is typically feminine or revealing, opting instead for oversized t-shirts, baggy shorts and hoodies. However, Eilish chose her Vogue cover shoot as an opportunity for reinvention. To signal a new era in her life and career, Eilish channelled an aesthetic inspired by mid-20th century pin-ups and the carefully orchestrated shoot sees her in a range of custom designer looks comprising stockings, suspenders, latex and – poignantly – corsets

After Eilish posted the cover on Instagram, it became the fastest image to reach 1 million likes on platform, in under just six minutes, and it sparked an outpouring of discussion from media outlets and fans alike, with people debating whether Billie had ‘sold out’ by finally revealing her body or whether it was a triumphant declaration of her control over her own image, body, femininity and sexuality. What is particularly interesting, though, is Eilish’s choice to feature corsets so heavily in the shoot. Multiple times throughout history corsets have been used by women at pivotal points as a tool for crafting one’s own image; but the garment’s history and its reception by society is steeped in complexity. If the corset’s roots are planted firmly in the idea of constricting the female form and moulding it into a narrow ideal of beauty, why does it continue to be reinvented and reused as a symbol of liberation and empowerment?



To begin to understand the corset we should look back to its origins, although this in itself is tricky to pinpoint. “It’s difficult to attribute the corset to one particular person or moment,” says Fenella Hitchcock, a lecturer at the London College of Fashion. “But in terms of its popularisation in western fashion, we’re looking at the 16th century onwards.” During this period, there were a variety of different types of corset available, which were also known as ‘stays’ or ‘bodies’. They were generally worn on top of linen undergarments and underneath all other layers of clothing, although during the 16th and 17th centuries they were sometimes worn as outerwear too. The purpose of corsets at this time was to hold out skirts while also pushing up the breasts and turning the upper torso into an inverted cone shape. The rigid boning and intense tight lacing involved created a natural element of discomfort and restricted the wearer’s movement, hence the notion of corsets as a symbol of female oppression.

However, despite our overarching association of corsets with women, they haven’t always been solely reserved for this group alone. Hitchcock adds: “A lot of the literature on fashion history talks about corsets as an instrument of oppression, and an expression of patriarchy and women being beholden to men. But there are points in time where men have worn corsets as well.” In the 18th and 19th centuries, the most popular style of dressing for men included form-fitting trousers and jackets, and to achieve this look some men turned to corsets in order to slim the waist and create a smoother silhouette. Towards the late 19th century, some companies even began to offer corsets specifically designed for everyday wear by men. But eventually, corsets as an everyday item of clothing went out of fashion, partly due to the uptake in women now participating in sports, exercise and other activities that required more freedom of movement than corsets allowed. Perhaps surprisingly though, men played a key role in their dissolution. In the 19th century, male dress reformists advocated for women to stop wearing corsets, claiming (in an admittedly sensationalist way) that they were morally evil, promoted promiscuous views of female bodies, and presented numerous health risks including infertility

But in the mid to late-20th century, corsets slowly made a comeback, though this time with a different agenda. Now, women began playing with corsets in ways they never had before. In the 1970s and 80s, the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood experimented with corsets in her collections, taking them from restrictive undergarments to something to be proudly shown off, infusing them with her now iconic pop-punk aesthetic. However, perhaps the most obvious and infamous example is Madonna. In collaboration with Jean Paul Gaultier, Madonna chose to wear a pink satin corset complete with a conical bra on her 1990 Blond Ambition tour, an item that’s become a piece of pop culture memorabilia in and of itself. According to Liam Hess in American Vogue, what made Madonna’s take on the corset so ground-breaking was how “in place of the soft curves the corset was supposed to shape, the female anatomy became a spiky, phallic weapon” that allowed Madonna to “exert her dominance, sexual or otherwise”. In other words, by taking the corset and twisting our expectations of it, Madonna gave the garment a brand-new meaning and set of connotations. 



We could also view the Madonna moment as a foreshadowing of what Billie Eilish would do in 2021. “If you think about female popular music artists, there’s a tendency to experiment with different personas at different stages of their careers,” Hitchock says. Is there something inherently liberating and metamorphic about taking something that was once a symbol of oppression and redefining it on your own terms? “Certainly [for Madonna and Eilish] it marks a period of reinvention,” Hitchcock adds. “A lot of people look at this pin-up aesthetic and say, ‘This is oppressive. This is objectifying. It sexualises women.’ But my personal view is that’s incorrect – no clothing is in and of itself inherently erotic. If women want to be seen as sexual, then great. If they don’t, equally, that's fine. I like to think we understand that womanhood and femininity are multi-layered, complex things.”

If we now look to the young women of today more broadly, a demographic that’s becoming increasingly more outspoken about feminist issues and women’s rights, it’s perhaps no wonder that corsetry-inspired clothing remains such an omnipresent feature of current fashion trends. From high-end to high street, corsets are speaking to young women far and wide and society’s interpretation of them has come a long way. No longer considered a restrictive item that represents patriarchy and antiquated beauty standards, the corset has instead been reclaimed as a symbol of empowerment. Interestingly, Hitchcock adds that this current resurgence in corsets may also be linked to the pandemic. “We can perhaps read this in terms of it being antithetical to the lockdown moment,” she says. “They can provide a level of glamour and fantasy that we want to bring back. But what the widening of this trend might also do is open a gateway for people who previously wouldn’t have felt that a corset was an option for them. For example, if you have a larger bust, it can actually be really helpful. There’s the fashion element, but also the pragmatic side too. What’s important is that women are finally asserting this on their own terms.”


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Written by Robyn Schaffer

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