It's 2017: Why Are We Still Wearing Corsets?
Can a feminist wear a corset without being a hypocrite?
Sifting through celebrity photos for work a few months ago, I came across an image that stopped me in my tracks: In it, Kim Kardashian had paired sweatpants and a padded jacket with a Givenchy corset — boning and all. That one idea — a corset in 2017 — triggered a Baader-Meinhof scenario; for the rest of that week I saw them everywhere, from my browser to my backyard, at a streetwear launch party in my hometown of Cape Town, South Africa. They were dressed up, styled down, and worn over everything from men’s banker shirts to sweater dresses, all while being touted as the next evolution of underwear as outerwear.
Suddenly, corsets were back in magazines too: On Emma Watson’s Elle UK cover, on Maria Borges for Grazia Australia, on Natalia Vodianova for Porter, and on Madonna for Vogue Italia. They showed up on celebrities like Rihanna — on-tour via Adam Selman, on the runway via Fenty x Puma — Kylie Jenner, and Gigi Hadid. Of all the throwback trends that could take up space in one's closets these days, I was surprised the corset — once a symbol of women’s oppression — is the one my generation of empowered, active women would choose to unearth. We’ve replaced our push-ups with bralettes and our stilettos with sneakers, and yet, the corset has returned.
Its comeback began on the spring 2015 runways: A satin bodice at Jean Paul Gaultier and a gilded sacred heart bustier at Dolce & Gabbana were unsurprising, but my eyebrows shot up at the sight of the "French bodies” at Givenchy, reportedly inspired by traditional folk clothes from northern Italy. Then came an explosion in the fall 2016 collections: Alexander McQueen showed decadently embroidered gowns held up by a skeleton corset of sheer fabric and boning, while now ubiquitous “real-girl” canvas, leather, and denim versions at popped up at Prada, Isabel Marant, and Loewe. The options kept on coming from Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton, and Balmain too. Even this season at New York Fashion Week, designers from Tibi and Prabal Gurung to Helmut Lang and Alexander Wang all showed variations of the contraption.
But the alarm in my head continued to ring — not just because corsets are back in a big way, but because I, surprisingly, love the way they look, especially in the fresh and often weird way they’re styled, wrapping and shaping our waists in a way I never thought we could. While I found the prospect of wiggling into this latest wardrobe game-changer exciting, I also felt uncomfortable. These centuries-old instruments of everyday torture were used to mould women into a fantasy silhouette that was rarely achieved without pain or genuine damage to their health. We retired them. We banished them. We relegated them to fashion history. Now here they are in all their contemporary glory. And I want to buy one, or a few... But can a feminist wear a corset without being a hypocrite?
We’ve living in a time of intersectional feminism, body positivity, and genderless, smart, and adaptive fashion. We’re (gradually) gaining ground for women’s rights around the world, and we’ve mounted an aggressive attack on the gender wage gap. An archaic body-modification device with a controversial history seems a little out of place in our progressive wardrobes. But here I am, trying to decide if I should get one in leather or denim or both.
Of course, the contemporary corset I want is definitely not the corset of the 16th century. For form, we’ve gone with modern plastic and polyester instead of steel and whalebone, and barring the waist-trainer-faithful, wearing one today is primarily an exercise in accessorising, not modification. Modern options don’t bear much of a resemblance to their ancestors either, with soft bralette and belt versions being favoured over full-torso designs. Instead of a constrictive undergarment, these are cool and beautiful pieces in materials like light cotton voile and hand-moulded leather. But all things considered, these are still corsets, designed to exaggerate the female form — and I still feel a little shook.
Fashion’s cyclical nature means there isn’t just the possibility of a comeback — there's the inevitability of one. But the corset always felt like an exception to that rule. When fashion experienced a major silhouette reform in the early 20th century (starting from the pioneering corset-free designers like Paul Poiret and Gabrielle Chanel), women didn’t just push corsets to the backs of their closets — they condemned them. After all, they had seen and experienced everything from the industrial revolution to the sexual revolution of the jazz age to the battle for the women's vote. Meeting an unrealistic standard simply for the pleasure of the male gaze wasn't a high enough aspiration for the people they had become; they could be so much more — and they wanted to be.
But the return of the corset represents yet another shift in our state of mind: Is it, again, about stature and empowerment? We’re now wearing them over our clothes, a choice that says almost as much as the choice to bring them back in the first place: If we’re going to wear a corset, it’s going to be on our terms, loose and layered and as unconventionally sutured as possible.
We’ve always used fashion to express opinions, align with a cause, or put our personalities on display. In that way, the ability to choose what we wear every day has power, so it makes sense to put that power to use, be it through a feminist Dior T-shirt, a Hillary Clinton-style pant suit, or, in this case, by reclaiming the corset and subverting its oppressive roots. Of course, part of what makes that possible is that today’s version of the corset isn’t just about being perceived as sexy and alluring — the 2017 version is built for modern life, for weekday subway rides, brunch marathons, and probably your Instagram account, too.
It’s in the intersection between the corset and its past and present cultural context that brings it full circle. In a world where our choices mattered less, where our voices were stifled, and our roles imposed on us, any opportunity to rebel was significant. Today, despite gender bias and its fallout, women have more space and freedom than ever before to shape our lives as we see fit — not just our waists. That doesn’t make the trend any less disconcerting if you’d written them off entirely like I had. But, we can embrace the fact that living in 2017 means that even though rejecting the corset was a big deal, reintroducing it doesn’t necessarily have to be.
We get to choose it for ourselves now, and in doing so, we get to choose what it means. For me, that means adding another layer to my outfit. I’m thinking my new striped pant suit would look great with one, so I’m going to get over my reservations (and silence the voice in my head telling me I don’t have the body for it) and buy one. Not Kim’s Givenchy corset — I’m not best friends with Riccardo Tisci just yet — but something a little like it.
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