‘Liberate rather than repress’: why corsets are having a fashion moment

<span>Anya Taylor-Joy caused controversy by posting a picture of the corset she wore under her dress for the Dune: Part Two US premiere on Sunday.</span><span>Photograph: Gregory Pace/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Anya Taylor-Joy caused controversy by posting a picture of the corset she wore under her dress for the Dune: Part Two US premiere on Sunday.Photograph: Gregory Pace/Rex/Shutterstock

Few garments are as bound up with controversy and body politics as the corset. Case in point: the furore this week surrounding pictures the actor Anya Taylor-Joy posted on Instagram of herself wearing a corset, with an hourglass emoji caption.

The comments underneath gave a neat sample of the polarised thinking surrounding the much-maligned garment. “Can we not normalize starvation?” said one. “What a terrible, terrible thing to do to yourself or share with others,” said another. Others went in the other direction, from “There is such a misconception with corsets. Y’all relax,” to “Everyone is ‘body positivity!!!’ until it’s a skinny person in a corset,” or, pithily, just flame emojis.

Despite their associations with unrealistic body image, patriarchal repression and physical discomfort – when tightly laced, they have been known to reduce lung capacity and even cause organ deformity – corsets not only persist, but are having a moment. Beyoncé, a bellwether of the way the fashion winds blow, has just been featured on a range of covers for CR Fashion Book wearing corsets.

The most recent London fashion week featured several. At Simone Rocha, models wore corsetry, stitched into fragile fabrics including tulle and organza, as part of a collection inspired by the mourning dress of Queen Victoria. At the buzzy, rebellious designer Dilara Findikoglu’s show, which explored themes of toxic masculinity, football shirts and bomber jackets were transformed with corseting. But it was the extreme corsetry of the recent John Galliano show for Maison Margiela in Paris that really galvanised the revival. It was a design from this collection that Taylor-Joy wore.

It isn’t just a trend in the exclusive world of high fashion. From Boohoo to John Lewis, where online searches for “corsets” were up 30% last month compared with the month before, corsets are having a moment. On the vintage clothing site Depop, searches for corsets are up 27% month on month. Although it should be noted, very few of the current batch are worn tightly laced.

The fact that corsets are enjoying a particular moment could be down to the hyper-femininity movement that has grown women wearing pink and bows. “Romanticism, ‘regency core’ and ‘cottage core’ have popularised corsets in a big way,” says Mariana Rebelo, who sells corsets on her Depop store, Kara Kroa.

Kristin Mallison, who turns vintage tapestries into corsets, is one of a number of designers getting creative with the historical garment. Cierra Boyd upcycles old Nike trainers and Louis Vuitton handbags. Mallison’s designs, she explains, are “reframing them in a modern context … a much more casual – and much more comfortable – iteration of the corsets worn hundreds of years ago.”

So why does fashion persist with such a controversial garment? Its complicated trappings are part of its appeal. On the one hand, corsets symbolise patriarchal oppression. On the other it is precisely the negative associations that mean they can be weaponised to signal rebellion, as is perhaps best evidenced by Vivienne Westwood’s punk take on corsets – they featured in her autumn/winter 1987 collection, elevating them from underwear to outerwear. And it is largely front and centre, rather than as undergarment, that they are being worn now.

“Anything that is such an emblem or symbol of repression has already an innate power,” says Michaela Stark, whose couture designs subvert the modus operandi of corsets, using them to draw attention to the parts of the body they are traditionally intended to conceal, to “liberate the body rather than repress it”.

With the current focus on identity politics, she says, “people are really trying to break down gender norms” and “the easiest way is to tap into garments that are so traditionally feminine and to use them to sort of play with perceptions around what is feminine”.

The fashion historian Kass McGann, of Reconstructing History, says corsets have gone through many iterations. The “first surviving historical object we can reasonably call a ‘corset’ … [is] the funerary garments of Eleanora of Toledo, Duchess of Florence.” Its function was, she says, as a foundation for the elaborate gown worn over it rather than “to form the body in a way that was unnatural”. It was in the 17th century that heavy boning came into bodices and “only with the development of metal eyelets in the 1830s where corsets became tight-laced”.

Plus, she says, the corset’s reputation as something foisted on women by the patriarchy is not the whole picture. “Not to give men too much credit, but it wasn’t the patriarchy that forced women into tight corsetry. Although of course the argument could be made that women adhered to this ridiculous physical ideal in order to compete for men’s attention.” She notes that throughout the 19th century there was much male criticism of tight corsetry, “even going so far in the 1890s as to invent a ‘safety corset’ that didn’t compress the waist. Unfortunately, instead it turned the spine in an unnatural way and more women died wearing it than before.”

She thinks the mainstream take on the corset is a byproduct of popular cultural representations rather than historical fact. “The famous scene from Gone With the Wind where Miss Scarlett is holding on to a bedpost while her maid struggles to get her corset down to an 18in waist is so solidified in our psyches that we cannot see anything else when we think of corsets.” But, she says, this type of corset was not worn in the period in which the film is set.

The polysemous nature of the corset has been preoccupying people for centuries. Many commentators feel choice is key – that corsets are no one thing, their meaning shape-shifting with context. Michelle Obama in a corset worn over a dress on the cover of Elle magazine in 2018, or the undone corsets sent down the catwalk by the feminist designer Miuccia Prada in 2016 certainly read differently to those forced on women in the past.

“If you have to do it up tight and you feel like you have that expectation on you, that’s where it gets really problematic and restrictive, really not liberating at all,” says Stark. “But if you have the choice to do that … that’s when it turns into something a bit more liberating – something you can start to play and experiment with.”

The costume designer Ellen Mirojnick, who used them on Bridgerton for silhouette purposes, rather than to make any kind of statement says: “I think they have many different faces and different purposes. Women have many different faces and in today’s day and age to have everything available to you – we’ve come a long way.”

McGann sees a double standard in the response to Taylor-Joy. “Isn’t this just another case in a long history of editing women’s choices? Did anyone accuse Billy Porter of unrealistic and damaging beauty standards when he wore a Christian Siriano gown to the Oscars in 2019? I guarantee he was wearing a corset under there!”

For McGann, “the best thing about a corset: you can take it off and lay on the couch and eat bonbons.”