With its origins tracing back some five hundred years, the corset has been the ultimate tool for creating the hourglass silhouette for generations of women.
Whilst in the 16th Century the corset was designed to disguise a woman’s curves through compressing the stomach and breasts, by the 17th Century the corset was being used to create the hourglass figure. The design changed and instead of disguising womanly curves, corsets were used to slim a woman’s waist and elevate the breasts therefore resembling the desired look that many continue to seek today.
Even during the mid 19th century the trend continued and corsets were being used to give women the ‘S’ shaped silhouette. What made these women endure years of discomfort just so that they could achieve the ‘perfect’ hourglass figure and from where did this definition of perfection originate? Despite warnings from physicians about the dangers of corsets, the trend persisted for many years. It is known that women often struggled for breath and even fainted due to the restrictive nature of the corset. Who can forget the scene in Pirates of the Caribbean when Keira Knightley plunges into the sea after fainting because she could not catch her breath?
Whilst this was a scene was emphasised for cinematic satisfaction, the threat posed by the wearing of corsets was real, yet the related health issues were not enough to deter women from this popular style. Whilst nowadays women are willing to go under the knife or try extreme diets in the quest for body perfection, it seems that this is not a new a trend and as for centuries women have compromised their health in order to achieve what is believed to be ‘perfection’.
Over the years, the stiff and restrictive nature of the corset became more relaxed and by the beginning of World War 1 it was not mandatory for a woman to wear a corset.
By the 1920s when the straight, waist-less dresses of flappers were all the rage the necessity of a corset diminished and was replaced by a girdle and a bra and this became the trend for much of the 30s and 40s.
By the early 1950s, we see a return to the popular style created by corsets with Christian Dior’s post-war collection that once again placed emphasis on the small waist. Dior’s designs were an effort to revive the once booming Parisian fashion industry. The collection accented the allure of the female body with cinched waists and full skirts, bringing femininity back to womenswear. This flirtation with the style made popular by the corset was relatively short-lived and the swinging sixties brought with it mini-skirts and shift dresses.
For the years that followed, the corset seemed to have taken a back seat until Madonna made her debut in Jean Paul Gaultier’s corseted bodice for her ‘Blonde Ambition’ tour. The coned bra is now synonymous with Madonna and Gaultier. Although the corset experienced a brief revival thanks to the two, it was short-lived and the desired figure for women was that of the supermodels of the moment: Claudia, Christy, and Naomi.
The cinched waist was out and super slim was in. This trend continued into the noughties with the likes of Kate Moss being the cover girl for the ideal figure of the moment. This look was just as unattainable as the hourglass figure promoted by the popularity of corsets, yet it prevailed for a number of years and became the ultimate body goal for women.
It is only in the past couple of years that we have seen the hourglass figure make its way back into the spotlight. Thanks to the Kardashian-Jenner clan, who shamelessly promote waist trainers, the look favoured during the 17th century is once again the sought after silhouette of present day.
The promotion of the waist trainer by said celebrities is further endorsement of the hourglass figure, with these women claiming that this product will be the answer to the current search for body perfection. The waist trainer most obviously resembles a corset; it is incredibly tight yet without the inclusion of steel stiffeners sewn into the lining, however it is still likely to pose health threats if worn for a long period of time.
Women are still willing to put themselves at great discomfort to attain the ideal body shape and adhere to the fashion of the moment. Centuries later, we are still obsessed with the allure of the corset and the effect it creates because we are told that this is what equals beauty. Over the years, the corset has been inspiration for designers who have incorporated them into their collections with great success and even today bodice style tops are widely available on the high street. These designs are simply intended for fashion purposes, they are not attempting to alter our figures. The issue lies with the popularity of the waist trainer, a replica of the corset of earlier centuries, and what this demonstrates about what is expected of women and the idea that they must alter their figures.
Embrace the fifties style silhouette and take inspiration from Gaultier circa 1980, but with the popularity of the hourglass figure once again reaching prominence, let’s avoid the threat of fainting a la Keira Knightley and instead love the figures that we have.