from marie antoinette to rihanna, the complex politics of corsets

We’re taking a look at the historical and social implications of the year’s favourite trend.

by Wendy Syfret
03 October 2016, 11:40pm

Prada Fall/Winter 16 campaign.

Almost a century after they fell out of favour, corsets are again having a moment. Since Prada paired them with tea-dresses and brocade for their Fall offering in February, they've crept into our lives and Instagram feeds and emerged as a dominant trend of 2016.

Rihanna has repped the look continuously this year (Adam Selman's are her favourite), and featured them in her recent Fenty x Puma collection. Kim Kardashian, a long term fan of waist trainers, graduated to DAISY's cult bustier version - usually worn over a longsleeve Pablo tee - as a recent go-to look. And Fashion Month street style continues to see a notable invasion of cinched waists.

But long before they were worn over dress-shirts, corsets were one of fashion history's most contentious items. Over the early 20th century they moved from a necessary piece of underwear to represent oppression and the ghoulish lengths to which individuals will push their bodies for the sake of fashion. Horror stories of women passing out, cracking ribs and suffering collapsed lungs from tight-lacing permeate our collective consciousness like fabric-spun urban myths. Fables like Catherine de' Medici, the Queen of France in the late 16th century, requiring her ladies-in-waiting to have 13 inch waists, have been woven as fact, and become emblematic of the sense of horror we lend the garment. For the record, the world's smallest waist measures 15 modern inches and it's held by American Cathie Jung, not a member of Catherine's inner circle.

Corsets were a frequent feature at Rihanna's recent Fenty x Puma showing in Paris. Image via @thisismax

The official origins of the corset are murky; women were said to have bound their bodies for a smooth silhouette in ancient Greece. But the garment began making an appearance in wider Europe in the early 16th century. A surviving French example from this time is made of two pieces of metal attached with hinges. While opinions differ over its use, it isn't thought to have been a daily fashion item. Some historians suggest these early metal offerings were primitive orthopaedic devices, others suggest they're early fetish items.

As corsets grew more popular in the 1500s they were created from hardened fabric, with steel or bone stiffeners being introduced in the 1700s. While they were used to change a woman's shape, it wasn't as extreme as we picture today. During this earlier period of popularity they flattened breasts, stomachs and curves to create a straight or conical shape. Before wasp-waists were popular their purpose, in many cases, was to make bulky dresses more comfortable to wear.

While Georgian women did use corsets to lift and separate their breasts and slim their silhouettes, leading up to the 1800s many women who were naturally slim skipped the garment all together. This would have been similar to not wearing a bra if you didn't feel you needed it today. Although then, as now, some saw the missing layer of underwear as indecent. Marie Antoinette famously refused to wear a corset when spending time privately in her artificial fantasy village, The Hameau de la Reine, favouring loose, light dresses that allowed her to move more freely. Her critics pointed to this as a sign of promiscuity.

Corsets in the Georgian era (1714 to 1830) were considerably less restrictive. Image via

Moving to 1828, and a silent villain in this story emerges. No, it isn't unrealistic body image, but rather metal lacing eyelets. Replacing their stitched predecessor, they could withstand tighter lacing without ripping. This coincided with the crinoline - a hooped petticoat that hid anything from the waist down - falling out of fashion. As dresses began to show more of the body below the waist, corsets got longer. When laced tightly - thanks eyelets - the stomach and other organs could be shifted out of place.

At the urging of doctors, horrified by the pressure put on the stomach, a new corset shape was introduced that raised the waist. It was intended to be safer, but when laced tightly the new design pushed the bust and belly backwards - creating the infamous Edwardian S shape that could cause musculoskeletal damage.

While it's true some were crippled by the garments, it's important to note this was hardly the norm. The average woman wasn't cracking ribs in the pursuit of a 16-inch waist. Those who did belonged to a minority, deeply dedicated to the look of the day - similar to how some, but not all, women today choose to wear six inch heels.

A 1900 illustration demonstrating the different between the Victorian and Edwardian "S-bend" silhouette. Image via

Despite this, just as Marie Antoinette was judged for her underwear choices a hundred years before, Victorian and Edwardian women were continuously mocked for how they presented their bodies. Today we're often told corsets were a way for men to control and oppress women by preventing them from moving or working freely; but in reality, it was a product of the female gaze. Men openly mocked the fashion. Early editions of Punch Magazine saw a cartoonist take aim at women, depicting them as hobbled and unable to walk in the name of fashion. Alongside presently recognised health issues such as misshaping livers, doctors of the period also warned that wearing corsets caused hysteria.

Not that they were calling for them to be tossed aside. Corsets were widely recognised as signifiers of class, and to not wear one was deemed slovenly. The mixed messages were thick: Doctor, sexual psychologist and corset fan Havelock Ellis even told the Victorian press it was vital that women wore corsets. He reasoned that human evolution from horizontal to vertical beings was more trying for females. Noting: "Woman might be physiologically truer to herself, if she went always on all fours. It is because the fall of the viscera in woman when she imitated man by standing erect induced such profound physiological displacements... that the corset is morphologically essential." Basically, he was implying, women couldn't hold themselves upright without one.

Satirical depiction of the vanity surrounding corsets.  Images via Wikipedia Commons.

The garment's demise is a familiar tale. At the turn of the 20th century the rise of women's liberation and designers like Chanel and Poiret spelled the end of their reign. People had become critical of the dramatic and occasionally dangerous S-shape, and it gave way to a preference for more boyish, athletic figures.

But while they left our wardrobes, they were never far from our minds. Romanticised as expressions of impossible femininity, they were fetishised and frequently made their way into our lingerie drawers. By the close of the century artists like Madonna and Jean Paul Gaultier used them as a tool to examine our changing notions of female beauty: Jean Paul Gaultier's original corset designs were inspired by his grandmother, who wore them into old age as an offering to her youthful self. When Madonna slipped them on for her 1990 Blonde Ambition tour, she played with the complex history of a garment that had moved from a manipulator of flesh to a highly sexual statement piece.

A few year later the Spice Girls, the decade's most electric combination of music, politics, gender and mass commercialisation, also wore them frequently. Again, the private was on display in an offering of sexual bravado that inverted the garment's heritage. The statement stayed with Victoria Beckham; she's returned to them several times for her own label.

Victoria Beckham revised an old favourite for Autumn/Winter 2016. Image via @victoriabeckham

But when Caitlyn Jenner gave us one of the most iconic corset moments of the 21st century, we witnessed how powerful they could be. The vintage satin number she wore on the cover of Vanity Fair last year was reminiscent of the Playboy originals and a defiant statement of femininity. Here it was about more than sex or history; removed from any oppressive connotations it was a bold and positive display of power, sophistication and confidence.

Arriving in 2016, surrounded once again by the garment, laden down by its history, we're left asking what it means today? For Miuccia Prada, it was a catalyst to explore the history of women and the myth of fashion and to examine how we use our bodies and appearance to command those around us. Her interpretation was thoroughly modern in how it demonstrated femininity as holding the potential to be powerful and objectifying. It recognised that the garment serves many roles, just as the women who wear it inhabit many identities.

Looking back on the history of this strange garment, that has been the subject of lust and revolution, one realises the ribbon of connection is expression and change. This piece of clothing is another example of how fashion has always allowed us to communicate through stitch and fabric, shifting our bodies, lives, social position and appearances with the tug of a lace.

So if you decide to lace yourself into a corset at any point, be it paired with jeans or a lingerie set, take a moment to reflect on the chain of linking identities you're apart of. Be it a member of Catherine de Medichi's court, or a Spice Girl.

Think Pieces
Victoria Beckham