Corsets Are Cool Again: The History of the Controversial Garment

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When you think about it, it was only a matter of time before corset tops made a comeback.

The latest in a long line of Noughties fashion faves that have gone from ‘out’ to ‘in’ over the last couple of years (see also: tube tops, tiny sunglasses, and square-toed sandals), the corset has been championed by Instagram influencers and A-listers alike, with Kim Kardashian quickly becoming celebrity corset wearer-in-chief.

So how did the form-fitting garment go from 1700s underwear to 2020 outerwear? Here, we look back at the history of the corset.

Pre-20th Century: Hourglass Underwear

The corset – a laced bodice used to accentuate the waist – first became popular in the western world in the 1700s, when it was commonly worn by women underneath their dresses.

Made with whalebone or wood to create the stiff front, corsets cinched in the waist and flattened the bust, pushing it upwards.

Combined with a full-skirted dress and puff sleeves, they emphasized the female figure.

An illustration of corsets from 1897 | Courtesy of PA Images

While they remained widely worn for over a century, the restrictive garments were criticized for a variety of reasons.

In the late 1800s, Victorian dress reformists claimed corsets were ‘evil’ because they promoted an immoral view of women’s bodies, while others decried the health risks of ‘tightlacing’, which included damage to internal organs, deformed ribs, and fertility problems.

In America, early feminists like Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward urged women to “burn up your corsets” and embrace more comfortable and practical clothing.

The wedding dress worn by Mary of Teck, on her marriage to Prince George, Duke of York in 1922 | Courtesy of PA Images
The wedding dress worn by Mary of Teck, on her marriage to Prince George, Duke of York in 1922 | Courtesy of PA Images

1920s: The Beginning of the End

With the invention of elastic in the 1920s came flexible ‘sports’ corsets suited to the more active lifestyles of the time.

As the boyish ‘flapper’ figure became the ideal, corsets that extended from the hips to the bust made way for the girdle, an elasticated belt that helped to flatten the stomach and hips.

The wedding of Lady Louise Mountbatten and the Crown Prince of Sweden in 1923 | Courtesy of PA Images

1950s And 60s: Falling Out of Fashion

The popularity of corsets continued to decline, and by the 1960s they had virtually disappeared altogether, as models like Twiggy ushered in the era of shift dresses and mini skirts.

If that sounds like it was the start of the body-positivity movement, don’t be fooled: there remained a focus on a slim silhouette, but women were expected to maintain their figure themselves rather than relying on undergarments to create a whittled waist.

A model at a Berketex fashion show in 1966 | Courtesy of PA Images
A model at a Berketex fashion show in 1966 | Courtesy of PA Images

1980s: Subversive Style

Fashion is nothing if not cyclical, and it took only two decades before the item that women had rejected for its restrictive ways was back in the spotlight.

In the late 1980s, Madonna pretty much single-handedly started the ‘underwear as outerwear’ trend when she began wearing satin corset bodysuits on stage.

The Material Girl was tapping into an aesthetic championed during the same decade by French designers Thierry Mugler and Jean-Paul Gaultier – the latter created Madonna’s iconic pink cone bra look.

Pop singer Madonna performing at Wembley Stadium in 1990 (PA)
Pop singer Madonna performing at Wembley Stadium in 1990 | Courtesy of PA Images

Noughties: High-Street Hit

From its pop-star costume extreme, the trend trickled down through the fashion echelons and by the time the new millennium dawned, it had gone well and truly mainstream.

Spice Girl Emma Bunton arrives at the 5th anniversary party of music station VH1 in London in 1999 (William Conran/PA)
Spice Girl Emma Bunton arrives at the 5th anniversary party of music station VH1 in London in 1999 | Courtesy of PA Images

From glamorous designer gowns to bargain-basement corset tops teamed with boot-cut jeans and poker-straight hair, the corset was inescapable in the Noughties.

David and Victoria Beckham arriving at the MTV Movie Awards 2003 (Ian West/PA)
David and Victoria Beckham arriving at the MTV Movie Awards 2003 | Courtesy of PA Images

Now: Corset Comeback

Given that the hourglass has (unfortunately) once again become the ‘ideal’ body shape to aspire to — in large part due to the Kardashian sisters and their (in)famous figures — it’s no wonder the corset has come back in fashion in recent years.

The Noughties combo of corset top, jeans, and heels has become a fashion blogger favorite, while Kim Kardashian reached peak corset at last year’s Met Gala in a latex dress by Thierry Mugler that was so tight, the 39-year-old claimed she needed breathing lessons to wear it.

Kim Kardashian-West attending the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Benefit Gala 2019 | Courtesy of PA Images
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