It’s an unlikely fashion trend considering the current focus on feminism both on and off the runway, but like it or not: the corset has officially made its comeback. From corset detailing to corset belts to corsets layered over tees, is a woman who chooses to wear one today confined or liberated?
The corset does not have the best reputation to say the least. Quite literally restricting women and making them smaller, some women were so tightly laced they struggled to breathe freely, leading to health complications. All in the name of contorting their bodies into the desired female form, for the male gaze. So what does it say about us if we choose to wear an item with such an uncomfortable (literally) past? Women ripped off their corsets and burned their bras so that we would have the freedom to choose, where they had been given no option. There’s no denying the corset’s past, but we have control of its future.
Enter Versace. Donatella – fashion icon who considers herself a feminist – tells Vogue in an interview that what excites her most about fashion is that “it’s always evolving” and while she was her late brother’s muse, her muse is “strong women all over the world”.
Who can forget that moment she arrived at Vogue’s 100th anniversary party in 1993 with her brother Gianni, wearing a corset-style dress that has since become iconic, begging the question: a symbol of her being dominated or is she the one wielding the whip? Turns out she and Gianni designed the dress together.
Fast forward to her latest Versace collection (with strong women as its muse) and she’s designing – you guessed it – corsets.
So if a feminist is designing the corsets, what does that mean for women who choose to wear them?
Lady Gaga wears a slashed, spiked vintage Versace version from Gianni’s final collection in her video for Edge of Glory. Madonna had an unforgettable corset moment too – when she stepped out on stage in a Jean-Paul Gaultier conical-busted corset during her 1990 Blond Ambition tour. She, being Madonna, was, of course, wearing it as a symbol of female sexual empowerment. These women are reclaiming the corset, reinterpreting it for themselves as a protest against its oppressive past.
Miuccia Prada is arguably the reason for fashion’s current fascination. At Prada AW16, they were loosely tied like your little brother’s shoelaces and styled over frumpy winter layers, making them feel deliberately unsexy and decidedly feminist. It was definitely difficult to watch that show and not want to throw a corset belt on over your coat or oversized shirt immediately.
What makes the corset-inspired pieces everyone is showing and wearing now feel current and potentially feminist is their disregard for societal expectations regarding the female figure, and that they’re not meant to be sexy.
Designers are presenting their various iterations as layering pieces instead of something that was once hidden, worn as underwear. It’s a stylish subversion of an item that was once used to control and contain female bodies, bringing it out into the open for everyone to see as something entirely new.
The corsets today are less highly strung, in looser fits and softer fabrics. And the most modern way to wear them now is as outerwear: over a tee or oversized shirt or to cinch in a coat.
So what is the verdict? You can wear whatever you want, and that’s the empowering part. Wear the trends and pieces that make you feel most powerful – maybe just add a feminist slogan tee into rotation for good measure.