The corset has always been a fashion garment tarnished with a reputation for controversy.
Much of that controversy surrounds the corsets identity as a symbol of female oppression and conformity to such an extent that the wearing of a corset was a key underpinning of female attire in the Victorian era with both middle and working class women keen to wear them on a regular basis.
One of the reasons for their desire to wear a corset is said to be connected with self regulation (ie) regulation of appetite and excess, that ideal shape which a corset helped a woman to cultivate, in particular the small waist inextricably linked to both affluence and social standing.
In a period of British social history where social standing was not just everything, it was the only thing, the corset was seen as a tool that served to highlight those areas of womanhood that were valued above all other things, including self modesty. This was the image of chaste and that ever valued slim waist, one that would have been connected with discipline and that desire to conform to those qualities that were valued above all others.
Qualities and values that were, needless to say, driven and championed by men.
These links to the corset and self regulation and discipline are amongst those which led people to regard it as one of the ultimate symbols of female oppression, a reputation, somewhat unfairly, it repeatedly has had to fight off, right to the current day.
Yet for all the paths to strict moral standards and decency that the corset seemed to suggest were paramount, there remained a fascinating conflict of morals between those upstanding qualities and that of the corset as a fashionable and desirable (rather than stiff and de rigueur) item of fashion. This was the corset that marked out the wearer not as an upstanding member of society who kept herself to herself and observed a strict moral code in terms of appearance and behaviour but as the sleek, sexually promiscuous female whose own morals were as loose as the laces which held her corset in place.
Yes, the wearing of a corset deemed the female to be the ideal of demure and modest femininity.
Yet it also had the effect of emphasising the erogenous zones on the female body, pushing the breasts upwards as well as drawing attention to the hips, thighs and genital area.
It may have been designed to cover most of the body and suggest modesty in doing so. Yet, by its very design, it also drew as much attention to that body as if the wearer had been naked, maybe even more so.
Can any item of clothing claim to have such an effect on both the wearer and the casual spectator?
Women today, writes world renowned corsetiere Velda Lauder (adding that this also applies to men) have found that, “women... have reported heightened feelings of sexual energy, personal power and social standing when wearing one”.
So much for feeling modest and demure then. But, on International Women’s Day, surely this is a good thing?
Because the corset gives a woman the power to be who she wants to be. And not only to other people but to, and for, herself.
Yes, it is a garment that is designed to give the wearers body an element of transformation.
And, despite those who would say that being desirous of such change is harmful (as is any attempt to modify or change the body through excess or ill advised use of any item, clothing or otherwise) that modification is temporary, as temporary as that caused by make up or a visit to the hairdresser.
Support, good deportment and a learned and elegant grace of movement are optional ‘side effects’ (Lauder again) of the wearing of a corset.
What is not so temporary is the wearers feeling of empowerment, that opportunity, the choice to look good, to feel good and to celebrate their own bodies-and that isn’t a choice restricted to size 10 or below, neither the corset, or the corset designer discriminates against size, age, look or gender.
As Launder summarises, “...corset wearers...feel stronger, the ‘inner goddess’ is freed, the internal beauty and power of a woman liberated”.
It is an item of fashion that symbolises the demure, the divine, the desirable. And the demonic.
All of those traits which we possess and are free to express at any time we choose. Without asking for anyone’s permission.
Powerful and inspirational. No wonder some people are afraid of the corset.