Even as many of us are still staying largely indoors this summer, there’s one fashion item that seemingly everyone is wearing: the corset. In 2020, the corset trend relates to a return of both boudoir dressing and cottage-core romanticism. Celebrities including Kylie Jenner, Keke Palmer, and Rowan Blanchard have all worn the corset in the past few months, and likewise, fashion insiders seem to gravitate to the garment after months and months of sweats, seeking out structure and the effect of feeling dressed up again.
The obsession with the corset started to peak in 2019, when celebs ranging from Lizzo to Rihanna and Bella Hadid wore different iterations of the garment. For the Fall/Winter 2019 fashion season, designers including Simone Rocha, Etro, Dion Lee, Sacai, and Burberry all showed their own iterations of the corset, solidifying its place in modern fashion history. Nearly a year later, as the Fall/Winter 2020 shows debuted, labels such as Kim Shui, Mugler, Fendi, Brock Collection, and Gucci also played with the same shape. The trend has also cycled down to more affordable brand offerings too, with bridge brands like Miaou and House of CB offering highly structured corsets that resemble some of their predecessors. Others, like Orseund Iris, have made their own version of the humble fashion item a signature of their brand.
Still, the corset hasn't always stood for what it stands for today: a form of empowerment, with people wearing it to show off or conceal their body on their own terms. The term ‘corset’ wasn’t truly introduced until the 19th century. Prior to that, boned undergarments were known as ‘stays.’ As fashion historian and collections specialist at The Met Textile Center Elena Kanagy-Loux explains, “When stays emerged in Europe in the 16th century, women’s bodies were seen as weak and in need of support just to stay upright. This sounds absurd to us now, but clothing was becoming increasingly layered and complex at the time, and fitted, boned undergarments helped to support the weight of heavy fabrics such as brocaded silk and velvet. Bras had not yet been introduced to Western women's wardrobes, and so stays also provided support for the bust, while molding the body into a fashionable conical shape.”
Throughout history, the corset as we know it today was an essential part of women’s wardrobes, but it also served as a form of oppression, and it was during times of upheaval that its necessity was thrown into question. “During the French Revolutionary period, when the fashion was for sheer columnar cotton gowns styled after the Antiquity, stays nearly disappeared, and the general public was shocked by seeing the natural silhouette of women’s bodies through their clothing,” explains Kanagy-Loux. “Corsetry had become so integral to creating an acceptable public body for women that any hint of unrestricted flesh underneath their clothing was scandalous.” During such a time of revolution and upheaval, it's interesting to note that women forewent traditional dress. This may have been because of fabric and material rations, and also due to the fact that women could more easily move in less-restricting garments.
In the 19th century, some of the exaggerated silhouettes modernly associated with corsets emerged. Women “often relied upon hip and bum padding to further exaggerate their silhouette,” adds Kanagy-Loux. Still, not all modern perception on the garment proves accurate. She notes that FIT Museum Director and Chief Curator Valerie Steele's 2001 publication ‘The Corset: A Cultural History’ aimed to debunk myths about corsetry and offered a more balanced perspective. "Some of the backlash against the extremes of corset wearing can be traced to letters written to women’s magazines in the late 19th century describing extreme tight lacing down to 17 or even 15 inch waists, often by school girls. However, later research by Steele and others has identified these letters as likely exaggerations or fantasies written by corset fetishists. Extant corsets in private and museum collections today reveal the rarity of corsets under 20 inches, and even those may survive because they were not actually worn,” she says.
Once the 20th century rolled around, women transitioned to girdles (a less restricting body-shaper foundation garment that encircles the lower torso, extending below the hips, and worn to shape or support). It wasn’t until the 1970s came that the corset would make a major reappearance, with Vivienne Westwood beginning to introduce the corset into her punk aesthetic. Her version of the corset, worn as a top rather than under the clothing, is most similar to what’s trending today. This corset style could be seen as a contrasting idea of the past oppression the corset represented. The counterculture movement of the 1970s broke many preconceived notions of dressing with loose, bohemian styles that allowed for more free flowing movement.
By the time the 1980s came around, trends had begun to cycle back towards structure. Women adopted a sleek, sharp wardrobe embracing skin tight spandex and high-shouldered suits. At the same time, there was a comeback of lingerie-as-clothing styles worn by celebs -- one example is Madonna's cone bra by Jean Paul Gaultier. In the 1980s, designers such as Theirry Mugler and John Paul Gaultier also focused on corset and bustier shapes, as the underwear as outerwear trend came around. Finally, in the 1990s, labels such as Maison Margiela and John Galliano honed in on structural corsets.
Jasmine Ines, the corsetiere and designer behind Sin and Satin, who has provided corsets to Beyonce and they stylists of Rihanna and Lady Gaga, sees the corset as a piece that when worn electively signals a sense of empowerment. She explains, “the corset is a fetish garment that has a taboo sense to it." With a return of underwear as outerwear over the last few months, corsetry feels par for the course. But, what makes 2020’s obsession with the corset more unique, however, is also a renewed sense of sustainability tied to the trend. There is a revival of both fashion insiders and celebs seeking out vintage corsets from iconic designers like Vivienne Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier.
”Once people caught wind of the trend last year we saw corsets everywhere, from high end designers to fast fashion, everyone now has their version of the piece,” explains Johnny Valencia, of Pechuga Vintage, who has sold many Vivienne Westwood corsets to celebrity clients. “I think the equation was just right. Corsets and waist trainers were already a thing in fashion, coupled with the desire for sustainability and the uniqueness factor that has made vintage so popular, it sort of makes sense why vintage corsets would take the center stage.” At the same time, we can see a variety of different personalities in Hollywood taking an interest in the corset, with FKA Twigs who is a feminist artist and pushes a different narrative than someone like Kim Kardashian, who has been vocal about using waist trainers to fit her own ideal body type.
Adds Valencia, of Vivienne Westwood’s iconic corsets: “I think Vivienne Westwood in general is a label for true fashion collectors and nerds. Her cuts, draping, and prints are sometimes seen as very unconventional. It's always a risk when wearing Westwood but with her corsets you can never go wrong. It's almost become like a seal of approval to your collection once you introduce a vintage Westwood corset to it.” It makes sense that cool creatives are attracted to Vivienne Westwood's pieces, she was part of the pink movement and totally turned the traditional corset on its head by reinventing it into something totally new, which represented feminism rather than oppression.
At the same time, shoppers are going directly to vintage platforms to scour for corsets. According to the resale site Vestiaire Collective, Vivienne Westwood vintage pieces overall have seen a dramatic 182 percent increase in orders year over year. The top corset brands on the platform include Prada, Dior, and Vivienne Westwood.
Other fashion labels are ushering in a new era with the corset, focusing on eco-friendly upcycling. Kristin Mallison, for example, is creating some of the more unique corsets at present, made of repurposed upholstery fabric. “I love nothing more than finding an old mid-century dining room chair for $10 at a thrift store that I can turn around and make 5 or 6 corsets out of,” she says. “The fabric is so sturdy and perfect for a structured garment like a corset.” Elsewhere, designer Cierra Boyd makes corsets out of old sneakers and Kayla Sade Famurewa is reworking old Nike sweats into corsetry. At a time when people have reverted to comfortable dress, it's notable that fitted, structural pieces are piquing interest in contrast.
“For me, corsets are a symbol of reclaimed sexual empowerment,” says Mallison. “I take influence from the past by turning that traditional look into a kind of caricature, an attempt to bring the subjects from these ‘paintings’ to life in a modern context. My corsets are fully boned, but instead of steel I use plastic. They're sturdy but casual, and meant to be a comfortable accessory rather than constricting the wearer.”
“One of the things I love about fashion is that it’s so multifaceted and a single garment does not represent the same thing for everyone,” adds Kanagy-Loux. As plus size women and trans women alike choose to wear the garment, its symbolic oppression is subverted into a powerful tool of self expression. For her Spring/Summer 2020 collection, designer Charlotte Knowles adopted the idea of "militarized corsetry" which Knowles' design partner Alexandre Arsenault told Vogue was created "as a reaction to the current climate. Our woman is fighting for her place in the world. She is tough and dangerous.” In its modern iteration, the corset no longer serves as something to constrict or control women, but as a piece that can embody a sense of power and shared femininity.