Curves ahead: The history of the corset
We uncover the history of fashion's sultury silhouette.
There is nothing more seductive than a woman’s curves. An alluring silhouette defined many of history’s most iconic women, from Marilyn Monroe and Lillie Langtry to Scarlett O’Hara and Queen Victoria. Movie or television star, literary heroine or the ruler of Britannia, these women have one thing in common: They have all worn corsets to enhance their figures.
Today, the hourglass figure is back in vogue, thanks to the voluptuous proportions of women like Christina Hendricks, who plays femme fatale Joan Holloway in Mad Men.
On the runway, Louis Vuitton, Fendi and Christian Dior embraced the vavavoom silhouette, using corsets as outerwear and undergarments. Marc Jacobs, LV’s creative director, chose curvier models, such as Elle Macpherson, Laetitia Casta and Lara Stone, to showcase his belted and cinched waists, flouncy skirts and tightfitted tops with brimming cleavage. “This was really all about un rivalled femininity and a celebration of beautiful and wonderful women,” he told reporters backstage.
The House of Dior, which revolutionized fashion and glamourized curves in 1947 with the New Look, launched a corseted stiletto this season. Made of lace, leather and suede, with classic corset lacing up the back, the foot becomes a seductive metaphor for the body, says Christina Johnson, associate curator of the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising Museum & Galleries in Los Angeles. “It is very luxurious!” she adds. But how did we get from Queen Victoria’s corset to Dita Von Teese’s skeletal style on Jean Paul Gaultier’s fall/winter runway?
Photography by Vincent Lions
The corset timeline.
16th CENTURY The “aristo torso” corset first appeared in early-16th-century European high society. It had strips of stiff whale baleen sewn into the stays to push the bosom up, whittle the waist by several inches and force the shoulders back, says Johnson.
EARLY 1900s The corset was an upper-crust fashion staple until the empire-line silhouette—made popular by French designers Paul Poiret and Madeleine Vionnet—appeared on the scene. As more women joined the war effort, the gradual breakdown of the class system made the bone corset a fashion faux pas, explains Alison McCann, curator of Undercover: The Evolution of Underwear at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London. By the ’20s, the flappers’ boyish silhouette was the beau monde’s new style icon.
1947 The corset reappeared in 1947, when a young Christian Dior celebrated the end of Second World War austerity by reviving the ultra-feminine silhouette with his New Look. “Women needed the right undergarments, especially corsetry, to achieve that hourglass shape,” says McCann.
1960 In a flapper-like flashback, Twiggy’s androgynous, stick-thin boyish frame was the fashion set’s new poster girl. Corsets were now decidedly déclassé.
1980 The corset returned to the fashion scene when corporate-climbing women styled bustiers and silk chemises with their power suits, says McCann. “It said to men ‘I’m still feminine, but I can take you on.’” Provocateur Jean Paul Gaultier went one step further, using underwear as outerwear with the creation of Madonna’s iconic cone-breasted bustier. The outerwear evolution allowed women to “take sexuality into their own hands or to attain a fashionable silhouette—or both,” says McCann.
2010 With its exaggerated silhouette, the corset easily moves from fashion into art, says McCann. Earlier this year, burlesque artist Dita Von Teese donned a futuristic, black- and-cream corset created by Gaultier. And New York avant-garde designers The Blonds have accessorized their couture corsets with studs and spikes for stars like Rihanna, inspiring the term “weaponized woman.”
Photography by Vincent Lions