FMP Contextual / Secondary Research – Historical Corsets and Contemporary Corsets

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Corsets have been around for years, and by the middle of the sixteenth century, corsets were a commonly worn garment for European and British women. Roxey Ann Caplin created the first corset, and they were in use before the sixteenth century in male-dominated regions of the world, to ‘beautify’ women and also to ensure modesty and passivity. Corsets were laced tightly with as many as fifty laces, and had to be worn at almost all times. An old tradition was for a female to wear a corset from childhood, up until her wedding night, when the groom had to slowly and carefully undo each and every lace, to show and represent self-control. Women, and some men, have used it change the appearance of their bodies, specifically to make their waists smaller or appear smaller.

The corset has typically been used as an undergarment, however, it has occasionally been used as an outergarment, having been seen worn on top of clothing numerous times. The undergarment version of the corset originated in Italy in the 1500s, and was shortly after brought into France, where the French women embraced it. This specific type of corset was tight and long with a bodice that was worn underneath the clothing. The women of France saw this corset as necessary for the beauty of the female figure. The corsets tended to have an inverted cone shape with the bottom half of the outfits being held out in a similar stiff cone shape, with a strong hoop skirt underneath. These corsets were typically made out of layered material, stiffened with glue and were very tightly laced.

In the Elizabethan Era, boning was frequently used in corsets so they could maintain this stiff appearance. Sometimes wood, Ivory, or metal was added to stiffen the front of the bodice and fastened and held into place by laces, so it could be easily removed and replaced. The main purpose of a corset like this during this time was for a woman to be presented to a potential suitor as a prize when he was interested in a female. Even though they were really popular, not all women wore a corset. Mary Queen of Scots did not wear a corset and they eventually went out of style in the 1700s.

The primary purpose of an 18th century corset was to create a contrast between a small slender waist and a heavy full skirt below it. It was also worn to raise and shape the breasts, tighten the midriff, support the back, improve posture and only slightly to narrow the waist. Corsets were then made out of silk, cotton or linen and often embroidered, to provide support for the breasts while not being as restrictive. By 1800, the corset had become a pure method of supporting the breasts, as the waistline was raised to just under the bust so corsets still slimmed the torso, but this was not the intended purpose. This was when the first cups were built into a corset.

Queens and female members of royalty helped make the different variations of corsets so popular, because they were looked up to by the general public and they often wore corsets as the bodice for big, over the top ball gowns for high profile events. This was because it made their waists look smaller and provided them with proper support, which made them look ‘better’ to the opposite sex and for royal portraits.

When waistline came back to its natural position in the 1830s, the corset came back into style and was for both supporting the breasts and narrowing the waist. Corsets were all handmade and that was until 1890, when machine-made corsets gained popularity. Featured above are some styles of corsets throughout the years I have discussed so far, as well as Madame de Pompadour, wearing a stomacher, decorated with a line of bows.

By the 1950s, corsets came back into popularity in the form of bustiers and girdles, as they had previously fell out of fashion in the 1920s. Designers nowadays have made the corset more modern in things like performance pieces and lingerie.

Even though corsets were very big and popular in the years I have just discussed, I also want to look at corsets in the current day, not really to see the difference (even though I will lightly touch upon that), but to see how the concepts behind the corset and the garment itself affects us now. Corsets have almost always been used to slim the waist and exaggerate the hips and bust into an “hourglass” figure. The main differences are: the boning used in older corsets is “whalebone” or “baleen” and the boning used in current corsets is cheaper, flat, “spiral steels”, the older corset was used for supporting breasts, whereas, we have bras for that now! if a woman didn’t wear a corset years ago, she could’ve been viewed as being indecent, and they have some different purposes, like they can be used for waist training etc now.

Corsets have been viewed as “making a comeback” for a few years now, and designers I have researched in previous blog posts are testaments to this, they are designing different variations of corsets for a wide range of people and reasons. What was once used for merely underwear, is used for a lot of things in modern culture now, such as performing costumes, waist training and in lingerie.

Back when corsets were first introduced, they were seen as the norm, as what was supposed to be worn, and because clearly there was no social media back then, or barely any media for that fact, the pressures to wear a corset came from the fact that everybody else was wearing one. But now, because media can widely report on celebrities, and the celebrities themselves post photos of themselves on their many social media accounts like Instagram, the pressure on young women is high. Seeing photos of admirable celebrities with tiny waists could, and does, pressure young women into doing whatever they can do achieve that same look. Now, I know not ALL young women would resort to something drastic to change their waist size just because they see Kim Kardashian in all her hourglass figure glory everywhere, but some women have self esteem issues themselves so they could turn to something like dieting, exercise or waist trainers to get a smaller waist. Kim Kardashian, and any other woman, should continue to post whatever they want on their channels because, at the end of the day, it is their channels and they are not responsible for every young impressionable woman out there.

Lets take Kim Kardashian as an example though. After scrolling through her Instagram page, I came across photos of her wearing a corset in a dress, advertising appetite suppressant lollipops, in a skin tight dress showing off her slim waist, and in a corset itself. I decided to complete more research on this and googled “Kim Kardashian waist trainer” and I have posted the top three results in a screenshot above. The first website being a link to an article of someone else’s experience testing out Kim’s waist trainer, the next being an advertisement for the said waist trainer and the third being an article on Kim’s sister Khloe’s usage of a waist trainer. I then clicked on images and googled the same thing, along with “Kim Kardashian corset”, and I got 3 images of her using a waist trainer and 4 of her wearing adapted corsets just out and about. This is a mix of an actual corset incorporated into an outfit and a few “corset belts” which is a new fashion that appeared after Kim reportedly brought the idea of “waist training” to the forefront in 2014. The third website result gave me an idea to look at Khloe’s, and some of Kim’s other sisters relationship with waist trainers and corsets, with photos and screenshots being above. It looks like they all wear waist trainers, and even go to the gym and exercise in them. They have all wore corsets and corset belts whilst out too. They are very influential people in our society and to see how they have adapted the classic corset and made it very modern and fresh shows how they can just change something and people will listen and possibly even copy.

Waist trainers have become really popular recently since Kim brought the idea in, and even though there have been a few health concerns over them, like the possibility of them crushing organs and how it cannot be natural to force your waist and manipulate it into go into an unnatural shape, people, especially celebrities, still seem to be using them. They are sold almost everywhere possible now, from Amazon and eBay, to specialist sellers and Instagram accounts, so they are easy to get hold of too. For me, I don’t really judge anyone who wants to waist train as it is up to the individual person, but I don’t think I would be able to do it and I hope everyone else is doing it in a safe way. Celebrities are constantly promoting waist trainers and weight loss items on Instagram, and a lot of people are seeing these and these posts are reaching a lot of people too, so it could encourage the buying of these products which could be potentially harmful, which is not something ‘role models’ should be promoting. The fantasy of flat stomachs and slim waists comes from this type of advertising, and it could be false too due to surgery and photoshop, as the hourglass figure Kim Kardashian-West is famous for is highly sought after and wanted by many females.

Corset belts are something new that has came into fashion, and I do have to admit that I have wore these myself, and just because I thought it looked really fashionable. These are not really intended to slim your waist, just an added accessory to an outfit to accentuate your waist, bust and hips. Corset belts were a common accessory for Miuccia Prada’s A/W 2016 Ready to Wear collection, with all of the models being accessorised with a corset belt of some sort, layered over other clothing.

I think products like all of the ones I have mentioned above can cause damage to young girls as they may feel the need to copy or imitate anyone mentioned above to be like them or to just simply conform to societies unrealistic beauty standards for women. Even though Kim Kardashian has a small waist, big hips and bum, and big boobs – the perfect “hourglass” figure – it doesn’t mean that it is realistic, let alone achievable for any and every other woman on the planet.

I may go forward with the corset idea, to prove that it can be a choice to wear one and to highlight the pressures on women to be confined to one size and shape that is admirable because people think you should look like that.

Below are my references for this research:

Toni ♥


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