The wearing of a corset is – by its very nature – restrictive and during the height of its popularity, was subject to debate during the Victorian Dress Reform and Corset Controversy. Some claim that even in the modern day, wearing a corset can be considered anti-feminist due to its origins whilst others believe that its been reclaimed by its use in modern fashion and the context it’s worn in has completely changed – women can choose to wear one, rather than it being expected of them.
Lucy, owner and editor of Lucy’s Corsetry, weighed in for Get Waisted with her opinion:
I don’t consider corsets to be any more anti-feminist than a bra is today, because for 500 years the corset acted as exactly that – breast support. In their origins in the 16th and 17th centuries, these garments were hand-sewn, stiffened with reed, straw or even paper at times, and the eyelets were hand-finished with stitching and not metal. These “payres of bodies” (as they were called at the time) were less solid than we think them to be, they were not mass-produced so they were designed to fit the wearer, and lacing them too tightly could risk the cord ripping right through the eyelets.
As fashion and technology evolved, so did the corset. The invention of the sewing machine and the production of metal eyelets in the 1830s meant corsets could be constructed stronger and laced tighter. Corsets were anchored snugly at the waist and flared out at the hips in order to fulfill an additional role – to act as a scaffold to disperse the weight of the petticoats and skirts. Without the corset, the skirts would weigh down and cut into the woman’s hip bones, which is far less comfortable than wearing a corset. In a 19th century letter quoted in Norah Waugh’s Corsets and Crinolines, one man stated that as much as he despised the corset, he must admit that for as long as the bell skirts remained in fashion, corsets would be necessary to support them.
This kind of commentary was not unique, either – there are several existing news columns featuring men rejecting the corseted aesthetic, and women themselves perpetuating the fashion. Unfortunately it’s become the sensationalist fan-fiction from works like the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine that seem to have survived history and perpetuated the idea that men had full control over their wives’ and daughters’ waistlines – the stories submitted to this magazine were often tongue-in-cheek, when not entirely fictional.
As Liz from the Pragmatic Costumer wrote:
“…the myth of young girls being stretched and strapped into extremely tight corsets originates in fetish literature popular during the 1890s. It’s kind of unsettling that many modern folks consider antique child pornography to be fact.”
Regarding outdated concepts: The corset as we know it today may become passé again – it’d been said that whenever a garment or accessory is approaching a peak in fashion or trendiness, the next stage is often obsolescence. But I believe that other iterations of the corset will always pop up again in the future. Modern back braces have their origins in corsetry, and indeed some corsetieres trained in orthopedics or medical prosthetics are able to make functional yet beautiful textile braces, and some are even willing to work with insurance companies.
People wear corsets for different reasons. Some do find the corset sexy and appreciate it merely for the aesthetic, but others require back support for medical purposes, and yet others use it for deep pressure therapy to combat their anxiety, depression and PTSD. For as long as these conditions exist, corsets have a role to fill.
I don’t discount the millions of women who strove for the freedom to not wear a corset – in fact, I’m very appreciative that due to the feminist movement, I have the choice to wear corsets or not wear them on any given day, just as I have the choice to wear make-up or go bare-faced, to wear high-heel shoes or running shoes, or to wear skirts or yoga pants. Because of this, it makes my choice to wear a corset that much more special. More than the garment itself, the freedom to choose is what’s most empowering.