CORSETS & FEMINISM – Tribute To An Alexander Furynov NY Times Article

This utterly beautiful article by Alexander Furynov in the New York Times Style Magazine is a perfect article on corsetry questions asked by women across the globe. On live broadcasts I am sometimes asked whether corsets kill feminism or told they ‘set women back a hundred years’. To be very frank (with a raised eyebrow) I don’t think that a single garment worn by choice by a few individuals can erase humanity’s technological progress and the right of women to work, be in positions of power and lead massive corporations, but I do understand that some people like to narrow a view to suit their argument. (Apparently also forgetting the 1917 wartime corset ban was 100 years ago… but hey I’m sure people do their research…)

Perhaps naively (or over confidently) I feel we are in a modern time of fashion freedom. Trends are fleeting and aside from traditional business attire – which is slinking out of many workplaces as it is – there are very few fashion dictations that any of us must adhere to.

Social media allows promotion of individual style while niche passion areas bloom by uniting people around the world who enjoy common topics.

Increasingly there is a wide horizon for dynamic entrepreneurs to leap into extremely specialised fields of industry – such as the Melbourne maker of penny farthing bicycles, or the Victorian glass etcher in London.

Some people like corsets, others burlesque, goth, drag, historical reenactment, silver screen glamour or pinup & rockabilly. Many people forget that corsets, skirts and heels have been around for many decades and we now have the choice about whether we want to wear them or not. And many of us do. We like how they look or feel, and most importantly we often like how we feel about ourselves in them.

Emma Watson crafted Disneys most empowered princess for Beauty & the Beast and Emma Watson Belle Dress 2017refused to wear a corset. Admirable and who knows, perhaps I would have done the same because of the era Belle was in, but I believe that the choice should be up to us. Cate Blanchett apparently likes corsets and Man Men’s Christina Hendricks hates the restriction of boned corsets despite being celebrated for her ample (corseted and uncorseted) hourglass curves and has her own separate complaints about sizeism in the media industry. There is no one garment that every single human will unanimously love, nor does there need to be.

There are a lot of boundaries being pushed right now and fashion freedom is part of that.

I’ll outline my own reasons for enjoying corsets and corsetry in another post – but for now lets get to the exquisitely crafted, fact filled Alexander Furynov article that inspired this post.

I love his quote :

A woman wearing a corset today is a symbol of empowerment, of sexual freedom, of control. She’s the one holding the laces, the one constructing her own femininity.

Here below is the entire article by Alexander Furynov. No copyright infringement intended. Please do go and visit / share on the original site – it looks beautifully formatted there and has images (and may also be easier to read there since I always cite external sources in italics.)

“A history of women.”

That is the brief explanation Miuccia Prada gave for her fall collection and the plentiful corsets she sent down the runway. Most, resembling orthopedic supports, were laced over and under almost everything in the show, from pea coats to brocade evening dresses. The corset was a summary of her intentions. After all, what single garment encapsulates the history of women’s dress — of restriction and emancipation — more succinctly than the corset?

Since the heyday of the hand-span waists in the mid-19th century, the corset has represented a visual shorthand for “woman.” Indeed, it cannot be divorced from the idealization of women’s bodies, and the politics surrounding them. There is no question of the sexuality of the corset, emphasizing the breasts and hips, and hence underscoring the stereotypically fecund female physique. For many, the reduction of the waist persistently reflects a reductive view of femininity, limited to a va-va-voom outline.

However, is a woman who wears a corset today, whether following the trends of fashion or the further down-market effects of the Kardashians’ “waist trainers,” restricted, or freed? Conforming to a masculine ideal of femininity, or experimenting with her own perception of self and sexuality? It’s interesting that the corset, with all its historical baggage, is re-emerging now when women’s roles are more malleable, changeable and challenged than ever. Can a corset be feminist?

The Revival of the Corset

CreditPhotograph by Hart+Lëshkina. Styled by Jason Rider


As with many sartorial mores, when trying to understand their current resurgence it’s best to begin by looking back. In the 20th century, the corset experienced two great and lasting revivals, in the 1940s and in the 1980s. These were two opposing ends. The first was Christian Dior’s “New Look” of 1947, an ironic moniker given that the silhouette requisitioned the corsetry that had been shrugged off by women back in the Edwardian era. Dior’s corsets were of lighter construction, but their nickname, “waspies,” underlined their goal to pinch women’s waists to wasplike insignificance.

What Dior built was a resolute conservative view of femininity, and although fashion history has it that women fell into Dior’s silhouettes with gay abandon, the reality was more torn. In America, a group of women formed the Little Below the Knee Club to protest Dior’s cumbersome skirts (some included 130 feet of fabric). In postwar Europe, the impracticality of the twin restrictions of corseted waist and full skirt indicated wealth and idleness. A woman wearing the New Look didn’t need to work, and in fact could not in the clothes. The silhouette enforced traditional views of a woman not as a worker, but as a mother — a notion at odds with the large number of women who contributed to the war effort by working in factories, or driving ambulances and buses. Dior put them back in the home. And so the corset came to symbolize inequality — social and sexual.

That effect, of course, was subconscious. Dior was striving for a visual effect, not a sociological one. But the two are entangled. The garment has, in hindsight, generally been assumed to be a symbol of a patriarchal society — exacerbated, perhaps, by the fact that in 1675, Louis XIV incorporated a guild of female dressmakers to make all clothes for women, except for riding habits and corsets, which were to be made only by men. While the former was an almost-unique symbol of female freedom of pursuit (nearly 100 years later, the much-beleaguered Marie Antoinette even rode in breeches, in an attempt to wrench herself free of the restrictions of life as queen consort at the French court), the latter came to epitomize the male hold on women, figuratively as well as literally. The corset, forged by men, “formed” a woman’s silhouette. 

However, the significance of the corset is a bit more complicated. In the 18th century, well-born male and female children alike were laced into stays (boned bodices, the antecedent of the corset) — boys until the age of 6. Boned stays were sewn into men’s coats during the same period to stiffen and support before the rise of tailoring. And up until the 1950s, it wasn’t uncommon for men to wear “body belts,” helping form a trim silhouette, albeit secretly. Male corsets were hidden, viewed as deeply suspect by conservative 19th-century society, while simultaneously women’s corsets were considered a moral requirement, a necessary layer in decent society. “The Lord preserve the nation from a generation of male corset wearers,” were the words of an anonymous English observer in 1889, when the practice began to be linked to effeminacy and therefore homosexuality. Today, to a degree, that bias prevails: When the corset is used in men’s wear it’s typically because designers wish to cross a line and challenge gender norms. It often results in fashioning an image of a passive, receptive, objectified man. A man as woman.

The inversion of the corset, its reclamation as an item not just of femininity, but of feminism, came in the 1980s. The sexual politics of the garment weren’t eschewed, rather they were embraced, and manipulated, by a new generation of fashion designers. The first step was making the invisible visible: boldly sporting the corset as a piece of clothing rather than as a shaping underlayer. In 1989, Jean Paul Gaultier famously dressed Madonna in a pink satin corset with conical-stitched breasts, resembling the “waspie” foundation garments of Dior’s time; but Vivienne Westwood came before. Westwood’s collaborator, the late Malcolm McLaren, coined the phrase “underwear as outerwear” to describe a quilted satin brassiere worn on the outside of a sweatshirt in their 1982-83 Buffalo Girls (Nostalgia of Mud) collection; five years later, Westwood proposed elastic-sided variants on 18th-century-style stays, squared off at the cleavage below a balcony of heaving chest. “It gave us the idea of this hourglass figure,” Westwood says today. “It’s this very feminine figure, with a waist.” But Westwood’s corsets weren’t hidden under evening dresses, carving a figure covertly. They were worn alone, sometimes above nothing more than leggings, reclaiming the restrictive garment as ironic, empowered, post-second-wave feminist attire.

Indeed, a century earlier, corsetry was seen as a reflection of a distinct brand of feminism. The most extreme proponents of a niche practice known as tight-lacing (where the waist was reduced to seemingly impossible measurements of around 14 inches) was found among the working-classes more so than the elite, “the same people who now might regularly wear two-inch fingernails and four-inch high heels,” stated the historian Anne Hollander in her book “Sex and Suits.” Incidentally, it was the same breed of women who adopted the corset in the ’80s — an evening counterpart to the decade’s aggressive power suits, where masculinity was prized in the boardroom and felinity at night. “I have a head for business,” murmured Melanie Griffith as Tess McGill in “Working Girl,” “and a bod for sin.” 

The current revival of the corset may prove short-lived. It’s highly unlikely it will become an essential component of a woman’s wardrobe as it was, say, in 1892, when the dress reformer Helen Gilbert Ecob claimed that American women bought 60,000,000 corsets per year. (Her own bias may have caused the figure to be exaggerated.) It’s also not a vital part of fashion. Rather than reshaping the silhouette, as Dior did, designers today tend to just tinker with the visual components of the corset, like the corset-style lacing that crisscrossed Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel show, attaching jackets and dresses horizontally at the waist, or boots at the ankle. Some are using it to refine a silhouette, such as the leather bustiers and wide contour belts that finessed the waists of Jonathan Anderson’s Loewe clothes. They’re not breathlessly refashioning the body.

Nevertheless, these styles reflect a cultural fixation with a pumped-out, amped-up, patently artificial silhouette. The kind of curves made for Instagram, the sort nature simply doesn’t create. The ideals of the general public and the insular fashion industry are usually at odds: Watch a Prada show, then flick through Playboy, and there’s an alarming dichotomy between the two ideals proposed. Does the corset bring those two images closer? Perhaps. It’s one of the few garments that could work both in Playboy and at Prada.

We are living at a time when people are obsessed with cosmetic surgery, fad diets and other self-transforming regimes, where the time scale is constantly reduced, and more extreme results consistently demanded. Possibly that’s why the corset has been revived. No other garment so radically reshapes the physical. As opposed to merely transforming our perceptions of the figure, as with the padding and extensions of 18th-century pannier skirts, or the 19th-century bustle, the corset acted — and still acts — directly on the form, kneading and shifting flesh to literally carve out a new body for its wearer, no situps required.

Back in the 19th century, satire had it that husbands were frequently called upon to lace their wives into their corsets: on the one hand because the strength required exceeded that of a ladies’ maid, but also so that men could see if the laces had been untied and refastened incorrectly by a lover. It was fashion as female subservience.
The interesting thing about the current revival is that, despite all that history, a woman wearing a corset today is a symbol of empowerment, of sexual freedom, of control. She’s the one holding the laces, the one constructing her own femininity. “

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Raven Tao

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