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Kylie Minogue, who stepped on to stage this weekend with an eye-watering 16-inch waist, is just the latest star to revive our breathless obsession with the corset. So what is it about getting trussed up in whalebone that remains such an enduring fantasy? Laura Barton sucks in and laces up
Perhaps I shouldn't have had lunch. Indeed, to be in with even
a cat in hell's chance of mustering the waspish proportions of Kylie Minogue,
pictured on stage this week twirling a heavily corseted 16-inch waist, one
would surely have to forgo eating, drinking and probably all breathing whatsoever.
Not to mention a few ribs.
If you've ever been stuck in a lift, you will have a hint of what it is like to be laced into a corset. There is a sudden blaze of panic, of airlessness, before one is distracted by the fiery lick of the laces, and the sight of flesh as it concertinas over the spine and disagreeably rumples over the waistband. Kylie having set an irresistible challenge, I find myself in Rigby and Peller's central-London store, where Jill Kenton, director of the Queen's favourite lingerie company, hoiked me into a series of increasingly sturdy corsets, tugging at the laces with gusto. With a few brief tugs, my waist has been squeezed from a stalwart 26 inches to a violin-shaped 24 inches. Yes, breathing is tricky, laughter impossible, yet I feel curiously emboldened.
Preposterous garment it may be, but there is something about
women and corsets. We've been liberated from our bustles and freed from our
hooped skirts, but we can't seem to get over our guilty fantasy to lace ourselves
up too tightly to breathe. The popularity of the garment may undulate every
bit as the figure it achieves - from its peaks (Madonna's conical brassieres
and the film Dangerous Liaisons sent corset sales
"through the roof", says Kenton, as did another film, Moulin Rouge)
to its troughs ("even over Christmas they died a death," she notes
wryly) - but the media excitement over Kylie's burlesque John Galliano outfits
earlier this week is certain to prefigure another stampede for the waspy waist.
What is uncertain is why, beneath the ebb and flow of fickle fashion, we harbour a constant, low-lying throb of affection for the corset. It is a passion fuelled by literature, television and Hollywood: Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind hollering for Mammy to pull tighter on those corset laces; Judy Garland in Meet Me In St Louis, breathless and limping after being squeezed down to some improbably inched waist. And, naturally, corsets have played a starring role in countless BBC costume dramas - after all, one has to have a bodice to rip. But in 2005, the fashion for corsetry sits pretty uneasily with our notion of ourselves as modern women. Can we simultaneously yearn for emancipation and a 16-inch waist?
The earliest corsets arrived in the 13th century, and it took us seven centuries to break out of them. One might, therefore, expect the very notion of corseting to be filed next to foot-binding as an example of history's curious sartorial enslavement of women. The effect, after all, of all that lacing and whaleboning and thick metal rivets was an array of physical problems that one might broadly describe as "squishing the innards". Tales abound of welts, fainting, even of unborn foetuses crippled in the womb. "In the 19th century," says Lucy Johnston, curator of 19th-century fashion at the V&A, "there were magazine adverts for 'healthy' corsets, saying they had less boning but still enhanced the figure." In reality, unsurprisingly, they were no better for the feminine health than the other sort - indeed, the campaign against the corset was waged as much by doctors as it was by women. "Burn the corsets!" wrote the proto-feminist writer Elizabeth Stuart Phelps in 1874. "Make a bonfire of the cruel steels that have lorded it over your thorax and abdomen and heave a sigh of relief."
And yet still fashion salivates over that hourglass silhouette. It is tangible in the new-found predilection for burlesque (the burlesque performer Dita von Teese, also the current squeeze of the singer Marilyn Manson, is rarely sighted outside a tightly clinched bodice) as well as the boom in exotic, expensive lingerie labels.
There may even be evolutionary reasons for its popularity. The corset seemingly freezes the female form into a perpetual state of being in flagrante: the arched back and heaving bosom, even the state of breathlessness. "There are special reasons for corsets being sexually exciting," explains Desmond Morris, author of the Naked Woman, "two of which are quite contradictory reasons: first, you can see a corset in a puritanical way, in that it acts like a suit of armour, making [the woman] less natural, more controlled, more unavailable. Or you can see it as a form of erotic bondage." However, the basic appeal of the corset, Morris elaborates, is that it exaggerates the magic ratio of waist to hips, which for women is 7:10. "That silhouette is going to have a sexual appeal at a primeval level," he says. "It's signalling the child-bearing pelvic girdle, there's no great mystery about that. And, as the male's magic ratio is 9:10, if the female's ratio becomes 6:10 it becomes super-female because it takes it further away from the male ratio." Today, Morris argues, corsets cling on only because of their fetishistic attraction. "And Kylie," he notes, "has a strange fetishistic appeal. In modern times, women have wanted to be more active and don't want to make themselves into these armoured-bondaged females."
Yet the corset has, in more recent times, been reclaimed and championed by some feminists, who argue that in fact the health risks of corset-wearing were greatly exaggerated by men who felt that the corset embodied a sort of thrusting, empowered feminine sexuality, perhaps not entirely unlike what the codpiece did for men. In The Corset: A Cultural History, Valerie Steele debates precisely this point, stating that those who crusaded against the corset did so in an effort to constrain women's sexuality. She says that nowhere in her extensive research into costume history has she found the fabled minuscule-inched faint-inducing corsets of legend. In a year-long investigation carried out in conjunction with a fetishist named Cathy Jung, Steele found that daily tight-lacing created no enduring effects on the woman's health. Displaced organs, left to roam free, appeared to replace themselves happily.
Indeed, what the corset grants its female wearer is a very different kind of sexuality to that routinely peddled on the covers of lads' mags and available for a few crisp notes at the likes of Spearmint Rhino. It is at once a marriage of pure sexuality and a level of restrained social respectability. Arguably, this is why the corset enjoys an enduring popularity with brides: the corseted wedding dress at once being a manifestation of purity, socially sanctioned union, and the marital sex which lies before her.
The corset projects a sort of womanliness, as opposed to the attractions of a vest-wearing slip of a girl ("It needs hips and bosom and bottom," says Rowan Pelling, founding editor of the Erotic Review.) Vivienne Westwood, one of the first designers to haul corsets out of the wilderness, says the corset is about a real, if contrived, womanliness, which needn't only mean constriction. "We want ladies to live and breathe," she says. "The corset, flat at the front, which pushes the bust high, gives a feeling of straightness and pulling up tall through the shoulders to add to the effect of a very important lady whose great impact is her face." And while the argument that a corset focuses the gaze on a woman's face, as opposed to her cleavage or her waist, is debatable, it is undoubtedly true that it grants the wearer a certain poise. "There aren't many items of clothing," observes Pelling, "you can put on that transform the way you walk, the way you think, the way you hold yourself." The only thing comparable, she suggests, is wearing a fabulous stiletto heel.
Whether the corset will continue to sway in and out of fashion in the coming years remains to be seen. Increasingly, one might argue, women who want radically to reshape their torsos do not require the lifting, girdling effects of the corset because they have the surgeon's knife - even cosmetic lotions and potions - to permanently uplift and whittle away parts of their anatomy should they so desire. Liposuction, perhaps, has become the new whaleboning. But all the collagen implants and surgical sculpting money can buy cannot really compete with the irresistability offered by the corset: it is the thrill of the unknown, the gift to be unwrapped. Cinched and breathless in a shop fitting room on a grey Monday afternoon, even I have to concede this to be true.
Article - The Guardian March 22 2005
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