On Friday, Sept. 13, the dimming lights in Taylor 203 shifted the spotlight onto Senior Lecturer in Costume for the Arts University of Bournemouth Mandy Barrington, who was to present her meticulous research on reviving historical garments to suit modern bodies. The crowd could feel her animated passion for corsetry’s evolution.
Barrington engaged the audience with a discussion of the wide range of corset structures. She showed a stunning variety of garments topped with embroidery and lace from different time periods, from the late 16th century to the early 20th century. From viewing Barrington’s samples of historical corsets, I saw the assortment of silhouettes that are possible; one corset blossomed like a flower on the lower end, while the other smoothly contoured the waist, invoking the stance of a wasp.
In her book “Stays and Corsets: Historical Patterns Translated for the Modern Body,” Barrington illustrates step-by-step diagrams to guide her audiences in reviving historical patterns onto modern construction of corsets. The instructions are designed to accommodate any size or gender. Although most people don’t wear corsets on a daily basis anymore, clips from “Cinderella” and majestic dresses on theater stages remind us that corsets are very much still alive and deserve attention as an art form.
Corsets are often criticized for distorting natural body figures and stifling women into unrealistic silhouettes that feed the male gaze. However, Valerie Steele, a fashion historian and author of “The Corset: A Cultural History,” argues that “The meaning of any item of clothing is not embedded in the clothing itself; it’s something we create and are constantly renegotiating” (The Guardian, “Let loose: How the Corset is being reclaimed”, 04.01.2017). But are corsets making a comeback with a more feminist-friendly narrative?
Progress toward more feminist corsets can be traced back to the early 1980s, when the first inversion of the corset appeared in Vivienne Westwood’s Buffalo Girls (Nostalgia of Mud) collection. Westwood had models wear brasseries outside sweatshirts; her objective was to embrace corsets as clothing instead of undergarments, and also remove constrictive, tight lacing as a mandatory component.
The inversion of the corset is still visible in modern day aesthetics. Today’s adaptations, such as belt-like accessories over t-shirts, have definitely steered far away from the oppressive demands of cinching a 14-inch waist (NY Times Style Mag, “Can a Corset be Feminist?, 25.11.2016).
However, others may argue that the existence of corsets reinforces our society’s fixation on curvy silhouettes. Corsets are involved in many hypocritical representations of feminism, such as the juxtaposition of the empowered, self-reliant Wonder-Women triumphantly saving the world while wearing a cinched waist corset. She’s a heroic female figure, but she’s also feeding the fantasies of teenage boys.
We should also not forget that modern, trendy corsets are entirely different from the corsets that were once an essential part of a woman’s closet, as the latter were much more structured and practical. Barrington’s presentation therefore allowed audiences to understand corsets without the constraint of the existing framework bearing down on our perception. The audience learned to appreciate them as a form of art that is both sophisticated and impressive.