Rip up that bodice and start again: corsets are coming back but not as we remember them. Following the influence of Bridgerton, the corset has been reinvented.
In twists of postmodernity, Pyer Moss featured an ice-cream corset in its recent couture show, and Lizzo decorated hers with her face superimposed over the top of the Mona Lisa. Rihanna, Beyoncé and Bella Hadid have all worn theirs casually, like a top. And Billie Eilish centred her entire 50s pin-up reinvention around a corset on the cover of British Vogue.
For Angela McRobbie, a professor of communications at Goldsmiths, corsets are the appropriate garment to represent “going out, out” after the pandemic. “Fashion always signifies hope, so the sudden prominence of the corset as outerwear suggests a wider social desire to transcend the loungewear indoor times of Covid,” she says. “The whole point of such a slinky item of clothing is for it to be worn in chic, urban locations … cocktails bars [and] sweaty clubs. It’s a signifier for the night-time economy.”
But is there a disconnect for those who see the corset as a historical symbol of female subjugation now being used to indicate feminism?
“To paraphrase the fashion historian Valerie Steele, the practice of wearing a corset meant different things to corset wearers at the time,” says Lorraine Smith, a researcher at the Underpinnings Museum, which looks at the history of lingerie. “And so to frame the corset as inherently bad, or a symbol of patriarchal control, is to only look at part of the picture.”
Smith says views on corsets now are more emancipatory and validating. “Many people are looking at corsets as a way to make themselves look and feel good: projecting the confidence of someone with good posture who is wearing what they want, rather than what someone else has told them to wear.”
Kate Donald, the co-founder of Crease Studios which has been making corsets since 2016, says she and her business partner, Rosemary Lambert, were inspired by Vivienne Westwood, who reinvented the garment in the 80s and 90s. “In her catwalk shows, [Westwood] reminded us that corsets were not just for women,” says Smith.
Indeed, the final 2021 twist on the garment is that it’s also being made for men. “I knew I wanted to explore what it meant to be a man,” says Zdenek Lusk, a fashion student at Nottingham Trent University, who has created the male corset. “Right now there is such a big focus on men’s mental health,” he says, adding that men struggle to be emotionally open and honest. “The corset was a symbol of this while also representing the idea of a cage that the man closes himself within.”
Lusk can see his corsets being “worn to dinners or in streetwear fits with bomber jackets and jeans”.