The desire to reduce the waist and exaggerate the body’s natural curves first appeared in Minoan times, around 1700BC and then re-emerged during the Renaissance period in the 16th Century, continuing through to the Victorian Era. During the 16th century the Queen of France , Catherine de Medici, brought the corset over with her from Florence and introduced it to Parisian society, and it soon became a staple worn by the British aristocracy.
It was the Victorian era that brought the hourglass figure into the forefront of fashion. Women went through extreme measures to achieve the ideal 16 inch waist. The 19th century was the most significant century for the corset to date; while the style of the corset used to change over the century, in the 1800s, it would evolve from decade to decade.
The rejection of the corset came as an extension of the Suffragette movement in the early 20th Century. The Victorian corset was regarded by many as physically oppressive, some even associating it with women’s inferior status.
In 1917, shortly after the USA entered WWI, the War Industries Board asked women across the country to stop buying corsets in order to liberate metal for the war effort; as a result, this freed up 28,000 tons of metal – enough to build two battle ships. The invention of the brassiere in 1914 alongside the metal shortage, also encouraged women to move away from corsetry adopting a softer silhouette. The mass production of the first bra designs started in the early 20th century, making the garment widely available for women in the USA, England and western Europe. Following this, Coco Chanel’s impact on fashion in the 1920’s saw a more relaxed, masculine aesthetic come into popularity. The 1920s are renowned for its shapeless, androgynous fashion. It was the development of Lastex in the 1930s that finally pushed the corset out of fashion. The elastic nature of the fabric replaced heavy boning and lacing, and corsets soon started to change into brassieres and girdles. There was a brief return to the corset in high fashion as women sought a more glamorous style after the austerity of WWII. In 1947, this ‘New Look’ was made popular by Christian Dior. The liberation of the 1960’s resulted in women abandoning girdles and garters on masse. Only women born in the 1900's stayed loyal to corsetry, and as they died, the corset died with them.
For the next 30 years corsetry remained extinct, and the only evidence of its existence was in museums that specialised in historical clothing.
Madonna single-handedly brought the corset back into our consciousness when she wore a conically shaped corset, designed by Jean Paul Gaultier, for her Blond Ambition tour in 1990. Designers such as Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano also adopted this silhouette for a time and then corsetry disappeared for a further decade. The Burlesque scene alongside films like Moulin Rouge (2001), reintroduced the corset into society for it to be popularised by artists such as Pussy Cat Dolls and Dita Von Teese.
Today the love and fascination of corsets continues to rise; the classic hourglass figure has become a popular body shape among women once again. Corsets have been recognised as a key trend for future seasons, with many high profile designers incorporating them into their designs. The corset has become an A-list fashion statement as numerous celebrities have begun to introduce corsets into their style. The 21st century corset is one of female power, sexuality and confidence. As May West once said, the curve is more powerful than the sword.