FKA twigs, Marilyn Manson and Euphoria’s Kat Hernandez. A trio that would most definitely conjure some unpredictable conversation at a fantasy dinner party – but also three names that share a penchant for one of 2019’s most surprising revivals: the corset.
It first came back onto the cultural radar at the beginning of this year. The ethereal twigs attended Sundance in an archival corset from Vivienne Westwood’s Portrait collection. Around the same time, that exact corset, which featured the dreamy work of the Rococo-style painter François Boucher, was photographed on model Jazzelle Zanaughtti, also known as her Instagram handle @uglyworldwide. (Due to popular demand, Westwood has this month announced the re-issue of a limited-edition number of corsets, a coveted staple for the brand.) Throughout the year and right up to today, both twigs, Zanaughtti, and a number of other hotly-watched millennials have pledged allegiance to the corset, from Kesley Lu and Jorja Smith to Bella Hadid and beyond.
For a garment that has arguably risen up the sartorial ranks this time around on Instagram, it’s important to note the roster of momentum-gaining labels creating corsetry for a new generation online. all is a gentle spring, Nodress, Lucy Doyle and Miaou are among a wave of designers whose corsets have already been spotted on the likes of Smith, model Zaina Miuccia and Barbie Ferreira. Meanwhile, the most recent round of runway shows was rich with homages to and reinterpretations of the corset, with several of fashion’s brightest young things – including Charlotte Knowles, Sinéad O’Dwyer, Dilara Findikoglu and Ashley Williams – making it a focal point of their SS20 collections. Thoroughly modern and visually delightful, today’s corsets are outer garments, not to be hidden under one’s clothes.
But lest we forget, the waist-cinching item is one of history’s most complex and controversial (under)garments, often associated with female restraint and oppression. Its primary function was to accentuate the assets and size down the waists of women – most of which belonged to the upper and middle class. It’s wearers arguably a victim of the male gaze, the corset was problematic in its prime (between the 16th and early 20th century) causing fainting, damage to the lungs and breathing difficulties. Its renaissance from the Renaissance period, then, is worth unpicking. Why has a new generation discovered a love for the corset and why is it trending today?
“The internet really encourages extreme dress-looks, you know. The corset revival has certainly been enabled and accelerated by the internet,” says Isabelle Hellyer, the founder and corset-aficionado behind all is a gentle spring. “They aren’t an everyday garment (at least, they haven’t been for the last hundred years) but I like that certain online people are making them one.” If you don’t already know the name, you may have seen the corsets: the first that Hellyer ever designed, her pastoral and tartan corsets have been adorned by Lu, Charli XCX and Rowan Blanchard (who is also a fan of the Westwood originals).
A fascination and love of history informs Hellyer’s made-to-order, fully-boned corsets with intricate ribbon lacing up its front. “The same material features that associate the corset with restraint – symbolic and physical – are the very reasons they’re appealing today. The boning and lacing: that’s exactly why they’re extremely flattering,” she continues. “The controversy isn’t just in its construction, but because it’s a historic garment. Anytime clothing looks back at history, they’re gesturing at a period of inequality – racial, economic, you know. But, bluntly, shit is still fucked.”
At times fantastical, romantic and totally otherworldly, is it any wonder why corsets are having a moment today? With Brexit and the general election looming, not to mention the life-threatening impact of global warming, escaping from the bleakness of reality has never seemed so appealing. And, after seasons of hype-infused streetwear and the more recent reign of deliberately sober and serious suiting, revelling in something as extravagant, wondrous and frivolous as corsetry seems almost entirely necessary. We’ve already begun to see a return to a feminine way of dressing, but the corset is perhaps as girlish as it gets – think of it as SS20’s answer to the Midsommer, folk-inspired dress.
It’s today’s current climate that inspired the corsets within Charlotte Knowles’ SS20 collection. Those dreamt up by the label’s namesake designer and her design partner Alexandre Arsenault are often described as utilitarian – a word that is not typically used in conjunction with said piece. The fabrics and materials are worlds apart from the corsets of the past and instead, the duo favours high-stretch fabrics, allowing the wearer to breathe while still looking beautiful. Blurring the boundaries between provocative and playful, sensual and subversive, the duo discussed the idea of the corset as amour and told Vogue Runway, “Our woman is fighting for her place in the world. She is tough and dangerous.” Turning the connotations of what a corset represents upside down and inside out, basically.
For O’Dwyer, the RCA graduate sculpts exquisite silicone pieces directly from the bodies of women she admires and the friends she loves. Her creations are a tribute to women of all shapes and sizes. “The work is a gesture to them, and by effect everybody, saying you are enough just as you are, not good or bad, just as you are, you are worthy of respect and representation,” she explains. “Underwear itself has a long history of transforming the female body and warping it. I think I make a reference to that in my work as I am doing the adverse.” While her pieces aren’t strictly corsets in the traditional sense, they share some similarities: lacing, for example, a hyper-feminine aesthetic but rather than shape or size down, they celebrate the female form in all its glory. “My own experiences of never feeling good enough in my body really made me want to use my female gaze to change something in how others perceived themselves,” she concludes, as she puts it so clearly, “[it’s about] reclaiming the narrative over the female body in fashion.”