The corset is a highly problematic garment that represents a multitude of signifiers. Imbibed with connotations of gender, history, and sex, the corset is an example of how dress can transcend mere sartorial choice, and come to represent more than just undergarments. In whichever context the corset is placed, the undercurrents of its history and its present are brought to mind in a clash of temporalities, whereby contemporary connotations of sex and fetishism are placed onto the historical garment. More so than any other object of dress, the corset raises questions of the body, pain, control and oppression as well as history. When thinking about the way dress shapes and changes the body, one automatically thinks of the extremes; implants, tattoos and piercings. However, body modification through dress, or the way that the body is altered through dress is not relegated to subcultures and foreign groups, but is part of the history of dress, and the present fashion system.
The nineteenth century fashion for tight lacing that gave women tiny, waspish waists through the aid of whalebone corsets is an example of how dress can change a person’s physiognomy through extreme body manipulation. Though these effects are evident in the altered external silhouette of the body, the internal, and often damaging, modifications are difficult to comprehend.
In 1908, Dr. Ludovic O’Followell, a French doctor interested in the long-term effects of corsets on the body, published x-rays of women’s bodies altered by the constricting items. The images show the movement of the rib-cage structure, with the lower ribs pointing downwards and collapsing towards each other in some cases. Medical images and testimonies such as these, along with stories of organs being shifted, women fainting, and the suppression of appetites, provoked debate and calls for Dress reforms in the nineteenth century; a call that was answered when the uncorseted designs of Paul Poiret and Mariano Fortuny were in vogue.
The images also help to cement the contemporary preconception of the corset as a tool of bodily constriction and nineteenth century social oppression of women. The contemporary association of the corset to the body in pain, its relationship to fetish subcultures and therefore its alignment to sex, heighten this notion of the corset as a gendered, taboo, and archaic object of dress. Images of contemporary tight-lacing enthusiasts such as Ethel Granger, Mr. Pearl, Fakir Musafar, and Cathie Jung show the body transformed permanently through corsetry. The defiance of modern hetero-normative gender roles, ideal body shape, and silhouette through their practice distinguish them as ‘other’, and not part of the mainstream, everyday fashion system.
However, the corset is an object that has arguably never left fashion. Corsets appear and reappear each season as items of supporting underwear and risqué outerwear. Even the subculture icons of Ethel Granger and Mr Pearl entered the conventional fashion system. Photographs of Ethel Granger appeared in Vogue Italia, inspiring and featuring alongside an editorial photo-shoot starring Stella Tennant. Mr Pearl, a corsetiere, is renowned throughout the fashion world for his craftsmanship and skill, with regular commissions from Jean Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen and Thierry Mugler. He also designs the corsets worn by Dita von Teese during her Burlesque performances.
For the majority of people though the corset is no longer an item of everyday wear, however it is impossible to say that the sartorial choices we make do not impact our bodies. Though not to the bone-crushing extent of the nineteenth century, our clothes leave imprints and indents in our skin. Items of underwear like bras or the fashion for tighter and tighter skinny jeans leave imprints and lines in our flesh from the restriction of these garments. The photographer Justin Bartels documented women’s bodies that show the ephemeral traces of clothing. As examples of body modification in fashion the photographs oppose the concept of twentieth century fashion as a site of bodily liberation. They suggest that contemporary standards of beauty have simply replaced older regimes of discipline. Where once a framework held the body in place through fabric and laces, our bodies are now kept in line through exercise regimes and diets. Bartels’ photographs literalise the traces of the nineteenth century whalebone corset on the modern female body.
Joanne Entwistle, The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress and Modern Social Theory (United Kingdom: Polity Press, 2004)
Elizabeth Wilson, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity (United States: University of California press 1992)
Susan Vincent, The Anatomy of Fashion: Dressing the Body from the Renaissance to Today (United Kingdom: Berg Publishers, 2010) p.133.