For centuries, the corset has been one of the most influential pieces in women’s fashion, shaping the female figure, thus shaping history.
Initially designed for aesthetic purposes, the corset is a form-fitting boned garment, predominantly sitting just above the hips up to the bust, fastened at the back, molding the torso to a ‘civilized ideal.’ The corset was designed to ‘train’ the waist and exaggerate natural curves. The garment dates back to 1600 BC yet gained popularity in the 1840s and 50s. The garment is a reliable and timeless piece of clothing both as lingerie or a fashion piece.Wearing a corset was a luxury only the upper class could afford. During the 1800s, a sign of wealth, the corset was often gifted with engraved love poems and drawings. Before front fastening, a woman needed a maid to fasten the corset’s ideal ‘18-inch’ waist.While the extent to which the patriarchal control of women’s bodies through corsets is still up for discussion, the long-term health effects that these women endured are not. Women who wore corsets were found to have altered spines and an unnaturally small ribcage, as well as atrophy of back and pectoral muscles. It wasn’t uncommon to hear stories of women passing out from lack of oxygen, even cracking ribs, as well as living with collapsed lungs—all in hopes of emphasizing the breasts and hips, sexualizing the body. The corset reflects the morbid length females went to meet society's expectations. The corset led to women becoming dependent on men when leaving their homes, often requiring assistance to do the simplest tasks.The corset is synonymous with the suffragette movement.
In the 1900’s corsets slowly lost their popularity, with women opting for more practical clothing, garments that didn’t impede or prevent them from being independent. Similarly, at this time, the suffragette movement started to gain momentum. When women took to the streets in the 1910s to call for equal rights in voting, they were wearing the symbols of their emancipation – looser fitting clothes that allowed for more freedom of movement, as they fought for their own political and social independence.
Today we have rightfully taken back what once was a symbol of oppression and turned it into an empowering wardrobe piece. What once was a contentious political piece of clothing used to oppress women is now viewed as empowering and elegant.