The Great Corset Debate of 2017

At first, I thought it was an April Fool’s joke. Ellie Violet Bramley’s article for the Guardian on Saturday, entitled ‘Let loose: how the corset became the new female power suit’ (now thankfully renamed to ‘how the corset is being reclaimed by the fashion industry‘) certainly had all the hallmarks of a wind up. If it hadn’t been for the fact that high street and online fashion retailers have been awash with wide flimsy corset-inspired belts in recent months I would have ignored it entirely, but this wasn’t a joke… it was a hot take.

A look from Vivienne Westwood's A/W 1987-88 'Harris Tweed' collection
A look from Vivienne Westwood’s A/W 1987-88 ‘Harris Tweed’ collection

The article begins with Victorian corsetry, which is a world away from the current garments that mainstream fashion brands are calling corsets, and then throws in Vivienne Westwood and Madonna for good measure. I was frustrated at the lack of attention to detail as corsets weren’t only worn by upper class women in the Victorian era, but at least she acknowledges that not every Victorian viewed corsetry as a symbol of women’s oppression, which is a start.

The next paragraph implies that Vivienne Westwood sent corset clad models down the catwalk in the 1970s when Westwood didn’t show designs on a catwalk until the Pirate Collection in 1981, and and only became famous for her corsets around a decade after she was selling her and Malcolm McLaren’s punk designs in a shop on the King’s Road.

After unsurprisingly mentioning Kim Kardashian as an early adopter of the new trend, Bramley asks “can the garment ever fully shake off its patriarchal trappings? It seems unlikely.” This is an odd statement to make when, three paragraphs earlier, she has already stated that this new fashion is not figure hugging or courting the male gaze. I realise that, if I didn’t want a journalist with no background in fashion history to write an ‘are corsets feminist?’ article for the Guardian, I could have submitted a pitch myself. But it’s a question that doesn’t need asking, let alone answering.

ASOS Denim Corset Belt

Clothing is not, in itself, inherently feminist. People can hold feminist opinions, subscribe to feminist values and use the label feminist to describe themselves, but inanimate objects can’t. Even wearing a corset is not in an of itself a pro- or anti-feminist act. I can’t believe this journalist felt she had to bother prominent fashion historian Valerie Steele with such a pointless question.

I’m still waiting for the article that asks if wearing clothing that’s the same colour as your skin is feminist. Are difficult-to-walk-in pointed toe kitten heeled mules feminist? (They’re certainly not aimed at the male gaze, or mine for that matter!) Is anything that looks like it might be made out of delicate sensual lingerie fabrics feminist? More importantly… does anyone actually care?

The image at the top of this post is of the back of Karolina Laskowska’s stunning handmade Salacia pink silk & tulle waspie corset. This is most definitely a proper waist shaping corset, and not one of those flimsy laced up belts that you can currently buy on the high street.

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