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Feminine Identity and the Corset: A History

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2672 words Published: 16th Aug 2018

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Concepts of feminine identity have changed drastically throughout history. Ancient sculpture reveals that beauty was considered to be a woman who was greatly obese, perhaps because of its connotations of a woman well-fed in a world where that was a difficult achievement. The ancient Greeks valued a more muscular figure in their artwork of the feminine ideal, yet these figures still retained a soft roundness. In modern times, the feminine ideal has shifted to something closer to the skeletal. As this transition occurred, fashion has played a significant role in shaping the female identity. The durability and versatility of the corset as a defining garment is almost as astonishing as its continuing appeal. Even after it lost its widespread popularity, the continued use of the corset in Hollywood depictions of the feminine preserved its use, established its historic connotations and illustrated how it symbolized something larger than itself. Contemporary fashion has given the corset a new lease on life as women continue to turn to this garment as a means of identification within the modern world.

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Although the corset has traditionally been viewed as a symbol of female submission, any intrinsic meaning is subject to wide interpretation. “What the immediate meaning usually comes from is available imagery, past or present, the suggestive pictures that have pervaded public consciousness and are loaded with shared associations” (Hollander, 1995: 26). The tight-lacing of the 17th and 18th centuries indicate the degree to which the corset was considered a means of female sexual expression and define ideas of female beauty. Understanding how the corset has been used in Hollywood, revitalized in cult fashions and re-introduced in high fashion illustrates how it can operate to convey female submission and aggressive sexuality depending upon the internal and external factors at play in its design and use within modern fashion.

Hollywood’s Creation

Hollywood and the big name movie producers have employed the corset in any number of ways from the beginning of the industry. The corset was already used in everyday dress when ‘Hollywood’ emerged and it was already a strategic garment in Vaudeville and Broadway. Even then, women craved the fashions they saw on stage depending upon the persona of the actress and the intentions of the wearer. Broadway and Vaudeville star Anna Held is the first great example of the corset as a defining garment of the female character. Most of her fame was not attributed to her singing voice, but rather to “her rolling eyes, eighteen inch waist and naughty songs” (Kenrick, 2004). As is shown in Figure 1, Held continued the practice of tight-lacing in order to portray an enticing, sexually appealing woman with a tiny waist and accented upper features.

Through these types of costumes in combination with her activities, Held demonstrated a life of independence and success while remaining sexy and appealing to the opposite sex. Author Eve Golden was quoted saying Held was “everything that was glamorous about Broadway, everything that was naughty about Paris” (Van Degans, 2006).

Mae West achieved similar associations in notoriety and accomplishments. As early as age 14, West was being hailed as “The Baby Vamp” (Mae West Biography, 2004). Like Held, she became famous because of her quick wit and brazen sexuality. “In 1926, Mae wrote, produced and directed the Broadway show ‘Sex,’ which led her to be arrested for obscenity” (Mae West, 2004). She was so controversial that new censorship codes were put in place in 1934 specifically to address her writing, but this didn’t keep her from filling her lines with outrageous innuendo and double entendres. “Her first film role was supporting George Raft in Night After Night (1932), in which Raft said ‘she stole everything but the cameras.’ The first film to star West, She Done Him Wrong (1933), the film version of Diamond Lil, broke box-office records and saved Paramount from selling out to MGM” (Mae West, 2004). Although West continued to emphasize the hourglass figure, she rejected the wasp-waist and tight-lacing of Held. Instead, as is shown in Figure 2, West presented a narrow yet proportionately-sized waist. Women wishing to appear independent and sexual began including the corset to heighten and claim their sexuality.

Although many stars who appeared in corsets as a part of their outer costume, such as Mae West and Anna Held, retained ‘doubtful’ reputations as wild, free and sexual women, the corset was also used by ‘good girls.’ In the 1950 film Two Weeks with Love, Jane Powell, the ‘girl-next-door’, deepened her image with the part of Patti Robinson, a 17-year-old vying for the love of a charming Latin man. A main point in the plot refers to the vital role of the corset as a means of defining a woman, “something no real femme fatale of the time would be without” (Two Weeks with Love, 1950). This ‘good girl’s’ struggles to acquire a corset helped to blur the boundaries between the appealingly feminine good girl and the aggressively sexual ‘bad’ girl. Throughout Hollywood’s progression, women were often seen using corsets as a means of obtaining the ideal female figure despite changing fashions. Thus, Hollywood allowed the garment to shape and redefine the figures of thousands of American women through the generations. Examples include the hourglass figures of Debbie Reynolds in “How the West Was Won” and Marilyn Monroe in “River of No Return”, the cinch waist shown in “The Glass Slipper” on Leslie Caron and the straight-line figure of Betty Grable.

Each of these images gives women something they can identify with that would encourage their use of the corset to express some aspect of their sexuality. Debbie Reynolds is sweetly sassy with the traditional hourglass figure. Marilyn Monroe disrobes for the camera to casually reveal her stunning shape. Leslie Caron’s super slim waist is emphasized by the attention of the actors while Betty Grable’s curves are made more alluring by the control maintained in the World War II poster. In each case, the use of the corset emphasizes rather than negates the sexual appeal of the women and provides her with an aura of power. Throughout these depictions and regardless of the finished shape, the corset was essential to full expression of true femininity. Without it, the female was somehow less than a woman as she lacked any sexual identity. The corset’s continued use as a symbol of female empowerment in Hollywood ensured its continued use in society.

Corset’s Return in Cult Fashion

Modern fashion’s use of the corset began with the Gothic fashions of the late 20th century although it can be found in other styles as well. Fashion designers working within smaller cult groups incorporated it as a feature element of everyday outerwear. Again, it is typically used to heighten a woman’s sex appeal, but the forms of interpretation can vary widely based upon the vision of the designer and the intention of the wearer. One such designer is Vivienne Westwood, who worked in the rock and roll movement of the 1960s and 1970s in Britain. Her fashions reflect the sexual freedom of female expression found in the women’s movements of the time. She felt the repression and conservatism of Britain were in opposition to the freedom and liberation being expressed in America. She rebelled against these attitudes in the aggressive, outspoken nature of the clothing she designed. Westwood discovered that “there was a dramatic potential in the clothes themselves that could be heightened: laden with associations, biker gear links sexuality, violence and death, in a twentieth century archetype” (Savage, 2001: 21). She built on these ideas by adding metal studs, chicken bones, chains, zippers and other things to her designs. This made her the mother of the punk rock fashions (Savage, 2001: 21). Many of these designs included the corset as a fetish object, made in leather, vinyl or other materials (see Figure 7) to denote a dominatrix-type image. This gave the garment connotations of power and control. The jewel-like elements on the corset featured in Figure 7 also provides a strong element of decadence and wealth.

Westwood then took the corset in a new direction as she defined the romantic “pirate” movement and the “savages” movement of asymmetrical skirts and ripped layers. Her corsets took on softer fabrics, but did not reduce the sense of power and control associated with the earlier designs. The sensuous images used in the Aphrodite and Adonis corset epitomizes the type of soft, yet blatant, sexuality the corset has come to represent.

“Westwood’s reworking of the corset for outerwear has become one of her most recognizable trademarks. Romantic and historically accurate, the corsets are also surprisingly practical. Stretch fabrics allow ease of movement, and removable sleeves convert a daytime garment to evening wear. Once a symbol of constraint, corsets are now an expression of female sexuality and empowerment” (Vivienne Westwood, 2004). Westwood’s brilliance is in finding a means of melding the blatant sexuality of the corset-as-outer-garment crowd with the soft femininity of the corset-as-undergarment crowd. “Madonna’s now legendary conical bra, created by Jean Paul Gaultier and worn throughout her Blonde Ambition tour nearly ten years later, would never have happened if it hadn’t been for Westwood playing with the concept of underwear as outerwear some time before him” (Frankel, 2001: 52). Westwood recognized the attraction to this style was the inherent empowerment afforded the wearer. There is always a sense of danger just under the surface of her designs, as is somewhat apparent in the example pictured in Figure 9.

The Corset in High Fashion

From its appearance in cult fashions, the corset has also been accepted back into high society as a symbol of status and taste. “The corset had many positive connotations – of social status, self-discipline, artistry, respectability, beauty, youth and erotic allure” (Steele, 2001: 1). These concepts have been re-introduced to the corset as fashion designers increasingly recognize its appeal as an undergarment to women seeking psychological empowerment as well as an outer garment to highlight and reclaim sexual expression. Even when the full corset is not used, many designs mimic the hourglass shape in the cut of a jacket, the lacing on the back of a shirt or the boning of an evening gown. “The corset captured the dichotomy between artifice and restraint and reflected the highly ornamental status given to the female body” (Keenan, 2001: 171). However, the primary purpose of these elements continues to focus on providing the wearer with a sense of sexual power.

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Following Vivienne Westwood, haute couture designer Jean Paul Gaultier realized the corset’s connotations of feminine power. “The corset – My first trademark piece. At the beginning of the 20th century, women considered corsets anti-freedom, but when I put them on the runway in the early 1980s, it was to express the power of femininity. It was supposed to be hidden, but making it apparent made people rediscover it. I love the fact that a woman or man wearing one feels strong and powerful” (Davis et al, 2006: 43). His corset dress designs are based on the idea of the corset with many designs incorporating boning, support and tabs, but his favorite feature seems to be the lacing which adds a touch of the romantic and the sexual as is highlighted in Figures 10 and 11.

Whether through the Paris runway or the cult sectors, the corset has entered mainstream fashion thanks to the creativity of designers, the versatility of new fabrics and techniques and the desire of women to construct an identity in keeping with the pressures of the modern era. Designers such as Stella McCartney have modified the corset dress to make it extremely wearable. The dress pictured in Figure 12 could be worn to an evening event as easily as an afternoon lunch.

Designers have begun using elements of the corset in ever-more casual designs. In addition to the feminizing aspects of the fabrics and patterns selected for these pieces of clothing, the slimming features of the corset combined with its breast enhancing abilities are at the heart of this popularity. “Psychologically, the popularity of the corset can be explained by its strong connotation. The corset, still being a historical garment, probably gives the wearer the feeling of timelessness and freedom felt when wearing fancy dress. It lets her adopt a role, a character, maybe a powerful seductress, which is not allowed during daily life” (All Tied Up, 2006). By wearing a corset-inspired top, a modern-day woman gains the ability of expressing her femininity, exploring her sexuality, imbuing herself with a feeling of confidence and power and showing off her figure in its best light.

Conclusion – The Corset-Defined Identity

Throughout its long history, the corset has been a significant player in the shaping of female clothing and female identity. Whether used by outrageous female actresses pushing the bounds of female sexual expression such as Mae West or Anna Held or incorporated into films by directors to illustrate a specific point, the corset remained a significant symbol of female identity throughout most of Hollywood’s history – from the vamp to the alluring ideal feminine. Moving into the 21st century, the corset has not phased out of production or usage. With designers such as Vivienne Westwood redefining both the function and the message of the corset, as well as revolutionizing the fabrics, materials and comfort level of these garments, the corset has seen a comeback into modern clothing. By bringing the corset into the open, Westwood also brought the subject of female sexuality more into the open, encouraging discussion and display. Her powerful designs and innovative fabrics served to highlight the concept that the feminine could be powerful as well as shapely even while comfort remained a concern. The corset was then morphed into other styles of clothing for a variety of purposes. This effectively brought the idea of the feminine into a new context – still defined by the shape of the corset, the feminine had suddenly been shaped into something defined by the individual woman and could reflect everything from guileless submission to the needs of the male to powerful aggression and control on the part of the female. “The corset bears an everlasting sexual attraction: it glorifies, underlines, exacerbates and idealizes the female form. It has evolved aesthetically and symbolically: from underwear to outerwear (in late nineteenth century ball gowns), from corsets to bustiers, from constriction to power, from lingerie to armor” (All Tied Up, 2006).

I think you see why the shaping of the waist is important regarding sexuality.

You state that W.Westwood was solely responsible for the comeback of corsets in the 80s. you could argue that it has always been there. Doir’s new look (the nipped in waist) a corset in a more relaxed form.

Not only female wears corset. Men do. Currently and in the past. Could talk about the waist coat acting like a corset for men or look up dandies

Corsets Return in Cult Fashion and The Corset in High Fashion chapters can be cut down a lot if you look at the trickle down theory by simmel.


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