August 3, 2021

history of an oppression that returns with new airs

It seems prehistoric, something of the past. But the corset has survived all the social and industry changes since its appearance in the 16th century. An invisible and oppressive weapon, designed by a patriarchal system that sought to mold the body of women and adapt it to a canon that, in a certain way, is still in force today: reduce waist, expand hips, stretch, outline and insinuate. His return this spring / summer season, fruit of the success of period series such as Bridgerton, makes it necessary to review the symbolism of the piece, now visible when used as an outer body, belt or even in dresses.

Can the quintessential garment of gender oppression today be a symbol of freedom and feminism? Silvia Ventosa, historian and curator of the exhibition The clothed body. Silhouettes and fashion (1550-2015) which permanently houses the Museu del Disseny (Barcelona), is skeptical but optimistic. “It is more an instrument of commercial brands than a change in the social concept with respect to the corset, although it is true that now women can decide to wear it or not,” he says. Only, she adds, “creating critical thinking through historical knowledge of the garment” could become a feminist claim.

From the 16th to the 19th century

How the corset shapes the female body to bring it closer to the ideal canon

The first gossip appeared from the 16th century but it was not until 1800 that the term for this piece changed and the word corset began to be coined. Its purpose, however, has always been the same: “to mold the figure of women to bring it closer to the canons of beauty of each era,” explains the historian.

Pitera (1745-1774). Gossip (1745). Gossip (1890). Pieces exhibited at the Museu del Disseny de Barcelona.

Assigned by the Museum of Design

Thus, while the 16th and 17th century corsets are designed with chest cartons for the torso that seek to flatten the figure, those of the 18th century change shape and are increasingly assimilated to a funnel to reduce the waist as much as possible and get the desired hourglass silhouette. With the arrival of the 19th century, the central part of corsets went from being made with natural plant reeds to pieces of steel and they can be tied at the front and at the back, a crucial detail according to the historian because it implies that for the first time women can dress themselves .

“Corsets began to be used by girls before they had their menstruation,” adds Ventosa and assures that only in this way was it possible to fully mold the body and prevent the waist from growing. Obviously, this oppression of the body had serious consequences for health. Internal bleeding, digestion problems due to the contraction of the organs, breathing difficulties and dizziness are some of the health problems that over time has been shown to cause prolonged use of the corset.

One of the few gossips with breastfeeding windows left in the world.  Exhibited at the Museu del Disseny de Barcelona

One of the few gossips with breastfeeding windows left in the world. Exhibited at the Museu del Disseny de Barcelona

Courtesy of the Museum

There are many famous dressmakers who tried to free women from the rods. Chanel, Paul Peirot or Mariano Fortuny achieved it in the 1920s. But with their irrepressible return after World War II – due to the need to recover that idea of ​​femininity and increase the birth rate – many designers embarked on redesigning it. Andrés Sardá in Spain and Ada Massoti in Italy, with La Perla, revolutionized it in the 60s in the first step to make it liberating.

The introduction of new stretch fabrics, such as elastane and softer materials for splints, the production and style of corsets changed. “Ada began to take advantage of technological advances and combining them with her impeccable corsetry skills introduced new styles, colors and fabric mixes. The evolution of these materials and fabrics has made corsets today not only beautiful, but also comfortable and fashionable. support, “explains Monica Evangelisti, La Perla’s director of global training.

Iconic garments

Jean Paul Gaultier for Madonna and Issey Miyake for Grace Jones made it an artistic fixture

For Evangelisti, “being a feminist also means being free to use what makes you feel good. When Ada Massoti founded the brand in 1954, she saw lingerie as a vehicle of empowerment, something that women could enjoy wearing. Forty years later, Hussain Chalaiam, John Galliano or Alexander McQueen would arrive to further strip the corset of its stigma and turn it into an artistic element.

So, in the eighties, a decade of experimentation in lingerie began, a kind of uncovering. “Before the 1980s, lingerie was used primarily as a functional tool, created primarily in neutral colors and designed to be concealed,” reveals Evangelisti. It was then, adds the La Perla professional, that the line between underwear and outerwear was blurred for the first time and women gave lingerie “an important role in their own empowerment and self-expression.”

Madonna in Jean Paul Gaultier's corset during her 'Blond Ambition' tour

Madonna in Jean Paul Gaultier’s corset during her ‘Blond Ambition’ tour (1990).

Other sources

The clearest example is found in the iconic Paul Gaultier corset for Madonna and a few years earlier that of Grace Jones, signed by Issey Miyake. “The pioneer was Vivienne Westwood and her heir, Gautier, followed. They sought to make visible how the woman’s body was structured as a social criticism and at the same time as an element of embellishment, pure and geometric lines,” says Ventosa. Because the corset will always move between two waters. Tool of oppression and femininity in equal measure. A garment in tension between seduction and motherhood. A historically patriarchal symbol that today can become a feminist.

Archive image of La Perla, 1967

Archive image of La Perla, 1967

Studio Martelli

The 21st century corset conforms to the body

Curiosities of the time and new silhouettes

The construction of this garment has changed over the decades. The rods, formerly made with whale baleen – hence the technical name by which they are known today, ‘whales’ – are now designed with more comfortable materials or even in many cases they disappear and their shape is recreated through simple seams on the sides. The compression to which the waist was subjected to reach the idyllic 57cm, as confirmed by the Catalan historian, caused serious medical problems at the time. Such was the frequency of fainting spells that the 18th century French nobility invented an armchair to recline without having to remove the “corseted armor” and the voluminous skirt. The people baptized it as the “fainting chair” but today it is known as the long chassis and is found in most modern living rooms.

The way they are worn has also evolved, the invisible and oppressive garment has been renewed to be a structured body in Dior dresses or a belt to mark Loewe’s characteristic fit & flare silhouette, the popular Obi belt. In this sense, La Perla also responds to the “last era of empowerment and growing customer demand”, in the words of Evangelisti by launching a new capsule collection called La perla Archive, in which it reinterprets iconic pieces from the 1980s. the signature and gives them a new space today.

Kaia Geber in a Loewe dress

Kaia Geber in a fully structured dress from Loewe.