The corset is historical at its core, but has gone through several period of revival in the last 30 years. Fashion trends such as Steampunk, Burlesque, and the fetish scene all use the corset as some of their key pieces. Performers throughout the ages have taken their interpretations of the corset into modern day society. In addition, the corset is still used for medical and body shaping purposes. As a result, the corset is still found in the modern woman’s wardrobe.
Corsets hit their high point in the Victorian era. The style used by the women in the 1800s is what is typically regarded as the corset that comes to mind. With the high bust line, tightlaced back, clasp closed front, extending down to the hips, the classic Victorian corset is the one that has been the base of the majority of modern day corsetry.
The Steampunk movement has been the group that tends to stick as close to this Victorian prototype. Those who follow the Steampunk culture maintain the styles and technology that was popular during the reign of Britain’s Queen Victoria, with the addition of a science fiction and fantasy spin. Steampunk corsets are classic Victorian at the core, with a few changes in materials and styling. Using brown and black leathers, bronze and gold accessories, and sometimes with the addition of bustles or capes, the Steampunk style corset sets itself out from those from two hundred years ago.
In some ways, the Gothic subculture also follows the Steampunk subculture in their homage of the corset. As in the Steampunk culture, the classic Victorian style is the base, with their own upgrades and interpretations. Gothic corsets tend to be quite dark in color, focusing on blacks, maroons, and greys. There is sometimes use of leather, but the majority of Gothic corsets are cloth based. Corsets of both the Goth and Steampunk subcultures are designed to be worn as outerwear, either on their own, or with additional layers to cover exposed parts of the body.
The corset has seen an increase in popularity in recent years due to movies like Moulin Rouge, and influences from the resurgence of Burlesque. Rather than a British-based fashion, Burlesque developed in Italy and France during the Victorian age. In America, Burlesque has gone through numerous revivals. In the 1930s, it was the start of modern day striptease, fueled by the free-flowing illegal liquor of the Prohibition. In more recent times, artists like Dita Von Teese and Julie Atlas Muz have brought Burlesque to the popular culture. Burlesque corsets can reach both over the breast, covering it completely, or reach under the breast, to be worn with additional pieces like pasties. Many corsets in this subculture include more “feminine” colors such as reds, pinks and lavenders, and include feathers and lace. At the core, Burlesque is based on stripping, so the corsets have been designed to come off with ease.
Other current influences on the corset are musical artists such as Madonna, and fashion designers like Jean Paul Gautier. Starting in the 1980s, these two popular figures brought the corset to the forefront. Rather than stylized outerwear, the corsets of this time appeared more to be underwear that was being worn on the outside. The material was flesh colored, and the construction of the corset left areas without any coverage – almost a deconstructed skeleton of a Victorian corset. Madonna’s ‘cone bra corset’ is a classic example of the corsets seen during this time.
Lady Gaga has taken the corset styles of Madonna and Gautier and updated them even further. Giving the corset a futuristic look with shining metal, studs, and even pyrotechnics, the corsets worn by Lady Gaga are almost science fiction in their appearance. There is also a medical influence with Lady Gaga’s corsets. She has been seen wearing corsets made to look like a rib cage, as well as metallic corsets in her “Paparazzi” video that protected her character’s disabled body. Lady Gaga is also seen wearing corsets without any additional skirts or pants, with short briefs or stockings covering the lower half of her body – the corset is the main piece in her ensembles.
In the world of fetish, corsets are often used by individuals who participate in bondage, dominance and submission. The submissive can be directed to wear a corset so that their movement is restricted and their body given a more pleasurable hourglass appearance. The dominant can also be found wearing corsets, but more to give the impression of armored, severe, and controlling appearance. Corsets worn by those undertaking this fetish are almost exclusively black, and generally made of natural or synthetic leather. The stereotypical dominatrix is often pictured wearing a tight black leather corset. Like Steampunk and Goth, both men and women wear corsets in the bondage scene, but the majority of corsets are worn by women.
Corsets for medical use still exist in modern society. This is a continuation of the corset’s original purpose to protect the fragile nature of the women that wore them, as women were seen as the weaker of the two sexes, and needed to have clothing that protected them from the likes of gravity, lecherous men, and the strain of pregnancy. Today, individuals who have spinal conditions such as scoliosis or with internal injuries may be fitted with a corset by their doctors. This is to prevent movement in the area and to protect the person’s torso. The famous artist Andy Warhol wore a corset following a shooting, due to the injuries he sustained.
There are also women who still use the corset as a method of body modification through shaping of the bones, as well as basic waist reduction. Most modern day tightlacers are looking to achieve a waist under 20 inches in diameter, with 16 or 17 inches the “dream target”. This is often a dangerous activity, with a restriction in lung capacity and permanent bone modification. Women who take part in this type of activity typically engage in a subculture or fetish community where a waistline this narrow is looked upon favorably.
Less extreme individuals look to just reduce their waistline by a couple of inches. Brides will often wear a corset underneath their wedding dress to achieve a slimmed down and smooth appearance under close-fitting dress. Typically, though, women use “spanks” or girdles to reduce the size of their waist – an offshoot of the original corset. While the origins of the corset date back to antiquity, it still survives to this day – both in subcultures, the medical community, and in mainstream culture.