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Forget about empowerment, corsets are just a fad

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Denise Turner
WVoN co-editor 

The current trend for corsets popularised by popstars like Lady Gaga and burlesque artist Dita Von Teese gives a fascinating insight into the politics of feminine underwear and economics.

For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, wearing a corset was mandatory for ‘respectable’ women; it was a literal illustration of their role in a patriarchal society.

At the beginning of the 20th century, socialist groups such as the Fabian Society and pre-Raphaelite artist William Morris advocated that women abandon their corsets as a political gesture.

This trend gained momentum in World War 1 as women took on men’s roles and socialist parties supported women’s emancipation. Dresses became less structured and did not need constraining undergarments.

But when austerity returned, so did constraining fashion. Dior’s ‘New Look’, required tiny waists or girdles. And in the workplace, most women had positions that were subservient to men.

When the economy in the west began to improve in the 60s and 70s, fashion again became unstructured and the British feminist publication Spare Rib encouraged women to burn their bras. In the underwear department, this meant that women could once more, ‘let it all hang out.’

It’s clear why people who follow fashion trends such as punk or goth like corsets (I for one support them when it’s a question of an adult making a personal choice), but why have women not in these groups also embraced the corset?

Fans of the corset, such as dancer Liberty Sweet of burlesque troupe The Folly Mixtures say that it represents empowerment.

I’d agree that for popstars like Madonna and Miley Cyrus, that’s probably true. It may also be true of the women who last year contributed an additional 45% to the sales of royal corset maker, Rigby and Peller. Like their A-list sisters, they have economic clout.

But what about teenagers haunted by the spectre of having to don a corset to go clubbing?  This could be one more pressure that leads to desperate acts like the suicide of Fiona Geraghty, a British schoolgirl who was bullied about her body shape.

Like most changes in what we wear, today’s fad for corsets has nothing to do with empowerment and personal expression. Instead it’s about an economic juggernaut called the fashion industry.

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