The History of the Corset Is a Controversial One

2021's most popular trend has been around for centuries — and it definitely didn't start out as sexy.

History of the Corset
Photo: Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images

When Bridgerton first premiered on Netflix in December 2020, nobody could have predicted the passionate Regency era phenomenon that ensued. Fans of the show became fans of the same-titled book series by Julia Quinn (skyrocketing its sales and ranking to number one on The New York Times best-sellers list in the process), and outwardly craved more steamy romance scenes between The Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page) and socialite Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor). But the fandom's infatuation didn't end with the season finale or the last pages of the novel. It also translated into everyday wardrobes through statement pieces that were popular during that time in history, such as pearl jewelry, empire-waist dresses, and corsetsso many corsets.

Despite the fact that the history of the corset is long one, fashion lovers began treating this piece as if it were a brand trend. In February 2021, Etsy told INSIDER search traffic for "corsets" had increased by 91% in the three months following Bridgerton's release, and according to data aggregator Lyst, searches for all things "Regencycore" soared on its site, with corsets in particular seeing a 123% spike. The sexy lingerie was quickly becoming a closet staple that proved to be so much more than Victorian cosplay — thanks in part to the celebrities serving up inspiration for how to style corsets outside the Hollywood bubble.

History of the Corset
Gotham/GC Images

For example, back in July 2021, Irina Shayk paired a mesh bustier from Are You Am I with loose jeans, combat boots, and a leather blazer for an outing in Manhattan. A month later, during a trip to London, Dua Lipa opted for '90s grunge vibes with a plaid Vivienne Westwood corset, baggy jeans a black grommet-detail belt, and chunky black sneakers. Law Roach pieced together an Instagram-worthy look for Zendaya in September, which consisted of a shiny leather corset, baggy pleated pants, and pointy-toed Christian Louboutin pumps, while Kourtney Kardashian stepped out in a sheer corset mini dress for dinner with her now-fiance, Travis Barker.

Yet, while Bridgerton may have made corsets relevant again, the undergarment has been around for centuries — and it definitely wasn't designed for sex appeal. Rather, corsets have a rich, controversial history that, according to the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, dates back to the late 1400s, when Europeans separated the skirt and bodice into two garments. They were made from stiff, unforgiving material like whalebone, horn, and buckram that laced and/or hooked up in either the front or back. Sure, styles of the undergarment were altered slightly throughout the years in order to keep up with the latest fashion trends, but the intention to smooth, shape, and cinch a woman's figure, while simultaneously correcting their posture, remained the same.

History of the Corset
Photo of a woman tying her corset around 1890-1900. Getty

Under these circumstances, corsets were a means to an end; they weren't a fashion statement so much as they were a tool that helped women achieve what was thought of as a 'fashionable' silhouette, and the medical field found them problematic. In an analysis published on The Royal College of Surgeons of England's library blog, it was documented that corsets could be so constricting, that women would experience shortness of breath and fainting from the compression. Long-term lacing could also lead to a deformed ribcage and loss of muscle tissue.

But according to Hilary Davidson, a dress historian and the author of Dress in the Age of Jane Austen, corsets evolved over time to be comfortable, albeit normal, pieces of clothing in a woman's everyday wardrobe. In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, Davidson explained the image of women walking around "in these uncomfortable things that they couldn't take off because patriarchy" for 400 years is a myth.

"Women are not that stupid," she told the publication. Because they started wearing these types of undergarments at such a young age, women were accustomed to them by adulthood, similar to how women of today are accustomed to wearing bras. Contrary to popular belief, tightening the laces beyond what was comfortable wasn't an everyday occurrence but, rather, done when there was someone to impress (i.e. Daphne trying to get The Duke's attention).

History of the Corset
Helena Christensen walking in Chloe's fashion show in 1997.

Flash forward to the 1900s, and the corset underwent another sort of renaissance in which corsetry was worn in a variety of ways. From shapewear to lingerie to tops, how a woman chose to wear a corset was up to the individual, thanks in large to brands like Christian Dior and Vivienne Westwood, which plucked the piece out of the undergarment pile and reimagined it in a way that empowered the wearer, instead of molding them into a societal fantasy. Marilyn Monroe, for instance, was constantly photographed wearing corsets in the 1950s, undoubtedly to emphasize her pin-up aesthetic, and in the 1980s, Madonna often wore corsets as part of her stage costumes.

It's clear that the corset has undergone countless resurgences over the years, and while the garment is certainly more widely accepted, controversy still looms (see the Kardashian sisters' waist-trainer obsession for reference). Here's what we know for sure: Whether you're looking to define your waistline, feel sexier in the bedroom, or just love the look of a bustier and jeans, in 2021, to wear or not to wear a corset is entirely your choice and your business.

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