Friday, March 2, 2012

Tribute : Corsets are Eternal

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While researching for a fashion article, about to be published in the magazine I'm working for, I've been led to the city of Bar-le-Duc, in the east of France, on the tracks of that famous piece of underwear, the corset. While discussing with a couple of Haute Couture's designers, Alida é Pierre, I've realized that I knew little on corsets, their history and their place in today's world, so I've decided to make this quick and humble article in order to share with you my finds.

Corset through time : an history of hourglass figure

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 Indeed, corsets weren't existing in Antiquity as the underwear we now know. They were belts and bandages used by women and sometimes men to narrow their waist. In the above statue of the Minoan Snake Goddess (approximately 2000 B.C.), you can see what was called a mitré. In Ancient Egypt, the ephod was a belt-corselet with shoulder pads, while Roman women used fasciae, pieces of fabric of different use (for example, one was used as a chastity belt). In the Middle Age, around 1300 in France, we could find something called the sorquanie, the equivalent of a coat of mail. But we have to reach the 15th century to discover the underwear we're now familiar with. It was popularized by queen Catherine of Medicis as an Italian trend. Made of fabric and whalebones, it soon becames the main underwear of elegant french ladies at the royal court. The basquine or vasquine was laced up on the front, while the gourgandine was laced on both sides. It's said that the queen prefered steel corsets covered with velvet. It was very criticized by the intellectuals and the doctors, especially for the damages it does on the body. The splints, especially, were condamned. These medical pieces of wood or metal were hurting flesh very badly. Hopefully, in the 19th century, corsets became more "livable". The lacing known as "the lazy lacing" was helping women to lace up their corsets without any help. In 1831, the Swiss Jean Werly settles in Bar-le-Duc and open a factory to developp his idea of a seamless corset, made with looms. But the process didn't make a great success and soon, corsets are only used for medical use, as my great-grandmother did.

"Corps"(bodies) set to luxury 
Leopolds Prockett on Deviantart
Nowadays, when googling "corset", your computer's screen would be soon invaded by millions of colourful corsets. How is it possible, in a world where the Sexual Revolution happened years ago ? What happened to the lessons of Coco Chanel, and to the feminists ? Why, in a world where technology and the raise of level of life improved our conception of comfort, women want to constrain themselves again ? Hourglass figures are not really an epitome of beauty anymore, now we are mostly celebrating those tall creepers of models, without breasts and hips. So, could the corset be a way to fight against these slim silhouettes ? A way for females with figures to show that they are still sexy ? I think so, especially when I see Christina Hendricks, especially famous for this, posing for New York Magazine in a white simple corset. Most of the women interested by this vintage underwear want to give an alternative to the mainstream vision. Plus, it gives a notion of luxury, of refinement to a wardrobe. It's not the classic underwear, it's something more sensual, even a bit daring. As a result, corset is often seen (and confused) in S.M. and brothels-related situations, two subversive sexualities that are slowly assimilated to fashion and modern lifestyle. Then, the object of conservatism becomes an object of provocation and even of liberation ... And according to designers Alida é Pierre, it's not even for women : men also are learning to wear it. So, corsets are not prudish or medical anymore, but a real accessory of fashion, an assert of an independant lifestyle or simply, a little pleasure we're offering to ourself.
Christina Hendricks for New York Magazine
 Muse of the designers
Jean-Paul Gaultier Campaign 2012
Since the end of the 20th century, corsets are back in the world of fashion, thanks to icons such as Madonna, Lady Gaga, or Rihanna ... The most famous and acclaimed designers have used them in their collections, in their usual shape or by embezzling them. I'm thinking to Alexander McQueen Spine Corset or to the corset belts ( see Bottega Veneta for example or Gucci ). Of course, the real afficionado of the famous underwear is French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier who uses it regularly ( one of the most famous pieces is the skeleton one wore by stripteaser Dita Von Teese at one of his show). Designers are inspired by history too. Karl Lagerfeld, for its Fendi Fall 2009's collection, created a corset of brown leather very similar to the sorquanie, while Alida é Pierre recreated the Catherine of Medicis' steel corset. Much more comfortable than what it seems !
But the classic corsets of fabric (and most often with lace) can be found at any range of prices, from luxury website Net-à to more mainstream retailers, and in specialized designers' websites ( for example French La Corseterie or La Fée corsetée, and brands Bordelle and Agent Provocateur in the UK ). A world full of possibilities for those who want to be sexier for someone or just for themselves ...
I feel a bit less idiot on the subject now ( and I hope this article was useful for you too, who knows ?) but I don't think I could wear one. Corsets belts, however, are really aesthetic and bring a very chic touch to an outfit, even casual. So, if like me, you're a bit claustrophobic, it's the good idea.
Agent Provocateur on

Alida é Pierre
I truly encourage you to visit the amazing website of Alida é Pierre : (in French only, but pictures don't need a translator ).