Object Analysis – Corsets

Q. 2 using the model of object analysis, analyse one fashion article. (Choose a garment, which can be used to discuss fashion from the point of view of the consumer. This garment must be able to demonstrate how the consumer individually constructs their identity and conveys that identity through the style and styling of clothing. You should treat this garment as an object as a form of evidence, which can help you to explain theories of fashion discussed in the sessions.

The intention of your analysis is to examine the ways in which we can ‘read’ objects and images, understand their meanings and explain them in the context of broader theoretical and social concerns. You should aim to be as analytical as possible. You may want to use further objects or garments or examples within your presentation to help to explain your ideas though only 1 object should be your main focus. You can either use the actual object or use images and films to analyse and discuss your findings.

Therefore your essay should be supported by ideas from readings and books as well as the objects and images themselves. ) I have chosen to analyse the corset. No other garment in Western history has assumed such political, social, and sexual significance. In this essay I will look at the history of the corset and how it transformed each century. I will also explore other sides of the corset; the fetishism that is associated with it, the medical implications, and its place in contemporary fashion.

The first corsets were called ‘payre of bodies’ corsets from the were originally derived from the ‘basquine’ which derived from the medieval cottes, and surcots’ they were similar in use to the corset, and consisted of a tight-fitting bodice that was worn over the top of other garments, and much like the corset were laced up at the back. A stiffer version of the corset was crafted from cast iron, and was designed for women with severe physical deformities.

The famous army surgeon Ambroise Pare described the ‘metal cages’ being used “to amend the crookednesse of the bodie” Although Pare was not a fan of the fashionable corset, which he thought ‘carried the risk of deformity by incorrect or excessive binding’ he believe that the orthopaedic corset was highly beneficial. The rigid nature of the corset meant that the wearer was banned from even the slightest useful exertion, reinforcing the ‘prestige of the ruling class’ During the 16th, 17th and 18th and early 19th centuries corsets were associated with the aristocracy nd fashionable elite; this was partially due to the fact that the corsets were so hard to put on, that one required the assistance of a maid servant As women’s fashion grew more and more rigid at the start of the 16th century. As opposed to the simply close fitting garments of the previous centuries, the corset grew more important in the dressing of the aristocracy. Luxury fabrics like heavy silk brocade and velvet came to supplant woollen cloth among the elite, tailors began to construct garments that were layered, or constructed of a separate bodice and skirt.

Greater importance was put onto the fit of garments, and a firm foundation was far more important. In order to be fashionable women of the nobility had to be more virtuous, favouring a flat stomach, narrow waist, and bust in the shape of a cone. To aid this appearance a ‘busk’ (a strip of rigid material, usually reflected by the wearers wealth eg. whalebone, mother of pearl, and even turkey cartilage) was inserted into the corset to provide even more stiffness to the body.

These earlier corsets were designed to push in the waist, and also push in the breast, as dressing was far more austere, and women were deprived of their low-cut necklines. During the 18th century, the dress became far looser as the women cast off their ‘shackles’ and corsets became far more flexible, and instead of busks to stiffen the body, whalebone stays were used, which were far more form fitting, and allowed the corset to become far less rigid.

The corset no longer served to compress the breasts but to push them upwards. This was also down to parliament authorising seamstresses to compete with tailors -who previously were only allowed to produce corsets. These new breeds of corset makers were naturally more sensitive to women, and applied themselves to making corsets lighter and less painful than its predecessors. In the Victorian era, corsets became longer and became not only about supporting and lifting the breast, but creating a tiny hourglass waist. Women were so tightly corseted that they could not bend over’ but to add to the strain ‘the corset was hung with an extraordinary amount of gear, a combined system of garters and suspenders. ’One important date in the history of the corset was the year 1840. This was the year in which the system called ‘lazy lacing’ was invented, in which a set of elastic laces allowed women to easily put on, and remove their corsets. Women had now predominantly taken over from the specialized work of crafting corsets, and were made ahead of time, creating he beginning of ‘ready to wear’ During this era, corsets became more specialized, corsets ranged from ‘nuptial corsets, corsets made of white satin for the ball, lightly boned morning corsets, stayless corsets for night wear, nursing corsets with drawbridge gussets, travelling corsets with tabs that could be let out at night for sleeping, riding corsets with elastic at the hips; corsets for singing, for dancing, for bathing at the seaside’ and the list of possible variations went on.

As industrialisation increased the mass production of corsets, they became more available to other classes. Apparently in 1824 even the poorest street walkers in London wore corsets. After World War 1 the fashions dramatically changed, and the corset fell out of fashion. The new look was far less shapely and did not require such extreme methods to gain the silhouette the new fashion called for. Couturiers like Paul Poiret, moved towards a corsetless figure, and were pleaded by leaders in the corset trade not to ruin their trade.

Yet this was not the case, as it only called for new types of corsets to be produced, those that were far more flexible, and showed a much more slender physique. Instead of enhancing the hips, the new corsets were to designed to pull in the hips: meaning the corsets were far longer than any others that were seen previously. These corsets had very little boning, and new advances in technology meant rubber covered steel was used rather than whalebone.

The popularity of the corset, is something in which has changed over the centuries, with brief moments of time when the corset fell from favour. In the reign of Louis XIV, his mistress Madame de Montespan brought loose fitting gowns into fashion, marking a loss in popularity for the corset. However when she in fact felt from favour, corsets made a triumphant return. World War 1 proved fatal to the corset, as men were out on the front line, women were required to work and the corset made this extremely hard to do so; so they were abandoned.

Even the bourgeoisie opted out of their corsets, as many became widows, and the amount of servants reduced. Men and children also wore corsets, even though it is not as widely recorded. In the 18th century little girls wore miniature versions of adult stays, but towards the end of the 19th century special models were designed for immature bodies, as they were seen as ‘healthy’ and promoted ‘correct graceful posture’. Men started wearing corsets in the 18th century, although it was seen as quite controversial.

However in the 19th century it became more popular among ‘dandy’s’. Stout gentlemen wore corsets to improve their physical appearance. However not only was it a fashionable item for men, it was also quite practical, as it supported the back, and it became favoured by military men, and horseback riders alike. Today men wearing corsets is still very taboo, and is reserved for fetish-wear and men who dress in drag, as it is almost a quick way to gain a feminine appearance. The corset is also associated closely with fetishism.

The corset creates a shape that enhances the female aesthetic. Girls and women in the 19th century were thought to be engaged in wearing tight laced corsets as an evil habit, akin to masturbation. . Tight-lacing was known to produce particular pain/pleasure sensations, suggesting that the ‘repressed’ Victorian sensuality transformed into masochism. Tightly lacing a corset is as a form of erotic asphyxiation however there was distinct difference between those wearing the fetishistic tight laced corsets and the ordinary fashionable corset.

Much like the difference between a modern day comparable like a pair of fetish chaps, and a pair of American farm-hand chaps. Today in pop culture we see artists like Dita Von Teese, famed for her burlesque performances wearing tightly bound corsets, in which burlesque is generally associated with. ‘Women squeezed into whalebone corsets to achieve the hourglass mode of the day’’ in which many ‘’women rejected roles that did not keep them on their feet and the corset itself was the subject of much musical hall satire’’ The corset was always a great subject of concern for the medical practice.

It was constantly blamed for the cause of consumption and ‘put too much pressure against the stomach and compressed the solar plexus to the point where women fainted at the drop of a hat’ In 1770 a pamphlet was created by the medical profession in which the subject was ‘’The Degradation of the Human Species Due to Whalebone Corsets’’ Some doctors held the corset responsible for all sorts of women’s ailments that they were unlikely to of caused, such as chest complaints, deformities, inability to nurse, sagging breasts, and inadequate nipples’ however the corset was in fact responsible for a lot of extreme medical conditions of women.

The Lancet, one of Britain’s most important medical journals, published many articles on the dangers of the corset. One article stated the ‘‘heart was -found to be so impeded in its action as to render life impracticable. ’’ X-rays of tight laced corset wearers clearly show that the corset does indeed push the ribs significantly in and up, altering the position of the internal organs. Corset wearers also get out of breath far more easily which has been confirmed through modern tight laced corset wearers, and studies.

Towards the end of the 19th century so much medical condemnation of the corset arose, that corset manufacturers came up with new arguments to support the wearing of corsets. Advertisements read ‘anatomical, scientific and super-aesthetic corset of the Paris academy’ to re-assure women. The corset still plays a very important part of contemporary fashion and in pop culture. In the 1970s Vivienne Westwood was the first designer to bring back the corset, and re-invent it, during the 20th century. The Victoria and Albert Museum states that ‘Her approach was both artistic and theatrical and set a new and definite trend in contemporary fashion.

The use of historical garments combined with her unique perception of the zeitgeist, became the core of her work. Her corsets from the 18th century gave women a feeling of glamour and power not felt for a long time. ’ In the 1990s French designer Jean Paul Gautier designed an ‘underwear as outerwear’ collection, adopted by stars such as Madonna, the look was heavily publicised. The late McQueen was a good example of how the corset can be translated into modern fashion; he brought innovative materials like clear fibreglass, leather and metal to corset design.

The corset today might not have the same connotations as it did in the past, but it still symbolises physical oppression and is associated with women’s inferior status in society and this still can be translated in today’s world. In today’s pop culture artists like Lady Gaga and Rihanna frequently choose corsets to perform in. In conclusion, the corset is one piece of design that has constantly been re-invented throughout the centuries. Yet it still remains extremely relevant even in today’s fast-changing world.

From shaping bodies of the aristocracy, to exciting the fetishists, the corset is one important garment that will be around for centuries to come.

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