Concepts of feminine identity have changed drastically throughout history. Ancient sculpture such as the famous Venus of Willendorf suggests the prehistoric conception of beauty was considered to be a woman who was greatly obese. This is perhaps because of the connotations of a woman well-fed in a world where that was a difficult achievement. It indicated both that she always had plenty to eat even in lean times and that she didn't have to work too hard in order to secure her welfare. The ancient Greeks valued a more muscular figure which is also expressed in their artwork of the feminine ideal, yet these figures still retained a soft roundness in their body structure denoting extra fat. In modern times, the feminine ideal has shifted to something much closer to the skeletal. If girls are not encouraged to look almost boy-like in their thinness, they are expected to retain a tight waist and voluptuous hourglass figure. As this transition of body shapes occurred, fashion has played a significant role in shaping the accepted female identity. The durability and versatility of the corset as a defining garment is almost as astonishing as its continuing appeal. Even after it lost its widespread popularity, the continued use of the corset in Hollywood depictions of the feminine preserved its use, established its historic connotations and illustrated how it symbolized something larger than itself. Contemporary fashion has given the corset a new lease of life as women continue to turn to this garment as a means of identification within the modern world.
Although the corset has traditionally been viewed as a symbol of female submission, any intrinsic meaning attributed to the clothing is naturally subject to wide interpretation. "What the immediate meaning usually comes from is available imagery, past or present, the suggestive pictures that have pervaded public consciousness and are loaded with shared associations". In other words, how people thought of their clothing and the symbolisms attached to specific types of clothing are greatly dependent on individual attitudes, social ideals and other influences. For example, the tight-lacing of the 17th and 18th centuries indicate the degree to which the corset was considered a means of female sexual expression and served to define ideas of female beauty. A girl who could not achieve a specific waist size considered herself unacceptable as a result of these values. Understanding how the corset developed, has been used in Hollywood, revitalized in cult fashions, and re-introduced in high fashion, illustrates how it can operate to convey ideas of female submission and aggressive sexuality depending upon the internal and external factors at play in its design and use within modern fashion.
The corset's historic definition of feminine
The definition of feminine beauty has changed significantly throughout the centuries of history. In prehistoric times, it seems women with apparent rolls of excess fat were considered a symbol of beauty. This is evidenced by the statues and likenesses that have survived to modern times. It is assumed by most scholars that this was because of the advantageous association with their tribe's hunting and planning skills as well as an indication of their high social status as individuals who did not need to join in the hunt. The Greeks introduced the concept of a more muscular figure, yet still seemed to prefer a softness inherent within the their physical form. As society approached more modern times, the female form has been taken to the nearly skeletal in its search for ideal beauty. In more recent years, larger figures have been made acceptable through the introduction of often unnaturally large busts and round bottoms, but the narrow waist is still expected. As this gradual transition was made in the definition of the female ideal from the softly round to Twiggy thin and all the levels that women have striven to achieve in the years between, the corset has developed alongside the creation of fashion as a means of forcing many differing body types into a form capable of measuring up to the contemporary standard. The durability and versatility of this particular garment form is almost as astounding as its continuing appeal to the modern woman. Even after this particular form of clothing fell out of the average wardrobe in the mid- and late-19th century thanks to new technologies in fabrics, changing fashions and other means, the continued use of the corset in popular Hollywood films within the modern age has served to perpetuate its usage, established its historic distinction as both fashion staple and definition of the ideal female form and sometimes has been used to symbolize something larger than itself. Its more recent use as outer wear and its incorporation into the fabrics and designs that now make up our lives has given the corset yet another new lease on life. Throughout this long history of the corset, this single garment type has been used not only to subjugate the feminine body into an ideal shape for the tastes of men but has also been transformed by women in more modern history to encapsulate a more aggressive statement of feminine sexual appeal.
The earliest confirmed creation of a corset intended to artificially constrain the proportions of a human body into an ideal form occurred in the middle 1500s. This occurred in the form of the steel basquine (see Figure 1) as a garment intended to shape men's fashion. This uncomfortable looking steel construction was likely worn over padded cotton undergarments but under outer clothing and was intended to give the man a pleasing flat stomach and manly broad chest. This garment was altered slightly so it could be used in women's fashion. These metal corsets soon became "so extreme in cut that they distorted the human silhouette beyond all semblance of its natural form." In women's fashion, this steel basquine would be tightly covered by the bodice of the lady's outer robe. As in its use in men's fashion, this contraption was intended to ensure the women's waist lines reflected the desired triangular shape. It caused the line of the silhouette to descend gracefully into the hips at the same time that it kept the front portion of a woman's stomach flat. What this earliest creation adds to the present discussion is the concept that people, both women and men, have been willing to accept sometimes quite extreme and uncomfortable contraptions as a means of altering their appearance to remain within the acceptable range of perceived beauty and proportion. While many consider the corset to have been simply a woman's fashion accessory, the basquine reveals that the idea of reshaping the human form through artificial means was once as familiar to men's fashion as it is now for women.
A softer approach to reshaping the human form came into fashion during the early Renaissance period. This approach was fashioned by joining two pieces of tight linen together in the form of a pocket. This pocket was created to support a stiff 'busc.' The busc was a small hard form typically made of wood, horn, whalebone, metal or ivory. It could be inserted into the corset in the appropriate place to confine the wearer's abdomen. "Usually thicker at the top and tapering towards the point, often beautifully decorated; it was inserted between the layers of linen of the fore-part of the body and tied there by a lace." The placement of the busc reveals that the emphasis in the associated fashions of the period was primarily focused on the waistline since the busc was placed in a specific area clearly intended to ensure the stomach retained a flat appearance. This idea was further enhanced by the concept of boning. Boning, or the strategic insertion of whalebones into the sides and back of the corset, was intended to further accentuate the stiff upright form of the Renaissance ideal. This device ensured backs remained straight and the bust line was lifted. Lacing was provided to the front and/or the back of the linen garment as more convenient locations from which to tie or exert force in order to force the body into proper proportions.
Throughout the centuries, changing ideals and changing fashions, the corset continued to be a primary staple of the female wardrobe although it quickly fell out of men's fashions, at least in a widespread sense. However, the shape the corset delivered for women continued to change with the times as contemporary ideals of feminine beauty shifted around to focus on different elements of the female body. By the middle of the 1600s, the ideal of feminine beauty was mostly contained in an appreciation of ample cleavage peeking above the top of the woman's garment. Regardless of the woman's natural endowments, the corset served to push the breasts up and together to form the expected enticing cleavage at the top of the bodice. As the century progressed, the corsets changed significantly, reflecting a greater focus on flattening the breasts to create an almost boyish appearance. This would seem to be a direct reaction against the perhaps overly flamboyant display of female differences encouraged by earlier designs. As will be shown, this type of direct opposite approach to what has been designed previously is a recurring event in the world of fashion. As one approach becomes pushed to the edge of 'common decency,' it is replaced by designs that directly refute this focus. The corset featured in Figure 2, which dates from approximately 1660, was created with 1/4" steel bones which were specifically designed to lift and enhance the bust while shaping the waist, thus demonstrating a shift from the earlier practice of tight cleavage. The neckline is low reflecting the fashionable approach to highlighting the bust and feminine touches have been added to the design such as the ribbon ties at the arms and the graceful curved tabs extending down over the waist.
The shape of the female corset was also affected by the changing attitudes toward the appropriate line of the skirts worn. At times, the shape of the skirt was determined by a social emphasis on balance and geometry as the skirts adopted an exceptionally wide, bell type form to counter balance the strict triangular shape of the torso. At other times, the skirt seemed to attempt to deemphasize this approach by presenting an almost two dimensional type of silhouette with focus on the front or back views and de-emphasis on the sides. As this progression demonstrates, the swing of fashion seems to directly counteract itself within its development sometimes artificially emphasizing the hips and other times smoothing this area into a sleek shape that provides just the right transition from inverted triangular top smoothly balanced over a solidly balanced triangular bottom. These two different design approaches are compared in Figures 3 and 4.
As seems inherently clear, the focus of the corset was different depending on which of these two styles, both existing at roughly the same period in the history of women's fashion, were being worn. When the focus was placed on the skirts, causing them to be gathered low at the waist and encouraged to blossom down to the feet such as in Figure 3, the corsets remained focused on enhancing the bust line and reducing the size of the waist. The true purpose of this approach was to attract the viewing eye upward into the face of the wearer and provide a sleek appearance that emphasized the slender appeal of the woman's form. By ensuring cleavage was available to the top, pointed to by a delicately tapered waist, the viewing eye would be naturally directed up. As fashion functioned to include the broadly horizontal hip emphasis found in Figure 4, corsets had to be designed differently. Because the hips were so greatly exaggerated by the fashion, the corset's aim in these outfits was to flatten the bust in front, helping to emphasize the two dimensional emphasis of the side silhouette while still providing the necessary extra support required for the heaviness of the skirt and related hardware.
Women must have truly celebrated the introduction of cotton and muslin fabrics in the middle 1700s. This introduction allowed fashions to develop into softer falling fabrics in the dresses that were created and a significant reduction in the stiff, hard lines of previous years. To meet the changing lines of these new fashions in which the waistlines increasingly moved up the torso through the late 1700s and early 1800s, the shape of the corset also began to change. Its previously strict control over the abdominal region and natural waist was relaxed but additional definition was introduced in the breast. A significant change was the introduction of cups to the body of the corset. These cups, much like cups in ladies fashions today, were designed to lift and separate the breasts for a more enhanced appearance. As can be seen in Figure 5, this is quite a change from the earlier emphasis on cleavage created by squeezing the breasts together or in bust control by restricting the breasts within a flattened panel as a means of forcing them up. Again, feminine details are added to the actual garment making it possible and even perhaps slightly attractive to allow elements such as the ruffled neckline to peek out from under the outer wear. However, lifting or enhancing the breasts remained among the top priorities for the corset-wearer as an expression of her feminine attributes.
With these new changes in fashion, women discovered it was possible to get by without wearing the often uncomfortable corset under their dresses, preferring other means of either holding things in place or rejecting these approaches altogether. Thanks to these new approaches to clothing, the corset began to fall out of use to some extent, particularly in lower or limited middle class homes where it was more important to women to be able to function through their daily chores than appear as the ideal expression of female beauty.
Perhaps because of its original start as a form of male fashion created out of metal, the corset continued to be made by men well into the 18th century. With this kind of control over the garment intended to control the physical shape of women, the corset easily became a symbol of man's dominance over women's bodies. Men decided what the pleasing shape would be, where to put the emphasis and what should be accentuated or restricted. Women acquiesced because of the very real need to attract a man as her only practical means of future security. Very little concern needed to be taken for the comfort of the women wearing these garments. This is demonstrated first by the steel cage of the basquine and later by the various instruments and cages that became the foundational elements of every woman's wardrobe. There is plenty of obvious evidence of discomfort found in the tight pushing together of the breasts in some cases or the nearly masochistic use of other hardware in other fashions. While women had little control over what shape they considered to be beautiful, they worked with the definitions they were given to both accept the restrictions and to make the fashion appealing to their own aesthetic sense. They did this in the types of fabrics or other decorative flourishes that were featured on the outside of the garment. "By 1700, corsets - meaning separate boned undergarments that shaped the figure - had come into existence for women only, and throughout the eighteenth century these continued to be designed, cut, fitted and constructed by men." Control over the fundamental shape created by the corset finally fell into the hands of women during the 19th century thanks to the expansion of women working within the garment industry as part of the industrial revolution. Because they were now the individuals responsible for the actual construction, they were able to gain increasing control over the way it functioned and the forms it took. Once women gained control of the shape of their own bodies in the 1800s, it might have been expected that the corset would become less restricting. However, the corset became surprisingly more restrictive of the female body and less concerned with the comfort and welfare of the wearer. The female shapes of the Victorian age and later were developed by women, for women, and as defined by women, but it must be remembered that these women were still working to meet the demands of an ideal set by men. The feminine perceptions of these ideals translated into extremes of fashion that exerted unprecedented control over the female shape. However, the focus and identification had shifted again. Rather than being a sign of submission to a male ideology, the women were taking control of the corset in a way that allowed them to express the power and sexuality of the woman. It was in this period that the corset began its shift into a device of expression for the female wearer rather than a focus of submission to the male.
As an expression of the ideal image, women began to value the appearance of ever-decreasing waist sizes. This eventually led to the practice of tight-lacing. The term 'tight-lacing' is relatively self-explanatory and its practice was wide-spread throughout most English-speaking societies. Essentially, it was the practice of pulling the laces of the corset to the tightest possible size, pulling the waistline into a very small, wasp-like shape which was considered quite attractive. The smaller the waist, the more desirable a woman was perceived to be. "The perfect waist size of the time was about 18 to 20 inches, an obscene size to modern women." The standard 'ideal' size for a woman in modern times is considered to be a 26 inch waist even though it is generally acknowledged that less than 5 percent of women living today are able to meet the ideal form. Regardless of their actual or desired waist size, though, women today easily recognize the 18 to 20 inch waist size to be unhealthy, leading to dangerous deformities and causing a number of related and significant health problems. In spite of this, there is plentiful evidence that women often attempted to move beyond even this extreme. In a letter cited by David Kunzle from General Sir Ian Hamilton, the ultimately ideal shape for a woman is defined as being based upon the smallness of her waist size. The ideal measurements are mentioned as being between 14 and 15 inch waists. "Tight-lacing stands out as a cult of obsessive Victorian lower and middle class women; they died trying to whittle their waists down to as little as thirteen inches." It was not uncommon for women to strangle themselves trying to lace into an ideal shape in spite of the needs of their human bodies. The high prevalence of women to faint at the slightest exertion or provocation was due mostly to the fact that they couldn't get enough air for their bodies to function.
In spite of these issues, the corset remained an essential undergarment throughout the 19th century for ladies concerned with fashion. No longer focused so strongly upon the shape of the bust, the primary area of attention remained on the waist with breast support offering a simple side benefit but not an area of heavy concern. The fashions created to match this new focus on the smallness of the waist are shown in Figures 6 and 7. One important feature of both of these styles that reflects female control over the amount of her body to be exposed is the high necklines of the dresses, most of which fastened very tightly around the neck. These images also demonstrate how greater control over the waist size enabled fashions to become more streamlined, emphasizing the smallness achieved.
As can be determined through these two images, neither dress allows the woman much in the way of cheating or hiding her natural waist size unless she can contain it within the confines of her corset. She had to remain slim in reality in order to even contemplate meeting the social expectations of the small waist. Girls who were naturally heavy or had larger bones were doomed before they started from ever wearing the popular fashions of the day with any degree of dignity. The fuller skirt of the earlier period (Figure 6) might have helped alleviate the problem somewhat because it provided an optical illusion. The larger, fuller skirt functioned to visually reduce the perceived waist size as compared with the more fitted contours of the later period (Figure 7). Nevertheless, without the corset, neither distortion would have been possible regardless of the woman's natural size - unless she were one of those lucky 5 percent of course.
Although the corset has generally been considered by modern women as a symbol of female submission to male strength, it is important to remember that any intrinsic meaning such as this is subject to wide disagreement and interpretation. "What the immediate meaning usually comes from is available imagery, past or present, the suggestive pictures that have pervaded public consciousness and are loaded with shared associations." The fact that tight-lacing was taken up as a means of enhancing a woman's appeal to men makes it obvious that the corset was used to convey female sexual expression in the public sphere. The images that were presented regarding the corset have had a great deal to do with interpretations of how the corset should be understood as it relates to issues of female identity or conformity. Understanding how the corset has been preserved through the past century in Hollywood, as it is used in more recent cult fashions and its resurgence in high fashion illustrates how the corset has become both a sign of female submission as well as an aggressive show of female sexuality.
Hollywood and the big name movie producers have employed the corset in any number of ways from the beginning of the industry to indicate attitudes of sexuality and submission. The corset was already being used in everyday fashion as a means of emphasizing the small waist when 'Hollywood' emerged. By this point, the corset was also already a strategic garment in Vaudeville and Broadway, two entertainment venues that had a profound influence upon the development of film. Even then, women craved the fashions they saw on stage as a means of identifying themselves and aligning in some way with the persona of the actress and the intentions of the wearer. Broadway and Vaudeville star Anna Held is the first great example of the use of the corset as a defining garment of the female character as it was seen on stage. Most of her fame was not attributed to her singing voice or acting talent, but rather to "her rolling eyes, eighteen inch waist and naughty songs" . As is shown in Figure 8, Held used the corset extensively and also continued the practice of tight-lacing. She did this in order to portray an enticing, sexually appealing woman which was communicated through the form of a tiny waist and accented upper features
Through these types of costumes in combination with her on and off stage activities, Held demonstrated for her public a life of female independence and success while still remaining sexy and appealing to the opposite sex. Author Eve Golden was quoted saying Held was "everything that was glamorous about Broadway, everything that was naughty about Paris" .
Mae West achieved similar associations in notoriety and accomplishments and again made heavy use of the corset to achieve her success. As early as age 14, West was being hailed as "The Baby Vamp" and was thus a figure of feminine sexuality in power. Like Held, she became famous because of her quick wit and brazen, almost aggressive sexuality. "In 1926, Mae wrote, produced and directed the Broadway show 'Sex,' which led her to be arrested for obscenity" . She was so controversial that new censorship codes were put in place in 1934 specifically to address her writing, but this didn't keep her from filling her lines with outrageous innuendo and double entendres directly challenging the concept of the submissive female. "Her first film role was supporting George Raft in Night After Night (1932), in which Raft said 'she stole everything but the cameras.' The first film to star West, She Done Him Wrong (1933), the film version of Diamond Lil, broke box-office records and saved Paramount from selling out to MGM" . Although West continued to emphasize the hourglass figure with significant help from the corset, she rejected the wasp-waist and tight-lacing of Held. Instead, as is shown in Figure 9, West presented a narrow yet proportionately-sized waist more in keeping with a healthy and active body. Women wishing to appear independent and sexual began including the corset to heighten and claim their sexuality in similar ways.
In both of these examples of women who used the corset as an important item in both under and outer wear on and off the stage, they did so as a means of asserting their sexual prowess and aggressively claiming their status in society. Because of the nature of their approach, they quickly gained reputations as 'bad girls,' girls who were wild and dangerously sexual, supposedly not acceptable to decent society and certainly never capable of living the ideal life of marriage, children and blissful security. This argument lost a great deal of its weight as these women became known and respected on an international level, were seen socializing with the wealthiest and most high level members of society and had no need to worry about marriage for their individual security. Even more attractive to many women was the fact that neither Held nor West seemed to have to answer to any man in her life. This may or may not have been true, but the perception, in this case, was everything. With the heavy use of the corset in the creation of a sex symbol, women were discovering an interest in themselves they had been told not to suspect and began seeking more ways of achieving expression.
Although many stars who appeared in corsets as a part of their outer costume, such as Mae West and Anna Held, retained these 'doubtful' reputations as wild, free and sexual women, the corset was also used by 'good girls.' In the 1950 film Two Weeks with Love, Jane Powell, the 'girl-next-door' character, deepened her public image with the part of Patti Robinson, a 17-year-old vying for the love of a charming Latin man. A main point in the plot refers to the vital role of the corset as a means of defining a woman, "something no real femme fatale of the time would be without". This 'good girl's' struggles to acquire a corset throughout the course of the film as a means of identifying herself as 'all grown up' helped to blur the boundaries between the appealingly feminine good girl and the aggressively sexual 'bad' girl. Throughout Hollywood's progression, women were often seen using corsets as a means of obtaining the ideal female figure despite changing fashions. It could provide everything from the slightest hint of sexuality in a character all the way through to the femme fatal. Thus, Hollywood allowed the garment to shape and redefine the figures of thousands of American women through the generations. Examples of this include the hourglass figures of Debbie Reynolds in "How the West Was Won" (Figure 11) and Marilyn Monroe in "River of No Return" (Figure 12), the cinch waist shown in "The Glass Slipper" on Leslie Caron (Figure 13) and the straight-line figure of Betty Grable in the advertisement shown in Figure 14.
Each of these images gives women something they can identify with that would encourage their use of the corset to express some aspect of their sexuality. Debbie Reynolds (Figure 11) is sweetly sassy with the traditional hourglass figure. Marilyn Monroe (Figure 12) disrobes for the camera to casually reveal her stunning shape. Leslie Caron's (Figure 13) super slim waist is emphasized by the attention of the actors while Betty Grable's (Figure 14) curves are made more alluring by the control maintained in the World War II poster. In each case, the use of the corset emphasizes rather than negates the sexual appeal of the women and provides her with an aura of power. Throughout these depictions and regardless of the finished shape, the corset was essential to full expression of true femininity. Without it, the female was somehow less than a woman as she lacked any sexual identity. The corset's continued use as a symbol of female empowerment in Hollywood ensured its continued use in society.
Corset's Return in Cult Fashion
Modern fashion's use of the corset began with the Gothic fashions of the late 20th century although it can be found in other styles as well. Fashion designers working within smaller cult groups incorporated it as a feature element of everyday outerwear. Again, it is typically used to heighten a woman's sex appeal, but the forms of interpretation can again vary widely based upon the vision of the designer and the intention of the wearer. One such designer is Vivienne Westwood, who worked in the rock and roll movement of the 1970s in Britain. Her fashions reflect the sexual freedom of female expression found in the women's movements of the time. She felt the repression and conservatism of Britain were in opposition to the freedom and liberation being expressed in America. She rebelled against these attitudes in the aggressive, outspoken nature of the clothing she designed. Westwood discovered that "There was a dramatic potential in the clothes themselves that could be heightened: laden with associations, biker gear links sexuality, violence and death, in a twentieth century archetype" . She built on these ideas by adding metal studs, chicken bones, chains, zippers and other things to her designs. This made her the mother of the punk fashions .
Many of these designs included the corset as a fetish object, made in leather, vinyl or other materials (see Figure 15) to denote a dominatrix-type image. This gave the garment connotations of power and control. The jewel-like elements on the corset featured in Figure 15 also provides a strong element of decadence and wealth. The shortened length of the garment brought the attention of the corset back onto the bust area with emphasis on the 16th century approach to squeeze the breasts together and push them up into a more exposed position. However, the narrow opening at the bottom of the garment still requires a narrow waist as compared to the bust size.
Westwood then took the corset in another new direction as she defined the romantic "pirate" movement and the "savages" movement of asymmetrical skirts and ripped layers. Her corsets took on softer fabrics, but did not reduce the sense of power and control associated with the earlier designs. The sensuous images used in the Aphrodite and Adonis corset (Figure 16) epitomizes the type of soft, yet blatant, sexuality the corset has come to represent while again introducing the concept into the forms of acceptable outerwear.
"Westwood's reworking of the corset for outerwear has become one of her most recognizable trademarks. Romantic and historically accurate, the corsets are also surprisingly practical. Stretch fabrics allow ease of movement, and removable sleeves convert a daytime garment to evening wear. Once a symbol of constraint, corsets are now an expression of female sexuality and empowerment" . Westwood's brilliance is in finding a means of melding the blatant sexuality of the corset-as-outer-garment crowd with the soft femininity of the corset-as-undergarment crowd. "Madonna's now legendary conical bra, created by Jean Paul Gaultier and worn throughout her Blonde Ambition tour nearly ten years later, would never have happened if it hadn't been for Westwood playing with the concept of underwear as outerwear some time before him" .
Westwood recognized the attraction to this style was the inherent empowerment afforded the wearer. There is always a sense of danger just under the surface of her designs, as is somewhat apparent in the example pictured in Figure 17. Coupled with the red boa, short black skirt and wide dog collar necklace, the black-ribbed corset appears dangerously suggestive. Replacing the other elements with a softer approach may reduce this suggestion, but would not eliminate it.
The Corset in High Fashion
From its appearance in cult fashions, the corset has also been accepted back into high society as a symbol of status and taste. "The corset had many positive connotations - of social status, self-discipline, artistry, respectability, beauty, youth and erotic allure". These concepts have been re-introduced to the corset as fashion designers increasingly recognize its appeal as an undergarment to women seeking psychological empowerment as well as an outer garment to highlight and reclaim sexual expression. Even when the full corset is not used, many designs mimic the hourglass shape in the cut of a jacket, the lacing on the back of a shirt or the boning of an evening gown. "The corset captured the dichotomy between artifice and restraint and reflected the highly ornamental status given to the female body" . However, the primary purpose of these elements continues to focus on providing the wearer with a sense of sexual power.
Following Vivienne Westwood, haute couture designer Jean Paul Gaultier realized the corset's connotations of feminine power. "The corset - My first trademark piece. At the beginning of the 20th century, women considered corsets anti-freedom, but when I put them on the runway in the early 1980s, it was to express the power of femininity. It was supposed to be hidden, but making it apparent made people rediscover it. I love the fact that a woman or man wearing one feels strong and powerful" . His corset dress designs are based on the idea of the corset with many designs incorporating boning, support and tabs, but his favorite feature seems to be the lacing which adds a touch of the romantic and the sexual as is highlighted in Figures 18.
Whether through the Paris runway or the cult sectors, the corset has re-entered mainstream fashion thanks to the creativity of designers, the versatility of new fabrics and construction techniques and the desire of women to construct an identity in keeping with the pressures of the modern era. Designers such as Stella McCartney have modified the corset dress to make it extremely wearable while still retaining the necessary levels of control to function as a corset. The dress pictured in Figure 19 could be worn to an evening event as easily as an afternoon lunch.
Designers have begun using elements of the corset in ever-more casual designs. In addition to the feminizing aspects of the fabrics and patterns selected for these pieces of clothing, the slimming features of the corset combined with its breast enhancing abilities are at the heart of this popularity. "Psychologically, the popularity of the corset can be explained by its strong connotation. The corset, still being a historical garment, probably gives the wearer the feeling of timelessness and freedom felt when wearing fancy dress. It lets her adopt a role, a character, maybe a powerful seductress, which is not allowed during daily life". By wearing a corset-inspired top, a modern-day woman gains the ability of expressing her femininity, exploring her sexuality, imbuing herself with a feeling of confidence and power and showing off her figure in its best light.
Conclusion - The Corset-Defined Identity
Throughout its long history, the corset has been a significant player in the shaping of female clothing and female identity. Whether used by outrageous female actresses pushing the bounds of female sexual expression such as Mae West or Anna Held or incorporated into films by directors to illustrate a specific point, the corset remained a significant symbol of female identity throughout most of Hollywood's history - from the vamp to the alluring ideal feminine. Moving into the 21st century, the corset has not phased out of production or usage. With designers such as Vivienne Westwood redefining both the function and the message of the corset, as well as revolutionizing the fabrics, materials and comfort level of these garments, the corset has seen a comeback into modern clothing. By bringing the corset into the open, Westwood also brought the subject of female sexuality more into the open, encouraging discussion and display. Her powerful designs and innovative fabrics served to highlight the concept that the feminine could be powerful as well as shapely even while comfort remained a concern. The corset was then morphed into other styles of clothing for a variety of purposes. This effectively brought the idea of the feminine into a new context - still defined by the shape of the corset, the feminine had suddenly been shaped into something defined by the individual woman and could reflect everything from guileless submission to the needs of the male to powerful aggression and control on the part of the female.
"The corset bears an everlasting sexual attraction: it glorifies, underlines, exacerbates and idealizes the female form. It has evolved aesthetically and symbolically: from underwear to outerwear (in late nineteenth century ball gowns), from corsets to bustiers, from constriction to power, from lingerie to armor" .