Why do we do it? The end of corsetry was supposed to symbolise the liberation of women's minds along with their bodies.
Yet we are seeing a resurgence of interest, a revival, even, of corsetry. This antiquated, glamorous art of self-bondage is set to gain a whole new lease of life as the number of independent corsetiers grows.
Love of corsets brings with it a certain snobbery. You find yourself biting your lip when bustiers and basques are presented as corsets, and you hug to yourself the knowledge of the firm embrace that only steel boning can bring.
The pale imitations may look good, and go some way towards giving you the figure you desire. But a corset aficionado quickly discovers that nothing can equal the sensation of a quality handmade corset — not only for waist reduction purposes, but for that je ne sais quoi which, despite or because of the corset, will give you a sparkle in your eye and a wiggle in your walk.
Let’s admit. Let’s come right out and say it. Corsets are sexy. They are part of a classic feminisation kit, a cliché even, when it comes to sexiness: they send a straightforward message, along with high heels and stockings with garter belts. These things demand some effort on behalf of the wearer, but pay off infinitely in self-confidence and self image. Or at least they do if we’re taking the PC line about women doing it for themselves, etc etc.
What they certainly do do is form one of the main links between the fetish and the mainstream. Along with fluffy handcuffs, corsets have at the very least provided some cheap thrills — and introductions to more expensive ones.
From a lightly boned, mass-produced lingerie-label bustier, it’s only a few simple steps towards commissioning your first made-to-measure steel boned beauty, and the beginning of the sweet addiction of the shrinking number on the tape measure.
For a few, a passing interest in corsetry will turn into a full-on passion and maybe even lead to the fabled tightlacing (also known as waist training) — a lifestyle that takes over 23 hours a day, seven days a week, as in the case of Cathie Jung. Pictures of the world’s ‘smallest living waist’ regularly tour our inbox in ‘shocking’ chain emails, along with unsubstantiated claims about the damage she is doing to her body in the process. Thus is the mystique of corsetry perpetuated.
The proportion of dedicated tightlacers remains relatively small, but the corsetry community is thriving. In goth and clubbing communities, corsets have been common for many years, and the growing trends for historical recreation, steampunk, Renaissance fairs and burlesque are just that many new excuses for people to wear their boned finery out and about.
There are, after all, as many styles of corset as there are enthusiasts. Satin, coutil, leather, latex, steel, vinyl: all of these and so many more are already used in corsets. Corsetry and fetishwear have a long history together. When they are not one and the same, they still walk, so to speak, hand in hand.
Corsetry and fetishwear have a long history together. When they are not one and the same, they still walk, so to speak, hand in hand
Many fans enjoy not only the corset’s sheer sexuality, squeezing and presenting and hiding all at once, but also its flirtiness. Burlesquers play with this paradox, using corsetry as the sexiest cover-up you have ever seen. One of the most admirable of these ladies’ talents must be the ability to remove a corset in a sexy way. Or just smoothly.
They are obviously an inspiration, if the froufrou wave of frilly knicker and corset vendors at adult shows such as Passion, held in London last May, is anything to go by.
Corsets have a reassuring solidity to them that isn’t all due to their boning. They have tradition and history behind them, and have retained from their days as underwear a whiff of scandal which does nothing to detract from their charms. Their naughtiness is intimately linked not to the item itself, as in modern lingerie, but to what it contains and hides and what little it reveals.
To our flesh-jaded eyes, a garment so covering should appear perhaps slightly quaint, but the womanliness it imparts, that all-important hourglass curve, is so impressive and so fundamentally feminine that it has never lost its power. We return to it as we return to all the good things and the strong values of the past.
Perhaps because this is an age of such rapidly passing time and trends, we are reaching back to our past, and perhaps because it’s an age of consumerism and throw-away goods, we take especial pleasure in wearing a garment that has been handmade for us, and is as unique and special as a corset.
The relationship between corsetier and client is a privileged one. With corsetiers often running as one-person businesses, the commissioning of a corset quickly becomes a personal exchange which heightens the sense of occasion.
Few among the smaller corsetiers have an off-the-rack collection, preferring to make each corset to measure, which makes it possible for everyone to find their ideal garment — in a style, colour, material and shape that suits them.
The sheer versatility of corsets is not to be underestimated, and we’re lucky in the UK to have some very talented designers creating corsets for a wide range of tastes and occasions, from the classic to the theatrical to the gothic. We took a closer look at three home-grown labels each occupying its own distinctive niche in the world of custom corsetry.
Based in the North of England, Angels Carrying Savage Weapons are much in demand for bridal wear, which is not a surprise when you look at the femininity of the designs. They are, however, proud of never having made a white wedding dress, and their style lies somewhere in between rococo and cabaret.
Rich materials such as raw silks and brocade combined with beautiful detailing results in pieces with women’s names redolent of boudoir perfumes and luxury. Accompanied by a few key clothing and lingerie items, the corsets of Angels Carrying Savage Weapons are part of a global style that celebrates a bygone age of glamour that is never out of style.
Miss Katie, well known for her work with House of Harlot, makes what she describes as “retro-fetish fashion”. But her designs could also be described as costumes: pure escapism for occasions, weddings, shows or just feeling fabulous.
Her corsets are often part of entire outfits, themed according to her fancy: rich, textured, theatrical. From the flamenco dancer to the drummer girl, each has a unique twist — a spice that takes it from the purely representative to the whimsical and fantastic — which no doubt explains her long list of celebrity and performer customers. Have you seen ‘that sailor collar corset? There you go.
Lacing Lilith, also London-based, is perhaps the most stereotypically Gothic of the corset makers featured, but it’s a literary brand of Gothic: dark, Victorian, severe, complex. Typically, when Billie Piper needed to go domme for Diary of a London Call Girl, it was Lacing Lilith that was picked to dress her, but that’s oversimplifying.
Working in leather and latex, designer Paul often presents his corsets as part of a total head-to-toe look that can extend from bolero jacket to spats. The simplicity of line only enhances the quality of the materials and the workmanship, and the pieces work as well as a complete look as they do standing alone in a perfect blend of contemporary, costume and Victoriana.
We chose one outfit from each of these designers to put into a Gothic Image location photo shoot, which for reasons that escape us now, was organised by GI in the tunnels below Fort Southwick, on Portsdown Hill overlooking Portsmouth.
What better place, you might ask, to photograph these gorgeous garments than in a warren of dark, damp, chilly tunnels that were once the WWII headquarters of D-Day’s military planners. Oh what fun we had.