Waist away: why are modern women wearing corsets and waist-trainers?

The recent sight of Elle Fanning fainting at Cannes because her corseted Prada dress was too tight, prompts the question – why are 21st century women wearing corsets in the era of third wave feminism?

As traditional gender roles blur and sexual equality is revived, the sight of hand-span waists seems strange, if not downright perverse. If women now aspire to fortitude rather than frivolity, why are some choosing to emulate Kim Kardashian’s exaggerated silhouette at the Met Gala when she amplified her charms in a rigid Mr Pearl corset? Does the primal appeal of Rubenesque curves endure even in the aftermath of #MeToo and political correctness?

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Popular wisdom accepts that women are pursuing sexual equality with the final push spurred by #MeToo and the increased prominence of women in all spheres of society. As modern women enjoy personal and physical freedom, why are they then drawn to the intense sense of restriction associated with ‘waist training’? Do women’s biological hard drives programme them to accentuate their waists in pursuit of a mate?

Around the world, across cultures and throughout history, one physical feature has stood out as consistently correlated with attractiveness in females: waist-hip-ratio (WHR). The desirability of a low WHR often supersedes other preferences in body size and shape both among individuals and wider cultures. A low WHR can be an indicator of health and fertility. Indeed, in both males and females, a low WHR correlates with cardiovascular health and longevity, while a high WHR puts people at greater risk for diabetes, autoimmune diseases and cancer.

Yet the reasons for the revival of the wasp waist are more complex than sexual chemistry and good health. Women’s waists have reportedly grown by as much as six inches in the past 60 years due to factors including oral contraceptives, better diets and increased obesity. In times of social and political uncertainty, feminine curves have always been fetishised, so the willowy waists of our grandmothers are emblematic, not only of femininity, but of simpler, more secure times.

The current corset renaissance started with Lily James’s tiny 22in waist in 2015’s Cinderella followed by external corsets worn as accessories in the Prada A/W16 collection. Next, the Kardashians adapted ‘waist trainers’ zealously, which culminated in Kim’s appearance at the Met Gala in a corset, cinched so tight she couldn’t sit. Why a modern woman would whittle her waist down to the hand-span of an Edwardian belle is debatable, but that image on Instagram garnered a staggering 6.2 million likes. By presenting herself as a modern fertility goddess, Kardashian managed to channel the zeitgeist in an intuitive and dramatic fashion.

Susan Moylett of Susan Hunter lingerie, a luxury boutique currently celebrating 35 years, has always stocked corsets from brands including Cadolle, La Perla and Prima Donna, but dislikes the term ‘waist trainer’: “Waist trainer is a total misnomer,” she says. “Corsets do not and cannot ‘train’ your waist. They do the exact opposite! They prevent your own muscles from doing any work.

“Women in the 1950s had wonderful figures when they wore their corsets. But had no muscle control when they took them off. Corsets only work when they are on the body. Anyone claiming that a waspie or corset is a ‘waist trainer’ is selling pie in the sky.”

A tiny waist has been revived as both a desirable attribute and a fashionable asset, spurred on by celebrities in corsets, including Kylie Minogue, Rihanna, the Hadid sisters, Kendall Jenner, Hailey Rhode Bieber and Lady Gaga. The celebrity most associated with the corset, however, is Madonna in her Jean Paul Gaultier satin conical corset circa Blond Ambition. The star, now 60, recently revived her relationship with corsetry for her appearance on The Graham Norton Show.

The allure of the hourglass female shape is undeniably powerful. In the Edwardian era, ‘wasp waist mania’ drove some women to indulge in tight lacing that reduced their waists by as much as 10 inches. Post-World War II, Christian Dior re-popularised the corset with his extravagantly romantic New Look silhouette, inspired by his Edwardian grandmother. His creations ushered in the 1950s era of rigid hourglass curves courtesy of roll-ons, corsets and girdles. It is no coincidence that this year’s fashion exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum is Christian Dior – Designer of Dreams, which features the couturier’s typical diminutive waistlines.

For a younger generation growing jaded with Lycra and athleisure, corsetry is appealing because of its dramatic contrast with the dressed down aesthetic today. For a generation acutely aware of image on social media, a corset is a shortcut to instant curves, which can then be displayed for immediate admiration. Their popularity on Instagram is symbiotic – the garment and the platform seem made for each other – an instant fix for an Insta generation.

In the past, a slender waist was perceived as a natural sign of belonging to a superior class. Wallis Simpson quipped that, “You can never be too rich or too thin”. Now, in the midst of rising obesity, slenderness is again being seen as indicative of social status, self-discipline and erotic allure.

Corsets have always been controversial – they have been blamed for curvature of the spine, displacement of internal organs, respiratory problems and even puncture wounds, and yet they still attract both sexes. Mr Pearl, the famous corset maker who himself boasts an 18in waist, observes: “Corsetry doesn’t require one to go to a hospital. It just requires a little discipline and the results can be spectacular.”

Dublin-based Eva Berg, the Pilates guru who wore a corset on the cover of her Wicked Little Workout For The Waist DVD, might disagree. She explains that “the corset was actually a tongue-in-cheek image with more of an emphasis on the word ‘wicked’ in the title as opposed to ‘waist'”.

She adds: “Corsets are fun and both incapacitating and empowering at the same time, but of course, the real thing – a small, tight, youthful waist – is much better.”

With the A/W19 collections full of very tightly cinched waists, will it be a case of suck-in-and-smile to stay fashionable next season? The corset’s ability to create sexually alluring curves is as potent now as ever – but whether women will want to accommodate them into their everyday lives in pursuit of that desirable waist-to-hip ratio, remains to be seen.

But then, as Moylett says: “The enduring appeal of the hourglass figure falls into the category of why one person is attracted to another… and what makes the world go around!”

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