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According to new reports, corset sales are booming, part of a massive trend for body shaping underwear, but the peaks and troughs of demand tell a story about feminism and body image over the past 200 years.

Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Miley Cyrus – there’s quite a list of performers with a history of taking to the stage in a corset.

But sales figures suggest ordinary people are turning to one of the greatest symbols of the Victorian era. Corsets are making a comeback.

Rigby & Peller, the Queen’s brassiere-maker, says sales of traditional corsets in May were 45% up on 2011.

Ebay has reported a 185% rise in the number of corsets being sold over the last three months, with 1,900 listed over the period. It says most corsets are bought in the UK (40%), the US (34%) and Australia (8.6%).

Marks & Spencer says it sells one item from its new corset-inspired Waist Sculpt lingerie line every three minutes.

On one level, the rise in recent corset sales is a simple question of fashion. The boom in burlesque over the last seven or eight years and the popularity of the 1950s look on both sides of the Atlantic has made the corset desirable to some.

“It seems that vintage styling is no longer reserved to vintage queens and retrophiles, thanks to the burlesque explosion, TV programmes like Mad Men, films like My Week With Marilyn,” says Maz Spencer, of London boutique lingerie store What Katie Did.

“Women now seem aware that they need correct shapewear in order to achieve that vintage silhouette, and preferably they would rather go for a solution piece which looks desirable – as opposed to unattractive beige spandex pants.”

Then there is the impact of the “underwear as outwear” trend, says Rigby & Peller creative director Nicky Clayton.

Nicky Clayton says fashion frequently oscillates between slim and more curvaceous body shapes.

Corset sales are booming, part of a massive trend for body shaping underwear

Corset sales are booming, part of a massive trend for body shaping underwear

But the rise and fall of the corset – which has been around in one form or another for hundreds of years – also tells a tale of feminism and changing body image.

In Victorian times, most well-to-do women wore one under their dress.

But in the 20th Century, the Victorian corset came to be regarded by many as physically oppressive and even associated with women’s inferior status. At one point, it nearly disappeared.

During WWI, there was a practical assault on the corset. With many women working, a constraining undergarment was unhelpful and in parts of the US, women were told to stop buying corsets as the metal was needed. At the same time, the bra started appearing on the scene.

Alison McCann, curator of the 2010 Undercover exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum, says the rejection of the corset was almost an extension of the Suffragette movement.

“Women started taking ownership of underwear, and designing what they wanted to wear,” she says.

Fashion trends also saw corsets being cast off. The popularity of Coco Chanel’s 1920s creations saw relaxed fashions and flapper dresses, making the flattened female form, or boyish look, more desirable.

There was a brief return to female curves and waist-nipping corsets in the 1950s, when Christian Dior’s “new look” became fashionable, as women sought a glamorous look after the austerity of WWII.

But the 1960s saw women get rid of girdles and garter belts en masse at a time of burgeoning female empowerment.

Of course some women, particularly those who went for a gothic or punk look, have claimed corsets as a subversive statement for years.

Man-made fibres had changed the make-up of corsets over the years, making them more comfortable. But McCann suggests it was not until Madonna made headlines with her corset-inspired stage outfit during her Blond Ambition tour in 1990 that most women started being interested in them again.

Then came the boom of the burlesque scene in the 2000s which saw the corset reincarnated as a symbol of sexual empowerment.

“Technology made corsets beautiful but functional at the same time. Now women are buying corsets to express their individuality, it’s experimental,” she says.

However other commentators argue that a time when women are, on average, larger than ever, the corset revival is down to something else entirely.

Waist sizes are getting bigger. A 2001 UK National Sizing Survey found that the average female waist size had increased by 16.5 cm since the 1950s – rising from an average 28 in waist to 34 in.

And shapewear has been sought after ever since Spanx exploded onto the scene. So are women going to increasingly extreme lengths to get a 1950s waist?

Hannah Almassi, deputy fashion news editor at Grazia, says the magazine has seen a particular type of corset, called fajas – the Spanish word for wrap – become much more popular recently.

“They’re a compression corset originally created for patients to wear after liposuction. They come from Colombia and whilst they aren’t a new invention, the way girls are using them is.

“They aren’t a traditional type of lace-up whalebone corset, it’s more of a girdle and the effect is created by the highly elastic compression fabric that sucks everything in,” she says.

Hannah Almassi says there have always been ways of manipulating body image in fashion, “whether that’s flapper girls bandaging their breasts to fit the boyish mode or the crazy shoulder pads of the ’80s”. So in some ways corsets are the next generation.

Designers such as Prada and Louis Vuitton have put corsets and the 50s silhouette on a pedestal, but more mundane clothing chains have brought the look to the masses, Nicky Clayton says.

“The traditional corsets have steel boning in them – they ‘knee in the back’ and have a proper lace up – but technical development has meant other corsets still have the waist-nipping beautiful contouring, but garments are more comfortable.

“Of course in the 50s, all the beautiful red carpet dresses – Dior and Oscar de la Renta – had powerful mesh and waist tapes inside them. Today’s ready-to-wear isn’t made like that, so people are turning to corsets and control wear to do that job,” she says.

Nicky Clayton says Rigby & Peller’s Spanx sales have doubled since May 2011.

She says women are also feeling more liberated.

“Barriers have been broken down. It was a bit of a faux pas before, women didn’t want to be seen shopping for corsets or control wear. Now they are happy to come in and ask,” she says.