PROTECTIVE MEASURES

From fashion to fetish, fashion historian Ruby Redstone laces into the story of the corset and its sisterhood of underpinnings — stays, jumps and chemises — and in so doing considers what we’ve lost in our race to abandon the things that once protected us.

Photography_ Anna Victoria Best

Styling_ Marika-Ella Ames

Text_ Ruby Redstone

PROTECTIVE MEASURES

Long before corsets were viewed in the extreme as either objects of derision or fetishization, they were everyday undergarments which guarded from the unfriendly world the soft flesh of stomachs. Corsets held the weight of breasts and provided a thin barrier of whalebone, wood, and cotton between the gentle beating of the heart and the chaos of the public sphere.

In sixteenth-century France, working women wore corsets made from leather which supported their shoulders and chests as they tilled the land. A single corset, its thick leather nearly indistinguishable from the tanned skin of its wearer, could last a lifetime. In nearby Italy, women of high society wore an entirely different apparatus modeled after the styles of Catherine de’ Medici (1519-1589); long, tubular creations flattened the breasts and pulled the waist into sharp points. While those corsets lacked the practical application of their peasant counterparts, they were not without function. Medici-style corsets supported the enormous weight of fabric that noblewomen were required to wear by pulling yards of plush velvet out from the waist and by allowing filigreed gold fabric to fall straight across the bust.

As time and trends progressed, an impressive range of undergarments remained available to women from the early Renaissance to the Edwardian era. There were soft “jumps” made from quilted silk designed for comfort, short corsets and corselets for wearing under flowy dresses where the midsection was obscured, expensive and lushly decorated corsets sewn entirely from the most popular floral ribbons of the season, and even maternity and breastfeeding corsets designed to adapt to the body’s changes during pregnancy. For women of all social classes, corsets were not meant to regulate the figure but rather to allow the body to move comfortably in the stylish silhouettes of the period. Each complex piece would have been created by hand and fitted precisely to its wearer. In The Velvet Touch, Dr. Freyja Hartzell, Assistant Professor of Modern Design, Architecture, and Art at Bard Graduate Center, writes of clothing as a liminal space between society and the flesh; the corset is thus doubly so, situated even more intimately between the body and the outer garments that brush the world. The corset, however, would not have been worn against bare skin, a practice thoroughly unique to our time (and no doubt by the standards of all corset wearers before us, thoroughly uncomfortable).

Beneath the corset most women wore a white nightdress — a chemise — a form that has appeared in countless iterations across nearly all histories of Western dress. This simple garment protected the body from chafing by the heavy outer layers of clothing, and it protected those costly outer layers from the less glamorous realities of the body, i.e., sweat. In Medieval Europe, where fabric was scarce and the practice of modesty sacred, it is believed that some women would be sewn into their chemises after reaching puberty and would continue to wear those thin sheaths of linen or cotton for the rest of their lives, even while bathing.

In Seeing Through Clothes, fashion historian Anne Hollander writes of the profound religious significance of fabric in Medieval culture, noting how paintings of the period often depict angels unfurling swaths of fabric for humans to touch, forming a holy point of connection between heaven and earth. The protections offered by the chemise, and the corset as well, are thus not only physical but spiritual. Even as the latter grew gaudier and more decorative, the chemise remained the purest expression of fabric; cut with few frills or excess embellishment, it honored the original sanctity of the garment even as conceptions of religion changed across cultures. Absent the chemise, the modern notion of the corset as sexually charged is more logical: nipples brush against the cold metal of eyelets and cleavage is pressed up, exposed and vulnerable. That’s not to say modesty always reigned. In Rococo France, for example, it was fashionable for women to have portraits painted with their nipples emerging from their chemises; and in Victorian England, a period famed for its strict social mores, it was acceptable for a woman to bare her arms, shoulders, and breasts in the evening (as long as she remained buttoned up during the day).

In addition to corsets, yet more undergarments shaped how women were perceived. Panniers, bustles, and crinolines shaped the figure in accordance with then-fashionable silhouettes. Those underpinnings scaffolded the body, building out hips and rumps to impossible proportions using wood, bone, and stiffened horsehair. The shapes created by these structures varied from conical sixteenth-century skirts to generous eighteenth-century hips measuring several feet wide to cartoonish Victorian bums writ large by padding and ruffles. The purpose of such elaborate underwear was not to convince onlookers of a curvaceous figure but rather to lend a trendy appearance to bodies of all sizes. Women possessing larger rears might use only a bit of padding, while those with flatter behinds might employ an entire false rump, a set of shapely pillows tied around the waist. For hundreds of years, the natural body remained almost completely invisible, obscured and bolstered by many forms of underwear and corsetry.

The advent of machine production during the Industrial Revolution led to mass-produced corsets that no longer needed custom fitting. Factory owners (who were predominantly and unsurprisingly male) limited the public to a range of standard sizes; by the end of the nineteenth century, shop windows in London and Paris were crammed full of cheap, gaudy examples that were disharmonious with the body. Although the corset remained a necessary aspect of women’s dress through the early twentieth century, chemises, panniers, and bustles disappeared from the body. Nearly unrecognizable from their sixteenth-century predecessors, 1930s corsets comprised thick bands of newly developed rubber that stretched across the stomach and fastened tightly at the back. These girdles were reportedly so uncomfortable that many women preferred to do hours of exercise in order to trim their waists rather than to subject themselves to days spent in those sticky, sweaty creations. Older women continued to wear Victorian- and Edwardian-style underpinnings, but young women were increasingly encouraged by popular media to maintain slim physiques and to wear more modern bras and underwear under paper-thin silk dresses.

In the hundred years since then, we’ve been further romanced out of corsets and bustles, those protections stripped from us at alarming rates.  We celebrate our liberation from underpinnings, but I often find myself feeling exposed and uncertain. In order to achieve a fashionable body, we turn to workouts and wellness programs, shaking our heads at the impracticality of a corset, even though being laced in stays was once considered essential to a healthy and hygienic lifestyle. But I don’t despair, as those beautiful pieces of underwear live on today, although cast off in antique shops like lost pieces of armor; they’re ripe for reimagining in a world that allows more bodily autonomy. Some days, however, I long for the privacy granted by corsets, the layers of liminal space that would allow me my own sort of solar system, as I whirl through the cosmos, gaps of air and ribbons and dirt beneath my dress.

AMANDA WEARS_ SASH_ UPCYCLED FROM BUSTLE_ PRE 1880_ ADMIRAL VERNON ANTIQUE MARKET_ COVERED WITH VINTAGE NEON TIGHTS_ CONTEMPORARY WARDROBE COLLECTION / FITU CORSET_ 1910_ RELLIK VINTAGE / SKELETON CAGED BUSTLE HOOP_ 1870S_ KERRY TAYLOR AUCTION HOUSE

AMANDA WEARS_ VINTAGE ALIEN NECKLACE_ CONTEMPORARY WARDROBE COLLECTION / CORSET_ 1950S_ RELLIK VINTAGE / BLOUSE_ CATHERINE BUCKLEY_ 1980S_ RELLIK VINTAGE / BUSTLE_ PRE 1880_ ADMIRAL VERNON ANTIQUE MARKET / BRA_ 1940S_ FOUND AND VISION / BLOOMERS_ VICTORIAN ERA_ KILO VINTAGE AND ANTIQUE MARKET / TIGHTS_ 1940S_ ALFIES ANTIQUE MARKET

“Long before corsets were viewed in the extreme as either objects of derision or fetishization, they were everyday undergarments which guarded from the unfriendly world the soft flesh of stomachs.” —Ruby Redstone

AMANDA WEARS_ VICTORIAN BONNET_ FOUND AND VISION / DIAMOND SPIDER BROOCH (WORN AS EAR CUFF)_ 1980S_ RELLIK VINTAGE / BRA_ 1940S_ FOUND AND VISION

AMANDA WEARS_ BONED CORSET TOP_ 1910_ HILARY PROCTOR EXCLUSIVE / EDWARDIAN REMAKE SLEEVES_ 1990S_ THE ARC LONDON / NETTED BOY SHORTS_ 1990S_ THE ARC LONDON / BUM BUSTLE_ 18TH CENTURY_ AMPTHILL ANTIQUES EMPORIUM / TRI METAL BELT WORN AS SASH_ RELLIK VINTAGE / FEATHER ACCESSORY_ HAND PAINTED_ ALFIES ANTIQUE MARKET

AMANDA WEARS_ SASH_ UPCYCLED FROM BUSTLE_ PRE 1880_ ADMIRAL VERNON ANTIQUE MARKET_ COVERED WITH VINTAGE NEON TIGHTS_ CONTEMPORARY WARDROBE COLLECTION / FITU CORSET_ 1910_ RELLIK VINTAGE / SKELETON CAGED BUSTLE HOOP_ 1870S_ KERRY TAYLOR AUCTION HOUSE

AMANDA WEARS_ BUSTIER BRA_1990S_ FOUND AND VISION / SLEEVES_ COMME DES GARÇONS_ 2010_ RELLIK VINTAGE / BUSTLE_ 1990S_ AMPTHILL ANTIQUES EMPORIUM / PINK SLIP SKIRT_ UPCYCLED FROM SECOND HAND FABRIC_ DEPTFORD MARKET / PANTIES_ OXFAM

AMANDA WEARS_ VINTAGE ALIEN NECKLACE_ CONTEMPORARY WARDROBE COLLECTION / BRA_ 1940S_ FOUND AND VISION / BUSTLE_ PRE 1880_ ADMIRAL VERNON ANTIQUE MARKET / TIGHTS_ 1940S_ ALFIES ANTIQUE MARKET / BLOOMERS_ VICTORIAN ERA_ KILO VINTAGE AND ANTIQUE MARKET

Model_ Amanda Ljunggren

Hair_ Franziska Presche

Makeup_ Mel Arter 

Casting_ Trevor Swain

Model Agency_ Storm Management

Producer_ Andre Augusto

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