The past year in entertainment was infiltrated by the rise of the historical drama. From Bridgerton to Emma to The Great, the 18th and 19th centuries have returned to television. With them comes the growing popularity of a clothing item that history can’t seem to escape: the corset.
Social media has become one of the best tools for predicting trends, and the corset was no exception. Within the past few months, this item made its way onto popular platforms such as TikTok and Instagram.
For Rachel Erin, a junior at New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology, this was more than a rising fad — it was a longtime love that was soon transformed into her newest passion project. “I’ve always loved corsets,” says Erin. “I think people thought that was really weird because there was this stereotype that it was fetishized.”
Posting under the name Nicole Adalina, a friend of Erin’s shared a TikTok in January styling a corset Erin had created for her. The video gained 1.1 million views and drew attention to Erin's artistry. By March, Erin had amassed over 33,000 followers on Instagram and had made a name for herself in the reawakening corset industry.
Erin has made roughly 25 corsets since last summer in a process that typically takes about 16 hours per corset.
Today’s corset has quickly made its way across the country, with its popularity not only being seen in major stores, but in the boutiques of Columbia.
Olivia Wilhelmi is an assistant at Glik’s, a family-owned business with a location in Columbia that works to stay on top of the latest trends. The store started stocking corset tops in January and have since sold at least 30. “They sell really fast, and they’re definitely a high demand,” says Wilhelmi.
The styling of today’s corset is anything but rigid. Wilhelmi captures the versatility of this item through its ability to be dressed up or down. “A lot of girls will wear them with Air Forces, and then I’ll see other girls wearing them with heels,” she says.
While it has acquired a new generation of fans, the corset is coated in controversy. Some argue that not only is the corset uncomfortable, but also that it is a symbol of oppression.
Erin understands this stance, but ultimately she disagrees. “If you look at old photos, women were circus performers and they were wearing corsets – they were cartwheeling, ice skating, playing tennis,” says Erin. “It’s just our perception that it was a torture device.”
Where does the corset come from?
According to Britannica, the corset was designed to “shape or constrict the waist and support the bosom, whether as a foundation garment or as outer decoration." Early corsets had a stiff quality and were often made with wood or bone. They were also used to create straight spines for children and establish a desired body shape for adulthood, according to Britannica.
The corset continually adapted to the changing eras. Occasionally in European fashion during the Middle Ages, corsets were worn by both men and women. Corsets faded from fashion following the French Revolution, but they reclaimed their position around 1815. Corsets later transformed into a female-focused garment, with 19th century corsets typically promoting an hourglass figure.
By the 1900s, corsets underwent alterations to fit the time period’s sought-after appearance. The 1910s were marked by a straighter corset that aimed to cover the thighs. The 1920s saw a looser corset with less boning, and the corsets of the 1930s flopped as priorities shifted due to World War II.
When did corsets fade from fashion?
It might seem that this trend is being pulled from dusty textbooks, but that’s not entirely the case. Although we're witnessing a more traditional exploration of the corset with current looks, aspects of this staple have been seeping into fashion for decades.
“That corset-style top, women were wearing that in the '70s and the '80s and the '90s,” says Nicole Johnston, an instructor in MU's Department of Textile & Apparel Management and the curator of the Missouri Historic Costume and Textile Collection. “I don’t think corsets will ever have a comeback beyond formal wear, because they’ve always been around. That shaping element is still here and I don’t know if that’s ever going to go away."
Johnston recounts the most recent attempt to make mainstream the cinching component of the corset through the waist trainer. This is an item popularized by influencers such as the Kardashians in an attempt to create a smaller waist and more prominent curves.
How similar are waist trainers and corsets?
The question of health is popular when discussing waist trainers and corsets, but the answer is anything but one-size-fits-all.
Historical corsets have been attributed to a variety of health issues, primarily for women. An article by British Vogue concluded that certain corsets led to impaired breathing and depleted lung volume, sometimes causing increased fainting and weakened energy. However, corsets were likely not the cause of respiratory diseases as some claimed. The practice of tightlacing may have been less common within corsetry than believed to be. While this practice was the beauty standard, that doesn’t mean it was the norm.
“I think waist trainers were promoting changing your body and fitting a beauty standard,” says Kate Lickert, an MU sophomore and avid fan of corset tops. “Anybody can wear them. Personally when I wear them, it’s not about being skinny or creating an hourglass figure.”
How long can we expect this trend to last?
Although opinions surrounding corsets and their place in today’s culture vary, corsets continue to influence fashion.
Sydney Scalia, an MU student who has been wearing corsets since last summer, thinks the current corset trend will fade out within the next few months. “They’ll always be there, but they’re not going to be as popular as they are right now or as they were even a month or two ago,” she says.
While they may lose their popularity on TikTok, corsets are here to stay in one form or another. After hundreds of years, this historical look has proven it can survive the test of time.