Journalist and fashion blogger Sarah Magliocco explores the rise, rise and rise again of the corset and how Bridgerton and TikTok have played a part. 

Bridgerton is currently dominating our TV screens, and while the hit Netflix series might be set in the past, its regency fashion aesthetics are very much part of our present. The corset was hailed as one of the most coveted items of A/W 2020, as fashion insiders styled their own iterations of the five hundred-year-old garment.

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"Personal style" has become an interchangeable selection of comfortable jumpers and joggers for many during the coronavirus pandemic, but the corset is breaking us out of our loungewear slump. Fashionistas the world over are choosing escapism when it comes to their stay at home style, posting photos wearing corsets on a weekday in a bid to romanticise the drudgery of lockdown life.

The corset is everywhere – Versace's S/S 2021 runway show showcased jewelled, structured styles while lip syncing TikTokers team their corsets with denim to create a new spin on the classic "jeans and a nice top". Meanwhile, the most watched Netflix show of all time is glamorising the corset through the decadence of its Regency era setting.

The current resurgence is hardly surprising – after all, it has maintained a position of popularity among various subcultures throughout the decades. The original corset concept, stiffly structured from whale bone, fell out of fashion in the 1920s when natural physiques began to make a comeback.

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There was a brief reunion of corset and waist in the 1950s, which was then shunned in the 60s as female empowerment movements sought to rid themselves of restrictive undergarments.

The corset made a return to public consciousness in the 1970s, popularised by punk counter culture’s fondness for pushing against feminine beauty ideals, mixing corsets and stockings with leather and spiked haircuts to undermine the stereotype of the female form.

Vivienne Westwood, often cited as the "mother of punk," featured corsets in her runway shows in the 80s, cementing their place in haute couture. For a decade, the style remained a staple of avant garde designers and punk rockers - until Madonna took them mainstream.

Madonna on her Blonde Ambition tour. Photo: Getty

In 1990, the pop idol donned the now legendary conical bra corset on her Blonde Ambition tour. Much like punk’s use of the garment, Madonna’s exaggerated form was a rebellion against the societal expectations placed on the female figure. She and Jean Paul Gaultier conspired to make a statement with the body-morphing structure, weaponizing female sexuality in a way that had never been seen before.

As we moved into the 2000s, we ventured away from corsetry – midriffs were freed from any coverings, showcased in low rise jeans and cut off tops. But when the 2010s hit, curves began to define our standards of beauty once again: a development that is often credited to the Kardashian family.

The cohort of reality TV stars brought back the original intention of corsets - to reduce women’s waists via constriction. Kim, Kylie, Khloe and Kourtney all credited their enviable figures to the myriad of products they flogged via social media, but the most notable was the "waist trainer" - a modern means of defining the waist.

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Business boomed for producers of waist trainers after the Kardashian endorsement, and while the mainstream trend for a trim waist has persisted in the years since, extreme waist training has actually continued behind the scenes since the 1800s, without the help of the Calabasas clan.

Women have been engaging in "tightlacing" since the 19th century – a practice in which the waist is reduced to the extreme via years of intense corset training. The goal is to achieve cartoonish proportions from restricting corsets.

The art developed when corsets were the peak of fashion, as people grew curious about how small the waist could be cinched. The art of tightlacing is a form of body modification, and is often seen in goth and pin-up subcultures in modern times.

While today’s softly structured, high street versions of the corset are a far cry from the bizarre beauty of tightlacing, they still emblemize self expression. Rising Irish fashion designer John Mangru has specialised in the creation of corsets, becoming a connoisseur of their history and contemporary meanings.

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Recalling his first time seeing a corset – an original 1990s Vivienne Westwood piece, no less - John admits he became fascinated by their aesthetics.

"We are constantly looking to the past for inspiration," John told RTE Lifestyle. "But saying that, in the past corsets were seen as a symbol of oppression - to hide and change one’s body shape to fit societal norms – whereas nowadays I feel that the corset has been taken back! Instead of being a garment worn under the clothes and tucked away, it is now an outer garment not to be hidden away, along with women’s bodies.

"That being said I do feel that the recent resurgence of period style dramas and TV shows have also helped the allure of corsets to the everyday person."

The corset has acquired different meanings through time, and in what may soon become a post-pandemic world, maximalist clothing pieces help us feel empowered after a long stretch of lockdowns and social stagnation. Corsets symbolise historical grandeur and cultural liberty, so in the era of staying at home, it makes sense that the corset has returned to define our longing for a future where we can be social extroverts once more.