Tight-laced, not strait-laced

Main sqeeze: If the corset fits, wear it. (Ben skinner)

Main sqeeze: If the corset fits, wear it. (Ben skinner)

Turning a corner I encountered a mysterious new portal with the letters M&G emblazoned on it in an art-deco logo.

Now, anyone who knows the Mail & Guardian, and is acquainted with its nickname, the M&G, will know that this newspaper does not have its headquarters in that space. Our offices were once in an adjoining office park, but that was over eight years ago.

The M&G in question, full name Mechant & Gentil, is a purveyor of luxurious local lingerie. Inside, in a darkened showroom, you will find gold mannequins wearing, in the shop's own words, "corsets, merry widows [also known as torsolettes], girdles and suspender belts". There is even a line of haute-couture nipple caps.

It was the range of corsets that caught my eye. That most stigmatised of undergarments in the Western woman's wardrobe is not something one sees in abundance on clothing racks every day. With its tapered sides and lacing, and with its frills and florals, the corset is, supposedly, a deceptively wicked attempt to reshape women's bodies against nature's will.

On inquiry, I was told that the range is designed and manufactured by someone known simply as Arwen – Jo'burg's finest corsetiere.

My journey to find Arwen took me to a boutique in a house on 6th Street, Parkhurst, where, behind a high wall and in a darkened studio I met the rather vampish designer, a platinum blonde with impeccable taste and a talent to go with it.

Arwen shares all aspects of her life with her partner, photographer Ben Skinner. Together they head up the manufacture and marketing of Arwen Garments, a truly unique range of dresses and corsets for very discerning dressers. 

There are Michelle Obama frocks with boat necks, sculpted bridal gowns, vintage-style dresses à la Marilyn Monroe, boleros and of course, a full rack of corsets for can-can girls and industrial-style ones for sci-fi neo-robots.

"Anything anyone has ever told you about corsets is a myth," Arwen told me before trying on her favourite, sleek grey cincher. "Women did not die from corsets, women did not faint from corsets. Corsets were not forced on women by men.

"Men actually tried to get women out of corsets because corsets accentuate a woman's sexuality and sensuality. And in the Victorian era men were petrified of a sexual woman. 

"You look at the image of a woman in a corset and you can't possibly look at her in the same way as a pregnant woman, or a housewife in the kitchen. Corsets didn't make women helpless, they empowered them."

Regardless of whether you believe her or not, Arwen is a rare creature keeping alive a specialised set of skills. The only thing she is dead against is defining herself as a designer of fetish wear. If you accuse her of that you may well find yourself out in the street.


Mechant & Gentil, Shop G3B, 44 Stanley Avenue, Braamfontein Werf, Johannesburg. Website: mechantandgentil.com Arwen Garmentry, 61 6th Avenue, Parkhurst, Johannesburg. Website: arwen.co.za 

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse is the arts editor of the Mail & Guardian, a position he has held since 1999. He has edited two anthologies: Positions (Steidl, Jacana Media 2010) about artists engaging with politics in South Africa today, and The Invisible Ghetto (GMP, 1994) a compilation of creative writing about gender. His essays have appeared in collected works about arts and culture here and abroad. He has worked in the theatre for over a decade as an actor, writer and senior publicist at the Market Theatre. Read more from Matthew Krouse


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