The big squeeze

Perhaps I shouldn’t have had lunch. Indeed, to be in with even a cat-in-hell’s chance of mustering the waspish proportions of Kylie Minogue, pictured on stage recently twirling a heavily corseted waist, one would surely have to forgo eating, drinking and probably all breathing whatsoever. Not to mention a few ribs.

If you’ve ever been stuck in a lift, you will have a hint of what it is like to be laced into a corset.
There is a sudden blaze of panic, of airlessness, before one is distracted by the fiery lick of the laces, and the sight of flesh as it concertinas over the spine and disagreeably rumples over the waistband.

Kylie having set an irresistible challenge, I find myself in Rigby and Peller’s central-London store, as Jill Kenton, director of the Queen’s favourite lingerie company, hoiked me into a series of increasingly sturdy corsets. With a few brief tugs, my waist has been squeezed from a stalwart 66cm to a violin-shaped 61cm. Yes, breathing is tricky, laughter impossible, yet I feel curiously emboldened.

Preposterous garment it may be, but there is something about women and corsets. We’ve been liberated from our bustles and freed from our hooped skirts, but we can’t seem to get over our guilty fantasy of lacing ourselves up too tightly to breathe.

The earliest corsets arrived in the 13th-century, and it took us seven centuries to break out of them. One might, therefore, expect the very notion of corseting to be filed next to foot-binding as an example of history’s curious sartorial enslavement of women. The effect, after all, was an array of physical problems that one might broadly describe as “squishing the innards’‘. Tales abound of welts, fainting, even of unborn foetuses crippled in the womb.

And yet still fashion salivates over that hourglass silhouette. “A corset can make you feel sexy and look fantastic . . . [it] can really enhance the female figure,’’ says Serena Rees, co-founder of lingerie label Agent Provocateur, which has sold corsets since it first opened in 1994.

There may even be evolutionary reasons for its popularity. The corset seemingly freezes the female form into a perpetual state of being in flagrante: the arched back and heaving bosom, even the state of breathlessness. “There are special reasons for corsets being sexually exciting,’’ explains Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Woman, “two of which are quite contradictory: first, you can see a corset in a puritanical way, in that it acts like a suit of armour, making [the woman] less natural, more controlled, more unavailable. Or you can see it as a form of erotic bondage.’‘

However, the basic appeal of the corset, Morris elaborates, is that it exaggerates the magic ratio of waist to hips, which for women is 7:10. “That silhouette is going to have a sexual appeal at a primeval level,’’ he says. “It’s signalling the child-bearing pelvic girdle ... And, as the male’s magic ratio is 9:10, if the female’s ratio becomes 6:10 it becomes super-female because it takes it further away from the male ratio.’‘

Today, Morris argues, corsets cling on due to their fetishistic attraction. “And Kylie,’’ he notes, “has a strange fetishistic appeal. In modern times, women have wanted to be more active and don’t want to make themselves into these armoured-bondaged females.’’ Yet the corset has, in more recent times, been reclaimed and championed by some feminists, who argue that in fact the health risks were greatly exaggerated by men who felt that it embodied a sort of thrusting, empowered feminine sexuality, perhaps not entirely unlike what the codpiece did for men.

In The Corset: A Cultural History (Yale University Press), Valerie Steele debates precisely this point, stating that those who crusaded against the corset did so in an effort to constrain women’s sexuality. She says that nowhere in her extensive research into costume history has she found the fabled minuscule-inched, faint- inducing corsets of legend. In a year-long investigation, Steele found that daily tight-lacing created no enduring effects on a woman’s health. Displaced organs, left to roam free, appeared to replace themselves happily.

Indeed, what the corset grants its female wearer is a very different kind of sexuality to that routinely peddled on the covers of men’s mags. It is at once a marriage of pure sexuality and a level of restrained social respectability. Arguably, this is why it enjoys an enduring popularity with brides: the corseted wedding dress at once being a manifestation of purity, socially sanctioned union, and the marital sex that lies before her.

The corset projects a sort of womanliness, as opposed to the attractions of a vest-wearing slip of a girl. “It needs hips and bosom and bottom,’’ says Rowan Pelling of the Erotic Review.

Whether the corset will continue to sway in and out of fashion remains to be seen. Increasingly, one might argue, women who want radically to reshape their torsos do not require the lifting, girdling effects of the corset because they have the surgeon’s knife to permanently uplift and whittle away parts of their anatomy should they so desire. Liposuction, perhaps, has become the new whaleboning. But all the collagen implants and surgical sculpting money can buy cannot really compete with the irresistibility offered by the corset: it is the thrill of the unknown, the gift to be unwrapped. Cinched and breathless in a shop fitting-room on a grey Monday afternoon, even I have to concede this to be true. — Â