Corsets + Shoes

The Museum at FIT

The corset is probably the most controversial item of clothing in the history of fashion. But the high-heeled shoe is a close second. Let’s take a look at some examples of corsets and shoes that help to illustrate these two types of fashionable objects.

Corsets
The corset was an essential element of fashionable dress, worn by women throughout the western world from the late Renaissance into the 20th century. Dress reformers argued that women's bodies were "deformed" by fashion, and most people today perceive the corset as having been an instrument of women's oppression. But this is too simplistic. Indeed, the corset hasn’t really disappeared, has been just internalized in the form of diet, exercise, and plastic surgery.

Corsets originated in the beginning of the 16th century, when aristocratic Spanish women first adopted "whalebone bodies." Stays (later known as corsets) rapidly became fashionable throughout Europe. In 1588, the French essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote, "To get a slim body, Spanish style, what torture do women not endure, so tightly tied and bound . . . "

This particular corset from 18th-century France creates a V-shaped silhouette. In the 19th century, corsets would produce an hourglass silhouette. Although doctors and moralists remonstrated, women continued to wear some form of corset until the middle of the 20th century, because corsetry was associated with feminine beauty, aristocratic display, and self-discipline.

The silhouette of this 1880s corset exaggerates the sexually-dimorphic curves of the female body. The use of red was fashionable and also controversial, since most corsets were white. Color in lingerie had been associated with "the aristocracy of vice" only a decade earlier.
The waist of this evening gown measures an atypically slender 18 inches. Although stories of tight-laced corsets are exaggerated, women often did lace more tightly for formal occasions. The full, puffed sleeves of dresses during the 1890s also made waists appear even smaller.

Clothing of the 1930s required a slender yet womanly silhouette. Many women relied on all-in-one girdles, also called corselets, which supported the breasts, cinched the waist, and smoothed the hips. This example, made by the French luxury lingerie brand Cadolle, features an attached lace skirt that acts as a slip.

The concept of the visible corset has become a socially acceptable form of erotic display. Once perceived as an instrument of female oppression, the corset took on new meaning by the 1980s, when designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler adopted it as a symbol of sexual empowerment for women.

This "corset" dress, with an exaggerated cone bust and back lacing, is one of the most iconic designs of Jean Paul Gaultier's career. As a young boy, he had been fascinated by his grandmother’s corset and his designs of the 1980s helped launch the craze for underwear-as-outerwear. Pop singer Madonna later adopted the torpedo-like bust into her stage costumes, furthering Gaultier's reputation as the “enfant terrible” of Paris fashion.
Issey Miyake is one of the most original designers of our era, and this molded plastic bustier is a good example of his willingness to experiment with the relationship between clothes and body.

Vivienne Westwood’s studies of 18th-century fashion inspired her “Statue of Liberty” ensemble, which recontextualized the corset from underwear to erotically-charged outerwear. Westwood’s leather bodice pushes up the breasts – as did boned stays – while the shape of the skirt resembles the look of panniers (side hoops). This ensemble is from Westwood's Time Machine collection.

Shoes
Extravagant and fashionable shoes have also excited fascination because of their relationship with sex and gender. Like the corset, the high-heeled shoe is an icon of erotic feminism. Today the average American woman has about twenty pairs of shoes—nearly double what she owned in the late 1990s. True shoe enthusiasts, however, may possess hundreds of pairs.

Over the past decade, shoe design has become increasingly central to fashion, with fashion companies paying ever more attention to shoes and other accessories. High-heeled shoes, in particular, have become one of the key fashion accessories of the 21st century. For example, Christian Louboutin's undeniably sexy shoes have established him as one of the best-known footwear designers in the world.

High heels can be a potent expression of feminine sexuality and power. They force a woman to arch her back, thus pushing her bosom forward. Heels also make her foot appear dainty and they encourage mincing steps, often considered erotic. Tactile materials, such as the feathers seen here, infuse shoes with additional erotic appeal.

As women began to lead more active lives, the high-button boot evolved into an essential element of dress. The boot was more suitable for outdoor walking than thin leather and silk slippers, and was considered progressive and sensible. However, this particular boot, with its high curved heel and tightly fitting ankle, was also quite seductive.

These fur-lined oxfords were the first to emerge on the runway for the Louis Vuitton Autumn Collection of 2004, which was marked by its opulent mélange of Victorian-influenced styles. They echo the artist Méret Oppenheim's fur-lined tea cup.

Salvatore Ferragamo created extraordinary shoes for an international clientele. This example features an F heel, a distinctive lightweight wooden platform carved into an elegant, refined shape, which also provided stability and balance.

Christian Louboutin’s fetish pointe shoe emphasizes the connection between the image of the ballerina on pointe and the iconography of extreme high heels. As Louboutin says: “Isn’t the classical dancing ballet slipper the ultimate heel? The heel which makes dancers closer than any other women to the sky, closer to heaven!”

Credits: Story

The Museum at FIT has organized exhibitions about corsets (such as The Corset: Fashioning the Body) and shoes (such as Shoe Obsession).

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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