SUFFERING FOR BEAUTY The first documented reference to corsets in terms of fetishism appears in the mid-19th century in The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine.
Over 150 letters were received which detailed the practice of enforced extreme tightlacing in several boarding schools, often described as a useful method of controlling badly-behaved boys. Although later the letters’ contents were dismissed as fantasy, they reveal the emergence of a sexual subculture in the grip of a tightlacing obsession.
This obsession has continued in contemporary society, finding a place within the fetish and BDSM community. It is perfectly expressed in “corset training” as part of the ritual within the dominant/submissive relationship.
It is both a form of permanent bondage and constriction, a symbol of submission, and even of ownership whereby the person who ties the final knot takes control.
Conversely, corsets also make people feel more in control of themselves, more confident, as they stand taller, untouchably encased in steel and impeccable craftsmanship, true goddesses to be worshipped.
THE POWER OF THE CORSET In modern times, when a dominant partner (usually but not exclusively female) dons a corset, she feels more authoritative, aloof and untouchable.
Her status becomes enhanced, while the lowly rank of the submissive is reinforced by the presence of ongoing corset training that ensures that the ‘slave’ is constantly reminded to whom he belongs.In this situation the corset becomes a tool of bondage and domination.
It can also be used in cross-dressing, to feminize the male form; whether this is a privilege or a punishment is purely subjective. The fetish aspect of corset cross-dressing is also documented at length in The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine.
In numerous letters to the editor, the practice described in intricate detail and can be summarized as cruel ladies curbing the spirit of naughty boys by means of tightlacing.
THE CORSET AND PERSONAL FANTASIES In the closing years of the 20th century the corset made a bold return to modern culture. Over the last 20 years it has allowed its wearers to express — among many different personas — their inner modern primitive, showgirl, romantic Goth or fetishist.
OBJECTS OF FETISH In the 19th century, the most desirable, cultivated and cherished female attributes were petite hands, small waists and tiny feet, even long slender necks graced the growing menu of the Victorian gentleman’s proclivities. The corset, with its ability to narrow and refine the body, was a part of the everyday ritual of dress for 19th-century women across all classes.
Even the 19th-century male dandy may have worn corsets and many letters penned by Walter in the The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, suggest a possible subculture of male fetishists with erotic fantasies of tightlacing taking place in England’s boarding schools.
For women, the actual evidence suggests that corsets were merely a practical part of their everyday dress and not generally tightly-laced. “Tightlacing” differs from the term “corseting’ and the two should not be confused. Corseting is the practice of wearing a corset as an everyday item of clothing, to create light control and to help align the body.
Tightlacing – the extreme and continuous practice of lacing a corset to achieve an overtly tiny waist – was surprisingly rare in the 19th Century
THE PRACTICE OF TIGHTLACING Tightlacing is the extreme and continuous practice of lacing a corset to achieve an overtly tiny waist. The practice of tightlacing in the 19th century was actually surprisingly rare, most surviving corsets have measurements well within the normal range for women of the era.
Reports of women with severe health issues as a result of extreme tightlacing are mostly dismissed today as thinly disguised misogyny, and the extreme reaction of certain social reformers. The Victorian era was rife with the fear of women’s innate sexuality ironically, during this time the corset remained a object of sexual fantasy and focus. It was a time of sexual schizophrenia, with the corset central to the scene.
Corsets fell out of favour in the early 20th century, only emerging into the mainstream again with Christian Dior’s New Look in the 1940s. In the 1950s strongly defined gender roles reappeared. The inflated bust was largely a post-war trend and women’s fashions became ultra curvy.
The balance of broad hips, ample bosoms and a small waist are strongly associated with youth and fertility. As male sexual arousal is highly susceptible to visual cues, many men find small waists irresistible.
JOHN WILLIE AND 1950S FETISH IMAGERY With curvaceousness back at the heart of 1950s fashion consciousness, naughtiness appeared in the shape of John Willie who is credited for bringing fetish imagery into the mainstream in the 1950s. Willie’s imagination and distinctive graphic style introduced contemporary society to BDSM themes.
He is particularly renowned for his fetish drawings of uber curvy women. From the late 1940s through to the late 1950s his character, Sweet Gwendoline, and her tormentor U69 appeared particularly tightlaced in Willie’s Bizarre magazine.
CATHIE JUNG In the present day, the smallest recorded measurement for a tightlaced waist belongs to Cathie Jung who can lace down to 15 inches. Jung is an American who is married to an orthopaedic surgeon, who has consistently dismissed rumours that his wife has had an operation to remove a rib to achieve the desired reduction, stating that the lower floating ribs are very flexible and can safely adapt to the effects of corseting.
Cathie has said that she corsets herself for her husband and it is his strong interest that keeps her going, but feels that hers is the attitude of an older generation of corset wearers, with younger female corset enthusiasts and fetishists indulging in tightlacing for their own, different reasons.
Contemporary corseted women report an increasingly pleasant feeling of compression as they tighten the corset, describing a sensation that is akin to a long embrace. This pleasurable experience is one of the many reasons for their obsession with the corset.
The complexity of the corset seems to invite wearers into its long embrace, a tactile interaction that is entirely on the wearer’s own terms. It holds you in as you stand taller, encased in steel, contoured and coutured, autonomous and sexually in control. It is a garment for personal pleasure, potentially a dominatrix’s armour, and a portal of personal control: all these are the modern woman’s gifts from the corset.
THIERRY MUGLER AND CORSET INSPIRATION Perhaps inspired by and undoubtedly incorporating the visual characteristics of John Willie’s fantasy women, French designer Thierry Mugler has often portrayed his models as corset-clad superwomen, cartoon-like in their mighty stature, covered in chrome, leather, rubber and impeccable tailoring, the epitome of the modern über-woman.
Other designers have played with the corset in their own ways: Jean Paul Gaultier created a pink pointed bustier for Madonna while Alexander McQueen followed with a series of feminist fashion statements. Traditional fetishists at last had permission to step out of the closet; their corsets had been rubberized, buckled and often totally reconstructed, but most importantly were now worn proudly worldwide.
The corset has always been a staple of the bondage scene, being hard-wired into the human mind as one of the most common fetish items
THE RUBBER REVOLUTION The corset has always been a staple of the underground bondage scene, being as it were hard-wired into the human mind, along with shoes, as the most common fetish item. Technical advances in the making of rubber transformed the material from an industrial textile into a fine second skin fabric, allowing it to be used as a clothing material capable of incredible structure and creativity. It was time for the corset and rubber to come together.
NEW DESIGNS IN RUBBER In 1983 Skin Two started in a cellar in London’s Soho as an underground fetish club, and was the initiator of the modern fetish club scene. In 1984, Tim Woodward and photographer Grace Lau founded Skin Two magazine, and Skin Two eventually developed into a shop selling rubber fashions and associated glossy magazines that featured avant-garde photo-shoots of highly polished rubber creations, with the corset often central to the theme.
In the early 1990s the rubber company DeMask, based in Amsterdam, began to make rubber fetish clothing that focused on structured masks and corsets. Soon an army of small rubber clothing design companies appeared, primarily in the UK, developing unique methods of working with this specialised material and pushing the boundaries of design and structure, with companies such as House of Harlot and Inner Sanctum focusing on rubber corsetry in particular.
FETISH IMAGERY IN THE MAINSTREAM Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren were style leaders in the 1970s punk scene. McLaren’s subversive attitude and Westwood’s obsession with historical detail and references, led her to thoroughly research the clandestine world of London’s BDSM scene and engage designers from this community to manufacture some of her items. Unique and outlandish at the time, these creations were sold in Westwood and McLaren’s shop Sex at World’s End on London’s Kings Road.
THE MODERN PRIMITIVE My own fascination with the corset developed rapidly when I moved to London in the early 1990s. London was in the grip of its latest subcultural revolution which would eventually impact on the rest of the world, and as the Goth scene waned, the ‘modern primitives’ emerged. For them, the body itself became the canvas for self-expression, from body modification rituals to decorative body piercing and tattooing.
Corset training once more gained a place within an emerging western culture. The modern primitives were exponents of multiple and conspicuous piercing, tribal tattooing and even branding and scarification as permanent emblems of the scene. Corsets and their tremendous ability to mould the physique, became a key part of their arsenal of body modifications.
The father of the modern primitive movement is Fakir Musafar. Born Roland Loomis in the USA in 1930, he began at the age of 12 to modify his body with self-piercing. Later he explored using his body as an instrument of western contemporary shamanism through a series of ritualized body modification practices.
MODERN PRIMITVES AND THE CORSET Musafar’s great passion for the corset and his personal corseting practice has been an inspiration for the master corsetière Mr Pearl. Indeed, Fakir Musafar was known as the ‘Ol’ Corsetiere’. One of his most famous photos, The Perfect Gentleman, shows him tightlaced but wearing shirt and tie, flawlessly presented as a modern dandy. The comparison with later photos of Mr Pearl are clear. Musafar used the corset as part of his body modification apparatus, and the unfolding modern primitive society followed.
Corsets and their tremendous ability to mould the physique became a key part of the Modern Primitives’ arsenal of body modifications