Mass Movement

Popular Culture and the End of the Corset

Authored by: Sarah Berry

The Routledge Companion to Global Popular Culture

Print publication date:  December  2014
Online publication date:  December  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415641470
eBook ISBN: 9780203081846
Adobe ISBN: 9781136175961


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From the seventeenth to the early twentieth century, most Western women wore a corset every day, often from a young age. Rich and poor, urban and rural, even incarcerated and institutionalized women wore corsets (Summers 2001: 19). The rejection of the corset after centuries of use is one of the most significant transitions in modern Western dress, but it’s never been entirely clear what made the un-corseted body fashionable. There are two very good, but somehow incomplete explanations. One is that the late-nineteenth-century “New Woman” gained greater access to non-domestic work, education, and physical activity, giving leverage to dress reformers who’d criticized corsets for years (Cunningham 2010). But practicality alone doesn’t change taste in dress; women had worked and exercised in corsets for generations. The other explanation is that Victorian artists made un-corseted dressing sophisticated, inspiring modernist couturiers to copy their Orientalist and neoclassical taste (Wilson and Taylor 1989: 31). But twentieth-century fashion was influenced by populist trends as well as bohemian and high-society ones. This essay looks at the role of popular performance, social dance, and visual media in the refashioning of women’s bodies. Drawing on research from the U.S., England, and France, I argue that popular practices were central to the aesthetic shift from a static to a dynamic body ideal – a shift that finally made the corset look passé.

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