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HOW VIVIENNE WESTWOOD REDEFINED THE CORSET

From underwear to outerwear, fashion’s punk provocateur turned corsetry inside out

This article was originally published on harpersbazaar.com

There are few instances where garment and designer are as inextricably linked as the corset (as we know it today) and Vivienne Westwood. It’s widely acknowledged that the British designer singlehandedly reinvented the historical undergarment, transforming it into a piece of outerwear that’s as coveted today as it was in 1987.

Before 1987 – the year Westwood showed her iconic ‘Stature of Liberty’ corset – corsetry hadn’t been fashionable since the ‘50s and ‘60s. Then, the most popular styles were the ‘Merry Widow’, a corset made for Lana Turner in the 1952 film of the same name, and hip-cinching girdles. Of course, corsets and boned stays had been worn for centuries prior, from the 1600s onwards – changing over time to accommodate each era’s preferred female silhouette, spanning inverted cone, hourglass and even ‘S’ shaped. Generally though, these garments served to nip in the waist and support the bust, and, with the exception of some 16th and 17th-century styles (or in the presence of lovers), they existed beneath clothing, unseen.

 

Westwood changed that. For her seminal Harris Tweed collection, staged in London in 1987, she quite literally unveiled the piece that was to become both a house signature and enduring icon – an 18th-century-inspired corset decisively styled as outerwear and named ‘Stature of Liberty’.

It was a reclamation of female power, sexual and otherwise, and recontextualised the corset from rarely-seen base layer to provocative outerwear piece. In a 1990 documentary filmed for The South Bank Show, Westwood says, ‘I play around with the idea of sexuality because I don’t like orthodoxy in any shape or form.’

The Stature of Liberty corset was proudly unorthodox, as was the rest of the Harris Tweed collection. Traditionally British tropes were appropriated and subverted, Harris tweed juxtaposing denim, twinset-wearing models with lipstick smeared. ‘It proved a milestone collection, introducing a number of innovations that now comprise a design canon unmistakably recognisable as hers’, writes Alexander Fury in Vivienne Westwood: Catwalk (Thames & Hudson, 2021).

 

This wasn’t the first time Westwood had used underwear as outerwear. She first turned corsetry into (admittedly daring) daytime garb in the 1970s, creating fetishwear at SEX – the designer’s King’s Road shop and epicentre of London’s punk movement. And there was 1982’s Mud Bra – a retro, seamed bra rendered in satin and styled atop a long-sleeved jersey for the Nostalgia of Mud collection.

Westwood reprised the corset for 1988’s Time Machine collection, this time in shimmering gold lamé, with detachable, epaulette-topped sleeves. But it was 1990’s Portrait collection, inspired by 18th-century art from The Wallace Collection, that would produce one of Westwood’s most iconic – and erotically charged – examples of corsetry.

Fury writes, ‘For the first time, Westwood reproduced a painting on a piece of clothing: she chose Daphnis and Chloe, also known as Shepherd Watching a Sleeping Shepherdess, painted by François Boucher in 1743–5. She printed it on shawls, framed in gold as if a masterpiece made fluid, and across the front of her Stature of Liberty corset, one of her most famous designs ever.’

The Boucher corset was arguably Westwood’s most sensual yet, the male gaze reframed by fashion’s punk provocateur. And if there was any suggestion that the corset of the past had fettered its wearer (a subject hotly contested by historians, namely the director of The Museum at New York’s FIT, Valerie Steele), this painterly piece was designed to do the opposite – not least because of the lycra-panelled sides and back zip. As if to illustrate this, one of most famous photos from the show is of two models, each wearing the Boucher corset, kissing each other.

 

Because of their sartorial significance and relative rarity, Westwood’s original Boucher corsets are highly collectable and sell for upwards of £5,000 and into five digits – a value buoyed by the likes of FKA Twigs, the Kardashians and Megan Thee Stallion, all of whom stepped out in archival designs in 2019 – the same year Vivienne Westwood re-issued three limited-edition versions of her classic corsets. Those with their heart set on the Boucher corset will be happy to know the house re-released that too, priced at a comparatively more affordable £800.

The corset is now a mainstay in Vivienne Westwood’s repertoire, each season returning in new, limited-edition guises designed to be treasured, collected and re-worn. That’s what makes such a garment a sound style investment – and a hearty testament to Westwood’s famous mantra: ‘Buy Less, Choose Well and Make it Last'.