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How has contemporary fashion been influenced by the past


In this essay I am going to be talking about how an element of contemporary fashion (the corset) has been influenced by the past.

Fashion is and always will be a unique phenomenon of humanity. It affects not only our material culture but also things such as the music we listen to, architecture and theatre. Fashion is very important in helping us to grasp and understand a particular historical era in time. It is not only a theory of art but it helps us to express ourselves. Fashion is also something that affects everyone all over the world; even those people who say they don’t care about fashion still have to wake up every morning and chose something to wear which says a lot about them and how they feel. Fashion is something that is always changing along with music, TV, books etc.

The past influences the present so much as the past moulds us and makes us who we are today. Without a past we have nothing to go by, alter or to look back on. Therefore, elements from the past will always come back around again into the present society. Another reason why the past influences the present so much is because we are all descendents of our ancestors which means that we all have people from the past that we look back on and study how they lived their life. However it is up to us in the sense of how much we are influenced by the past and to what extent we let it influence us. You could say that the past is the core to our designs but it is changed by giving it a contemporary twist.

This decade and history is important to contemporary designers for many reasons. Firstly, the world and society never stays the same, something is always taking place in the world, technology improves and our way of life changes. All these aspects have to be taken into consideration for contemporary designers. However, previous trends always re-appear on the catwalk and fashion recycles.

I have chosen to the Victorian corset to discuss in my essay as I feel it is extremely relevant and a good example of showing how fashion from the past has been refined and is around again in the present day. Not only has the corset crept its way back onto the catwalks again but it has slowly been changed to a piece of clothing that can be worn as an undergarment, as casual wear, as part of an evening gown or as sexy lingerie. Finally, another reason why I was interested in the corset was because in the past it was seen as a form of restriction for women not freedom. However, now this has changed, it has become a sophisticated piece of clothing which enhances the female form and makes women feel glamorous again.

The main use of the corset used in the Victorian era was originally an undergarment to mould the upper torso into a desired shape. They are designed to support the female figure without reducing the waist beyond comfort level and are also used to provide a predictably shaped base for fitted dresses. Also, they help to distribute the weight of the hoop and skirts over a larger area, rather than have them dig in from a 1inch waistband.  For most curvy woman it is used to reduce the waist therefore emphasizing the bust and hips. For men, corsets were customarily used to slim the figure as in the early 1800s a wasp-waisted figure was in style which nipped men in at the waist.

An ‘overbust corset’ encloses the torso normally a corset supports the visible dress, and spreads the pressure from large dresses, like the crinoline and bustle.

In the Victorian era the corset was not seen as liberation and as the female form shaped the corset disappeared. The corset was also banned by Poiret in 1909 as he wanted to put women in hobble skirts therefore; the corset was interfering with his own designs which focused on the shape of the shoulders not the waist. Also the flat and square dresses came into fashion which required a different shape to that of what the corset creates. Also the figure became more abstract and the natural waistline was an element from the past. People abandoned the corset for a softer one which flattened the female form.

In the 1930s fashion bought the waist back into focus with the help of bold colours and intricate shapes. By the end of the 1930s the soft corsets and bodices worn as part of evening gowns became part of the Victorian revival made popular by movies such as Gone with the Wind and Little Women. From the late 1940s designers would try to re-create the same tight-fitting silhouette originally achieved by the corset. They did this by using ingenious cuts, padding and boning. The most potent example being the bar suit designed by Dior. The corset which was then transformed into a bustier was worn as part of Dior evening gowns (pictured above) in the late 1940s-early 1950s.

In the mid 1970s, Vivienne Westwood became the first designer to bring the corset back onto the catwalk in its original form since Poiret rejected it. Her approach was artistic and set a new and definitive trend in contemporary fashion. She used corsets from the 18th century and combined them with a contemporary twist which gave women a feeling of glamour which they had not experienced in a very long time.

Many designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier followed in the footsteps of Westwood and the corset became strong again. From then on, the corset would serve as a base from which designers created powerful designs.

The corset was no longer a sign of oppression but of freedom and it showed women’s sexual empowerment. However the 1990s were influenced by a more eastern approach to the corset and was banned in favor of under layered garments. But they were still used in evening wear.

The innovation of 2001 was when the corset was transformed into daywear which has two types the obvious corset worn over a garment or the abstract corset with lacing and intricate stitching.

Worn over a jumper or on its own the corset has been transformed to new levels. Designers such as Balenciaga have used the shape of the corset as inspiration for their shirts, skirts and dresses. Also other aspects of the corset such as boning and lacing have been used on casual daywear garments, broadening the uses of the corset. Never before has the corset been such a major focus point in creating new designs,  the essence of the corset has been re-captured and its features have been refined making today’s corsets even more popular.

Throughout the century the corset has evolved from being just an undergarment  in the 18th century to being something completely versatile, it can be worn as part of casual daywear, as an evening gown and as part of underwear symbolising women’s sexual empowerment.

I think that past fashion will always be very important to contemporary designers as fashion always repeats itself. The corset is and will always be an extremely influential and powerful part of fashion for buyers and designers as it is known for its tight fitting female silhouette which is timeless and still appeals to many people today. The corset has never stopped evolving and it symbolizes everlasting sexual attraction which makes women today feel powerful and confident. It has also managed to go from being underwear to outerwear which means it will attract more buyers than a plain top. The corset also reveals contradictory messages, such as constriction and freedom, femininity and power. It also related to current social issues such as sex, war and nostalgia all of which make the corset a topic of the present day. Furthermore, the corset will always be a historical piece of clothing originating form the past which gives the wearer a sense of timelessness. Finally the corset is a celebration of the female figure and I think it will continue to inspire future generations of designers for years to come.

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