11/06/2016 8:41 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST

Corsets Are For Flaunting, Not Hiding

Kevin Mazur via Getty Images
LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 17: (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) Madonna performs during her MDNA Tour at Hyde Park on July 17, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage)

The horses were mesmerizing. There were seven of them beneath the chandeliers, prancing to music. The curtains fell back. Second-skin black leather pants and a range of fluid full-length skirts marched out, accessorized with riding crops and stiff leather corsets. A few sheer chiffon dresses flowed in, covered up with fetishistic leather harnesses. It was ever so sexy -- Jean-Paul Gaultier's final show with the House of Hermes as he parted ways as artistic director in the spring of 2011 in Paris.

Women taming horses is as erogenous as the reinvention of the corset itself. No better embodiment of it now than singer Madonna, who proves she can do whatever she wants. Madonna's iconic conical corset during the 1990 "Blonde Ambition" tour was created by Gaultier. Just last month at the Met Gala in New York she wore one in black with a sheer lace duster and thigh-high boots.

In every Gaultier collection there is inspiration from India... His corsets are no exception...

More dramatic and wildly erotic than Madonna's were the corsets once worn by the women on the island of Crete, back in 2000 BC. Their corsets created exaggeratedly slim waists and exposed their bare breasts. Moving eastward a bit later, women wore their saris bare-chested in India, although only until the 16th century. This was about the same time that society dictated that women must strap themselves tight in their corsets in Europe.

Brutal iron-cage corsets squashed the upper body into the slender, boyish figure required for Elizabethan dressing. In India, at first influenced by the Mughals and then coerced by the British, women were made to cover up too, and at least wear a blouse.

The 18th-century corsets were slightly kinder to the flesh. Made out of whalebone instead of iron, they were hard but flexible.


Later, during the frugal years of the First World War, parts of the mellowed-down Victorian corset were sourced or at times subcontracted by the British to master tailors in Bombay. The end of the war altogether threw out the corsets -- too expensive, mobility restrictive and patriarchal.

Dior launched the "New Look" in 1947 which, for a brief while, took women back to the traditional days of their great-grandmothers with girdles, under-wired bustiers, tulle and horsehair petticoats. The two world wars and ensuing struggle in Europe needed women to be once again lady-like, believed Christian Dior.

Suneet Verma, inspired by his corsetry training in France, brought the costume corset to the Indian sari in 1992.

Corsets returned to the dressing-room with proper flamboyance only in the 1990s. This time they were designed by feminist Vivienne Westwood and, later, Gaultier. A garment that was once a powerful symbol of oppression now represented winning the battle of the sexes, directly mocking male dominance.

In every Gaultier collection there is inspiration from India. Gaultier has amassed a vast library of intensely coloured textile swatches since his first visit to Calcutta and Puri in the 1970s. He has had Indian music accompany his signature cone bras and corsets on the ramp, walked his models against a backdrop of Holi festival, sent them off wearing Sikh turbans, and had a showstopper stride to the French classic "La Vie En Rose" sung in Hindi. His corsets are no exception, and often bear motifs from India.

Meanwhile Indian designer Suneet Verma, inspired by his corsetry training in France, brought the costume corset to the Indian sari in 1992. Designer Suman Bharti has started mass producing corsets in his factory in Gurgaon, selling them online worldwide. High expectations or tight lacing from these are not recommended. Instead go for Isabella Corsetry and Orchard Corset, the other popular brands selling corsets online.

Designer Suman Bharti has started mass producing corsets in his factory in Gurgaon, selling them online worldwide.

A notch higher in quality would be the sturdy waist trainer corsets by What Katie Did, a UK based company that in fact hand-stitches their corsets in India.

The only way from here is up. Perhaps try a burlesque, hand-jewelled, feathered piece with laborious attention to detail from Catherine D'Lish. Or choose from Gaultier's power fashion, Thierry Mugler's punk sexuality, or the blossoms in Sparklewren's corsetry.

Else, take a 20-minute walk from Gaultier's Paris atelier in the 3rd arrondissement towards the lane right behind the Notre Dame cathedral. Then go to a flat marked M. Pulin.

Mark Pulin, who goes by the pseudonym Mr. Pearl, is the greatest corsetier in existence. As you enter there will be books and corsets on the floor, with a picture on the wall showing off his 18-inch corseted waist, attained by wearing his corset 24 hours a day, 7 days a week except to bathe.

He may be generous to you. In which case he might show you in his flat the corsets he hand-stitched for designers such as Dior, Gaultier and Mugler, explaining that these works of art can take several months each to construct. After all, the corset is no longer something to hide now but to show.

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