Corsets – restraint or repression?

Michelle modelling corset laced to her natural shape.

New at Heart Space Studios – weekend lunchtime talks – about anything and everything textiles. We started with two ‘show and tell’ sessions, Lisa Keating ( who is conducting a 2 day corset making course – see Heart Space web site for further details) brought and talked about corset history, leading into her own designs and working samples; Jan Connett spoke about her own work using corsets as a metaphor for society’s age – old unreal expectations of feminine beauty.

Lisa gave a demonstration of the way that the corset can be manipulated to squeeze the waist up to seven inches smaller, by means of two sets of separate ribbons at the back of the garment.

Lisa starts to tighten the back ribbons of the corset
tighter and tighter.

Michelle who regularly models for Lisa, reported that at each subsequent fitting she has been able able to get her waist to a smaller size.

Feminists or not, we were all fascinated and when the samples were passed around the audience were able to really study the intricacies and refinement of the construction of these modern day “stays”.

examining the construction

I like the idea of ‘reading’ a corset like an open book – see below – what stories would it tell?

reading and studying the details - photo by Hannah Ranby

the workmanship was truly worth the examination

close - up of a well examined corset

Lisa also passed around her design drawings of wedding and evening dresses that use the corset construction. I was reminded of my early career years as a fashion illustrator and decided I could include these techniques in my new drawing club at Heart Space.

final design for wedding dress

Lisa's working design drawing
I really like this image - each woman perfectly expresses the 2 conflicting ideas we hold in tandem about these restrictive but ultimately desirable garments.

Before we went on to hear Jan Connett’s talk about her art works we broke off for tea and biscuits with cupcakes that were provided by a new company, Clifton Cake Couture, who are going to rent space in the studios to run their own cake decoration classes later in the year… these cakes taste as good as they look, we were lost for choice – they were the perfect accompaniment to the glamorous frivolous corsets.

cup cakes by Clifton Cake Couture. photo by Hannah Ranby

And now for something completely different – Jan Connet’s corsets, these really made us sit up and think. Jan introduced her talk by saying how much she delighted in the frivolity of the corsets but how she now used them as a metaphor to make work questioning our whole attitude to women, in particular the obsession for overt sexuality embodied by the fascination in the display of the female body.

Jan Connett talking passionately in front of her art work - photo by Hannah Ranby

Jan talked about the tension between her choice of materials, metal, fibre, paper, reflecting the tension between her love of the object and the fact that it is a repressive and damaging garment when taken to extremes, both physically and metaphorically.

Corset in fibre, metal and cardboard - Jan Connett

She told us of her research that had revealed that girls as young as 3 years of age are being diagnosed with anorexia nervosa – an affliction embedded in control of appetite to control the body’s appearance; of high street shops selling padded bras and pole dancing kits for for 7 year olds……but she also made us aware that we are all complicit in this. One of her works was called “Before I go out of the house” and showed how we all use make-up or fashion to bolster our own sense of self esteem before we allow ourselves to be seen in public.

box of Barbies waiting to be used for jan Connett's next Corset.

Her new work is based on the Barbie doll, and she has several dolls ready to be incorporated in a new corset, which is in brilliant, shiny, sparkling, pink fabrics – again the duality that textile affords is apparent, we can delight in the colour and frivolity of the fabrics and forms but they set up the perfect trap of making us feel slightly guilty for being so easily  attracted by the surface – but this heightens the personal questioning that comes with the realisation that not everything is what it seems to be.

I was truly delighted by the talks;  the audience also liked the 2 opposing but complementary points of view, we had happily laughed at the extremes of earlier fashions in Lisa’s talk but were shocked by Jan’s revelations about the current generation’s obsession with young female bodies. This is where textiles interest me most, after I have enjoyed the surfaces  there is a  wealth of material to express views, ideas and arguments; most people have an innate understanding of fabric – it surrounds and sustains us from cradle to grave – so for me it has become the perfect media to work in.

I am leaving you with 2 images that perfectly show the allure of present day corsets…

Holly being laced into an under-bust corset

and this blurred but evocative image of Michelle, could be a Renoir or a Tissot…….except for the denims.

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