Corsets

If, as Cole Porter wrote in 1934, "a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking", then a glimpse of underwear was considered even more dangerously overexciting. That's why this photograph by Horst, published in Vogue in 1939, still shocked the readers. In fact, it marked the end of an era. For 50 years, the fashion world had been coy about underwear, especially the corset, the underpinning of fashion until the 1960s liberation. In the 1930s, "nice" models refused to pose in corsets and so they had to be illustrated with drawings. What Horst's photograph did was suggest that a corset could be beautiful as well as erotic, its main charge coming not from glimpses of forbidden flesh, but from hints of exotic dreams to be fulfilled once all the ribbons were unlaced. This picture is not sexy, but it is deeply seductive.

Fast-forward to 1947 and Christian Dior's New Look. Based on a figure tightly constricted with a boned corset, Dior revived the Edwardian bustier for many of his evening looks with an effect that was glamorously voluptuous and slightly risque - the visual equivalent of a short story by Colette. In the 1980s, it was the paintings of Lautrec and Renoir that excited Vivienne Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier, fashion's agents provocateurs of the time, who made the message much more direct than Dior would ever have dared. We all thought ourselves pretty laid-back and sexually liberated at the time, but the press fuss that greeted the corset look made it clear we hadn't moved on much since Cole Porter's days.
Luckily for trailblazers such as Westwood and Gaultier, criticism, and the accompanying publicity, always acts like a banderilla to a bull - they come out fighting. And fashion has been fighting ever since. The corset is not just smart on the streets of the fashion capitals of the world. I recently spotted a row of corset tops on a stall in Abergavenny market. You could say that fashion has been Horst on its own petard - and it loves it.

(First published October 2002).