What’s “feminist” about the body-restricting bustier? Caitlin Agnew investigates.
Once relegated to lingerie drawers, the bustier is taking centre stage as a sartorial symbol of female empowerment.
ne of my earliest fashion memories is of a Blond Ambition-era Madonna in her cone bra corset. Created by French provocateur Jean Paul Gaultier, the controversial underwear-as-outerwear piece garnered a reception that surprised even the shock queen Madge herself. “Playing with the idea of gender, of what is masculine and feminine, and giving it a theatrical, humorous twist—it was kind of a political statement,” she said in an interview for the catalogue accompanying the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ 2011 exhibition The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk
to the Catwalk. “I think that inversion of the concept of the corset is what turns it into a symbol of feminine power and sexual freedom,” she added.
Nearly three decades later, at a time when Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is one of Hollywood’s most prominent characters and everyday women are sounding battle cries against gender inequality and violence, designers are tapping into the power of the bustier to highlight the inherent strength of femininity. At Prada, Miuccia layered a cropped gold brocade bustier over a graphic tee, while at Erdem, the Canadian designer paired bustier tops with voluminous ball gowns. Mugler’s body-con pieces are nearly as iconic as Gaultier’s. (See Beyoncé in his famous motorcycle corset on her 2009 I Am… tour.) For its Spring 2018 collection, Mugler’s then-artistic director David Koma presented a casual take on the bustier: denim versions worn with jeans and skirts.
Originally created as a restrictive undergarment to shift women’s bodies into a “more desirable” shape, the bustier is now being worn as a supportive and liberating top, thus shifting perceptions of femininity. “It’s that functional fashion fusion that is kind of a magical combination: It’s feminine and it’s assertive,” says Christina Remenyi, founder of made-in-Toronto company Fortnight Lingerie. Since starting her brand in 2010, Remenyi has witnessed an increase in women embracing their sense of femininity and showing pride in their underthings, often crafting outfits that highlight—rather than hide—their choice of lingerie. “One of the magical things about lingerie in general is how drawn women are to it,” she says. “There’s this bond and allure to it that separates it from a lot of other garments.”
It’s an allure Natasha Raey knows well. The founder of Cadence Health Centre in Toronto, Raey has an embellished bustier-style dress by U.K. brand Wyldr, and putting it on gives her an immediate sense of power and grace. “The bustier says that we’re beautiful beings, but we’re also as strong as hell, and we’re going to use this strength to ensure that our generation and future generations of women are afforded the respect, safety and love they deserve,” she says, adding that there’s no time like the present to tap into our unique beauty, intelligence and strength. “These are our superpowers, so use them!” In the words of Madonna: Express yourself.
The bustier says that we’re beautiful beings, but we’re also as strong as hell.