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It restricts, distorts and controls, yet the corset continues to intrigue the most modern of women. Now leading designers from Gucci to Helmut Lang are embracing the wasp-waist. Lace me up, says Rebecca Lowthorpe.

The Independent Sunday (London, England); 7/29/2001; Lowthorpe, Rebecca

says that wearing a corset makes her feel "lovely and relaxed". The illustrator, AJ Jones, describes the feeling as "being held in a constant hug". Then there's Angie Kirk who collects corsets (she has over 70) and wouldn't think twice about wearing one to Sainsbury's, and fashion PR Janet Fischgrund who probably speaks for the vast majority when she says: "They're great once in a while if you want to dress up and feel glamorous."

What is it about the corset? Why the perennial allure of a garment designed to restrict and distort the body? Of course, this being fashion, corsets come and corsets go, but for the past two seasons (an eternity in the fashion world, where trends change at finger-clicking speed), the wasp- waist has seen something of a collective embrace. Everyone from the glamour- obsessed Gucci to the minimalist Helmut Lang, to the avant-garde Comme des Garcons, the label-of-the-moment Balenciaga, and the king of showmen, Alexander McQueen, has toyed with the corset.

And thanks to the great leaps in fabric technology, their designs are far removed from the grim shape-transformers decreed by fashion in the 18th and 19th centuries. Back then, corsets were torturous instruments made from heavyweight coutil (a thick cotton-twill fabric), rigid whalebone, reinforced steel strips that ran down the centre-front and heavy-duty stud-and-loop fastenings. Women who were prepared to suffer for the ultimate shape did so at their peril, distorting bones and damaging internal organs in the process.

Today, the whittling down of waists is still practised, if only by the extremists. , the world-famous corset maker, and himself the proud owner of an `"exquisitely trained" 18in waist, believes in the corset's "mystical powers". He has been wearing his own creations, day and night, for 11 years, and regards it as a "personal exploration of self discipline". "It brings with it a kind of positive strength," he says. "Without it I feel strange, almost naked and quite vulnerable, because I don't have that support. Perhaps like a beetle or a tortoise without its shell."

The 21-year-old AJ Jones, a cyber-Goth-cum-fetishist, aspires to further minimising her 20in waist to a minuscule 17in. "My aim is to look totally individual. Not just with my hair and make-up, but to have an otherworldly body-shape too."

Despite the being perhaps the least liberating of all garments (even when it is made entirely of Lycra), it still has numerous fans. As Vivienne Westwood says: "Traditionally a lot of girls wear them on their wedding day because it's a fantasy day and they want to look like fairy-tale princesses. It's better under a long dress than anything else because the thorax looks tiny compared with the volume of the skirt; it's a wonderful, flattering proportion."

If anything, the is unique in that it is the only garment that provokes such extreme responses. The corset connoisseurs, pictured here, talk of feeling empowered and in control - the sort of emotions that a mere tailored skirt and jacket could never induce.

No wonder that designers continue to respond to the corset with such diverse interpretations: sinister fetishism, high-octane glamour, good- old-fashioned sexiness, and innocent romanticism. From bone-cruncher to curve-enhancer, the corset's provocative magnetism remains as intoxicating as ever. n

COPYRIGHT 2001 Independent Newspapers (UK) Ltd.


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