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Boudoir babe, Playboy bunny girl or 17th-century milkmaid: whichever way you chose to wear it, the corset is back. So pull in and push out for an instant . Melanie Rickey gets all trussed up.

The Independent (London, England); 12/13/2001; Rickey, Melanie

Dalston, in London's East End, is the last place one would expect to find a made-to-measure corset-maker, but there, in a dingy five-storey walk-up warehouse building behind Kingsland High Street, Lyall Hakaraia fits, sculpts, pulls, tugs and trains women into hand-made corsets, which, more often than not, have taken four weeks of hard labour to make. Mr Hakaraia, a self-taught 33-year-old New Zealander with Maori blood, counts Marilyn Manson, Joan Collins, Samantha Mumba, and Deborah Harry among his clients. I am a new one, a woman on a mission to discover what it feels like to wear a real corset, and share the experience with a generation of women for whom a corset was, until now, anathema.

Corsets and detailing, bustiers, basques and boob-tubey type things that plump the bosom, minimise the waist, and exalt the shoulder line have become increasingly fashionable as outerwear since Moulin Rouge high-kicked on to cinema screens in late summer. Nicole Kidman's barely there physique was hardly the ideal advertisement for the corset's fleshly charms but, still, her plaintive crooning neutralized their seedier connotations.

As a rule, modern-day lurks in an underworld territory inhabited by fetishists for whom a and pleasurable restriction is the Holy Grail. Type in the word corset on an internet search engine and specialist fetish websites - among them The Well Dressed Wench and Dark Garden - appear. You won't find the latest thing from Dior, Dolce or Chloe, more's the pity, but there is, not surprisingly, plenty of academic discourse on the subject. Did you know, for example, that tight lacing puts up to 80lb of pressure on every square inch of a woman's torso, squashing her internal organs and supposedly rendering her too weak to compete with men? Or that in 1874, a suffragist called Elizabeth Stuart Phelps urged women to burn their corsets? There are also two new books on the subject - The Corset: A Cultural History by Valerie Steele, and Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian Corset by Leigh Summers.

Brighton-based , the corset couturier (he makes corsets for private clients and is a favourite of Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy), is a fetishist. He wears a corset 24/7, has a teeny, tiny waist and cannot function without one because his body has become accustomed to the support it provides.

Hakaraia does not practice corsetry on himself: "It's the technical side that interests me, I aim for effect, effect, effect," he says, as he bustles around with a measuring tape. "The most important measurement is the one between the bottom rib and the hip bone. That's where the corset does most of its work. I aim for a vase shape," he says, swooshing his hands into an inverted triangle shape then gesticulating outwards to denote a hip swell. "I don't like the egg-timer shape."

Lyall has decided that my 25-inch waist can easily go down to 21 inches, perhaps even 20. I am sceptical. The true beneficiaries of corsetry are curvy women who can reduce their waist by up to six inches, and create the my-cup-runneth-over effect. I am a size 10; the curviest thing about me is my Bottega Veneta handbag. "Joan [Collins] can go down by six inches," he confides, "and she loves getting laced in. She always tells me to pull harder." He selects a minuscule black leather corset with a Jessica Rabbit bustline, and begins to lace me in, tight. Corset-wearing on this scale is a luxury; one needs a knowledgeable friend (or dresser) to do the lacing. The alternative, says Hakaraia, is to part-lace the corset, tie the laces to a doorknob and walk away from it.

Moments later, my 5ft 9in, size 10 frame is transformed. I can't breathe properly, but who cares? My flat chest has become a heaving bosom, my waist looks unfeasibly tiny, my hips swell and my shoulders and upper arms seem to have taken on the proportions of an Olympic swimmer.

I scribble "feel curiously exhilarated, tall, strong, sexy and unstoppable" in my notebook, and stalk around Lyall's studio looking at the mirror in amazement (blame it on a lack of blood to the brain), pretending I am in a Thierry Mugler fashion show. My waist is 22 inches. Twenty minutes later, after my organs have relocated upwards - putting on a corset takes at least half an hour - Lyall pulls me in by a further one and a half inches. I can't sit down on anything lower than a bar stool, and getting in and out of a taxi could be difficult, but all in all, I am convinced: the corset is not only a good look, it is undoubtedly the party look for now. It covers the belly button, creates an hourglass silhouette, takes the eye up to the shoulder line and enforces a rigidly upright power posture. In other words, it's hot attention guaranteed. Bonus: it also looks fab with everyday items such as jeans, black trousers or a cute little skirt. An hour later, myself and the corset part company. My waist has pins and needles and I can feel my organs moving back to their original position.

"Corsets have definitely become much more popular since ," says Serena Rees from , which supplies corsets to Marks & Spencer. "Although stylists have been using them in shoots for about two years. We always sell them well at our boutiques and online, but last week M&S told us that the Bunny Corset from our Salon Rose collection was number two on their bestseller list."

are darn sexy. The cleavage-enhancing Diva is lace and satin, the Duchesse is mesh and lace - and easy to get on and off. "We design them so they lace at the back, and undo at the front, that way we can fit them in store," says Rees. "That said, last week I had to call room service at a hotel in LA because I couldn't get into my corset. Two ladies had to come up, we got there in the end." It was actually a corset dress designed by Rees's mother-in-law, Vivienne Westwood.

Corset-wearing doesn't have to be an extreme sport. is, by definition, something through which the body can be controlled, but as with all things in fashion, this trend - which by next summer will be huge - is 90 per cent visual. Chloe, Dolce & Gabbana, Dior, Comme des Garcons, and Antonio Berardi all included corsets or corset detailing in their current collections, with more being served up for spring.

Right now, though, the corset trend is still in its infancy, making the Xmas party season the perfect time to get into it. It's not as if you have to buy an expensive corset. Top Shop has four styles for pounds 40 or less; there's one with ruffles, a lacy one and a jet-beaded one. H&M have three styles for under pounds 25, one in denim, and two feminine ones trimmed with lace and the like.

's made-to-measure corsets are expensive, from pounds 500-pounds 1,500, but he has just started producing hand-finished ready-to-wear corsets (pounds 300) for Coco de Mer, the new upmarket sex shop in London's Covent Garden opened by Sam Roddick, daughter of Anita. Debbie Sim, the store's buyer and art director, sees the corset as fashion and sex object in one: "You feel dressed and undressed at the same time, and they look fantastic. It's important for us to bring an old-fashioned item into the 21st century and that's why we offer Lyall's made-to-measure service. We call it the Corset Surgery. Lyall asks you what you want, be it a boudoir babe, a Playboy bunny girl, a 17th-century wench or a ruddy-cheeked milkmaid," she says.

"I'm very happy that people are finally covering up their midriffs," says Serena Rees. "A is brilliant for bringing the waist in. And men love them."

A garment that looks fantastic, and does wonders for the body? First we had the Wonderbra, then we had Style 44 from Earl Jean (with butt uplift), now we have the corset as acceptable outerwear. Girls, your prayers have been answered. And while there is mild discomfort involved, the effects are worth it. Just think of the corset as high heels for your torso.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Independent Newspapers (UK) Ltd.


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