Corsets trend alongside spurt in Instagram thrift stores, as savvy buyers invest in vintage, secondhand creations

As women post their #nobraclub selfies on Instagram, the social media platform has also become the site where the corset is enjoying something of a Renaissance.

Swareena Gurung December 09, 2020 12:40:26 IST
Corsets trend alongside spurt in Instagram thrift stores, as savvy buyers invest in vintage, secondhand creations

Image via Instagram/@corset_devine_lovers

Within a few weeks into the coronavirus lockdown, most women said “bra-bye!” to underwire fetters and padded braces as we sailed towards uncertainty. Science backs this veto; the absolute necessity of bras for breast support and good posture, it turns out, is an artificial notion.

The same, however, cannot be said of the modern bra’s evolutionary predecessor — the corset. As Indian women post their #nobraclub selfies on Instagram, the social media platform has also become the site where the antiquated undergarment is enjoying something of a Renaissance. Like other 2020 trends — joggers, sweat pants, knit vests — corsets have become a fixture in the VSCO-filtered home photoshoots of fashion-savvy millennials.

It is tempting to read the two trends as contradictory representations of women’s relationship with lingerie. When the corset grew out of fashion at the turn of the 20th century, many women not only abandoned an uncomfortable item of clothing, but also an oppressive signifier. Resurging debates on the modern bra run along a similar vein.

But really, it is safe to say that — at least in India today — the two are mutually exclusive. In the way that women are wearing corsets, they’re being viewed less as lingerie than simply, reinforced blouses. The influencer Nilu Yuleena Thapa (@bighairloudmouth, 121k followers) for one, frequently styles them as sari blouses, while Shereen Bharwani (@shereenlovebug, 320k followers) is styled in an angular power suit with a black corset playing waistcoat.

Corsets trend alongside spurt in Instagram thrift stores as savvy buyers invest in vintage secondhand creations

Indian influencers are styling the corset in unique ways. Seen here: Nilu Yuleena Thapa, @bighairloudmouth on Instagram

Corsets trend alongside spurt in Instagram thrift stores as savvy buyers invest in vintage secondhand creations

Shereen Bharwani, styled by Asu Longkumer

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The trend in itself is not recent. Various iterations have appeared over the years, owing largely to 1970s counterculture that refashioned underwear as outerwear. Madonna’s infamous pink satin corset with conical-stitched breasts, designed by Jean Paul Gaultier for her 1990 Blond Ambition tour, is a watershed moment in the history of the garment. Spiky, sexual, and worn by the popstar while wildly gyrating on stage, the corset subverted the very intent of its design: disciplining the female body.

Corsets trend alongside spurt in Instagram thrift stores as savvy buyers invest in vintage secondhand creations

Madonna’s conical Jean Paul Gaultier corset was a milestone in fashion history. Photo by Hans Schaft via Wikimedia Commons

In 2019, however, corsets were firmly embedded in the mainstream. No longer just the garb of concert performers or bondage enthusiasts, it became ‘street fashion’. From model Bella Hadid to singer Lizzo, women are now layering their corsets over formal shirts and jeans alike, while cottage-core aesthetes are repurposing upholstery-style corsets over prairie dresses and puffed-sleeve blouses. The growing popularity amongst Indian millennials is a corollary of these trends, but there is a more intriguing story at play.

The rise of corsets in India has accompanied the multiplicity of online second-hand and thrift stores that have sprung up this year. Both Nilu Yuleena Thapa and Shereen Bharwani, mentioned above, wear corsets from @repose__________ , an Instagram thrift and vintage shop that offers limited, single-piece items. @luu__liu_, @corsets.delhi, @corset_devine_lovers, @posh.pastt all sell similar thrifted corsets. Boudoir-style lace corsets, belted ones with bondage-effects, heavy jacquards — each store offers a variety of different styles through periodical ‘drops’. The only catch? They sell out instantly; usually seconds after they’re put on sale.

Corsets trend alongside spurt in Instagram thrift stores as savvy buyers invest in vintage secondhand creations

Corset on sale at @corset_devine_lovers

“We’re facing a lot of challenges in sourcing corsets these days. This is partly due to the high demand for them and partly because of the increasing number of thrift and corset stores,” says Babiya, the proprietor of @corsetdevinelovers. A collection department worker by day, she started selling corsets this August as a safety net during the pandemic and sources her items from local markets in Delhi. “The middle-men contact us when new stock arrives, and we rush to get there on time. It’s a competition amongst us sellers,” she adds. Her corsets are usually brand-new and are priced anywhere up to Rs 1,200, while some pieces are even auctioned off.

Best friends Celia and Jang also started their store @luu__liu_ in March this year. “A few pristine pieces we have are export quality. They were made for Russian and German customers, but we got hold of them as the exports got cancelled due to the pandemic,” they say. Most of the corsets that they source from local whole-sellers are either export surplus brand-new pieces or second-hand imports from the Global North.

Despite the great regurgitation of used clothing from Europe or the US into Global South markets like India (or rather owing to it), it is quite tricky to find corsets that are in good condition. Celia and Jang add fresh items to their store about a couple of times a week, but they too are dealing with limited supplies. “Whole-sellers and local vendors have hiked their prices as they themselves are not buying like they used to. Earlier, we used to buy 50-70 pieces at once, but we can’t anymore,” they add.

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The stiff competition among thrift stores indicates a growing ease among Indian women with the idea of buying second-hand lingerie. “Indian consumers have traditionally not been open to the idea of buying used lingerie, but we’re happy that some of them are now changing their minds (taking one for sustainability, yay!). It continues to irk a lot of people and we get many questions on the hygiene of our clothes. We personally don’t wear used panties though, so we don't sell them,” say Celia and Jang. Both @luu__liu_ and @corset_devine_lovers hand-wash all their items and disinfect them, and at times, upcycle them.

It is the vintage pieces that grab the most eyeballs, but differentiating between factory surplus items, secondhand and vintage can be tricky for consumers. “We always make sure not to randomly label products as vintage. All our vintage pieces are thrifted, however not all thrifted pieces are vintage. We see the rarity, the quality and the years a particular piece has been around, and decide accordingly,” say Celia and Jang.

Endorsed by the massively popular influencer Komal Pandey (@komalpandeyofficial, 1.2m followers), who frequently makes styling videos with their corsets — including one she’s shot on ‘Normalising Showing Skin under 60 Seconds’— @luu__liu and other such shops have a lot to thank influencers like her for, as they’ve embraced online second-hand shopping with open arms.

Speaking about their customer demographic, @luu_liu say they have sold corsets to women from waist sizes 18 to 42, and are cognisant about sourcing plus-sized pieces. They say, “For our consumers, it’s like buying any other tube top, precisely because corsets are not mandated anymore. There is the element of choice, contrary to the ideas we are fed regarding the modern bra today”.

Today, corsets are symbols of control, sartorial freedom, and sexual emancipation. But just as the common perception of corsets as historically restrictive has to asterisked with the fact that women experienced the garment in ways beyond the simplistic framework of oppression vs liberation (fashion historian Valerie Steele debunks many corset myths in her book, The Corset: A Cultural History), consumers in India too are interacting with the garment in different ways.

Twenty three-year-old journalist Shradha Chettri bought her first corset a few months ago from one such online shop and has only managed to wear it once, while taking pictures in her bedroom. “It fits perfectly and looks great, but I still have a niggling feeling that I’m doing it to look a certain way, and that I would’ve never bought it had I not seen them all over social media,” she says.

“It’s great that women are wearing corsets in different ways, but I wonder if the trend will outlast the pandemic,” Chettri adds. “Perhaps, 2020 was the year of corsets like 2012 was the year of peplums. Now, the latter is almost unthinkable to people who gate-keep fashion. Also, there’s obviously the class distinction; one has to have the means to socialise in places where one won’t be taunted for wearing them on their own. Would I wear my corset out of my bedroom? Probably not. It's not to do with the lack of confidence, but simply by the fact that, to me, they feel like a luxury item.”

In the age of virtual living, when our best doings are but decor for our 3x3 grids, the rise of the corset only makes sense.

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