Placards & controversies: regressive fashion is making a comeback

If you’ve been following Netflix’s historical romantic drama Bridgerton, you’ve noticed something strikingly similar about the women on the show, not in how they look, but how they dress. High waists, long dresses, short sleeves, pastels and neutrals, and a show of cleavage – they’re all here. But what the show also hugely popularized were ‘corsets’ – a typically fitted and often laced medieval jacket reminiscent of the Regency era in the UK.

Netflix’s biggest show gave a boost to the modern corset industry and brought the market to the Victorian era when these garments were highly valued and sold. E-commerce platforms like Etsy and Amazon reported increased searches and sales of corsets in different sizes and colors after Bridgerton.

US corset brand Orchard Corset (71% last year) and US corset distributor Corset Story have also reported an uptick in corset sales since the show began airing on the OTT platform.

Between the 16th and early 20th centuries, corsets were tightly draped over women’s upper bodies to make their waists appear tiny. Now a fashion item, the suffocating and tight corsets often caused shortness of breath and dysfunction of body organs.

Walt Disney’s 2015 film Cinderella starring Lily James was also criticized for showing the actor wearing a corset that slims his already tiny waist to 17 inches. Contrary to this, when Emma Watson was offered the role of Belle for the 2017 film Beauty and the Beast, she turned down the offer to wear a corset and also gave feminist touches to her character, including autonomy for their own choices. Designer Gautam Gupta of label Asha Gautam says fashion today is about embracing and loving each other, not bringing back regressive norms.

At a time when we talk about body positive and embracing all morphologies, the return of regressive fashion trends may seem like a setback. Fashion designer Renesa Rastogi of clothing brand RISA agrees that corsets have historically symbolized oppression and beauty in various cultures. “The physical restriction of the corset has generally been used to signify the limitations that women face in society. However, corsets have come back into fashion and seen in many movies and series like Bridgerton. But today they symbolize the empowerment of women and the stigma of the oppressive corset turns into a powerful statement of body positivity,” she explains.

Ashray Gujral, founder of fashion brand Dash & Dot, says fashion that once represented oppression must be reinvented with new meaning. “Fashion, like most art forms, has a history. Several revolutionary movements around the world and moments of emancipation are associated with iconic clothing or colors. On the other hand, fashion has also been used to oppress minorities and highlight inequalities. While understanding the history of clothing is important, reclaiming a fashion moment and reinterpreting its meaning is also extremely powerful,” he says.

Who decides what to wear?

Not just history, the debate over how women dress and what they wear continues to this day. Governmental and societal interference in closet choice is nothing new.

It might sound funny, but North Korea recently banned tight pants. Not because they are uncomfortable, but the government wanted to crack down on “foreign” pop culture. This is one of Kim Jong-un’s initiatives to reject Western influences on his people. In fact, allegations have been made that women have been detained for dyeing their hair. Previously, North Korea also banned leather trench coats as Kim wore one in 2019 and it was considered “disrespectful” to copy her style.

Not far off, earlier this year Japan banned high ponytails. This was done because “the back of the neck could excite male students.” In another absurd rule, a number of high schools in Tokyo have asked their students to produce “hair authenticity” certificates to confirm the originality of the hair if it is not black or wavy. Schools in Tokyo were also asking their students to wear white underwear to avoid distractions. The rules were dropped in March this year.

A few weeks ago, the Taliban ordered Afghan women to wear full-coverage burkas in public. On the contrary, in India, the row over the hijab ban has sparked nationwide protests and led to the issue of women’s choice. A number of students wearing the hijab were barred from entering educational institutions and also had to miss their exams.

Last year, Uganda repealed its controversial anti-pornography law, whose provisions included a ban on wearing miniskirts in public. A few years ago, Sudanese women suffered 40 lashes and were arrested for “indecency” for wearing pants in public.

The ban by the 2014 legislation had led to a series of protests and opposition from women.

In March last year, Uttarakhand CM Tirath Singh Rawat faced backlash following his controversial remarks that ripped jeans should be banned across the country in order to reject Western culture. In fact, a khap panchayat in Muzaffarnagar of UP had decided to ban jeans for women and shorts for men around the same time.

Incidentally, most dress code impositions and bans by governments around the world are aimed at women. A few bans apply to men, such as the ban on cross-dressing for men in Saudi Arabia and the ban on makeup for men in Sudan. However, closer observation implies that prohibitions imposed on men are imposed to affirm their masculinity while those imposed on women are imposed for repression.

According to a December 2020 study by the Pew Research Center, an American think tank, “women in 56 countries experienced social hostilities – that is, harassment by individuals or groups – because of clothing deemed contrary to religious or secular standards of dress”. The report also mentions that up to 2018, “women in 61 countries faced government restrictions on dress, especially regulations on their head coverings.” Of these, the report states that “Europe had the most countries where women faced social hostilities for breaking dress standards, with incidents recorded in 20 out of 45 nations” and the Asia- Pacific was the second country with such incidents, with 14 of the region’s 50 nations. The study was conducted with sources from 198 countries.

Governments imposing strict rules on certain fashion trends is an unbalanced approach; almost a perfect case of someone only treating the symptoms and not the cause itself, which in the long run does no good, believes Sonia Anand, CEO and co-founder of Monk & Mei, a start-up aware of designer clothes by tribal and Naxal Affected Women of Odisha.

“We have had cases of women in burkas without a visible skin tone who have been sexually assaulted, which provides us with strong evidence that roaring the lie out loud will not silence the voice. It is essential that they challenge themselves for once instead of oppressing and pointing fingers at the other half,” adds Anand.

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