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Vivienne Westwood corsets
Courtesy of Getty Images and John van Hasselt

Boucher or bust: Vivienne Westwood’s corsets are getting a debut exhibition

Vivienne Westwood Corsets: 1987 to Present Day rolls back the tape on some of the designer’s most subversive and sensual creations

Bottoms bound in bustles and cleavage spilling from low-cut bustiers, when Vivienne Westwood revived the corset in 1987, she managed to transform an oppressive Victorian undergarment into an object of gluttonous, female desire. Her first – dubbed the Statue of Liberty for its effect on the wearer’s posture – is the starting point of a new exhibition at the late designer’s London boutique, which rolls back the tape on her fascination with bawdy, 18th-century mistresses. Teeming with fat cherubs and portraits of Elizabeth I, Westwood’s corsets summarise an approach that defined so many of her most successful collections: clashing historical references with pop culture, and traditional dress with sexuality. 

Among the items on display are a pair of evening jackets (known as The Martyr to Love and The Slave to Love) designed in collaboration with couture corset-maker Mr Pearl for Westwood’s debut menswear show in Milan in 1996. Each piece has been embroidered with legions of iridescent beads to mimic the bulging musculature of a herculean soldier, while the silhouettes are indebted to a corset’s hourglass lines. It’s a classic Westwood subversion, meeting the heroic masculine with the feminine divine. But it’s perhaps her Boucher corsets which have best endured the passage of time: continuing to inspire a generation of Depop users to dress like ancién regime wenches in their chocolate-box, Roccoco prints. 

That Westwood’s interest in corsetry should peak in the 90s and 00s – when most other designers were glutting their work of colour and exuberance in favour of minimalism and grunge – is important.  “I wanted her to look as if she’d just stepped out of a painting,” she said of the models in her 1996 Portrait collection, who bounced beneath the gilded ceilings of the Institute of Directors, wearing ridiculous bloomers decorated with tassels. In the face of an ongoing recession (and I can’t imagine what that must be like) Westwood’s understanding of luxury was to go more ludicrous and more obscene – perhaps that’s something to consider the next time someone uses the phrase “stealth wealth”. 

Vivienne Westwood Corsets: 1987 to Present Day opens on May 8 during London Craft Week and runs until May 21 alongside a limited-edition jewellery collection based on the original Westwood corset.