Closets & controversies: Regressive fashion makes a comeback

While there’s a lot of buzz around body positivity and inclusivity, regressive fashion trends and diktats may take us a step back

At a time when there are talks of body positivity and embracing all body types, the comeback of regressive fashion trends may look like taking a step back.
At a time when there are talks of body positivity and embracing all body types, the comeback of regressive fashion trends may look like taking a step back.

If you have been following Netflix’s historical romance drama Bridgerton, you’d have noticed something strikingly similar about the women in the show—not in the way they look, but in the manner they dress. High waistlines, long dresses, short sleeves, pastels and neutrals, and a cleavage show—they are all there. But what the show also hugely popularised are ‘corsets’—a usually close-fitting and often laced medieval jacket reminiscent of the Regency era in the United Kingdom.

Netflix’s biggest show gave the modern corset industry a boost and took the market to the Victorian era when these garments were highly preferred and sold. E-commerce platforms like Etsy and Amazon reported an increase in the number of searches and sales for corsets in different sizes and colours post-Bridgerton.

American corset brand Orchard Corset (71% last year) and American distributor of corsets Corset Story also reported a hike in corset sales ever since the show started streaming on the OTT platform.

Between the 16th and the early 20th century, corsets were tightly clad onto women’s upper bodies in order to make their waist look tiny. Now a fashion apparel, the suffocating and tight corsets would often cause breathlessness and the organs of the body to disfunction.

Walt Disney’s 2015 film Cinderella starring Lily James was also criticised as it showed the actor wearing a corset which slimmed down her already tiny waist to 17 inches. As opposed to it, when Emma Watson was offered the role of Belle for the 2017 film Beauty and the Beast, she turned down the proposal of wearing a corset and also gave feminist touches to her character, including autonomy for her own choices. Designer Gautam Gupta from the Label Asha Gautam says today’s fashion is all about embracing and loving oneself and not about bringing back regressive norms.

At a time when there are talks of body positivity and embracing all body types, the comeback of regressive fashion trends may look like taking a step back. Fashion designer Renesa Rastogi of clothing label RISA agrees that historically, corsets have symbolised oppression and beauty across various cultures. “The physical restriction of the corset has typically been used to signify the limitations women faced in society. However, corsets have returned to fashion and seen in many films and series like Bridgerton. But today, they symbolise empowerment among women and the stigma of the oppressive corset is turning into a powerful statement of body positivity,” she explains.

Ashray Gujral, founder of fashion brand Dash & Dot, says that fashion that once represented oppression must be reinvented with a new meaning. “Fashion, like most art forms, has a history. Several revolutionary movements across the world and moments of emancipation are associated with iconic clothing or colours. On the flip side, fashion has also been used to oppress minorities and highlight inequality. While it’s important to understand the history of clothing, to reclaim a fashion moment and reinterpret 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 till date. Governmental and societal interference in deciding the closet is not new.

It may sound amusing, 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 the Western influences on his people. In fact, claims were made of women being detained for dyeing their hair. Earlier, North Korea had also banned leather trench-coats because Kim had worn one in 2019 and it was thought to be “disrespectful” to copy his style.

Not very far away, earlier this year, Japan banned high ponytails. It was done so because the “nape of the neck could excite male students.” In another absurd rule, a number of high schools in Tokyo 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 would also ask their students to wear white underwear in order to keep distractions at bay. The rules were dropped in March this year.

A few weeks ago, the Taliban ordered Afghan women to wear an all-covering burqa in public. On the contrary, in India, the hijab ban row resulted in nationwide protests and led to the question of women’s choice. A number of students wearing hijab were stopped from entering educational institutions and also had to miss their exams.

Last year, Uganda scrapped its controversial anti-pornography law, whose provisions included a ban on wearing miniskirts in public. Few years ago, Sudanese women faced 40 lashes and were arrested on charges of ‘indecency’ for wearing trousers in public.

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

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

Incidentally, most of the imposition of dress codes and bans by governments around the world are targeted towards women. A few bans address men like ban on cross dressing for men in Saudi Arabia and ban on makeup for men in Sudan. However, a closer observation entails that bans on men are levied for asserting their masculinity while those on women are for suppression.

According to a December 2020 study by Pew Research Centre, an American think tank, “Women in 56 countries experienced social hostilities— that is, harassment from individuals or groups—due to clothing that was deemed to violate religious or secular dress norms.” The report also mentions that till 2018, “women in 61 countries faced government restrictions on dress —specifically, regulations on their head coverings.” Among these, the report states, “Europe had the most countries where women faced social hostilities for violating dress norms, with incidents recorded in 20 countries of the 45 nations” and the Asia-Pacific region had the second-most countries with such incidents, with 14 of the region’s 50 nations. The study was conducted with sources from 198 nations.

Governments imposing strict rules on certain fashion trends is a lopsided approach; almost a perfect case of someone just treating the symptoms and not the root cause itself, which in the long term does no good, feels Sonia Anand, CEO and co-founder of Monk & Mei, a conscious designer apparel start-up by tribal and Naxal-affected women of Odisha.

“We’ve had instances of women in burqa with not a speck of their skin visible being sexually assaulted, serving us strong evidence that roaring out the lie out loud will not silence the voice. It is critical they for once questioned themselves instead of oppressing and pointing out the other half,” adds Anand.

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