all is a gentle spring
all is a gentle spring founder Isabelle Hellyer revises past fashion periods and recontextualises them into sensual ensembles.
How would you debunk this idea that corsets were oppressive to women?
Well, the idea of corsets as a controversial garment is much newer than corsets themselves. Stays — the precursor to what we now call corsets — were never considered instruments of torture. They reshaped the body, but they didn’t resize it, and that’s a really important distinction. You could have the most accurate, lush gown, but it wouldn’t look right if the supporting garments beneath weren’t creating the correct silhouette for the period. In the 17th century, you needed a more flat-fronted torso with quite a long waist, so the long, peaked bodices and stomachers would sit flat and smooth. And in the 18th century, a more bow-fronted shape came into vogue, so boning was added horizontally, below the neckline to create the illusion of a more forward-projected bust. It’s the very same placement you see in Vivienne Westwood wink at with the corsets debuted in Harris Tweed.
“You can’t divorce the corset from how people actually lived and still hope to understand it. “
It’s also important to consider how women of both centuries actually got into their clothes. It was a time before zippers and even buttons weren’t all too common, so most dresses were fastened in place with dressmaking pins. Gowns were actually pinned into the boned stays below, so the all-around boning was a sort of protective, functional shell. Women could pin their dress down to something and the skin would never be pricked. The pinning-in-place method also made dress sizing quite flexible, so gowns could be worn through pregnancies and other weight fluctuations.
You can’t divorce the corset from how people actually lived and still hope to understand it. If you watch how women got into their clothes in the 1800s and consider the boned stay in the context of the entire ensemble, it immediately seems far more functional than at first it would appear.
“Today, we certainly make clothes that are much easier to put on — faster, more elastic, and more efficient. But today’s garments aren’t necessarily longer-lasting or more supportive. And whose business is it to decide if they’re ultimately better?”
Then would you say that corsets are embracing the body of those who wear them, not restricting them? What about the ones that you make?
I’d say that’s true of any well-made corset, and that stands as much for 1721 as for 2021. Corsets have always been based on this idea that you don’t fundamentally change the size of the body, you just play with proportions to give a different impression. I’d say my corsets are similar to modern bras in that they support and lift the breasts, though it’s through a different mechanism. The force of a modern bra is in the over-the-shoulder strap, which can dig, especially for larger cup sizes. A corset disperses that force fairly evenly and supports the breasts from below, rather than pulling them upwards. Modern bras have the most in common with late Victorian corsets, which isn’t quite what I make. Most women today with an E cup or greater would probably find a 17th or 18th-century corset far more comfortable than a bra.
I think there’s a natural tendency to assume that we’ve made progress, and to feel that the way things are done today is superior to the way things were done in the past. Today, we certainly make clothes that are much easier to put on — faster, more elastic, and more efficient. But today’s garments aren’t necessarily longer-lasting or more supportive. And whose business is it to decide if they’re ultimately better?
When you first introduced all is a gentle spring, you released white tees and athleisure staples such as leotards and skin-tight shorts together with a corset. How do corsets fit into your vision of how women nowadays want to dress?
The most ahistorical proposition of my corsetry is really just that modern corsets are worn against bare skin. Historic stays never were—there was always a base layer, a cotton or linen chemise, between the stays and the naked body. Putting a corset against bare skin was never really done. And the styling, as you’ve noted, is a historical hodge-podge. I love tight 80s aerobic shorts with a corset. I have fun making connections between these sensual, body-conscious moments in fashion. I like to show people that spandex and baleen were used to a similar effect.
How would you explain the resurgence of corsets? Does that have to do with the new wave of feminism online that finds empowerment and liberation through being in full control of their body image?
I’d chalk it up to people online for sure. There’s a particular sensibility of body-consciousness right now. I think there’s also a desire to create a shape that’s almost unbelievable, or unachievable with surgical intervention. Corsets can give you a really beautiful silhouette for a fraction of the Dr. Miami price.
“There’s this assumption that women – ordinary women, seamstresses, ladies of the court — had no say in the matter of the clothes they wore daily for hundreds of years. But of course, they had a say.”
I do think that our historical literacy is fairly poor. There’s a tendency to feel like we’re the first people to recontextualise the corset, or some similar idea. Aside from the fact that stays weren’t really oppressive in a pejorative sense, we’ve been through this already with Westwood in the 80s, then Gaultier and Madonna in the 90s. Westwood in particular, with her research-first practice and access to the archive of the V&A, would have surely known that the stays that she referenced in her designs were an ordinary part of daily life. I think that’s why she had so much fun in making this ordinary, mundane undergarment into something that pushed and prodded the bust more provocatively. When she said “feminists are unaware of the tremendous extent of the role of women in history,” I think perhaps she was getting at this misguided idea that we’re the first generation to open our eyes and reject these “oppressive” garments.
There’s this assumption that women – ordinary women, seamstresses, ladies of the court — had no say in the matter of the clothes they wore daily for hundreds of years. But of course, they had a say. In 1675, women seamstresses in France successfully lobbied against male tailors’ exclusive legal mandate to create and sell new women’s clothing, and from that point on gowns were really the domain of women. The mantua-maker, the celebrated seamstress, was always a madame. And she set the trends. From the mid-17th century through to the 19th century, women were being dressed by women. The silhouettes change dramatically during that period, and to accommodate these ongoing changes the cut of the corset changes too. But the corset itself, once it came into its own, was never fully done away with. For many women, it served a real purpose, that was both functional and aesthetic.
I’m definitely pleased about the corset resurgence, but perhaps I’d like to come with a bit more context. I think we take the garment in totality — their past and the present — that’s the most interesting perspective of all.