Global icon and singer Adele is one of those people you wished you were good mates with. You could imagine sitting around with her and the girls, laughing loudly, telling rude jokes, lots of swearing and a bit of not-really-inhaling, chain smoking.
With that silky voice telling us stories of hard times and love lost and found, she seems down to earth, one of the lads but fiercely feminist, aware of her privilege but yet always supportive of those suffering discrimination. She’s a 15-times Grammy award winner who’s not afraid to put her hands up when she’s made a mistake. She is my kind of woman.
And her fan base and reach is huge. With over 85 million album sales worldwide and well over a billion streams of her song “Hello”, calling her a global icon is no stretch. How else could she justify being the first artist ever to feature on the cover of British and American Vogue in the same month, as she did last Thursday?
For the American version the full length shot showed her swathed in a rich green, Valentino couture gown, classy with film star make-up and pulled-back hair. For the British version the closer shot saw her sultry and sexy in a low-cut Vivienne Westwood yellow corset-style dress channelling a cross between Disney’s Princess Belle and Barbara Windsor.
Elsewhere in the British edition we found her sporting a body-hugging, black corset dress. Corsets were staging a comeback it seemed. Initially, like most people I found myself joining in with the social media oohing and aahing at the covers, not least marvelling at the fact she’d managed to keep her marvellous bosom contained by the tightly strapped bodice, knowing that, had I worn something similar I’d have had someone’s eye out within the first ten seconds.
Let’s face it, she does look great, but I did wonder what sort of message she was sending to her millions of followers, many of whom are young girls. Even with a seven stone weight loss, it seems, a bit more cinching and shaping to achieve that archetypal teeny, tiny, wispy-waisted feminine look, seems the way to go.
The whole idea of corsets is a bit problematic really. Considered de rigeur, corsets brought a gamut of health problems for women in the 18th and 19th centuries, and were blamed for organ failure, breathing constriction and even spinal deformities. These would have been suffered by a small number of women but there is no doubt, corsets made normal life for women harder – sitting comfortably, raising ones arms and even eating were affected.
And whilst Chinese feet-binding and tribal neck-stretching were considered in the West to be utterly barbaric, the reduction of women’s waists to the mere width of a hand span was not only desirable but actually required across the classes.
The move in the 1980s to reclaim the corset by designers such as Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier was seen as a nod to feminism where women could proudly wear their corsetry on the outside if they wanted to, as a two fingers up to the once, literally stifling, societal norms.
These days women can point to their liberation from the patriarchy by wearing their corsets on the outside for us all to see but the problematic bit is they are still conforming to a shape that has traditionally in western societies been seen as beautiful and aspirational – the hourglass shape, the tiny waist, the over-spilling breasts and the grab-onto hips and bum.
For girls and women who breathlessly follow and model themselves on the likes of Kim Kardashian, there is an intense liberation to being able to ‘chose’ to wear these items. They are expressing themselves, their femininity, their personalities – using all the tools available to them. Choice is the game changer here. Unless of course, you’re a woman choosing to wear a burkini, for example, in which case that’s just plain ‘weird’, and worthy of a ban in some countries like France. I struggle to imagine one of those on the front of British Vogue.
And what about those of us who still wear our ‘corsets’ underneath our clothes – like the omnipresent spanx or other bodyshapers? Are we selling out because we have chosen to secretly squeeze our 10 pounds of belly into a one pound bag?
Adele herself joked about having to wear four pairs of spanx on top of one another to an award ceremony in her pre weight loss days in 2016. And I personally am not going to deny having three drawers full of the things – ones designed for just about every part of the body.
For me, in my fifties with my multiple recalcitrant rolls of adipose that continuously want to go rogue, it’s all about being confident, but I’d have to admit the closer to the archetypal hour-glass shape the spanx get me, the more confident I feel.
So perhaps that’s what Adele is trying to get across with her corset look on the cover of Vogue. Yes, the corset may conform to a version of femininity that is hundreds of years old, but it doesn’t make it anti-feminist – because women decide when, how – over or under – and why, they want to wear it, and feel good about themselves when they do so.
At least, that’s what I’ll tell myself the next time I’m out for dinner sitting stiffly at the table feeling my ribs crash against the underwire and hoping I never have to go to the loo.
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