One woman believes corsets are a strong symbol of male oppression. Another disagrees. Which camp are you in?

NO says Jeannette Kupfermann

What could be a stronger symbol of the male oppression of women than the corset? So I could scarcely believe my eyes when stars such as Jennifer Lawrence and Lily James appeared at the British Academy Film Awards trussed up in bodices every bit as tight as Scarlett O'Hara's.

Yes, I was expecting glitz and glamour despite the "must wear black" style edict for Sunday night's red carpet event at the Royal Albert Hall, but to choose such a restrictive garment when dressing in support of the Me Too and Time's Up movements against sexual harassment seemed particularly ironic.

It only seems like yesterday when, as a young feminist in the Sixties, I cast off the girdles and waspies that had proved such a burden for my mother and grandmothers.

Advertisement

I was a size 8 then, with a 23in waist, yet still wore the most excruciating girdles underneath my can-can petticoats, sophisticated fitted dresses, and Audrey Hepburn-style matador trousers. And how well I remember the odd beau whose hand would wander a little too far down my back during a slow dance, only to encounter the rigid panels of the boned and elasticated armour — stopping him dead.

I can still hear my paternal grandmother's dark mutterings as she warned of both the physical ("It will ruin your stomach") and moral ("Nice women don't go out without a girdle... it just isn't right") implications of rather less restrictive lingerie.

But what bliss it was to dance the night away in a shift dress or cheesecloth smock without sharp boning cutting into your chest.

Remembering that great escape from the very unglamorous blancmange pink foundation garments or black "merry widows", it surprises me that the corset should be enjoying such a public revival today, when young women seem at a loss about their position in society and how they should relate to men.

Yet there they were at the Baftas — Jennifer Lawrence in an austere black Dior couture gown with a cinched waist and square-cut front panel, so rigid that it stood out in front of her chest.

Lily James, meanwhile, was dressed more like a Victorian lady who hadn't put her dress on yet — a skintight, black silk corset with defined cups to lift and emphasise the breasts. Add to that a billowing organza skirt that looked like a tulle petticoat.

And the frock, by Burberry, made her look like she was still playing the Disney version of Cinderella at the ball.

The whole trend certainly sends out some very mixed messages in these post-Harvey Weinstein scandal days.

For all the so-called advances that women have made, looking "hot" is still top priority. Even if these women insist they are doing it "for themselves", they've chosen a fashion vocabulary that undermines their stated wish for change.

Women should be free to look good and express themselves however they want, but why do it by dressing in a way which sets us back centuries?

Victorian and Edwardian women's bodies were literally deformed by their corsets, which were mercifully followed by the loose, drop-waist gowns of Twenties' flappers and bra-less Thirties' screen sirens. Then came the heavily engineered Jane Russell bras of the Forties, and boned Fifties gowns, not to mention the girdles of my youth.

But liberation came in the "cardigan"-style comfort of Chanel, then Sixties shift dresses, and Seventies cheesecloth.

Now, though, we do not call them corsets, we have "control", "contour" and "shape" wear, which some say are just as oppressive. And the current craze for 'waist trainers' and red-carpet corset dresses that promote hand-span waists is a retrograde step. Most worrying is the effect on the young: it's not mums with middle-age spread who wear them, it's women who are already terribly skinny who end up with the waistline of nine-year-olds.

Today's feminism is confused and confusing. In spite of all the talk of freedom from sexual stereotypes, women seem to want to conform more to male fantasies. There is an obsession these days with appearance that the first feminists didn't share.

These corsets risk exaggerating the female form until it becomes almost a caricature, brainwashed as so many young women are by Disney's hyper-feminine images and by the curves seen in porn. Recently, it was all breasts and "boob implants", but tiny waists could now take their place.

I worry about all these conflicting messages, with young women saying: "We are free to choose. We are strong. We will stand up to the predatory attempts of men" — while primped and preened and barely able to breathe in corsets.

In one sense, they have found a voice: in another, the language of clothes keeps them all in thrall.

Interestingly, there was one woman who got it absolutely right on Sunday for the Baftas.

Not Best Actress winner Frances McDormand, who defiantly wore pink and red. Not even the glowingly pregnant Duchess of Cambridge. I mean presenter Joanna Lumley, whose glamorous, cover-all black gown didn't give anything away. She managed to look more elegant than everyone else put together.

Younger actresses take note.

YES says Rowan Pelling

There's more to a corset than oppression, as I suspect Hollywood's leading ladies are well aware.

They can also be like armour, a barrier against the world.

Let's not forget the word "strait-laced" comes from the corset — bringing to mind the tight stays and rigid morals of the Puritans at their fiercest.

That's certainly who Jennifer Lawrence appeared to be channelling at the Baftas. She had the air of a crusading reformer in her austere, yet super-chic, black satin gown.

I was also reminded of Joan of Arc girded-up for battle.

How appropriate — because the stars of the silver screen now see themselves as crusaders intent on reforming Hollywood's moral landscape.

Other stars had adopted this spectacular form of battle dress, too. Angelina Jolie wore a boned Ralph & Russo black velvet gown.

Lily James was wasp-waisted in her Burberry frock — a black mirror image of her frothy blue Disney Cinderella gown.

Meanwhile, the embellished black dresses of Kate Mara and Letitia Wright both had the stamp of a master corsetier.

So, why did they choose this way to make their feminist statement?

On the one hand, corsets rebuff men by encasing soft curves in rigid form, a statement of independence and power. But on the other — usefully for actresses still wishing to look good — they emphasise the waist and breasts.

A lack of shape and form in women's clothing can send out the message that "anything goes" — the opposite of the current feeling in Hollywood.

So, in returning to the boned bodice today actresses are signalling certainty, stateliness and clear boundaries.

This is the great secret of the modern corset: it gives the wearer an exquisite silhouette and posture, while remaining comfortable thanks to elasticated fabrics and softer, padded boning.

I own five dresses made by the queen of the corset, Vivienne Westwood, and have danced like a wild thing in all of them.

But no man has ever dared risk an uninvited squeeze while I'm wearing one. They're simply a bit too daunting for that — just ask Jennifer Lawrence.