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While never disappearing entirely, over the next 100 years their figure-molding duties were largely taken over by newer technologies, from the rubberized girdle and bullet bra contraptions that gave ‘50s beauties their curves to the current tech-savvy power duo of Spanx and the Wonderbra-type foundation garments. Corsets largely went underground; becoming fetish wear, impossibly priced couture pieces, and cosplay staples.
However, the hourglass is having a moment again, with figures like Nicki Minaj and Kim Kardashian’s making headlines. The search for a quick fix is on—re-enter waist training.
Also known as tight lacing, the practice of gradually reducing the size of the waistline through tighter and tighter cinching is giving some adventurous bodies the curves they covet. So, is it safe? Short answer, yes. "A corset is not going to harm anything," says Manhattan-based gastroenterologist Dr. Burton Korelitz, "You have my reassurance that in almost sixty years of practice it has never come up as a problem." However, unlike yoga or eating more vegetables, it’s one regime that’s not exactly about improving one’s health. So while it's not the toxic nightmare that past critics—who claimed it caused everything from fainting to infertility—have alleged, there are still concerns; getting results from the practice takes a level of dedication that’s just not for everyone.
According to burlesque performer and waist-training coach Melissa Gentile, who has been cinching since 2008, "common complaints from newbies are really ranged." They can include back pain, itching, shortness of breath, and heartburn. However, if you decide to proceed from there, you can make the process more comfortable by following some basic rules.
A good corset is going to cost you bit, but this is not the place to skimp—you are going to be wearing it for hours on end and, to get results, you’ll want it to last. Investing in quality will also prevent problems down the line, such as skin irritation and wear and tear on the garment. For the true hourglass, the elastic waist cinchers that are available on late-night TV aren’t going to do the trick. Corsetiere Jasmine Pagan of Sin and Satin wouldn’t recommend a fashion corset, saying, "It's the equivalent of wearing a tube and expecting an hourglass figure." For maximum results, Gentile recommends that you "purchase a high quality, custom, organic cotton corset made with spiral steel bones and a flat steel busk." The goal here is function, not fashion, so avoid pieces in satin, latex, or synthetic fabrics, and any wild décor or boning designs. And if you’re really in it for the long haul, you might even consider investing in a custom piece that will make the most of your measurements and compensate for any idiosyncrasies in your shape (e.g., a short or long torso). Gentile bought her initial waist training corset as a made-to-measure, under-bust model from the retro lingerie line What Katie Did. She’s still wearing it seven years later in "decent…(very much loved) condition." Pagan also touts the transformative powers of the bespoke trainer, saying "It's tough for newbie corset wearers because the Internet is full of misinformation. I would advise a newbie to seek out the assistance of a demonstrated corset designer with a following."
"Listen to your body. Take care of it. If the corset is too tight, loosen it."
The Big Squeeze
Corset training works by gradually compressing your midsection through tighter and tighter lacing. The key word here is "gradually:" you’re not going to become Scarlett O’Hara with her legendary 17 inch waist overnight (or probably, at all, ever; setting realistic, long-term goals is key in achieving success with this process). Start slowly, according to Gentile, so that when cinched properly it feels "like a tight hug." In addition to the corset itself, Gentile recommends purchasing liners, which should be worn at all times with the trainer. The liner provides two-fold protection: it shields you from the corset chafing against your body and the corset from any oils in your skin that might break down the fabric. But don’t over-do it right away, she warns. Unlike squats or spin class, this is not a "no pain, no gain" situation—although it isn’t exactly loungewear either. "The corset shouldn't be painful," she explains "but restrictive." Most importantly she adds, "Listen to your body. Take care of it. If the corset is too tight, loosen it a bit."
Be aware that this is a time-consuming process. Pagan explains, "The process of waist training is one of disciple and requires a daily regimen to refine the silhouette." Gentile notes, "to reshape your body you need to be in the corset for a longer period of time. A minimum of eight hours a day was what seemed to be the consensus [in my] reading, and I aimed for 12." Gentile suggests that one way to get in the hours would be to wear your new corset during the eight you’re sleeping at night, but nodding off in such a restrictive garment doesn’t work for everybody. "Obviously at first this may not be possible," she says, "So just listen to your body, do what you can, and try for longer the next day.
Weighing the Results
So, after all of this: does it work? Consensus seems to be that it does. Pagan estimates that with a disciplined application clients can change their waistlines up to 15 percent in the first two months. More than that, she warns, is pushing it. It is a body modification after all.
For newbie trainer and full-time nanny, Barbara Frudakis, who’s only two months into her first phase, it’s been an interesting process. "As someone who's naturally [of] a very athletic build, I've been curious about waist training for a long time," she says, adding, "Not that I'm not comfortable or happy in my own skin. But I've always felt I was thin and fit, but kind of ruler shaped." She wanted to know if it really worked. "If so," Frudakis says, "then I could [have] a little more shape in my midsection and certain clothes would be easier to wear." She admits to slacking a bit here and there, but is committing to the process. She reports that her experience has been pretty uneventful, although "it takes a bit to get used to it and you can't eat and drink like you normally do while wearing a corset." But, even with that drawback, she estimates she’s down about a half an inch.
Stylist Carmen A. Belcher has been training long, but she's already completely sold on the concept and really happy with the results she’s seen. After seeing a "waitress in a gentlemen’s club with a perfect hourglass," she asked her what her secret was. "She told me about the waist trainers and I purchased one from her that same day!" Belcher raves that it "totally refines your look under clothing, instantly. And it has given me an hourglass shape, where I was once more straight up and down in terms of my figure." She happily recommends it to others, although does get tired of holding the near-military posture once in a while.
The process of waist training is a little bit of everything: a serious body modification, an instant game changer, and something everyone can do (even if it’s not for everyone). If used carefully and judiciously, the corset is no more ridiculous or damaging than the stiletto heel—and just as classically feminine—so it’s small wonder it's finding it’s way back into mainstream wardrobes. Perhaps fashion plate and period piece veteran Cate Blanchett sums up the imperfect appeal of the cinch best when she says, "I'm one of those strange beasts who really likes a corset."