Photo: Prada Fall 2016; Horst P. Horst’s Mainbocher Corset, taken for Vogue in 1939.
Something about Miuccia Prada’s collections brings out the fashion scholar in all of us. Sphinxlike in her pronouncements, the designer prefers to let the clothes speak for themselves—and what a wealth of material she provided for deconstruction for Fall 2016 on her accessory-laden models. Many of them wore loosely laced corsets cinched with looped belts from which hung more small treasures—that recalled antique chatelaines.
Scarlett O’Hara would have smirked at such plain utilitarian stays: Prada showed practical white versions, as well as denim and knit iterations. Not only that, but she brought them out from under. Clearly support, rather than seduction, was her point. Keeping things together is, after all, a central preoccupation in Europe right now. The same was true, for vastly different reasons, in 1939 when Horst P. Horst took one of the most famous pictures ever to appear in Vogue of a woman with her back to the camera, arms raised to meet her bent head, in a partially tied corset, its eroticism held in check by a poignant sense of melancholy. That it was created at all was itself something of a triumph: After shooting the photograph, Horst picked up his luggage and sailed for America on the Normandie. “This photograph is peculiar,” he later said. “For me, it is the essence of that moment. While I was taking it, I was thinking of all that I was leaving behind.”
Whether or not Prada was making a political or a feminist statement (or neither), the corset, even a homespun one, is a highly charged garment that is often cited as a symbol of female oppression. Of course, corsets served many functions. They could be tools of seduction, but they could also be worn for medicinal reasons, to support and correct posture, say. They’ve been popping up elsewhere on runways this season, but today, notably, Prada layered some of hers over tailored garments made of menswear fabrics. Maybe she was adding further nuances to parse and ponder, or perhaps she was celebrating the strength and beauty and sexual allure of women who dress for themselves and not the stereotypical male gaze.