For AW16, designers paid special attention belt styles. Whether it was tied paper-bag-style at Phillip Lim and Tibi, or took the form of a jumper nonchalantly thrown around the waist by Phoebe Philo for her end-of-show bow, belts for women played a key role in the autumn/winter 2016 catwalks.
And there's one look in particular that took centre stage – Miuccia Prada's eclectic, vagabond women, all wearing corset belts. These designer belts have been taken up by fashion forecasters such as Carine Roitfeld, Gigi Hadid and Victoria Beckham. Clearly, it’s time to sit up and take note of the corset again.
Underwear as outerwear, but not as you know it
Before you have flashbacks to Britney, Christina and Madonna circa 2003, the lingerie as daywear trend has evolved in the decade since they took to the MTV VMAs stage. For AW16, Preen sent out tartan corsetry that added defined lines to chiffon and winter florals, while black lace dominated over at Versus by Versace. For Balmain, Olivier Rousteing cemented his reputation for micro-minis and form-fitting silhouettes with a collection that cleverly combined the 21st century lingerie trend with the decadence of 18th century Versailles for AW16. Idiosyncratic sharp-shouldered Balmain jackets were balanced out with short bell skirts and cinched waists, with a wide black or gold belt adding to the decadence.
While the overt femininity of Rousteing’s catwalk may have made editors everywhere fire out pages devoted to the history of the corset, the rest of the AW16 catwalks were following suit with an understated aesthetic. Although Prada’s collection proffered decadent brocade, chiffon-clad romance and a nautical tone, Miuccia’s use of corseting was subtle. A white canvas-laced piece worn over an elongated navy shooting jacket was the first out, and instantly opened a new vein in the underwear as outerwear trend. While the corset belts had distinct Catherine de' Medici undertones, they had been reimagined for a modern wardrobe – and for a woman more concerned with expression than sensuality.
A feminist reading
Miuccia’s second, and perhaps more heroic, achievement with the corset relates to the collection's androgynous tone. Half-laced and worn over wool coats, corset belts no longer represented female restraint or conformed to male expectations. Even a jewelled version, worn with a thigh-split gown à la Emma Stone at the 2016 Met Gala, suggested armoury and strength. When model Liu Wen wore hers with an undone white shirt, it eschewed the vestiges of the corset’s archaic and uncomfortable aesthetic. Instead, it offered a re-appropriated type of femininity.
The Ellery AW16 catwalk echoed this movement. While still laced and boned, the corset belts for women in Kym Ellery's collection emphasised the outsized silhouettes and mannish tailoring the label has become known for. Ellery tops were styled with wide-legged, Japanese-style trousers and undone corsetry, while minimalist black dresses had hints of gold eyelets around the waist. Off the catwalk, Aluna Francis also proved that a corset belt doesn't necessarily translate to overt femininity. Pairing her black number with a crisp white shirt, oversized leather jacket and brogues, she offered a street-style demonstration of androgynous corsetry.
Accessorising, the minimalist way
Adding a designer belt to an outfit, especially in a corset style, risks compromising its minimalism. However, labels like Loewe and Victoria Beckham managed to solve this conundrum for AW16. Jonathan Anderson’s collection featured a neutral palette of white, tan and black, and column-like dresses with leather basques created a mature take on the trend. His Loewe accessories were a melange of decorative utilitarianism – think a brown leather belt wrapped around swathes of material, with corsets adding a hint of the warrior to sleek monochrome outfits. At Victoria Beckham, the designer raided her own wardrobe for inspiration, opting for strap-like corset tops and peplum belts with Victoria Beckham trousers in minimalist tones.
Perhaps the most infamous adopter of the look is Carine Roitfeld. For her, however, it's doctor-ordered. “My brace is a piece that I have to wear, so I’ve chosen to make it visible instead of hiding it,” Carine told Ray Siegel for her own CR Fashion Book. Worn over her idiosyncratic pencil skirt, or with a lace-topped dress, Carine’s array of belt styles and braces echoes the harnesses showcased at the Giambattista Valli Giamba AW15 show. It’s an aesthetic that has been eagerly accepted by athleisurewear labels like Alexander Wang too – braces and corsets are often styled over Alexander Wang dresses on the label's catwalks.
Historically, corsets and belts oppressed rather than liberated women. Today, designers have transformed the garment into an accessory, rather than a structural piece. A belt pulls an outfit together and offers the wearer an armour-like finish. Whether one opts for the high-octane femininity of Balmain or the androgynous styling of Prada, corset designer belts make an ideal accessory for AW16.