published in ZOO Magazine No. 27, p. 32-33

Men in elongated shirts, skin-tight jumpsuits and tube dresses. Raf Simons’ former collections have given us elusive evidence that the gender apocalypse has begun. In 2010, the Belgian fashion designer continues his aesthetic legacy, taking the next logical step in performing fashion’s castration. The male torso is shaped into a wasp-waisted figure. Men in corsets.

Upon careful examination of the Raf Simons archive, the emphasis of the man’s waist appears as a repetitive element, gradually evolving in extremity. Military bomber jackets are cinched with leather belts (A/W 2001); widely cut paper bag trousers conquer the male body (A/W 2005); a white turtleneck is accentuated with a black waist cincher (A/W 2006); a jacket’s front is horizontally split into two identical parts in contrasting textures (A/W 2007); a similar jacket appears equipped with sportswear inspired cording elements that tie and narrow the waist (S/S 2008); and a bustier knit jumper emphasizes the area below the chest (A/W 2009).

While subtly pursuing these principles of construction in a graphic manner and dividing the male anatomy in equal parts by the use of color blocking, material opposition and gathering, a cohesive story evolves, told with a muted voice and fragmented into diminutive chapters that, almost unnoticed, gain serial character. Consequently, Raf Simons declares the waist as the main focus point for S/S 2010. It’s a collection that appears as a strictly calculated manifesto. Belts wind around the waist, arm and neck. Men appear possessed and delivered to an invisible force. Their bodies are molded and the space for untold masculinity limited – a breath of restraint and abandonment that correlates with its historic complement and the original archetype: the corset.

It was originally intended to slim the female figure and transform the torso into a desired shape, but in fact, it was the men, dandies, who made the corset popular in the 1830s and 1840s. Those decades declared the aristocratic body type as the new ideal, mostly associated with a slender and therefore feminine appearance. Corsets allowed men to control their proportions and achieve the highly desired wasp-waisted figure. A French dandy of the era insisted, “The secret of the dress lies in the thinness and narrowness of the waist. Shoulders large, the skirts of the coat ample and flowing, the waist strangled.”
As dandyism established a new body- consciousness and put the notion of the men’s corset into the public sphere, controversies arose. Society associated corseting with a loss of male identity, and therefore effeminacy. Fearing the incongruity between ideals of masculine beauty and sartorial practices, the prevailing bourgeois worldview increasingly held that men should not think about trivialities such as fashion. And so, after 1850, the men’s corset disappeared.

Now, in 2010, the boundaries of gender are dissolving again. Men feel encouraged to wear dresses and the corset undergoes a renaissance. Jean-Paul Gaultier proposes strapless bustier tops and cinched vests. John Galliano pictures today’s businessman in nude lingerie and garters. Raf Simons, in turn, presents underbust corsets that extend over the hips and reach the knees – the symbiosis of a bulletproof waistcoat and a wasp-waisted mini dress. It’s the aesthetic answer for a generation marked by feminism and femininity – modernized re-interpretations of a short-lived phenomenon.

While one can draw analogies to cross- dressing and assume efforts of androgyny, Raf Simons’ creations do not deny the man’s masculinity and strength. His approach is analytic, architectural and exceedingly technological. The corset appears in its purest form, translated in a literal manner but reversed and rebuilt as outerwear worn over a suit jacket. Principles of boning and lacing are discarded and replaced with aerodynamic buffering and water-repellent surfaces. Hooks and eyelets become redundant, substituted by their post-millennium counterpart: the Velcro strip. The result is dedicated to protection and function: the slender silhouette appears as an accidental side effect for the benefit of performance. The corset is regarded as a constituting component, a piece of construction to form the body, comparable to a car’s mudguard or a plane’s cover panel.

Finally, the body does not serve an ideal of beauty anymore. Instead, it is enhanced and optimized in terms of its logical and practical use – yet for a cause unknown. The Raf Simons man faces new environmental conditions and challenging scenarios. He is fully equipped to accomplish his task. And this task may be the final reconstitution of a former concept called manhood.