Vivienne Westwood’s Midtown Manhattan boutique was jam-packed on Thursday night. The biggest supporters and fans of the brand were all there—decked out in supersize, glowing orb necklaces; carrying heart-shaped bags or layered up in a combination of Westwood’s signature rebellious staples and their own creations. They’d dressed to the nines in celebration of the opening of Vivienne Westwood Corsets: 1987 to Present Day, an exhibition that’ll be on view inside Vivienne Westwood’s New York location for the next two weeks.
While the crowd had some of the most unique takes on personal style of any pre-fashion week event, the pieces on display also wowed. This is the first time the boutique has staged any kind of heritage retrospective—and a very rare occasion to see up-close some of the Vivienne Westwood corsets that altered the course of fashion history. The show explores the many ways in which the legendary designer subverted and recontextualized the idea of underwear as outerwear. It also explores the links between historical dress, culture, and fine art, along with how Westwood was able to combine them all to create wearable objects that defied typical runway fashion.
The exhibition opens with a black Portrait corset from the fall 2023 collection, inspired by one of the label’s most famous garments: the corset from the spring 1990 Portrait Collection, printed with the 1743 painting Daphnis and Chloe, Shepherd Watching a Sleeping Shepherdess by French Rococo artist François Boucher. Three years prior, in 1987, Westwood was credited with reviving the corset when she began experimenting with the silhouette in her collections. Plus, she first presented the concept even earlier, in her 1982 collection called Nostalgia of Mud—which introduced the Mud Bra, a play on the cone brassieres of the 1950s.
Also on display at the exhibition are dresses from the spring 2012 War and Peace collection, which showcase extreme silhouettes that rethink the structure of the corset. Oversized, loosened corset shapes that sit on the body like armor take inspiration from Vivienne Westwood’s 1988 Time Machine collection, in which the distinct shapes of those signature Harris tweed jackets were drawn straight from plated armor Westwood had seen in medieval artwork. “For some time I wanted to do oversize, historical corsets,” wrote Westwood in the spring 2012 show notes. “I thought I could give them a feeling of armor; worn as a jacket they would look tough—like a soldier or biker. The corsets we chose to oversize are from the England of Charles II; those beauties who, in their portraits, dressed themselves in the sheets and satin covers pulled from the bed.” Likewise, “they’re referencing a different corset to the ones that Vivienne and Andreas normally reference,” said the fashion critic Alexander Fury who was onsite to give a talk at the installation’s opening. “Rather than 18th-century corsets, they’re referencing 17th-century corsets, and there are very few examples of them that still exist. Vivienne is taking this idea of a corset as something restrictive and making it into something liberating.”
Another must-see is a black-and-white corset from the Gold Label Autumn-Winter 2012/13 “London” collection, encrusted with a sea of black crystals and embroidery. “When we try to imitate, we find ourselves doing something new,” Westwood said of the collection at the time. “I see fashion as a proposal, a way for people to look more wonderful.” And of course, it wouldn’t be a Vivienne Westwood event without the subversion of gender. There are also two men’s corsets from the spring 2020 collection, designed by Andreas Kronthaler, on display.
To keep things interesting, there’s also a small selection of corset pieces worn by celebs and VIPS, including Elle Fanning’s couture lace gown worn to the 2023 Met Gala, Jennie Kim’s crystal-embellished minidress from Blackpink’s Born Pink world tour and a neon-pink corset dress worn by Hailey Bieber. The installation previously toured East Asia and Europe, and will make a stop at Vivienne Westwood’s Los Angeles boutique before coming to an end.