05/01/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT
Don't faint. From Milan to Malibu, corsets are back and body-conscious celebs are using them to push, pinch and cinch their figures. "They're really flattering," explains Frasier star Peri Gilpin, who, like fellow corset fans Madonna
, Margaret Cho and Sharon Stone, has gone in for the deep squeeze. Even the statuesque Sigourney Weaver opted for extra oomph by donning a black and silver corset-style dress at last month's Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles.
Resurfacing this season—bolstered by the success of the Wonderbra—corsets have leaped from innerwear to outerwear as designers shift their focus to the hour-glass figure. "In fashion that waves the banner of femininity," says couturier Gianni Versace, "the corset has taken the undisputed leading role." And though the style has long been a symbol of suffering for beauty's sake (remember Scarlett O'Hara's 17-inch waist?), the current crop is free of rib-crushing rigidity. "These are not being done in the 19th-century way," says Richard Martin, curator of the Costume Institute at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art. "They now sculpt and shape very gently."
In yet another sign of the times, the garment's promise of pumped-up chests and whittled-down waists is no longer just for women. New York menswear designer Matthew Batanian has crafted lace-up leather corsets for his fall collection. "My corset makes me feel like I have a fabulous body," he says. "It nips and tucks where it should." Which makes the style a perfect fit for quick-fix Americans, who, according to recent studies, are eating more and exercising less. After all, asks designer Vivienne Westwood, whose corset fans include Cher and Bar-bra Streisand, "why work out and suffer when you can wear one of these?"