Introduction to Corsets
| Period Costumes - Corset History
| Corsets, The Fashionable Foundation - Style, Wealth and Status
Types of Corsets, How to Make Them and Where to Get Them | Corsets, Gracious Instruments of Torture - Health, Punishment and Oppression
The Subversive Stays - Corsets and Sex, Erotica and Fetishism | The Corset - Conclusion
The best corsets available are those made to individual measurements, so you don't get stuck with average sizes. Think how irritating a badly-fitting bra is - this is much worse. Several companies (based mainly in America, alas, although there are converted prices for them) offer these, with the following prices for traditional hourglass styles:
Romantasy (loosely-affiliated collection of designers): £150+
One Wilde Knight (any fabric you like): £200+
Dark Garden (some innovative styles, good reputation): £250+
British companies Axford's and Voller's do not provide made-to-measure garments and are, in this Researcher's opinion, over-expensive. Poor things have been heard about them, especially from those with non-average figures (which is just about everyone). And when an Axford's product was examined it seemed just a bit shoddy: lots of visible stitching, uneven channels, floating bones (channels too wide) etc. However, they are long established, so this might be label snobbery. Consecutively priced at £100-£250 and £250+. Nor do they have a particularly large range of styles.
Independent costumiers who provide a range of garments tend to be more expensive. However, corsetry supplies are not expensive if bought wholesale, and they follow a set construction method which is fairly straightforward:
I can make one in a day, if I have the necessary materials. I only charge what I'd be willing to pay; there's no excuse for exploitation, especially with luxury items.
In chronological order. This Researcher owns at least one of each of these, so these opinions on how comfortable, what enhancements they give (or not) and how much you should be paying can be trusted.
Elizabethan or Tudor
Description - Straight-fronted, conical in shape, rarely extends below the waist. May be fitted with 'tabs' along the lower edge to hold a farthingale in place. Lace-up back only.
Effects - Gives the illusion of a small waist if worn with the correct skirt. Doesn't actually do much cinching, as they are not structured enough to provide comfortable reduction. Pushes up the bust; this can be very dramatic, if you want.
Feels like - Doesn't have the all-round figure support of later models.
Drawbacks - Not recommended for long periods as outerwear. For one thing, you'll be forever repositioning your cleavage for maximum effect. Can become wearying around the armpits and bust line, tendency to dig in somewhat.
18th Century Style
Description - Straight-fronted, but much more shaped and fitted, with subtle curves. Still somewhat rigid and unforgiving. Usually extends below the waist, with either tabs or split panels which are usually decorative. Lace-up front and back, usually, although the front can be closed or include a plastron or stomacher to hide the laces.
Effects - Support below the waist and shaping above it makes reduction more comfortable. Low front showcases the supported bust and shoulders.
Feels like - Nicely supportive, but not too rigid.
Drawbacks - Gives a subtle enhancement to the figure, rather than reshaping. Maybe slightly over-exposing for some occasions.
Description - The early Victorian shape, following the exact lines of the figure but bringing the waist in sharply. The top edge is usually straight, providing a shelf-like bustline.
Effects - The waist reduction is very dramatic, and the bust given firm support. The rest of the shape is faithfully replicated.
Feels like - All strain is on the exact waistline, firm support elsewhere.
Drawbacks - Looks very contrived and unnatural. Instead of a graceful curve, there's a sudden sharp indentation which is not altogether attractive. The bustline is also odd-looking, seemingly squashed out of place. On the whole, a little too outmoded for today's tastes.
Description - Not a style in itself, or belonging to a specific period, but rather a particular type of reduction. The waist is greatly reduced but also lengthened, so not only the true waistline but some distance above and below are lessened. This gives the effect of two round objects skewered in the middle by a stick.
Drawbacks - More pressure than usual is exerted, and for tight-lacing progress is slower. Hard to maintain. To extremes, can look unnatural.
Late Victorian Hourglass
Description - A gentler curve than the wasp-waist, gradually sweeping in from bust to middle. Often descended low over the hips to balance the effect.
Effects - A noticeable reduction of the waist. Gives bust support without overly forcing upwards. Also, can smooth and narrow the appearance of the hips and flatten the stomach. With the buttocks uncovered, there is an effect when walking in that the lower body has a pronounced sway while the middle remains seemingly static. Good for sustained tight-lacing.
Feels like - Comfortable, as stress is distributed more evenly than before. The all-over support is more noticeable. Examples that descend to the hips give a pleasant sensation of tightness.
Drawbacks - Undue pressure on the abdomen can sometimes result, and it is easy to lace too tight with no apparent discomfort at first.
Description - The front is perfectly straight, with the top edge just below the nipple. The lower front is very long compared to the back, and often has attached suspenders. The front is highly decorated.
Effects - The straight front results in the bust being projected forwards and the backside outwards at the rear, with the whole figure (seen from the side) slanted forwards. The waist is noticeably narrowed from three directions, in an almost diagonal line from the top edge.
Feels like - No idea. They don't really make these anymore.
Drawbacks - By far the most dramatic reshaping effects, and the most unnatural. The whole body is thrown into a different position, with very contrived posture. More like a fad.
Corsets are quite straightforward to make, as they are derived from basic patterns (based in turn on fitted panel-cut bodices). The patterns can be adjusted almost anywhere to give a particular effect. The actual construction methods are also a set method, making the process detailed but not complex.
There are three layers to a corset: the outer layer of decorative material, the inner lining which will hold the bones, and the outer lining to give extra strength and a neat appearance to the inside. The pieces are cut on the horizontal grain, that is with the strongest threads (warp) running sideways so it takes the stress better. The finished garment is made to 4" smaller than the natural waist measurement, and a new pattern must be devised for each individual. Other reductions/adjustments can be made to alter the shape. The pattern is composed of six shaped panels each side - this allows for subtler shaping. Therefore, the corset is composed of 36 individual pieces in total.
The inner lining and outer material are sewn together thus: two matching panels, one of each sort, are placed together wrong-side in. The panels next to these are matched, and pinned together as accurately as possible (with a seam allowance of at least a half inch) along the seam line. One outer panel will be laid on top of the other, with right sides facing; the same will be done, on the opposite side, with the lining pieces. They are then sewn so that, when folded out, four pieces are joined at once with the raw edge hidden. They can be joined from front to back or vice-versa, but this must be the same for each side or the pieces will lie in different directions.
When all pieces are joined, channels for the boning are sewn. These are visible from the outside. For flexibility, spiral steels (just over a quarter of an inch wide) are used, as they bend in all directions. Flat steels (half or quarter inch) are used next to the lacings as they do not bend, and keep the back straight. Any number of bones can be used; from 16 to 24 is the usual amount. The placing of bones is important to shape - they usually follow the seams, except where a greater degree of moulding is necessary, ie the bust area.
With the outer layer complete, the fancy lining is sewn together and cotton tape added to the waistline on the wrong side. This strengthens the waistline, removes some of the strain on seams and prevents them from coming apart. The lining is then affixed to the other layers.
All raw edges are sewn down and neatened, then bound with satin ribbon (sewn reverse on the front side and then by hand on the back, so that no stitching is visible.) Lace can be added invisibly by sewing it first to the ribbon, so the stitches are hidden.
Finally, the eyelets are put in place. Holes are made by parting the threads of the fabric (but not breaking them) and the eyelet pressed in. They are set one inch apart, except around the waist where they are at three-quarter inch intervals. This allows for the extra strain and prevents gaping at the middle.
Nylon cord is better than satin ribbon for lacing, as it is strong and can be melted at the ends to prevent fraying.
Online stores of information include:
The Corsetorium Web Ring, a vast collection of many types of corset-related sites (both commercial and informative).
Or go straight to the Long Island Staylace Association (LISA) - the main informative site - which has galleries, essays, medical advice and supplier information for many countries.
The classic book on the subject, complete with patterns, is Nora Waugh's Corsets and Crinolines. A book of underwear in general, in all its forms historic and modern, is the lavishly-illustrated 1000 Dessous, a History of Lingerie by Gilles Neret. Wonderful to browse through.
Other Entries in This Project
- An Introduction to Corsets
- Period Costumes - Corset History
- Corsets, The Fashionable Foundation - Style, Wealth and Status
- Corsets, Gracious Instruments of Torture - Health, Punishment and Oppression
- The Subversive Stays - Corsets and Sex, Erotica and Fetishism
- The Corset - Conclusion