Making a corset was my first sewing experience. I was fourteen and it was 1991. I wanted one so badly! I was obsessed with nineteenth century clothes and, although I had never seen real corsets, I was already determined to make one with the ‘right stuff’.
Since I lived in a country town, on the mountains surrounding the city of Genoa in Italy, I decided to ask all my neighbours whether I could search in their attics for old clothes in the hope of finding something interesting. I was lucky enough to find a trunk full of Edwardian underwear, chemises, corset covers, drawers, brassieres and just what I needed, a corset! This garment was not the shape that I was looking for - it was a low bust, straight line, long corset of around 1913 and I was more interested in the hourglass, curved front 1880’s silhouette - but it was a real one, and with the original laces still in place! This corset was a medium size and it was made of one layer of coutil, boned with 10mm wide flat steels on the main body, 6mm steels at the centre back and a 12mm wide straight busk at the front. Two frilly garters down the centre front and an edging of filet lace with a pink ribbon bow at centre front were the only decorative elements. There was no flossing and no petticoat hook. It was a respectable peasant woman’s garment and I immediately fell in love with it!
At the time I was a student at the fine arts and architecture lyceum so the study of geometry enabled me to take a pattern from the garment I had found and, with some modifications, I was able to turn it into a shorter, more curvaceous 1880’s shape. Once I had the pattern, finding the right materials proved more challenging, but after a month long search I was able to find everything I needed in an orthopaedic corset shop. The coutil I found matched the old one exactly, the busk was a remnant of old stock, made of steel covered in paper (perfect!), but the steels were not what I expected. In the real corset the boning, although metal, was light and bendable while the modern equivalent was not only covered with a plastic coating, but much more rigid! I asked if they had anything lighter and I found out that I could get this boning in three different thicknesses, each providing different support. I got the lighter kind but it was still more rigid that the bones in the old corset.
I was really careful in marking and basting all my seams together, after all the trouble I went through to draw the pattern. (The mathematics nearly killed me, and I did not want to mess up all those delicious curves I drafted!)
When the moment came to put the bones inside their casings, however, I found that the flat steels got rid of the subtleties in the curves and killed the shape a little bit. Nevertheless, I was happy with my first corset. It brought my 56 cm (22") waist down to 48cm (18 3/4") and it felt like a great achievement, so I decided to wear a corset every day and I continued to do so until the age of twenty-five.
I spent the next few years experimenting with the shape of the pattern. I had a terrible problem with comfort. I always wore a chemise under my corset, but the flat steels always rubbed against my ribs or my hipbones in one way or another, so I knew that there was something wrong! It was only when I found my first 1890’s corset in an antique market that I really understood how the shape that I was looking for was achieved.
This new corset was extremely curvy and three-dimensional. The roundness of the bust, hips and belly was amazing, exactly the line that I saw in all the fashion plates of the time. I always thought that the perfect Victorian shape existed only in the magazines and that reality was similar but not quite as perfect… I was wrong. From that moment I realized how this garment’s function was not only to draw the waist in, but also to change the shape and posture of the body from bust to hips according to the fashion. No matter what size a person was, it turned the body into the perfect silhouette, the one in the fashion plates!
This corset was made of one layer of cotton sateen and one layer of ivory silk satin but the main difference from the one from 1913, apart from the pattern, was the nature of the boning. It was narrower, much much lighter and much more pliable than any metal boning, flat or spiral, that I had seen. I had finally found a corset boned with real whalebone!
I had always known about whalebone but I had never seen it. Its magic power lies in the fact that because it is made of keratin, it softens with humidity and becomes completely elastic and soft when soaked in tepid water. When a whaleboned garment is worn, the heat and humidity of the body softens the bones and the garment becomes more pliable and more comfortable. It also has a memory, so that if the bone is dried in a certain position it will remain so, while retaining flexibility. This amazing quality meant that corsets could be steam-moulded, turning this garment into a sculpture, a process that could not be done with a corset completely boned with steel. Other invaluable qualities are that, unlike steel, it will follow diagonal seams smoothly without twisting and pinching the flesh, and that when moist it’s possible to stitch through it while flossing, thus anchoring the bone to the fabric and preventing any poking through.
I was determined to find something similar, so after a very bad experiment with Rigilene I turned to spiral boning, since the new pattern had diagonal seams at the front and the flat steels would just not do it! Spiral boning was better, softer, more pliable (a bit too pliable) and more comfortable but extremely thick and lumpy. I was not happy. I had made so many corsets since I found the perfect one, that my pattern drafting was now almost perfect, the fabrics I used were alright for the period, but the boning was just not the same thing, and most of all I was not 100% comfortable. I tried on the real corset a few times: apart from the bust (being a man I don’t have breasts!) it fitted me quite well and it felt so comfortable!
As the years went by, I came across more antique garments and I started making Victorian clothes as close to the real ones as it was possible for me at the time. It became an obsession, and by the age of eighteen I was wearing Victorian ladies' clothes every day. Every stitch had to be right, every fabric or trim had to have been available at the time. Such discipline caused me to meet Jenny Tiramani, who was gathering tailors to recreate hand made Elizabethan garments for the plays at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, and from 1999 I became part of that team. That year Jenny introduced me to synthetic whalebone from Wissner of Germany. She had found out about it through a friend, and from that moment my corset life was changed forever.
I had seen plastic boning before, but I had never taken it into consideration for two reasons, the first being that plastic was not available in the nineteenth century, the second that the thickness and the rigidity never felt right. This product was different, in fact the name "plastic whalebone" indicates that the producers created it with the purpose of reproducing the characteristics of real whalebone. Until the eighteenth century, baleen was mostly sold in big plates covered in hair, which the stay maker had to boil, shave and cut into strips of the thickness and width he required. By the second half of the nineteenth century, it became more common to buy it in ready-cut strips, in a variety of lengths and thicknesses which changed greatly depending on whether they served to bone the sides of a corset or the front and back, the front and back or the sides of a bodice, the arms of an umbrella, a bonnet, etc.… Well, the plastic whalebone from Wissner is sold in rolls or ready-cut lengths of many of the width and thicknesses available in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century.
Working with this new product was easier, once I chose the width and thickness I wanted (6mm wide x 1.5 mm thick). I did not have to worry about the individual lengths of the channels. The first corset I used it for was made of one layer of black coutil, with bone casings topstitched on the right side in yellow cotton and fine cording on the bust. Once the corset was stitched, I only had to cut the bones in the lengths I wanted and file the edges with fine sandpaper, just like real whalebone. I then flossed it with yellow silk and trimmed the top edge with crochet lace. Steam-moulding the corset in the same way as in the nineteenth century, with a heated metal mannequin, was not going to be possible, so with the aid of a tailor’s ham I steamed-pressed the corset with a professional iron, thus shaping the bones to follow the curves in the seams. To my pleasure, I found that the property of memorizing a shape while retaining elasticity was another characteristic this product shared with whalebone.
When I finally tried the corset on I was amazed! The first thing that struck me was the light weight. Compared to any other corset that I made before, this was the first one with a weight comparable with an antique one. Once worn, it followed each subtle curve that I drafted in the pattern, giving me a much smaller waist, with curvier hips and an altogether better shape! I was really happy! This corset was light, pliable, had a great shape and most of all was comfortable! Just like a whaleboned garment, the more I wore it the better it became. No pinching, no twisted bones, no rubbing against ribs - all of the unpleasant problems of steel boning were solved for me that day!
Although I was really happy, I still had a lot of doubts about the performance of such boning on different body shapes. I have always been very slim and my waist has always been slender. My ribcage is very elastic and making corsets for myself has always been relatively easy, but how would the boning perform on a much fleshier figure that needed a bit more help? Would it be strong enough? Would it alter after a long period of wear? All these problems that corset makers usually relate to plastic boning constantly came to my mind, but one thought reassured me. When the best boning around was whalebone, larger women wore corsets, boned with whalebone, just like the slender ones. The difference could not have been the use of a different material, but how it was used in corsets for different figures. The answer came from analysing antique corsets in my collection, this time looking specifically at how they were boned, depending on the style and size. Immediately I realized that the bigger corset in my possession was boned with strips of the same thickness and width as the slimmer ones but, while the smaller sizes have single or double boning on each seam, this one had double boning on some of the seams and as much as four bones in a row in the places that needed more support.
Another earlier example, from the mid 1880’s, that was still a generous size had a different arrangement. The front and bust were fully boned with narrow strips of whalebone, the back with wider ones and the sides with two wide steels which had also been shaped to follow the curve of the waist and hip. I had always known about corsets boned all over with whalebone and steels on the sides, but only then it occurred to me that I had never seen anybody try to make a corset mixing different types of boning in the same garment.
The more I looked, the more I learned. From that moment on I started looking at all the corsets I could find in books and in other collections to understand how to use the boning to achieve different results. Nineteenth century corset adverts have proved a great source of information since the boning is often an important part of the description. In many, we find corsets that are double boned, heavily boned, heavily boned with double side-steels, all whalebone together with the image showing the boning arrangement and advice such as "desirable for stout or medium figures", "desirable for full shapes", "for stout figure", etc.
After years of research and experimentation, one of my first conclusions is that the bones' number and arrangement, depending on the figure the corset is being made for, is more important than the thickness and width of the bone itself. Thin-cut bones were used for all kinds of figures, but for the larger ones they were used in a larger number than a single strip per seam. I was amazed when I saw my first French woven corset from the early 1870’s, in the Hopkins collection, a garment shaped directly on a loom, without seams, and made of a cotton that is woven as a double layer to create the bone casing, no sewing apart from the flossing and the embroidered scalloped edges. This corset was completely boned with thin strips of whalebone just a couple of millimetres wide, closely placed together, not one inch left unboned. An extremely light garment with a beautiful shape, its strength was not given by the thickness of the boning but by the quantity of it, a light armour that would mould even the most difficult figure into the fashionable shape.
Basing my work on these principles, since 1999, in all the corsets, stays and bodies I have made, whether historical or modern, I have used plastic whalebone from Wissner and have always had excellent results. By mixing different widths and thicknesses I was able to transform any kind of figure into the silhouette I wanted to obtain, often finding that the fleshier the body, the smoother the shape I would get. Before I found this amazing substitute for baleen, I always thought that I would never achieve those perfect period shapes that looked so round and curvy. The bust shape, especially, never satisfied me. In all the modern corsets I saw, I never found the roundness of cup so typical of the nineteenth century. The breasts are always somehow flattened in the lower part, and in many cases pushed too high.
With plastic whalebone I have since been able to create nice round shapes, the steaming process ensuring that the curve is fixed in the bones. Even when a garment is worn by different people, it will always try to go in that direction. A good example of this is an 1872 corset I made for a dress I had to make with my students in Rome. I made the satin corset for a girl with a full figure to fit her and mould her into the perfect 1872 shape with the low bust and curved belly. The dress turned out so well that the Bowes museum asked me to bring it to England to get it filmed to show the layers.
Finding a British girl in Barnard Castle to fit the dress that was made for a Mediterranean body in Rome proved challenging. Even if the measurements corresponded, the overall body shape was completely different. In fact, to find the same shoulders and breast shape proved impossible, so we just chose the girl with the circumferences that best matched my student in Rome. Although the upper part of the body could not be controlled, the steam-pressed synthetic whaleboned corset moulded the new girl’s body into exactly the same shape, so the dress could be worn quite successfully.
Trying to make historically accurate corsets pushed me into researching and experimenting with many different materials, and wearing a corset myself for a long period of my life gave me the opportunity to self-judge the results and comfort that any of these materials provided. When working with earlier corset-like garments I used many other materials for boning, such as cane, bents, wood, horn and iron, but the best substitute for whalebone, for me, still remains the product from Wissner.
Sadly, the majority of modern corset makers take for granted that the best boning is flat steel or spiral, and although the web is full of discussions about them not always working, the synthetic whalebone tends to be known just by few members of the re-enactor’s world and by some costume makers.
Shouldn’t we start looking more into what professional corset makers did when people wore corsets every day and they were made by the thousand? Shouldn’t we use those sewing techniques that were created by craftsmen that were basing their work on the evolution of a garment that was worn for hundreds of years? The techniques from those periods in history when all the corset producers battled over who made the best corset?
Since the majority of modern corsets are based on nineteenth and early twentieth century shapes, the boning techniques seen in examples from that period should certainly be taken into account and applied to the new designs. If whalebone was the preferred material of the corset makers that created the best corsets of the past that we all admire, why isn’t plastic whalebone the preferred material of corset makers today? I assure you, it’s worth a try!
About the writer: Luca Costigliolo
Luca works as a designer and costume cutter for theatre productions and films all around Europe. He recently worked in Hungary as a cutter on the Showtime costume drama The Borgias, creating all the costumes for the role of Lucrezia Borgia, designed by Oscar winner Gabriella Pescucci. For nine years he was the Head of Wardrobe for the Spoleto Opera Festival in Italy, and he was a member of the wardrobe team at Shakepseare’s Globe Theatre from 1999-2005, cutting and hand-making clothes for award winning productions.
He teaches accurate historical cutting and sewing techniques at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome along with world famous costume designer Piero Tosi, as well as at the School of Historical Dress in London.
His knowledge on historical tailoring and dressmaking techniques have led him to collaborate with museums with important dress collections such as The Bowes Museum in the UK, where he completed the reconstruction of a Worth ball gown worn by Josephine Bowes in 1861. A video showing him dressing a model in all the layers of clothing worn by a lady in 1870 is on show in the textile gallery.
Luca was also the historical sewing expert on recent BBC programmes such as Victorian Farm and Edwardian Farm.
In 2011 he completed a project with the National Trust for whom he has recreated an 1884 gown that belonged to Princess Alexandra.
Luca is a co-author of Seventeenth Century Women’s Dress Patterns: Book One & Book Two for V&A publications.