Whether you are new to Foundations Revealed or a long time supporter, you will probably know that here at FR we are endlessly devoted to the belief that contemporary corsets can and should be as beautiful and innovative as their historical counterparts. The historical gap between everyday corsetry for the masses and individualistic corsetry for the few seems to have allowed much specialist knowledge to dwindle away. As complex corsetry ceased to be manufactured on a large scale, equipment, techniques, and skills faded away.
We often explore antique patterns and patents, reinterpret construction and decoration details through our own work, and constantly push ourselves to produce more accomplished and interesting corsetry. Much of our work is a rediscovery of complex antique patterning or techniques and involves the creative clashing together of contrary ideas, such as the topline from one era and waist shaping from another (to choose two random details).
With all this advanced study taking place, it can be easy (especially for beginners or refreshers) to forget or ignore the basics.
In this article, I will outline what I consider to be the six basic golden rules for a typically good corset, with the caveat that rules are made to be broken. Or at the very least, challenged once in a while. I have taken my idea of a classic corset (defined below) and will outline the rules it must meet to qualify as "good".
I don't, by any means, consider this to be the only way to make a good corset, or believe that this particular type of corset is the only good one. To use a couple of my own pieces to illustrate, figure 2 (leather and sheer corset body with cups) is not "better" than figure 3 (Victorian-inspired midbust), or vice versa. They are such disparate pieces with different aims and aesthetics that they are simply not in competition with one another.
A quick glance has no doubt shown you that these pieces have both similarities and differences, and that the "rules" for one are not identical to the "rules" for the other. They're both "good", just in different ways.
I ask that, while reading this article, you accept that the six rules given are a generalisation based upon a narrow definition of corsetry. This article is intended as a starting point for beginners/refreshers to refer to as a checklist of features/requirements when planning their study and measuring their progress.
It is absolutely true that corsetry has undergone a vast number of innovations and developments. Whilst some basic premises remain (eg: the use of a strong non-stretch base fabric can be seen in most corsets from 1700s stays through to late Edwardian straight-front underbusts) the variety is such that it is impossible, in my opinion, to set down hard and fast rules that definitively apply to all types of corsetry.
It is through reference to a few lasting principles that we can begin to form a set of beginner's guidelines.
In my opinion, the mid-to-late Victorian corset saw most of these principles distilled into a sort of archetypal corset perfection. Indeed, most contemporary corsetry has its roots in Victorian corsetry, which is clearly visible when you compare the two. Figures 3 through 8 are great examples of this. Figure 4 illustrates an 1878 corset. Figure 5, an 1882 corset. Figure 6, an 1880 summer corset. Whilst there are clear differences between each piece, the overall idea (of a reduced hourglass waist with full bust and hips) remains.
A quick glance at the online corsetry communities and the numerous corsetmakers on facebook and etsy shows us that the hourglass figure is everywhere. I would estimate that non-Victorian "hourglass" corsetry only composes about 1 out of every 100 pieces I see. As Victorian corsetry therefore appears to be the most popular reference point for contemporary corsetry, it is important to have confidence in all of the component parts required for this type of corset.
Therefore, the archetypal Victorian-inspired contemporary corset (of which figures 3, 7 and 8 are clear examples) will be the style with which we learn about basic corset anatomy. I am also going to work under the assumption that we are discussing corsetry for women as it is the most common, and by narrowing the field we allow for the "rules" of good corsetry to be found more easily.
If we are taking the Victorian-inspired corset as our archetypal classic with which to set down our six rules of good corsetry, then we must become comfortable with just what the classic contemporary-Victorian corset is.
The typical contemporary-Victorian corset:
As we go through the six rules, you will see how these basic characteristics teach us in some depth just why the contemporary-Victorian corset is so popular and functional.
The first place to begin is silhouette. At risk of making a yet another generalisation, corsetry has been an uninterrupted attempt to accentuate female proportions, whether dramatically or mildly.
Corsetry did not, until recent times, occupy a space in which it was the only garment at work. Yes, we can say that 18th Century stays (figure 9) are a vastly different shape to Regency stays (figure 10), which are again different from Victorian corsets (figure 11) and Edwardian corsets (figure 12). It could seem that the silhouettes produced had wildly different aims.
But we must also remember that these items were not worn in isolation. I would argue that whilst the particulars of the silhouettes created may be different, the overall aim was much the same... A narrow waist and full hips/bust.
Conical stays may narrow to the waist and have little or no hip parts, but they were combined with panniers creating exaggerated proportions where a narrow waist is offset by wide hips. Regency stays had little or no waist shaping with empire line dresses skiming over the body, but feminine curves are still discerned with this cut and the female bosom is accentuated. Victorian corsets obviously (in general) display the archetypal hourglass silhouette that we all know and love, but even they had help in the form of crinolines then bustles to broaden the hips in relation to the waist. Edwardian corsetry, likewise, reached a sort of pinnacle in terms of emphasising the female form, with bust improvers, bum pads, and tightly laced straight-front corsets creating a hyper-feminine S-shape to the profile.
The manner of emphasising the female form may have changed, but the intention (to enhance a figure that narrows at the waist) has remained throughout. So this first point, on silhouette, is one that nearly all newcomers to corsetry understand intuitively and quickly.
The first "rule" of a good corset is as follows:
If the shaping is unattractive, everything else about the corset suffers. Shaping must come first.
The good corset must have a functional and practical means with which to dress or undress. Whilst there have been numerous interesting innovations in fastenings and lacing systems for corsetry, two elements have dominated the craft.
At the front of the corset is a two-part metal busk. With hooks on one side and loops on the other, this fastening is simple, practical, easy to insert into a corset, and has the benefit of also adding support to the front of the corset. As the average modern woman dresses herself, a front fastening proves to be vastly more practical than a closed front. Other fastenings such as lacing and zips are possible, but must be reinforced with flat steel in the absence of a busk.
Busks may be straight, conical, or spoon shaped. Figure 13 (courtesy of Sew Curvy, corsetry supplies) shows from left to right: a straight flexible busk, a conical busk, and a wider steel busk. They are all made from steel, with white plastic coating (either all over or at the tips).
The term "busk" can also be used simply to refer to any sturdy central support, such as a wide steel bone or a wooden or ivory busk in antique stays. For the beginner, a straight steel split-busk (flexible or heavy-duty) is the most simple and reliable option.
As the front fastening is generally inflexible, the rear fastening must provide some leeway for tightening (when dressing) and loosening (when undressing). Lacing (figure 14) has been used at the back of a corset repeatedly throughout its history. There are varied methods of lacing, some taking longer than others, some holding more securely than others, some causing more abrasion to the fabric than others.
As one progresses with corsetry, one finds their own preferred lacing techniques and type of lace. But for beginners, an alternating "X" pattern with loops at the waist (figures 14 and 15) is the most reliable and easy system to use. Figure 15 shows the lacing system for a 1935 Spencer corset in which loops appear to have been placed at the waist and buttocks (the two places of greatest stress on long-line corsets and girdles). Indeed, it is such a good system that many professionals continue to use it, and I generally find myself swapping between "X" and "shoelace" style. Laces can be specialist flat cotton corsetry lacing (my personal favourite), but double-faced satin ribbon is a wonderful alternative. The benefits of ribbon are the wide choice of colours available and the respective ease with which ribbons can be replaced if they become damaged or tired looking.
So, rule number two of the basic good corset is as follows:
If a garment is expected to fit the body closely (or with "negative ease" as in the case of a waist reducing corset) then it must be strong. Or rather, it must be strong enough for the task put to it.
We've seen many antique corsets that were made from remarkably fine fabrics, laces or ribbons. We cannot attest too closely to the success of these approaches without further in depth historical study, but we can assume that manufacturers would not have troubled themselves with lighter fabrications if doing so guaranteed that the corset would fail instantly. Ribbon underbusts, ventilated and skeleton corsets, even corsets made from tricot...
There are ideas to consider here. Perhaps a lifetime of corset wear really did alter the physique of the developing woman, and so her body (ribs in particular) was already holding a shape that the corset would have little trouble moulding further. I personally believe this to be evidenced in the silhouettes of much antique corsetry... from conical stays to hourglass Victorians, most antique corsetry appears to have had reasonably gentle slopes from bust to waist. This is in contrast to modern corsetry, in which even standard sizes are often cut to allow the ribs greater room for comfort. A feature that is exaggerated even further in most tightlacing corsets.
So the strength of the corset must be fit for purpose, and our modern bodies may often present a different challenge to those who were wearing these sometimes lightly-constructed antiques. In short, fabric/construction choices that may be strong enough for one person may not be strong enough for another.
Say for example, you have two individuals who are identical in proportion and measurement and lace to the same reduction. But the first individual has a very firm torso whilst the second has an exceptionally malleable torso... Which of the respective corsets will be under greatest strain when laced tight? How can you reduce this strain through fabric/construction choices? How can the "cut" of the corset create or reduce strain (see the Fourth Rule)?
Strength in a corset is a result of appropriate fabric choices, cut, and construction. Once again, there are a myriad number of ways to approach this issue, and we each of us have our preferred seam constructions and so on. Some of us arguably "over-engineer" our work whilst others utilise an incredibly light construction. For the beginner or refresher, I would recommend seams that are reinforced in some way, whether through stitching the seam twice, felling/lapping the seam, or strapping the seam with coutil.
Rule number three:
Seams must be reinforced and a strong, non-stretch fabric (cut with the grain either parallel or perpendicular to the waist-line) must be used.
Ultimately, however, the greatest way to ensure the strength of your corset is through a well refined cut. "Cut" simply refers to the patterning of the corset, the placement of the seams and so on. It stands to reason that the strength of the corset relates to the amount of "work" it is having to do, as discussed above. As a plus-size "occasional tightlacer" (I only lace up for special events and so on, at about 6" reduction usually) I know that my corsets are having to do a fair amount of work, primarily at the waist (apologies for the blurred shot, figure 17, I'm not a fan of cameras!) This is in contrast, perhaps, to an average sized lady wearing a standard sized corset with a small-ish waist reduction (figure 18). Which is in contrast again to a very slender individual lacing to an exceptionally tight wasp waist but who has never trained her ribs into a narrower shape (figure 2).
Perhaps you can visualise these scenarios or have experienced them yourself? The desired silhouettes and the realities of the bodies in question present different challenges. Your corset must be cut well to meet these challenges. The most effective shaping is not going to be identical for every body. Let's look at an example of this.
When I cut a corset for myself, I create quite a straight line from waist to bust (almost conical at the side seam, figure 19) despite producing a high waist reduction. This is in contrast to the generic belief that any large waist reduction (ie: over 4 inches) requires cupped shaping at the ribs. I have a fair amount of dense flesh around my ribs, creating some stress on the corset, but it is still malleable flesh, not bone. So a conical line, if I so desire it, is both possible and comfortable.
If I were to use the same style of patterning for a super-slender tightlacer (Chrys Columbine, figure 2, above) her ribs would be dramatically and uncomfortably compressed... we would be working almost directly with her skeletal structure. Trying to compress untrained ribs would not only be very uncomfortable, it would also create undue stress on that area of the corset. By doing this, you are making the corset work harder than it really should. Under such circumstances a seam can easily fail. By cutting Chrys' pattern to "cup" the ribs, one dissipates the stress put upon the corset at this point.
Thus, through appropriate patterning, the heavy stress that the corsets face is restricted to the waist area on both a plus-size (like myself) and a slender tightlacer (like Chrys Columbine) despite our physiques being very different. Practice again and again with toiles to check and refine fit. You will soon recognise how the body dictates the limitations of the corsetry, and vice versa.
So what we're talking about here is appropriate shaping for each figure which will in turn reduce the stress the corset is under.
In my opinion, there isn't a "one style suits all" solution for great corsetry, and by spending time considering the physique of your client and its relationship to the corset you will soon learn that good patterning is central to creating robust corsets. Remember, your goal is to create a corset that is only under stress at the waist.
Rule number four:
As the waist is the area under the greatest stress, it is the area that must be given a touch extra support.
This can be achieved in a number of ways (for example, by patterning a corset with a central uninterrupted panel or waistband, such as the Thompson Glove Fitting idea), but the typical solution is to include a waist tape. This is generally a 1" twill tape attached to the corset and spanning all seams from front to back (figure 20). This can be hidden in the interior, placed externally as a design feature, or allowed to show beneath sheer fabrics.
The crucial point to remember is that your waist tape simply reinforces the seams and fabric at that point of greatest stress.
The pressure exerted by the waist when being compressed is the primary issue, but is closely followed (especially with tightlacers) by the pressure exerted by lacing the corset up. Remember that the stress the corset undergoes becomes greater as you move from the front around to the back of the waist.
This is due to the fact that much of the waist reduction takes place at the side and side-back of a typical corset and that the back of the corset is where the lacing allows for adjustment... You can see possible evidence for this greater stress towards the back of the corset waist in Simplicity pattern no. 5748. Based on antique design, this corset features a partial waist tape running from before the side seam to the back of the corset.
If we refer once again to my tightlacing individual (figure 2 abpve) I will point out, as I have elsewhere also, that this experimental design failed. I left off a waist tape, just to see if it could be done when using sheer fabrics... A worthy enough experiment in my mind, and one that hopefully allows you to benefit from my experience in this matter! Alas, the sheer fabric failed at the seams from the side around to the back, with the worst damage being midway between the two. The front sheer sections were completely unharmed, clearly demonstrating the areas of greatest stress.
One can assume that this additional stress is considerably less in mildly tight corsets, but it does teach us the importance of waist support, especially around the back half of the corset.
By extension, the eyelets or grommets at centre-back (through which the lacing pass) must be up to the job. There are a number of ways of creating lacing at the back of a corset. For example, I have heard of quick-change catwalk corsets being made with boot hooks for speedier lacing. For our classic well-made corset, however, I would rely on two-part eyelets/grommets with two layers of your base (strength) fabric between them and a flat steel on either side.
Rule number five:
There is this little corsetry truism that I often hear: the cut of the fabric creates the shape, the boning/support simple aids that shape.
Well, I believe this is true and untrue, if you see what I mean, and I feel it is important that beginners understand why...
Yes, the cut creates the shape. But there are more subtle interactions of cut and support at work than this truism allows. It simply isn't the case that all boning or methods of support work in the same way when assisting the creation of shape.
Take a lovely curving side seam. Run a spiral steel down the side. Now run a heavy-duty wide flat steel down the side. Now a piece of cane. Now a piece of hard-wood. Each of these materials are going to behave differently. Some will soften into shape over time, some are designed to remain perpetually flat, some will mould into shape almost instantly. The cut of the fabric means nothing if your supporting materials work against it...
As I demonstrated in my first ever FR article, different types of boning result in differences to silhouette., and those differences can be subtle or dramatic. Your type of support can be a personal or aesthetic choice but it may also alter depending upon the end use of the corset. For example, a bride wearing her corset once may not wish to spend two weeks breaking in flat steels. By contrast, a dedicated tightlacer may positively enjoy the feeling of flats, or an historical re-enactor may insist upon cording. Personal preference accounts for a lot. You will ultimately learn to use as much or as little steel/cording/quilting as is required to support the cut of your corset to the desired effect.
For example, figure 21 (left) shows a fully boned corset (which here retains its shape despite being the wrong size for the model) whilst figure 3 (right) shows only one spiral per seam with additional artificial "whalebone" used in the first two panels. Both are perfectly acceptable methods of supporting a corset, but I certainly have my favourites as you will too.
The more you develop, the more you will discover about your preferred manner of supporting a corset. But for now, for our archetypal basic "good" corset, the sixth rule is a reliable one:
Well, because this is about the absolute basics! This article is about giving beginners/refreshers a short checklist to work from, but hopefully explained in such a way that it will begin to become clear why and how these basic "rules" have emerged. Even when these rules/assumptions are discarded or turned on their head, the good corsetier/e is aware of their value as an excellent starting point.
By understanding the importance of each component part, I do feel a lot of head-scratching and disheartening moments can be avoided. I remember bending and breaking various rules as I was first studying, with sometimes miserable consequences. It is by having a strong foundation in these basic principles/rules that I am now able to bend the rules with better, more interesting results. There is a lot of merit in exploring and making one's own mistakes and I hope that by having this little head-start that's exactly what you will do. Take chances, why not!
Those of you who begrudge such rules since you do not have easy access to busks, coutil, etc... I appreciate this is a difficult thing. But don't lose heart, simply practice the other "rules" in the meantime! Whilst each of these six points is required to create the archetypal classic contemporary-Victorian corset, they do still have value explored in isolation or in other contexts. If you can't find a busk, use a zip or closed front... if you've run out of twill tape, use a strip of coutil... if you're not sure how to get a nicely shaped waist, just keep on altering the one toile again and again to practice. It's all worthwhile!
So consider these rules as your musical scales, pre-marathon runs, or exam revision. Get comfortable with them, let them become second nature... they are, in my opinion, a great grounding for all subsequent innovations.
1. It must create or enhance a flattering feminine silhouette.
2. The corset must have a front busk and rear lacing.
3. Seams must be reinforced and a strong, non-stretch fabric (cut with the grain either parallel or perpendicular to the waist-line) must be used.
4. The corset pattern must be cut to reduce areas of stress by having the corset work hard only at the waist.
5. The corset must feature a waist tape and two-part reinforced eyelets/grommets for lacing.
6. The fabric and shape of your corset must be supported with vertical strips of spiral or flat steel (at least one per seam).