Are you wearing an authentic corset?

This is a blog post I recently wrote for the Corset Connection blog. All images used in the post and the chart are courtesy of Corset Connection and all items are available for purchase in their online store. They have a wonderful range of steel-boned Budget Beauties available to suit every pocket. Also be sure to check out their Facebook page with all their awesome prizes and giveaways. 

Black Underbust Corset

I bought my first corset for a high school dance and it was the most wonderful feeling to have all that rich velvet hug my body and cinch my waist into goddess-like proportions. Not only did I feel every inch a princess, I also felt empowered. I felt like I could take on the world and that nothing could stop me. I was ready to see every jaw at the dance drop as I walked by. I was ready to fight off the droves of admirers with a flick of my wrist. I was out to make small town history as their very own, real life Cinderella.

But, alas, the fairy tale didn’t last. Very soon the bones of my new corset began to buckle and bend out of shape. With every breath I could feel my waistline expand further and eventually the entire thing started unraveling at the seams. My corset had literally turned into a pumpkin.

I was angry and disappointed and my head filled with complaints. Are corsets really this flimsy? Am I really that fat? And it was then that the most important question occurred to me. The question that everyone should ask themselves if they are in the market for a corset: am I even wearing an authentic corset?

The answer for me was no. I wasn’t wearing a corset. The problem wasn’t with the top itself, but with what I had tried to do with it. Corsets have been developed over centuries of research, trial and error, and wardrobe malfunction to withstand the stresses of lacing tightly and altering or enhancing the figure. I had learned the hard way that if you try to lace any other garment like you would a corset, you may end up damaging it, or worse, hurting yourself! Likewise, if you try to wear a corset like it’s any other garment, the results will be the same.

Whenever you are looking at corsets to buy, ask yourself these questions:

Does it have laces?
Almost everything can have laces, but a corset simply cannot be a corset without it. Corsets are adjustable garments that can be laced looser or tighter as the occasion or your outfit demands. If you can’t adjust it via laces, it isn’t an authentic corset.

Can you see through it?
Lace and other sheer lingerie fabrics are not strong enough to be used in a real corset. Corsets have to operate under high stress and light, sheer fabrics simply won’t hold. Lace can be used as embellishment, but it can’t be the foundation fabric of the corset.

Can you stretch it?
If your hands can stretch it, think what your wobbly bits would be able to do to it! Coutil is a fabric that has been developed specially for corsets. It is strong, stable, doesn’t stretch and keeps the bones from breaking through. This helps a corset keep its shape, which in turn helps you to keep yours! If it can stretch it’s not an authentic corset.

Can you slouch while wearing the corset?
Most corselets and corset tops will help you with some streamlining and waist-reduction, but once you slouch they will not be able to support the weight like an authentic corset does. If it bends easily and allows you to push your tummy out a bit, it isn’t a real corset. One of the main goals of corsets throughout history has been to ensure good posture, so if it is worth its weight in steel it won’t allow slouching.

Is it cheap?
Authentic corsets are speciality garments that take a lot of skill, tools and different materials to make. Those things all cost money. If you can buy it for a few bucks out of a end-of-range bargain bin, it probably isn’t a corset. Miracles do happen, so keep your eyes peeled, but it’s always safer to pay for the quality you expect.

Of course there is nothing wrong with all the other cute tops that you tried on that aren’t steel-boned corsets! Sometimes you’ll want to wear an authentic corset and other times you just need something that looks the part but allows you some freedom of movement. So what else is there and how to tell what is what? Below are some of the options you have and also tips on how to tell them apart:


The Brassiere
Devices for supporting the breasts have been around since the time of ancient Greece, and the first modern bra was patented in 1889. The design closest to what we wear today was patented in 1914. Brassieres are usually made of soft, elastic materials that provide both support, comfort and embellishment. Usually underwires and two or more flexible plastic bones are included to help the bra keep its shape. If the strap and the body of the bra below the cups extend all the way down to the waist, it is called a bustier. This garment provides light to medium support for the bust and does not shape the torso in any way.

Black corselet

The Corselet
The corselet is an all in one garment that combines a light form of girdle with a brassiere. This style developed in the 1920′s when the desired figure was flat rather than curvy. The idea was to have a garment that could be anchored on the shoulders and to the garters, and so create a straight line. Today, however, they have evolved to include elastic panels and flexible plastic bones to create an understated yet feminine shape.

Black corset top or sleeping corset

The Corset Top
This modern day invention looks very much like a corset, but does in fact not offer the same amount of iron-clad support as an authentic corset does. Corset tops are usually made using lighter materials an include plastic bones. They cannot stand up to the stresses of lacing tightly and will provide only a limited amount of shaping to both the waist and the bust.

Authentic red steel-boned corset

The Authentic Corset
The modern authentic corset most likely evolved from the standardised everyday corsets that were first mass produced in the 1890’s. They consist of shaped panels that are supported by spring steel or spiral steel boning. It is a combination of these panels, boning and laces that gives a corset that very specific shape and the strength to support the entire torso. The top of the corset can stop below or above the breasts or anywhere in between. A general rule of thumb is that if it sits below the nipples it is an underbust corset and if sits on or above the nipples it is an overbust corset.

This Are you wearing a corset? chart allows you to look at some of the different options that are out there and you can decide what is best for you. Happy shopping!

Are you wearing an authentic corset chart

This is a blog post I recently wrote for the Corset Connection blog. All images used in the post and the chart are courtesy of Corset Connection and all items are available for purchase in their online store. They have a wonderful range of steel-boned Budget Beauties available to suit every pocket. Also be sure to check out their Facebook page with all their awesome prizes and giveaways. 


Corset of the Month: Ribbon Corset

Corset of the month
So…I haven’t done this is in a while. Maybe a more accurate description would be “Corset of the every once-in-a-while”, but be that as it may, here is a corset of the month. It is a corset that I have been obsessing over for quite some time, and is quite possibly the reason why there hasn’t been a corset of the month for several months. So without further ado let me introduce the Ribbon Corset!

Silk Ribbon Corset circa 1900 - 1905 from Corsets: Historical Patterns & Techniques by Jill Salen

This corset appears in Jill Salen’s Corsets: Historical Patterns & Techniques and is constructed entirely from lengths of pink floral silk ribbon. The ribbon is approximately 5,7 cm (2,25 in) wide 5,5 to 6,5 m (6-7 yards) were used. The side panel houses whale boning and the corset features a metal split busk opening at the front. 

There is some debate as to the accuracy of its representation here: it seems like it has been designed to contort the body extremely, or alternatively, has been pinned back around the unlikely shape of this manikin. I am leaning towards the latter, as the reproductions based on the pattern of this corset doesn’t seem to resemble this picture in any way.

Diagram of Ribbon Corset from Jill Salen's Corsets: Historical Patterns & Techniques

Diagram of Ribbon Corset from Jill Salen's Corsets: Historical Patterns & Techniques

The drawing accompanying the corset in Jill Salen’s book. Here it can already be seen that the actual shape of the corset may have been a bit over stylised in the main picture as here the waist is not nearly as small, nor are the sides as high ad smooth. This line drawing seems like a much more accurate representation of a corset that would have fitted a normal human being.

Pattern for the Ribbon Corset fron Jill Salen's Corset: Historical Patterns & Techniques.

Pattern for the Ribbon Corset from Jill Salen's Corset: Historical Patterns & Techniques.

Pattern for the Ribbon Corset from Jill Salen's Corset: Historical Patterns & Techniques.

Pattern for the Ribbon Corset from Jill Salen's Corset: Historical Patterns & Techniques.

From the pattern drawings in Salen’s book it is easy to see how the corset is constructed from ribbon. Regular corsets often have a waist stay (a ribbon running along the waistline across all the panels) for support, so it makes sense to create a corset that takes all it’s strength from the waist stay concept. The ribbons of the ribbon corset run horizontally as opposed  to the panels of a corset that would normally run vertically. Ribbons are at their strongest and most stable if a power is exerted on them in this way, and this ensures that the ribbon corset is in fact quite strong and not susceptible to warping.

Corsets made from this pattern:

Jill Salen's 1900 ribbon corset by Leimomi Oakes aka The Dreamstress

Jill Salen's 1900 ribbon corset by Leimomi Oakes aka The Dreamstress

Leimomi Oakes who, as The Dreamstress, fascinates and educates with her wonderful and well-researched historical recreations has created this ribbon corset using the pattern depicted in Salen’s book. You can see her post on the ribbon corset here. There are some very nice pictures of her work, as well as some tips on making a faux-ribbon corset. Be sure to look at everything on this site, as the historical research and workmanship is superb!

Other ribbon corsets:

Black satin tight-lacing ribbon corset by Sidney Eileen

Black satin tight-lacing ribbon corset by Sidney Eileen

This is a tight-lacing variety of the ribbon corset created by Sidney Eileen. As can be seen on the photograph, this corset has a much more pronounced cinch in the waist area, created specifically for tight-lacing. This kind of corset can usually only be worn by tight-lacers who have trained their waists for this severe form of reduction. Many beautiful pictures of Eileen’s corset can  be seen here. She also shares a wonderfully detailed tutorial on how to make this particular corset. Well worth checking out as it covers every single thing that will have to be sewn on this corset. She also shares various other tutorials that cover both very simple techniques as well as much more advanced skills.

Now off to attempt some ribbon corsets of my own…

The Shweshwe Corset Part 6: The Stomacher

The last step of the Shweshwe corset is to add the stomacher. I decided to make the stomacher out of red taffeta to match the binding and contrast with the blue shweshwe of the corset itself. It is only half-boned (the rest of the corset is fully boned) and has four horizontal bones strategically placed to stop it from collapsing inward under the pressure when the corset is being laced.
I didn’t work from any pattern, and simply measured the opening at the front of the corset that needed to be covered. I also left some extra space to allow for the corset to be laced tighter or looser as required.

half-boned red taffeta stomacher.

half-boned red taffeta stomacher

close up of half-boned red taffeta stomacher
Now on to…  The Final Product!

Corset of the Month: The Wedding Dress

Corset of the month
Or, more accurately, the alleged corset of the month. Yes, I am talking about the much anticipated, much discussed and much guessed at WEDDING DRESS OF THE DECADE worn by Kate Middleton, AKA Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge. There has been much speculation on the THE DRESS , and the internet is so inundated with information, that it is hard to separate the useless tabloid info from actual hard facts about the construction of the dress.

Kate Middleton arrives at Westminster abbey in a wedding dress that is corseted.
Wikipedia already has some information, and it seems consistent with other seemingly reliable sources:

The dress was designed by English designer Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen.

Official statements noted that Middleton wished to combine tradition and modernity, “with the artistic vision that characterizes Alexander McQueen’s work.” She and Burton worked closely together in formulating the dress design.It has a lace applique bodice with detailing symbolizing the nations of the United Kingdom.

It was made of satin and featured a lace applique bodice and skirt. The lace bodice design was hand-made using a technique that originated in Ireland in the 1820s called Carrickmacross, which involved cutting out the detailings of roses (symbolising England), thistles (Scotland), daffodils (Wales), and shamrocks (Ireland), applying them to the ivory silk tulle individually. These lace appliques were hand-made by the Royal School of Needlework, based at Hampton Court Palace. The dressmakers used fresh needles every three hours, and washed their hands every half an hour, to avoid marking the fabric.

The bridal train measured 270 cm (110 in). Hand-cut English lace and French Chantilly lace was used throughout the bodice, skirt, and the underskirt trim. With laces coming from different sources, much care was taken to ensure that each flower was the same colour. The whole process was overseen and put together by hand by Ms Burton and her team. The “ivory satin bodice is padded slightly at the hips and narrowed at the waist, and was inspired by the Victorian tradition of corsetry that is a particular Alexander McQueen hallmark. On the back are buttons of 58 gazar and organza, which fasten by means of Rouleau loops. The underskirt is made of Cluny lace over silk tulle.”

The main body of the dress was made in ivory and white satin gazar, using UK fabrics which had been specially sourced by Sarah Burton, with a long, full skirt designed to echo an opening flower, with soft pleats which unfolded to the floor, forming a Victorian-style semi-bustle at the back, and finishing in a short train measuring just under three metres.

To partially fulfill the “something blue” portion of the British wedding tradition, a blue ribbon was sewn inside the dress. The design for the bodice of the dress featuring Carrickmacross craftmanship was the “something old”.

I am, however, most interested in her very sculpted waist visible in the wedding photographs. The only mention of this is the short sentence of Alexander Mcqueen’s penchant  for corsetry and suggestions that the bodice was narrowed at the waist: “The ivory satin bodice is padded slightly at the hips and narrowed at the waist, and was inspired by the Victorian tradition of corsetry that is a particular Alexander McQueen hallmark.”

All in all a  description which strikes me as not being nearly detailed enough. So I will do some guesswork of my own. A dangerous thing, I know, but with a dress like this everyone wants to get in their two cents worth and I am no exception!

I did some sleuthing and found pictures of Kate’s waist sans wedding dress so I could compare the two.

Comparison of Kate Middleton's waistline in her wedding dress and without her wedding dress. Her wedding dress is clearly corseted to a certain degree.
The red line is Kate’s waist in her wedding dress (clearly…) and the green line is Kate’s waist in this lovely figure hugging but non-shaping pink gown. It is clear from these two lines that there is a big difference between Kate’s waistline with and without her wedding dress. Some degree of waist-cinching is definitely going on there.

Comparison of Kate Middleton's waistline in her wedding dress and without her wedding dress. Her wedding dress is clearly corseted to a certain degree.

When the lines are closely inspected, there are several indications that Kate is actually quite heavily corseted, and not only slightly narrowed at the waist. Remember that Kate is a very skinny girl. As can be seen by the green, non-corseted line it is clear that her curves are very minimalist and flowing, and not at all the kind of figure that lends itself to corseting.

When dealing with corsetry there is always the “squish-factor” to consider. In other words, how “squishy” a body is dictates how much it can be squeezed into a different shape. Women with more squishy bits can easily be corseted into Victorian shapes, whereas women with fewer squishy bits can usually only muster a small change. The reason for this is that it is easier to displace fat and muscle to create a tiny waist. Skinny women have very little fat that can be displaced and can therefore usually only achieve a small cinch on the waist.

For Kate Middleton, who is almost officially the least squishy person in the world, achieving such a big difference on a waist that is basically just bone and well-toned muscle, is quite an achievement. This not only indicates that the corset was carefully made with a specific amount of cinching involved, but also that it was laced quite tightly.

There is also a slight convex curve above Kate’s waist when she is wearing the wedding dress that is not present in the pink gown. This line is usually the result of the ribcage being compressed and straining against the boning and fabric of the corset.

Two types of corsets. The purple one is a tightlacing corset with a much more pronounced curve.

This image shows two different kinds of corset on a slim model. The black corset on the left is a regular corset designed for a modern figure. It has a nice, elegant curve that creates a waist in keeping with contemporary fashion. This corset is what most women today would buy and wear as both evening wear and support. The purple corset on the right is a tightlacing corset, designed to create a much more dramatic curve, and can create quite a severe cinch even on very slim figures.

Comparison of a normal corset line with a tighlacing corset line. The tightlacing corset creates a much more pronounced curve. When the two curves are isolated and compared, the difference is clear. It is also clear that the second, tightlaced curve more closely resembles Kate’s waist when she is wearing her wedding dress.

It certainly makes an argument that Kate was rather tightly laced or corseted when she wore her wedding dress. The big question that remains for me, however, is whether the boning was built into the bodice of the wedding dress itself, or whether Kate wore a separate corset as an undergarment under the dress.

The Wikipedia article seems to suggest that the bodice of the dress itself was what created the curve, but there are several factors that that might mean that Kate wore a separate corset underneath her dress.

Firstly, the dress is very accurately sculpted over breasts that look less that soft. In other words, the bust of the dress itself seems sculpted rather than sculpting: it exercises no pressure on the tops of her breasts or the kin under her arms (although Kate is so skinny it’s really hard to tell). The bust underneath the dress seems very clearly sculpted and kept in perfect position. This might also just be the fact that Kate has very neat, small breasts that do not need a steel structure to be kept in place. However, the softness of the material under the bust is not in keeping with corsetry. There are no rigid lines of the boning or panels of the corset (and a corset needs those to function properly). The under bust part of a corset would also tightly hug the body to keep the bust in place, but instead the line from the point of the breast slopes gently down towards the waist. It really doesn’t look like the bodice is offering any support or has anything as rigid as boning sewn into it.

Is she wearing a corset underneath her wedding dress?

In this picture where Kate is sitting down, it can also be seen how the bodice of the dress almost creates a soft fold under her breasts, definitely the sign that it is not made rigid in any way, at least not above or below the bust.

Another consideration is that the dress closes at the back with buttons, whereas a corset or anything trying to create a cinched waist the proper way has to have laces at one point or another. Corseting the bodice of the dress directly is possible, but I wouldn’t want to put that kind of pressure on such delicate buttons, especially if the whole world would be watching.

My (possibly uneducated) guess would be that Kate wore some sort of corset underneath her wedding dress. It is also possible that the dress was only lightly cinched in the waist area alone and that the hips were more heavily padded that we are made to believe in the Wikipedia description.

This is, of course, all wild speculation and the truth of the matter remains to be discovered.

* All pictures of corsets are from Fairy Goth Mother.

The Shweshwe Corset Part 4: The Boning

I’ve taken a small break from corsetry while I was busy with other stuff. Now I’m back and moving on to the fun stuff: the boning. This is the part that gives the corset (and therefore the wearer’s body) it’s shape. The shape that you want to achieve as well as the kind of corset you are creating dictate the kind of boning necessary for the proper structural functioning of the garment.

This particular corset leaves a lot of the structure over to the layers of the garment, the direction of the boning,  the shoulder straps and the waist tabs that all work together to evenly distribute the pressure and create a sleek line. In this regard the corset is designed to give the wearer a very simple, conical torso that tapers to the waist and flares out over the hips. There is no shape over the breasts and the waist is not cinched. Steel boning is therefore not necessary, as there is not a great deal of pressure at the waist or at the lacing holes.

In its historical context the corset was boned with whalebone, but since that is now very hard to find (not to mention politically incorrect) I had to resort to other materials. Baleen (whalebone) was mostly used where both flexibility and strength was required, so a likely replacement would be plastic. The closest thing that most amateur corsetieres use today is, believe it or not, the humble cable tie.

Cable ties or zip ties or duct ties used to bone corset or 18th century stays

Cable ties or zip ties or duct ties used to bone corset or 18th century stays
Cable ties are perfect because they are quite bendy and flexible, but also gives a surprising amount of stiffness and structure when it is sewn into fabric. They are also great because they are easy to cut, and the corners can be rounded very easily to stop them from poking through the fabric of the corset. I used ties that were 388mm long and 7,8mm wide.

Corset with sewn boning channels.

Boning channels on the inside of the corset - without boning

Corset with boning channels with bones inserted.

Boning channels on the inside of the corset - without boning

Sewing the boning channels was bit of an operation – there are quite a few bones crossing each other, which means that the channels can’t be sewn all the way through. Especially at the channel that runs horizontally across the bust you can see that a lot of bones cross each other and that the channels had to be adapted accordingly.

Cable ties are fairly flat, but since there are so many of them in a corset, they can eventually take up a quite a lot of space on the width of the garment. In this instance the corset shrank width-wise with about 2cm!

Inside of boned corset. Inside of boned 18th century stays.

Boned corset - Inside

I’m not particularly proud of the way the fabric of the inner layer buckled and warped as I sewed the channels, but it will eventually be covered by the lining. Also, I was more concerned with getting the position of the bones perfect rather than creating a beautiful layer that no one will ever see…

Outside of boned corset. Inside of boned 18th century stays.

Boned corset - Outside

Because of the busy design of the outer fabric, I thought it would be overkill to have the boning channels feature on the outside of the corset. Sewing the channels all the way through is usually a nice design feature, showing that the corset is a garment of both beauty and function, but in this case I saved the shell (outer layer) for last and only added it to the rest of the garment after the corset was completely boned.

So far so good. Next up, the binding –>

Corset of the Month: Black & Yellow

Corset of the month

Welcome to Corset of the Month! From now on I will do a monthly post sharing a corset that caught my eye / inspired me / that I covet.

First up in what I hope will be a long line of wonderful garments, is the Black and Yellow Corset. This is in no small part to honour my current obsession with black and yellow…

Back corset with yellow flossing and yellow lace. Yellow stitching between the cording over the bust. Straight busk.
This particular corset comes from Corsets: Historical Patterns & Techniques by Jill Salen and dates from 1890-1900. The corset is made from black sateen with yellow flossing (the embroidery that stops the bones from tearing through the fabric). There is more yellow embroidery under the horizontal cording over the the bust and the garment is rounded off with a black and yellow lace trim on the the top edge. The bones are encased in surface bone casing (the casing is sewn onto the surface of the corset, as opposed to sitting between the layers or in the seams) and it has a straight split-busk fastening. The corset has extra bones with the busk to strengthen it and prevent the busk from breaking under the strain of bending over during chores. This may mean that corset was constructed for a working woman rather than a lady of leisure.

A very similar corset appears in Corsets and Crinolines by Norah Waugh and it is said to date from the late 1880’s.

Black corset with yellow flossing. Cording over bust and yellow and black lace trim. Spoon busk fastening.
This corset is made out of black coutil and also features yellow arrowhead flossing at the top and bottom to keep the bones in place. There is also horizontal cording over the bust (with yellow stitching in between) and a black lace with yellow ribbon trim along the top edge of the garment. The most pronounced difference between this corset and the one from Corsets: Historical Patterns & Techniques by Jill Salen is that it has a curved spoon busk fastening instead of a straight busk. The other marked difference is in the pattern: this corset’s pattern has only ten panels while the previous one has twelve.

Other sightings:

Lacing Yourself Into a Corset video by Lace Embrace.

This video features another version of the black and yellow corset. The video is somewhat blurry, but from what I can tell this corset is also black with the same yellow arrowhead flossing at the top and the bottom to hold the bones in place. There is no yellow trimming along the top edge, but the top of the busk is adorned with a yellow bow. Make sure you watch to the very end: this is a VERY good and informative video on how to lace a corset yourself. It seems obvious, but if you don’t follow these simple steps you might get yourself tied in a knot that you can’t get out of. And I’m speaking from experience here…