Posted by Edelweiss Patterns on May 25, 2012
- As I shared earlier this week, I love sewing corsets to wear with my vintage dresses and modern clothing! Unlike the painful Victorian contraptions we imagine corsets being, a well-fitted corset can be extremely comfortable, helpful(!), and not the least bit detrimental to your health. For the last four hundred years (and arguably longer), women in civilized countries have relied on some form of corset, stay, or girdle to support them. These usually served two purposes: 1. to help them stay one smooth shape so their dresses fit better, or 2. to help cinch everything in so they could wear a smaller size outfit than they could otherwise. During the 1600s-1800s, firm canvas corsets were a staple in every women’s wardrobe, and no young lady would think of going without one once she hit her early teens. Some girls started wearing “training” corsets even younger than that.
- [The corset shown above I made from Simplicity 9769, and the choker necklace is from my Etsy shop.]
It remained for the 1920s (a decade known for its rebellion against traditional clothing) to yank the corset out of a woman’s closet. While some of the more old-fashion women still clung to their waist-cinching foundation garments, the young and fashionable crowd flung their corsets out the window in favor of the shapeless flapper gowns. By the 1930s the cinched waist look was back “in”, but it wasn’t till the 1940s that girdles (which more or less did the same thing as corsets) were in high style again. Fast forward to the 1950s, and you will see whole chapters of these garments in clothing catalogues! Some of these were simple elasticized shapers, while the more structured ones were almost as boned and structured as an Edwardian corset would have been. (The Met Museum has a tremendous example of this here.)
How to Make a Corset for Today
Here’s the way I’ve found most helpful to make my own corset! First of all, my favorite corset pattern is Simplicity 9769. This pattern is incredibly easy to use and is more or less based on the natural hourglass figure from the 1860s. It will not injure you or alter your figure for the worse, but will just help you stand up straighter and assist your stomach muscles in sucking everything in.
But before you slice into your fabric, there are two important changes I’ve found necessary for making it compatible with modern clothing:
Firstly, you need to omit the busk! The busk is sort of like a row of hook and eye closures which are welded to two long pieces of boning, and is sewn into the front of the corset. This gives you two openings: the busk in the front to hook closed, and all the grommets in back to be laced closed. However, I would strongly caution you against using a busk for your corset unless you will strictly be wearing it with Civil War gowns or other historical costumes. The reason being is that all those little “knobs” down the front will look awfully funny under a 1950s dress and funnier still when paired with a stretchy knit top! When altering the pattern, simply sew the front left and front right portions of the corset together to give you a center front seam. (You may choose to put a piece of boning along this seam as well for more control.)
Secondly, you must cut the corset down to hit you below the bust! There is nothing more ridiculous looking than a stiff horizontal line running across the widest part of the chest, both in the Civil War photographs that remain and even more so in fashions of today. If you are petite up top, it is going to look even more ridiculous since the top of the corset may even stand away from you! So I would highly recommend that you try on the tissue pattern pieces before beginning to sew, then mark with a pencil where the point just under your bust is. Cut all the pieces so that the top of the corset ends in a straight line in front and back. This gives you what historically was called an “under bust corset”, and is very similar to the shape of the girdles worn in the 1950s. (The only instance when you should keep the corset full length is if you are very full up top and need the “uplift” support to help historical costumes fit properly.)
With these notes being mentioned, the rest of the pattern comes together in a cinch! It is the perfect project to start and finish in an afternoon.
Making Sense of Boning
There’s just one more thing I would add – please choose your boning carefully! There are four or five main types of boning on the market today, and only two of them are suitable for actual corsets. I’ll list the boning below, but if any of it isn’t clear please feel free to ask questions!
1. Straight Steel Boning – This is the firmest boning available, and is superb for historical costume corsets. It is a heavy duty flat piece of metal thinly covered with plastic coating. It comes in 1/4″ and 1/2″ widths, and works incredibly well. As with all metal bonings, you will either need to cap it off with boning tips or use rubber tipping fluid found in hardware stores. (One source for this is Corset Supplies.) You do not want to use this boning for anything besides a corset, though! If you’re boning an evening gown or wedding dress, the metal would likely tear through your delicate fabric.
2. Spiral Steel Boning - My favorite all-purpose boning! This stuff is really excellent for a variety of purposes, but is best for corsets, formal dress bodices, and dance costumes. The factor which makes it suited to all three categories is the flexible nature of its design. Interlocking circles of sturdy wire mean that you can have sideways movement without compromising the control needed for a boned garment. As with the straight steel, you will definitely need to use boning tips on the ends. More info here.
3. Hoop Skirt Boning – Not to be used for corset making! This is a terrific product if you’re making a hoopskirt, but not very useful for anything else. For the record, it is a much different style than the other bonings mentioned, as it two thin wires encased on opposite ends of canvas tape. Works perfectly for an 1860s or 1950s hoopskirt!
4. Rigilene – This stuff is a very thin plastic punctured with lots of tiny holes. The holes make it possible to actually sew through this boning (if you can call it that), but my experience (and the experience of every other seamstress I know) has been that this product hardly does any good at all for a corset! It permenantly holds the curved shape it was in while still packaged, and lends little or no help for making the waist thinner. I have worked with it in a variety of settings, and would say that if you are really afraid of metal bonings you can use it to bone the bodice of a wedding dress, but other than that it is better suited for craft projects.
5. “Featherweight Boning” by Dritz – I would not recommend using this! Please know that I do not like to be negative on the blog unless I really have to be, but out of sincere compassion for any unsuspecting seamstresses who have never used it before, please take my advice and do not attempt to use this for a corset! I have spoken with dozens of women about this product, and every single one of them without exception has only referred to it while using bad words! : ) Since I do not use bad words (and I like the blog to be a clean sort of place), I will not repeat the sewer’s comments here, but be advised that I really recommend going with another product. (I did use it myself for a Victorian 1880s gown & boned the entire bodice with it - the result was quite disastrous!)
Getting Into Your Corset
Once you have your corset ready to use, you might ask yourself how you’re going to get into this contraption! If you have someone to be your “personal assistant”, you will have them lace up the back and tie it tightly for you. Otherwise, this is the method I’ve concocted: Wrap the corset around you with the back opening in front so you can see it. Lace the corset loosely till all the grommets have been laced. Then, gradually turn the corset around so the back closure is in the back. Pull the laces as tight as you can comfortably wear it, keeping in mind that the back edges are not supposed to be touching – there should be approximately two inches between the right and left sides. Tie firmly.
Since your corset has metal boning inside and can’t be laundered, you should always wear something lightweight underneath so it never actually touches your skin. That way (ideally) the corset stays clean and can be used for years. The layer you choose to wear under your corset could be as simple as a tank top/camisole, or your could sew a tube top the height of the corset from a soft cotton knit fabric.
Corsets and Little House
In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic Little House series, her Ma would often worry, “What your figure will be, goodness knows!”, after numerous unsuccessful attempts to get Laura to wear her corset. When writing her books, Laura remembered that she couldn’t stand the restricting feeling, as it made it much more difficult to run about the prairie, jump in the hay wagon, and attend to the other tomboyish tasks she was so fond of. Now that I think about, the corsets of Laura Ingalls’ day must have been much more restricting than the ones we make nowadays, because I have never felt anything but quite comfortable in mine.
So now that we’ve covered the actual making of a corset, I wanted to share some pictures from the Little House tv series wherein Nellie Oleson is attempting to lace her mother into a corset that is clearly too small for her! This is one of the funniest “Mrs. Oleson” moments from the entire ten years of the show, so if you haven’t seen it you might want to pop over to this video and go to 6 minutes 12 seconds to see the part I’m referring to. It was shown in the episode “To See the Light” which mainly deals with Adam & Mary’s struggles, but also includes the more light-hearted Mrs. Oleson scenes as well!
In the end, the laces broke and Mrs. Oleson was catapulted into the next room. I won’t spoil the rest of the scene, but it is pretty much impossible to feel badly for Mrs. Oleson since she was such a mean person on the Little House show!
So I hope you’ve enjoyed the last couple of corset posts, and I would love to hear if any of you have sewn corsets for modern day use. Do you use yours strictly for reenacting and costumes, or have you ever worn one with a wedding dress/evening gown? Does anyone have a vintage girdle/corset in their collection? So far I’ve only been fortunate enough to meet one lady who actually remembers her mother wearing an Edwardain corset, but I’m sure some of our moms or grandmothers wore the 1950s type. Can y0u think of any good Victorian films that show corsets in use? I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject!