This week’s post comes to you from Missouri Dalton, who is far more knowledgeable about corsets than I am. Missouri a writer and artist from Ohio. You can find her blog here. Her latest book, A Curse on the Mountain, is now available from Dreamspinner Press.
Ah, corsets. The foundation of many a historical costumer’s wardrobe. First off, I want to explain a quirky difference in terminology. You’ll see here a late 18th century example of what some folks would call a corset. That is not a corset, those are stays. It has to do with the time period. If you’re talking about the 18th or 17th centuries, the ladies (in England at least) are wearing stays. A corset at that time was actually an unboned garment. Then we hit the 19th century and we start seeing something more like what we think of today as a corset.
Today though we’re going to talk about the latter half of the 19th century and the corset shapes for that style of dress. So here are some illustrations and a museum example of some of those corsets. You can see the very defined curvature. Wide hip spring, wide rib spring and a narrow waist. That’s the sort of shape you want to wear under a bustled dress because the wide hip is going to support the skirts. This is even appropriate for a bit earlier (Civil War) for the same reason. You want a good strong foundation so those insanely wide skirts or high fluffy bustles don’t drag down your waist.
The shape of your corset is going to determine the shape it gives you. That means that when you buy an off the rack corset that has flat sides it’s not going to give you the right shape or the right foundation for historical wear. Orchard Corset has some decent options for this, though I would stick with under busts as the over bust options don’t seem to have a wide enough range of bust goring. Which as you can see in this example, there was a lot of variation in the bust of a corset for ladies with more going on up there. You don’t really see this sort of corset these days but that doesn’t mean you can’t make one or commission one of the many bespoke corsetiers out there to make one for you.
Let’s say you want to try and make one yourself. There are a lot of patterns out there and not all of them are created equal. Victorian Times and Bluemoon have some authentic patterns, but I would steer clear of McCall’s and Simplicity, they shapes generally aren’t what you’re looking for. There’s also this fantastic book. Corsets, Historical Patterns & Techniques by Jill Salen. This one I own and it has patterns, tips and is a wonderful reference with great photos.
Onto material. Plastic bones mean it’s not a corset. The same goes for zipties and whatever else in the plastic family you’re thinking about using. Just don’t. It won’t last and when plastic gets warm from your body heat it will form to your body. Which is the opposite of what you want from a corset.
Steel comes in flat and spiral (which is like a spring pressed flat) and you can use both or just one in a corset. I like spiral steel in the curves at the hip and flat along the front and back personally. Another great option is cording. Corded corsets are best made from cotton cord and are surprisingly strong and durable as well as being much lighter. You can also use cane and if you’re a horrible monster; whale bone. (I have no objection to buying antique whale bone corsets. Just be aware that they are very fragile.)
Fabric choice is also important. Cotton coutil is made for corsetry and is very strong and durable. I would use it for your inner liner at least and then you can use something pretty (if you so choose) for the exterior. Dupioni silk, satin, brocade, a cotton print… The options are limitless. Off the rack corsets made of cotton tend to be more durable and you’ll want to look for a waist tape which can be anything from ribbon to a narrow band of fabric or twill tape sewn around the interior of the corset’s waist, which helps hold the corset’s shape and you.