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“Corsets: Historical Patterns and Techniques” by Jill Salen – an overview

This is more or less a transcript of my video review of the same book – if you prefer to watch/ listen to the review instead of reading it, you may do so here:

I purchased this book for about $23 on Amazon. This book includes full-color photos of historical corsets, then patterns made from these corsets and notes on how they’re constructed or typical embellishments. This book is designed to be a supplement or an improvement to Corsets and Crinolines by Norah Waugh, adding to the number of patterns and more detailed construction notes. Having 25 patterns in this book, this means that the price for each pattern was less than $1, which made the purchase well worth it to me.

The corsets range from about 1750 to around the time of WWI. There’s a section in the introduction that explains how corsets were dated (if they didn’t have the year of manufacture stamped on the corset). Curators gain hints by the way that these corsets were constructed. The earliest corsets were sewn entirely by hand and used hand-sewn eyelets and a wooden busk, whereas in the late 19th century had the luxury of sewing machines and many corsets were mass-produced at this time; they also usually had metal eyelets and a metal split busk. You can also gain insight to the year each corset was made, based on what silhouette was in fashion at what time, or ways of patterning – use of hip or bust gores, or cording instead of boning, etc.

Ms. Salen also discusses who would wear a certain corset and when they would be worn – certain corsets were designed for younger ladies verses matrons, women of higher class could afford to purchase more elaborate corsets or less practical corsets. Also, a proper lady may have several corsets – one for daily work, one for riding horseback, one for dances and special occasions. What country a person lived in also meant access to different materials or different fashions.

One interesting point she makes is that many of the corsets you see in museums are not representative of the norm – if you think about what clothes we save in our wardrobe, the ones that survive the longest are usually expensive clothes, those of sentimental value, and clothes that you keep in hopes of losing weight. Jill says this is no different from women 1-200 years ago! So the tiniest and the most elaborate of corsets are the ones that survive because they’re worn the least – so we falsely believe that everyone had an 18” waist at the time.

The meat of the book is a collection of 25 corsets from 1750-1917. For each corset there’s a full color photo, followed by a blurb explaining what materials it was made from, and notes on construction or embellishment if you want to make a period-accurate recreation of it. There are also interesting notes where applicable – for instance in the 1917 corset Salen explains how many of the textiles were rationed due to the war, and so new, cheaper synthetic fibers were made in lieu – they also found ways of making paper twine, paper cording, even paper thread to minimize the cost of clothing during this time. After these photos and notes, you find a pattern for each corset. The patterns are drawn out conveniently on a grid, with a legend so you can size it up easily before adjusting the measurements if you wish. On the patterns there are also marks for boning or cording placement, grainlines for the fabric, eyelet placement and “balance marks” (aka notches) so you know

“Corsets: Historical Patterns and Techniques” by Jill Salen.

what panels are sewn together in the correct order.

After these patterns the book gives you two “projects” – step-by-step instructions how to make a corset two different ways: a hand-stitched corset from 1790, and a machine-stitched corset from about 1900. The techniques section in the back shows you period-accurate hand-stitching, what’s appropriate at the seams, at the eyelets, at the binding, etc. It shows you how to do basic flossing and cording, and how to insert a busk.

It also has a bibliography for further reading, URLs for various museums which hold corset collections, an index, and a list of shops that supply specialty corsetry items (which is a little odd because a German store is listed under UK and a Canadian store is listed under US).

My personal thoughts:

I found this book an easy and quick read, considering it’s mostly patterns. I did learn some new things in here, such as techniques for hand-sewing and the little historical or political anecdotes associated with the corsets in each time were interesting. In the section of current corset manufacturers she only mentions two (Symingtons and Vollers), which I consider an unfairly small sample size. Having a color photo of each corset so you have a clear view of what the end result is supposed to look like, is useful, I especially liked extra photographs of how stays were finished on the inside, and wish that could have been done with all of the corsets,  although I can understand if a museum wouldn’t allow that. But despite the two projects in the back, you MUST already have knowledge basic corset terminology, and how to construct corsets – how to adjust the fit, how to sew panels together, etc. in order to make full-use of this book. However, I will still always keep this book in my collection. It’s a fantastic resource for period corset patterns, and even if I were to make every pattern in the book, I would still keep this book to look at the pretty photographs. ;)

The cheapest place I have been able to find this book (price + shipping) is on Amazon. You can view the book and read other reviews about it here.