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Corsets and the Victorian Fainting Culture

In a previous article, we discussed how feeling faint or light headed is caused by the brain not being properly oxygenated – but contrary to popular belief, most of the fainting done by people in corsets was not due to suffocation. Most genuine fainting was said to be rather due to abrupt changes in blood pressure. (This is just one of many reasons why it’s important to lace down gradually; tying your corset too tight, too quickly can cause acute changes in blood pressure and make you feel lightheaded.)

Today we’re not going to focus on blood pressure per se, but we’re going to specifically touch on the “Victorian fainting culture” – what do I mean by that? Well, have you ever wondered why there are so many stories of fainting during the Victorian era, and why the “swooning Southern Belle” is depicted so often in period movies? Have you ever wondered why people claim that the Victorians invented the fainting couch solely for this reason? Let’s analyze a few different reasons why upper class Victorian women could have fainted:

Shortness of Breath (from possible overexertion)

I’m not denying that some women could have genuinely fainted from shortness of breath, but this scenario was likely far less common than some individuals claim. Someone could feel woozy if they were laced more tightly than they’re accustomed to, for a special occasion (like a party or ball). It wasn’t out of the ordinary for a woman of wealth to own more than one corset, and sometimes her formal corset would be slightly smaller than her day corset to give a more dramatic or impressive silhouette (I should add that I don’t personally consider it responsible to tightlace past the point of discomfort/pain; nevertheless, other people do go the extra inch for a special event). Add an evening of more exertion than usual (like hours of dancing) and dehydration on top of that, and it would not be outside of the realm of possibility that a woman would faint.

Overheating

Let’s not rule out the possibility that women may have fainted from simply overheating. Consider the Full Monty of undergarments: a chemise under the corset, bloomers, the corset itself, a corset cover, possibly a hoopskirt, several petticoats, and then over that would be a blouse, an overskirt, possibly a jacket, train for the skirt, and perhaps a little hat or bonnet on top of your head. Clothing can exceed 20 lbs at times, and there would be around 4 layers of clothing between your skin and the air – which, even if made from the lightest linens and using the thinnest corset, would still add up in weight and insulation. If you could imagine wearing all this in the middle of summer in Texas or Georgia (since the media love to depict Victorian ladies as specifically Southern Belles), and air conditioning won’t be invented for another 100 years, it’s safe to say that you may feel considerably overheated – and this can lead to fainting and heat stroke.

Dehydration

It is so very easy to become dehydrated. Even today, some sources state that 75% of North Americans are chronically dehydrated – we do not drink enough water or eat enough hydrating foods. Corsets are able to exacerbate symptoms that you would not normally notice when you’re uncorseted – i.e. while corsets are not to blame for our chronic dehydration, wearing a corset may make you more aware of your body, and you may feel dehydrated faster and with more intensity than if you were uncorseted. When I started corseting on a regular basis, I noticed that I felt thirstier than usual. When I started setting alarms for myself to drink 2-3 liters of water each day, I started feeling much better both in and out of the corset. Fran Blanche of Contour Corsets has written about blood volume, dehydration and corseting on her blog here.

The scenarios already mentioned above (overheating, overexertion etc.) can lead to further dehydration, which may cause fainting much faster or more frequently in an already chronically dehydrated person. Staying hydrated is so very important if you choose to wear a corset.

Shock/ surprise

Yes, fainting from shock does happen. I have two stories where I’ve almost fainted in my life, and neither of them involve corsets: I remember being about 6-7 years old, trying to make a paper palm tree, and I accidentally stapled my thumb. I took one look at my thumb and I remember developing tunnel vision and ringing in my ears (classic vasovagal response). According to those around me, my face went pale and my lips turned blue. I never lost consciousness, but I do remember instinctively lying down quickly. A similar thing happened the very first time I put in contact lenses. Fainting from shock, with or without corsets, is a real possibility.

But would Victorian women be so sheltered as to faint at the slightest bad news? It likely depended on the individual’s temperament, and also their family’s status. The very high class were probably not exposed to the blood and gore like those living on a farm, nevermind being desensitized to shocking news and images and media the way we are today. News came from newspapers, magazines and word of mouth. Public executions were not done everywhere, and likely not attended by all people. It’s therefore not hard consider that if a sheltered person were see or hear something out of the ordinary (something appalling or grotesque) they may have reacted somewhat more dramatically and could very well have even fainted – whether intentionally or unintentionally, which leads us to the last point…

Mock Fainting (or what I like to call “Feign-ting”)

Many Victorian women were probably taught to pretend to faint in uncomfortable situations. Remember that it was unbecoming for a proper lady to throw a hissy fit (lest she be diagnosed with “hysteria” and hauled away). What’s a woman to do when she:

  • wants to quickly become the center of attention at a party?
  • sees someone annoying and wants to avoid talking to them?
  • is angry about certain circumstances but society doesn’t allow her to throw a temper tantrum?
  • (And as one viewer mentioned in a recent comment:) needs to escape to the toilet but doesn’t want to announce something so unbecoming?

The answer to all of these? She faints. Or feigns fainting, in any case. Fainting was said to be one of few ways to abruptly change a subject or leave a room while still saving face and being considered a lady. “Fainting culture” indeed!

What about all those fainting couches?

“Chaise longue in a 4th-century Roman manuscript” (Wikipedia commons)

Many people will claim that the Chaise Longue was invented in the Victorian era – in reality, they existed in Egypt and Greece at least 2000 years prior, and possibly as far back as the 8th century BCE. Unfortunately, taking a millennia-old piece of furniture and reinventing it as a strictly Victorian “fainting couch” (and treating their invention as a direct response to the corset) did nothing more than glorify and perpetuate the fainting culture and help Victorian women look fabulous while they were (pretending to be) unconscious.

While fainting in a corset is not impossible, there is much more to the wilting Victorian lady than what we’re usually taught. It’s worth noting that while many people faint for many reasons, it is NEVER “normal” to feel faint whether in or out of a corset. If you faint on a regular basis or for unexplained reasons, always see your doctor.

But there is a big difference between genuinely feeling lightheaded vs feign-ting for the “fun of it” – and I would prefer that the perpetuation of the swooning corset-wearer stereotype would stop today. So the next time you’re at a Renfaire or convention and you see someone at the corset vendor’s kiosk, melodramatically swooning and pretending to fall over for the “fun of it”, be sure to let them know that their melodramatic performance is hardly an original act.

Please note that this article is provided for information purposes, and is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. Please contact your trusted physician if you plan to wear a corset for any reason.

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Jupiter Moon 3 “Hemp and Twill” Corset Review

This post is a summary of the “Jupiter Moon 3 Corset Review” video, which you can watch on Youtube if you prefer:

Jupiter Moon 3 Quick Stats

Fit, length (Because JM3’s corsets are made to measure, the measurements of this corset are a bit irrelevant. But I’ve added the measurements below for the sake of completion.) The center front is 14.5 inches long. Princess seam is 10.5 inches. The side seam is 9.5 inches, and the center back is 14 inches.  Circumferential measurements: waist is 20 inches, the underbust is 26 inches, and the low hip is about 30 inches. This corset fits me with an even 4-inch wide gap.
Material Three layers (if you consider fusible interfacing a layer): fashion fabric is tea-stained cotton twill, fused to very thick non-woven interfacing, and the lining is a thin lightweight cotton.
Construction 5 panel pattern (10 panels total).
The fashion fabric was fused to heavy interfacing, and the panels look to be lock-stitched (no visible topstitch). Single boning channels on the seams. The lining is a floating layer (only attached at the front and back panels).
Binding Bias strips of tea-stained cotton twill. Neatly machine stitched on both sides (stitched-in-the-ditch on outside, and turned under on the inside. No garter tabs on this sample (but available for special corset orders).
Waist tape None detected. (See discussion below)
Modesty panel 4 inch-wide back modesty panel, finished in tea-stained cotton twill, and stitched to one side of the corset. Also unstiffened placket in front by the busk.
Busk Standard flexible busk (1/2″ on each side), 13 inches long with 6 loops and pins (equidistantly spaced). Close to each side of the busk are stiff flat steels that are pre-bent to give support to the busk and curve over a lower tummy.
Boning 12 total bones (6 on each side). They all seem to be 1/4″ wide flat steels, single boned on the seams. JM3 uses rigid bones and pre-bends them to curve inward at the waist and outward at the hip to accentuate the hip spring. In the front, the bones curve around a lower tummy, acting almost like a spoon busk.
Grommets 28 grommets total, size #00 with a medium flange and finished in silver. Set ea bit closer together at the waistline, and they’re in good condition (set in securely and not falling out). Typical “US brand” grommets.
Laces 3/8″ wide double-faced satin ribbon in a cream color.
Price $272 USD for this exact style (as of 2016, JM3 has reduced her prices!)

 

Andi models this sample corset by Jupiter Moon 3. Photo: Viva Van Story. Click through to see JM3's Etsy shop.
Andi models this sample corset by Jupiter Moon 3. Photo: Viva Van Story. Click through to see JM3’s Etsy shop.

Jupiter Moon 3 is a one-woman business owned by Jennifer in Texas. I love the charming vintage aesthetic of this corset, with the tea staining, the lovely lace and the thick hemp flossing. I was surprised at the strength of this corset considering how lightweight it was – especially considering that the strength layer is just interfaced twill!

JM3 says that she tends not to use a waist tape, and that in the 1000+ corsets she’s ever made, she has never needed a waist tape to reinforce the waist (she’s never had a problem with the waist of her corsets stretching or seams tearing). However, she will add a waist tape to any special-ordered corset for a small markup in price.

There are more comments from JM3 and also other owners of JM3 corsets in the comments section under the Youtube review for this corset, so I encourage you to read more there if you’re interested in more opinions and information about her corsets.

See more at in Jupiter Moon 3’s Etsy shop!

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Interview with Lowana O’Shea of Vanyanis

In September of 2014 I had the pleasure of interviewing the ever-beautiful and talented corsetiere behind Vanyanis: Lowana O’Shea. I have a lot to thank Lowana for: she and the late Christine Wickham had personally launched a fundraiser to allow me to attend the Oxford Conference of Corsetry that year, and Lowana let me tag along during much of our adventures in England!

As filming interviews was not permitted on location in Jesus College, this interview was filmed in our hotel in London about a week after the Conference:

Timeline:

Here I'm wearing the gorgeous engraved busk loop necklace and earring set made by Vanyanis. Click through to learn more about this jewelry!
Here I’m wearing the gorgeous engraved busk loop necklace and earring set made by Vanyanis. Click through to learn more about this jewelry!

0:28 You’re looking very glamorous today, what exciting things did you get up to today before this interview?

1:05 How did you come up with the name Vanyanis?

1:35 How long have you been in business, and how did you come to love corsetry?

2:27 What is your favorite part of the creative process?

3:10 (Showcase of one of Lowana’s couture overbust corsets with over 3000 Swarovski crystals!)

4:38 What is your least favorite part of corset making?

5:20 What do you see in the future of your business? What are your aspirations for Vanyanis?

You can find more of Lowana’s work on her website, Vanyanis.

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Orchard Corset CS-345 Review

Brittney and Amber model the CS-345 underbust in a limited edition red satin.

This post is a summary of the “Orchard Corset CS-345 Underbust Review” video, which you can watch on Youtube:

Fit, length Center front is 12.5 inches long, the princess seam is 10 inches long, the side seam is 9 inches long, and the center back is 13 inches long (with quite a high back). Circumferential measurements: waist is size 24 (24 inches), the underbust is 30 inches (6 inch rib spring), and the low hip is about 32 inches (8 inch hip spring).
Material Three main layers – the fashion fabric on mine is a tan cotton twill finish. There is a thick interlining between the layers, and the lining is also cotton twill.
Construction 6 panel pattern, constructed using the welt-seam method with the seams top-stitched between panels. Single boned on the seams.
Binding Bias strips of matching tan cotton twill, neatly machine stitched on outside and inside. 6 garter tabs
Waist tape 1-inch wide black ribbon exposed on the inside of the corset. It is a partial waist tape, first seemingly glued down (by an iron-on hemming tape) and then stitched in place, anchored at the seams/ boning channels. The waist tape is not horizontal, it slants downward in a V-shape toward the center front.
Modesty panel Modesty panel is 5″ wide and finished in tan twill. Unstiffened and stitched to the corset on one side (easily removable). The center front has a 0.5″ wide, unstiffened modesty placket as well.
Busk 11.5 inches long with 5 loops and pins, the bottom two pins being positioned a bit closer together. Standard flexible busk (0.5″ on each side)
Boning 14 total bones not including busk (7 on each side). 1/4″ wide spirals, single boned on the seams. Two 1/4″ wide flats sandwich the grommets on each side.
Grommets 24 grommets total, size #00 with a small flange and finished in silver. Set equidistantly, about 1 inch apart, and they are holding in well.
Laces Black flat nylon shoelace style lacing, 1/4″ wide. Slightly springy but very difficult to snap. I had to relace the corset to bring the “bunny ears” down to my natural waist, as the corset came with the loops laced too high for my needs.
Price The smaller sizes (up to size 32″) is $69 USD, and the full-figure sizes (up to size 46″) is $74 USD.
Use CORSETLUCY to save 10% off your entire order! (This is a coupon, not an affiliate link.)

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Brittney and Amber model the CS-345 underbust in a limited edition red satin.
Brittney and Amber model Orchard Corset’s CS-345 underbust in a limited edition red satin.

The CS-345 is designed to fit people with a relatively broader ribcage and relatively slim hips – I can see this working well for some men as well who would like to try a corset, or athletic people (especially swimmers with well-developed lats). The high back is also fantastic for upper-back support and holding in any muffin top.

However the one bugaboo I have with this corset is the fact that the bottom point at the center front wants to bow away from my body, which creates a distracting “protrusion” under my clothing at the pubic bone. I have a naturally flat abdomen, and when wearing this corset under my clothing it makes me look like I have a protruding lower tummy (or other anatomy which I don’t naturally have). If the manufacturer were able to somehow adjust the pattern and move a bit of material from the center front (panels 1 and 2) and replace that material on the side seam (panels 3 and 4), it would make the corset lie more flat against my lower tummy and also make the hips fit more comfortably.

However, it could just be that this corset is simply not compatible with my body. I have seen some other people wear this corset beautifully with no issue (see Brittney and Amber in the pic above) – but when it comes to Orchard Corset, I will stick with my CS-426 longline corset as that remains my favorite style to date.

Use my coupon code CORSETLUCY for 10% off your entire order – this is a discount, not an affiliate code! I get no payment from people using this code.

Learn more about the CS-345 corset here on Orchard Corset’s website.

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How to Deal with Corset Modesty Panels

Struggling with your modesty panel every time you lace up? Worry not, there’s a solution! Read ahead to learn about the 3 most common types of modesty panels in corsets – and how to keep them straight and centered while you’re lacing up. If you don’t like to use modesty panels, most types are completely removable, and panels are usually not required in the first place.

Stiffened, detached modesty panels (Dark Garden)

You can choose to use it or not use it depending on your preference. If you’re wearing a silky shirt, this panel wants to slide off your back before you even wrap your corset around yourself! There are a couple of ways I get around this.

Method 1:
  1. Bend forward a bit, so you can balance the panel on your back. Hold the panel in place with one hand while you wrap the corset around yourself with the other hand. Don’t worry if it’s uneven at this point.
  2. Do up the busk. The laces and very slight tension at this point should keep the panel from falling.
  3. Look in the mirror and adjust the position of the panel so it’s centered, not tilted, and the top and bottom edges match up with the corset properly. This is best done when you’re half-finished lacing your corset (if you try to adjust it when you’re finished lacing up, there may be too much tension for you to adjust the panel easily.
Method 2:
  1. Put your corset on and do up the busk. Do not tighten the laces yet – in fact, it’s a good idea to loosen the laces even more than you usually would (if possible).
  2. Lean over slightly and slide the panel under the corset at the SIDE (if you try to do it at the back, the panel is highly likely to get tangled in the laces).

    Sliding the panel underneath the corset at the side first (to avoid tangling the laces).
    Sliding the panel underneath the corset at the side first (to avoid tangling the laces).
  3. Once the panel is in place vertically, then slide the panel to the back and center it on your back. It should not get tangled in the laces this way.
  4. Give a tug on the laces to provide enough tension to keep the panel in place. When you’re halfway done tightening up the corset, check one last time that your panel is placed where you want it, then finish up lacing.

 

Unstiffened modesty panels, stitched to the side (most OTR corsets)

This is the most popular style of modesty panel – usually a couple of layers of fabric, fastened to one side of the corset.

Keep in mind, the following steps work if the modesty panel is sewn to the left side (like Orchard Corset). If your corset has the panel sewn to the right side (like What Katie Did, Corset Story, etc.), you’ll need to do these steps in mirror image.

  1. Hold the corset in your left hand and lean to the right. As you swing the corset around your back and catching the other side in your right hand, gravity will help the panel flop towards the laces and flatten across your back.

    The panel is attached to the left side, so I have to lean to the right - gravity helps it flop in the right direction.
    The panel is attached to the left side, so I have to lean to the right – gravity helps it flop in the right direction.
  2. Wrap the corset around your body and fasten the busk.
  3. Look in the mirror. Ensure your modesty panel is flat.
  4. Tug the laces at the waistline. If your panel starts to crinkle or fold on itself. Then use your right hand to reach around your back, and grab the panel to pull it flat.
  5. Lace up your corset a little more, stopping periodically to pull and tuck the modesty panel flat again and again.
  6. Is this a pain in the butt? Yes, but there’s really no way around it (unless you want to modify the panel).
  7. Don’t expect the panel to be perfectly smooth the way the rest of your corset is. A vertical or crease fold over your spine is perfectly normal!

In a previous video I showed how to take an unstiffened modesty panel, detach it, add a stiffener (using either bones or canvas) and suspend it on the laces using grommets (some prefer to use ribbons to suspend it instead, which is also gorgeous). Here’s how I made my own modesty panel for a corset using canvas.
N.B. some types of modesty panels (like What Katie Did) are sewn into the lining of the corset such that the panel cannot be removed using a seam ripper without compromising the integrity of the corset. In such cases, if you want to completely remove the modesty panel, it’s best to simply cut the panel out while keeping the stitching undisturbed.

 

Stiffened, suspended (floating) modesty panels (Retrofolie)

This is a stiffened rectangle very much like Dark Garden’s modesty panel (the first type) except it’s suspended on the laces. Here’s how to lace up with one of these:

  1. When I initially wrap the corset around my body, I try NOT to lean too much to one side or the other – this helps keep the panel from sliding horizontally on the laces, and minimizes my work to adjust its position later on.
  2. Fasten the busk. Adjust the panel so that it’s not tilted, and the top and bottom edges of the panel is level with the top and bottom of the corset.
  3. Notice in the video that I have to make relatively few adjustments with this panel (it stays nicely in place and doesn’t crinkle too badly). This why this type of modesty panel is my personal favorite! The only disadvantage is that if you want to change your corset laces (or remove the panel) it’s quite time-consuming to unlace and relace.
    However, some modesty panels have easily-removable velcro tabs which fasten quickly and easily to suspend itself on the laces, and can be removed just as easily! Find them here in my shop.

    These awesome modesty panels are boned and they hang on the laces using small velcro loops - super easy to attach and remove.
    These awesome modesty panels are boned and they hang on the laces using small velcro loops – super easy to attach and remove.

Do you have a different way of dealing with your modesty panel while lacing up? Let me know in a comment below!

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Orchard Corset CS-201 Mesh Waspie Review

This post is a summary of the “Orchard Corset CS-201 Mesh Waspie Review” video, which you can watch on Youtube:

Fit, length Center front is 9.5 inches long, the side seam is 7.5 inches long. (Your torso should be at least 8 inches long from underbust to lap).  Circumferential measurements: waist is size 22 (22 inches), the underbust is 26.5 inches (4.5 inch rib spring), and the low hip is about 32 inches (10 inch hip spring).
Material One main layer made of black, cotton fish-net style mesh. The boning channels and binding are black cotton twill.
Construction Probably a 5-6 panel pattern, but as the corsets get larger in size, the number of boning channels increase (the number of panels do not increase, but the boning channels make it look as though there are more panels). The seams between the panels are reinforced by sewing twill boning channels to both the outside and the inside of the seam, completely covering/ sandwiching it.
Binding Bias strips of black twill, neatly machine stitched on outside and inside. No garter tabs.
Waist tape 1-inch wide black twill tape is exposed on the inside of the corset, anchored by the seams/ boning channels.
Modesty panel Modesty panel is 5″ wide and finished in black twill. Unstiffened and stitched to the corset on one side (easily removable).  No modesty placket in front.
Busk 8.5 inches long with 5 loops and pins, equidistantly spaced. Slightly wider and slightly stiffer than a standard flexible busk (this one is about 3/4″ wide on each side).
Boning 14 total bones not including busk (7 on each side). 1/4″ wide spirals, single boned on the seams. Two 1/4″ wide flats sandwich the grommets on each side. This is ONLY for the size 22″ (larger sizes have more bones, contact Orchard Corset for more info about other sizes).
Grommets 16 grommets total, size #00 with a small flange and finished in silver. Set equidistantly (about 1 inch apart) and they are holding in well.
Laces Black flat nylon shoelace style lacing, 1/4″ wide. Slightly springy but very difficult to snap. Long enough and comfortable to hold when lacing up.
Price The smaller sizes (up to size 32″) is $65 USD, and the full-figure sizes (up to size 40″) is $69 USD (as of 2016).
Use CORSETLUCY to save 10% off your entire order! (This is a coupon, not an affiliate link.)

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The CS-201 waspie replaced Orchard Corset’s older style CS-301 cincher. I am personally cool with this, as this 201 waspie is more curvy, more comfortable, has better quality construction, and basically I like it better all-around. It contains more bones (and the number of bones increase as the corset size increases!) so it doesn’t have the fabric-buckling issue that the old CS-301 did, and it had more panels which means a smoother form around the body. If you have a very short torso but you also want a cool, breezy mesh corset to wear in hot climates or during the summer, this is your answer – I haven’t come across any shorter mesh pieces on the market!

Brittney models the CS-201 mesh waspie. Photo: Orchard Corset.
Brittney models the CS-201 mesh waspie. Photo: Orchard Corset.

The center front dips down into a small point but still lays relatively flat against my abdomen. If you don’t have any lower tummy pooch (or if you only have a small one), the corset should fit – but if you have a longer torso or if you have a larger, lower hanging tummy, you may prefer to try Orchard’s mesh CS-426 longline corset instead which provides more control of the lower abdomen. That said, I have tried this corset under form-fitting dresses and the point did show through a little more compared to other corsets that are cut more straight across along the bottom edge.

Keep in mind that these mesh-style corsets don’t last forever – if I’m wearing a mesh corset on a regular basis in the summer, I can expect it to wear out within a couple of months – this is true of all “fishnet” style mesh corsets, regardless of the brand, so it’s not a strike against Orchard Corset – it’s the nature of the fabric. The CS-201 corset is available in solid fabrics as well (black cotton and black satin) if you prefer your corsets to be a little more sturdy and last a bit longer.

Use my coupon code CORSETLUCY for 10% off your entire order – this is a discount, not an affiliate code! I get no payment from people using this code.

Learn more about the CS-201 corset here on Orchard Corset’s website.