Immersing Corsets in Water – some considerations
If you plan to immerse your corset under water (in order to wash it, dye it a different color, or you plan to wear it to the beach, pool or water park), there are a few things to consider. I have received a surprising number of emails (in the past month especially) from various people wanting to know if it’s okay to swim in their corset.
Although I know of at least two people who have occasionally taken a dip while wearing a corset, and a handful of other models who have worn corsets in water-themed photo shoots (see below), I know that I would not personally swim in a corset. I am not a very strong swimmer, and I need to have full lung capacity and full mobility when I swim – so I know that I’d prefer not to cinch my waist or restrict my ribcage when swimming laps. If I were frolicking in the shallow end and just wearing a corset under my swimsuit for a bit of shape without intending to swim, this might be a different story.
Why do so many corsetieres not recommend washing their corsets?
If your corsetiere creates a custom piece for you and they mention in their wear & care information that the corset should not be washed, please follow their directions. The biggest concern regarding consistently wetting your corset is that the steel bones may rust over time. Also, fabrics like silk and even polyester satin can water stain, and fabrics that are not colorfast will have the dye bleed and fade. JoAnn Peterson (owner of Laughing Moon Mercantile) also taught me that if multiple-layer corsets are made with different fibers (for instance are strength fabric of cotton and a fashion layer of wool suiting) they will have different shrink rates – especially if the fabric isn’t pre-washed – so your corset may end up warped, wrinkly or bubbly if it ends up shrinking.
Why were so many advertisements for washable corsets in the early 1900s?
Corsets made in the 1800s that were designed to be worn every day (especially for the working class) were often made from a single layer of hardy cotton and not made in vibrant colours – so there was little worry about different shrink rates or dyes bleeding. Back when corsets were made with reed and whalebone, these come from plants and animals that live in the water, so wetting them occasionally actually helped to condition them, and keep them supple and flexible. Old, dry baleen was brittle and prone to snapping or splintering (which is where the rumors of corsets causing “broken bones” likely came from – it was broken baleen, not broken human bones!).
(Above is a silent film advertisement from the 1910s for Warners corsets, which were guaranteed not to rust, break or tear. By the 20th century, the vast majority of corsets did contain steel bones, though.)
When baleen was first replaced with steel, it was initially a type of ‘mild steel’ ribbon. While in England last year during a visit to the Symington collection, I had the opportunity to see how thin, flexible, and badly rusted these older steel bones were. A few styles of corsets back then had little deliberate slits or gaps in the boning channels, which allowed you to remove the bones before you washed the corset and easily replace them afterward!
Lara Corsets comments: “This ad showing a corset getting wet was shocking at the time because it was common knowledge that soaking a corset would ruin it. Corsets of the 19th century in general are often starched and steam molded to have a certain shape. Washing will literally wash out all of that shaping. They were never intended to be washed. Steel busks were usually paper, fabric or leather wrapped and would absolutely rust. The enameled steel was a big step forward in the 1890s but on OLD enameled flat steels the surface crackles and rust forms quickly. Washing often causes huge rust stains. These Warner’s corsets that claimed to be washable were boned with coraline which was thread wrapped reeds. The only metal on those corsets was the busk, grommets and side steels (if there were any).”
Today, modern technology has greatly helped prevent rusting and corrosion of steel. Flat (spring) steels are covered with a white coating and tipped with a tipping fluid, silicone or teflon. Wide busks are made of stainless steel (similar to modern silverware or your kitchen sink) so it’s more resistant to rust. Spiral steels are galvanized – they’re given a thin coating of zinc to help make them more resistant to rust, but even zinc can corrode over time, so nothing truly makes steel bones rust-proof forever (especially in the case of poor-quality steels sometimes found in budget corsets, which are not coated or galvanized properly).
The difference between workhorse corsets and collectible corsets
Please note that the recommendations and antique ads for washing your corset were intended for workhorse corsets – garments that were designed to be used every day, hold up to high tension for a short time, and eventually wear out. Other brand advertisements of the time boasted that their corsets lasted up to a whole year of use! (Consider the mentality today, where so many people think they can purchase one OTR corset, wear it daily and have it last 5, 10 years or more – not likely today as it wasn’t likely then!)
I’m sure that in 1910, hardly any woman of the time would predict that one of their daily undergarments would become a collector’s piece today – yet here we are. Again, it’s important to note that these garments were not intended to last 100 years. Areas of the cloth can become thin from damage by the elements: fluctuations in moisture and humidity, UV and other radiation, too acidic or too basic pH, or can even be eaten away by moths and microbes. Fibers can dry-rot and become delicate, and you may not see microscopic damage until you handle the corset in some way!
I’ve gotten some traffic recently from antique corset owners who are interested in washing their corset to get rid of the staining and grime the corset has collected over the years. Personally, I would not wash an antique. While the salt and oils from the body left over from the corset’s previous owner can cause some damage to a corset, the strong basic pH of cleanser and the agitation of washing is by far worse for the longevity of the corset – even if that antique contained baleen, and even if it was once intended to be a workhorse.
Additionally, there is a catch-22 with how thoroughly to cleanse an antique. If you use a gentle cleanser, these sometimes contain conditioners that stick to the fibers of the corset and can cause product build-up. Washing with a gentle cleanser will also not kill all the spores that may have settled into the fibers of the corset over decades, which, once wet, can encourage the growth of mould and mildew in your valuable collectible. If you use a harsher cleanser, this will undoubtedly damage the fibers irreversibly! Please consider carefully the ramifications of washing an antique. You will notice that museums don’t wash all their corsets; and many of them are very badly stained. They know that cleaning an antique can possibly destroy it, and would rather put a dirty corset on display than none at all. Despite their manufactured sturdiness, these pieces have become precious and delicate with age, so treat them as such.
Therefore, the information below on getting your corset wet (and in the video, for suggestions on how one might wash a corset) are intended only for contemporary corsets – often modern OTR and workhorse corsets – and not for couture pieces or antiques. When in doubt, always ask the corsetiere or seller their views on wetting or washing your corset.
What should you do if you get your corset wet?
If your corset does end up being immersed water, either for dying reasons, washing, for a photo shoot, or just by accident, it’s best to air-dry it as fast as possible, perhaps in an area with a warm breeze, out of direct sunlight if you’re worried about color fading. If the corset is white, then the UV rays in sunlight have a bleaching effect, and can also naturally deodorize and disinfect – but do be aware that UV rays can also break down the fibers of a corset faster. Absolutely never throw your corset in a tumble dryer!
Still want / need to dunk your corset in water?
If you do plan to wet your corset on a regular basis, here are some tips to keep your corset functional and beautiful for as long as possible:
- Don’t be incredibly attached to your corset. There is a possibility that it’ll get ruined, even when it’s made to specifications below. Perhaps have an OTR corset set aside for those soggy situations, instead of wetting a custom/ couture corset.
- If your corset has multiple layers, be sure that those layers are the same fiber (e.g. cotton inner and cotton outer layers). These fabrics should preferably be pre-washed and pre-shrunk before the corset was constructed.
- Your steel bones need to be properly coated, galvanized, tipped or otherwise made rust-resistant.
- Your grommets should preferably be iron free (and also nickel free if you’re sensitive to that). The most common is brass (an alloy of copper and zinc). Some grommets are made with aluminum as well.
- If you are a really hardcore trainer and you’re invested in having a corset for all types of situations, and you’re also not allergic to latex or rubber, consider a rubber corset. Bizarre Design and Fantastic Rubber are both well-known for their rubber corsets. Cathie Jung and Michele Köbke both have been seen wearing ‘swimming corsets’ (although it’s not known whether Cathie has really been in the water with hers!). But know that rubber does not breathe and wouldn’t be best for your skin or your internal body temperature if you were to wear it for long hours in the hot sun.
Lara’s Expert Tips for Washing a Corset:
Don’t wash your antique corset unless you are willing to take a chance in compromising it’s strength further if not completely as well as possibly making it worse that it’s current condition. Now, when I am willing to wash a corset here is my method and what I recommend to my customers for the corsets I make them:
- In a basin, tub or sink – fill a few inches deep with lukewarm water and a mild soap (No woolite!). Good old Ivory bar soap, Fels-Naptha, or Orvis soap are great choices.
- Place corset within, and push it around a bit. Spot scrub any stained spots gently – consider the fabric before you brush or rub too hard – a brocade would not withstand harsh treatment. No need to soak. Rinse immediately – Do not wring ever.
- Lay out a thick dry towel and lay the open corset upon it. Roll the towel with the corset and gently press as much water from the corset as possible. Repeat with a fresh towel as needed.
- Hang the corset over a rod, hanger or something similar with a fan or two blowing directly upon it. This will get it dry as fast as possible and help to discourage rust from forming.
Do you swim in your corsets, wash them, or otherwise wet them regularly? Leave a comment below and let us know what steps you take to keep your corset in tip-top shape.