Almost every month I go through my corsetiere map and make notes on which corset makers are inactive, which have closed down their businesses and websites, and I add new makers that are popping up all the time on Etsy. Like with many craft / creative home businesses, it’s difficult to make corsetry a lucrative career.
Even I took custom commissions for a few years, and while I had no shortage of clients wishing for a corset (I was one of the lucky ones), I had my own reasons for going on an indefinite hiatus.
Because of my corsetiere map, corsetieres contact me when they want to be added or when they would like to be removed. In the latter situation, while I never pry as to their reasons, they often tell me anyway, and many of their grievances boil down to the same main points over and over again.
Although I cannot (and will not) go into the specific set of reasons as to why any one specific corset maker has decided to shut down their business (as that would be betraying their confidence), I can speak generally about it – perhaps discussing this would be helpful in having customers understand that corsetieres are human too, and for other corset makers out there, it can help them avoid the same mistakes.
Corset Supplies are Scarce and Expensive
Making a corset is relatively complicated, as far as garments go. There are a lot of specialty components that go into it (like a busk and steel bones) and depending on where you live, sometimes even good quality 2-part grommets are difficult to source. Most people can’t find these at their local fabric shop, and most corsetieres order online. The materials themselves can often add up to at least $50, before you even put your time into making the corset! This is one reason why corsets themselves are more pricey than other, more common articles of clothing.
Many corset makers end up supplementing their income by creating accessories – corset liners are simple and fast to make, as well as storage bags, or boleros, or dresses or other outfits that go well with their corsets. These are not only made from materials that may be less expensive / easier to source, but they typically take less time to make, so the designer can bring in enough to support themselves.
Corsets Take a Long Time to Make (and have a steep learning curve!)
Someone can buy 2 yards of fabric for $20, make a dress out of it in 2 hours and sell it for $50, so she ends up paying herself $15 per hour. Many people wouldn’t even bat an eye at spending $50 for a simple handmade dress. But let’s say you buy corset materials for $50, and spend 20 hours making a corset. If you paid yourself the same hourly rate ($15 per hour), then that corset will cost a minimum of $350, and (while this is actually a very reasonable price for a custom corset these days) so many people are not willing to pay that much.
Too often, fledgling makers enter the scene with competitive introductory pricing, such that some of them are not even paying themselves minimum wage, and this influences the market and drives down prices for everyone. (And we haven’t even gotten into the hidden costs of running a business… see the “Unexpected Expenses” section.)
There are only 24 hours in everyone’s day, so how do some corset makers make more money with the time that they have? A lot of them get help or take on side jobs:
- More and more corset makers are now holding sewing classes classes, where people come in for a weekend and pay a fee to be taught how to make their own corsets. These classes are seemingly pricey (many start at $300 for a group class, up to and above $1000 for private instruction), but it’s a way for makers to supplement their income. As a student, if you think about the fact that you can buy a corset for $300 or learn to make as many corsets as you like for $300, the price of a class becomes justified (if you enjoy sewing, that is). And for the corsetiere, it’s an opportunity to take a break from the laborious work of crouching over a sewing machine all day.
- Some makers take on interns to help (maybe once a week), so the interns learn how to make corsets for free without having to pay for a one-on-one class, and in return the maker gets… essentially unpaid labor. (From what I understand, depending on where you live and the type of industry you work in, this is an ethically grey area.)
- Some fashion schools allow (or even require) at least one semester of free study, co-op experience, or internship. These “private study” semesters can dramatically help local designers, as flocks of students look for corset-making instruction and need to get their minimum hours filled.
- SO many corset makers ask their husbands or siblings for help, even if it’s just tipping bones or setting the grommets.
- Some makers even hire a virtual assistant to take care of customer service and admin (because dealing with people is not everyone’s strong suit – more on that later in the “Artists Sometimes Suck at Business” section).
- Many corset makers go the way of ready-to-wear corsets. After a few years, corsetieres will likely notice that there is a certain “average” of measurements or proportions from their clients, and they can make one or several standard corset pattern(s) that will maybe 60-75% of bodies. Then they can batch out their corsets in bulk, which is much more efficient on time compared to custom corsets – it means you can stack your fabric layers and cut out several corsets at once, you can stock up on the same length bones and busks all the time (instead of cutting them to length or special-ordering them for each corset), and you don’t have to waste as much time switching tasks. However, after awhile, standard sized / stock corsets can be depressing (see the section “Beggers Can’t Be Choosers“).
- Some corset makers make enough to be able to hire a team to make corsets in a small assembly line – so even when paying their team an hourly rate, since they have specialized machinery and people with specific skills, everything goes much smoother and faster. But of course, that special machinery comes at a hefty price – and training those workers takes time and money too.
Oftentimes when a corset maker burns out and stops making corsets, it’s because they were working alone for so many years without any help whatsoever – they were doing all the labor and admin themselves.
Making Corsets is a Full-Body Workout.
Cutting fabric on the floor; cutting and grinding bones; hammering or pressing grommets; spending hours upon hours in front of the sewing machine – these can be very labor-intensive and can cause injuries if you’re not prioritizing the ergonomics of your work area.
After my car accident in 2014, I wasn’t able to sew beyond very short periods of a few minutes (essentially short mending jobs) because I couldn’t crane my neck down for extended durations. Some people with muscle weakness need help cutting bones or setting grommets. Some people have arthritis in their hands and don’t have great dexterity in their fingers. And if you are sewing 12+ hours a day, almost every day, it can start to create a lot of wear and tear on the body.
Some corset makers do become more skilled and faster at making corsets, and some get better equipment so the process is more ergonomic (but that costs money too).
There Are Unexpected Expenses When Running a Business
Many corset makers only charge for the cost of materials + their labor in making the corset (and corsetieres have a habit of underestimating the number of hours required to finish a project!). But there are so many more expenses involved in keeping your business alive. Here are just a few “hidden costs” in any creative business:
- Registering your business.
- Filing for a trademark / copyright.
- Admin work – bookkeeping, answering emails, etc.
- Doing footwork / research / testing for the suitability of materials in your projects, or upgrading your skills.
- Liability insurance for yourself, any employees you might have, insurance on your studio or dwelling, and insurance on your equipment and inventory.
- Repairs and servicing for your machines / equipment.
- Electricity that runs the equipment everyday (overhead).
- Seller fees for Etsy, Ebay, and whatever you’re using to process payments.
- Web hosting and maintenance.
- Some countries require that businesses of any size, even the “hobbyists”, file your taxes every quarter. That’s every 3 months! That eats away at your time you’d rather spend Making Things, and some businesses are required to pay taxes every quarter.
- Hiring a bookkeeper or accountant that knows all the legal stuff around running a business, and what’s claimable and not claimable around tax time (but this is a very wise investment and highly recommended – what I pay my accountant is much less than the amount I save by doing my taxes properly).
A corset maker can raise their prices to cover these fees, but that is a double-edged sword because it means fewer people are willing to buy from a brand that charges more.
Beggers Can’t Be Choosers
When I started making corsets, I considered it an amazing creative outlet. I could make any design, any color, any silhouette I wanted, with any combination of embellishments. I could let my imagination go wild! But when I started taking commissions, it became a case of “10 plain black waist training corsets in a row”, and while I take pride and put care in all of the corsets I make, it quickly became boring, soul-draining work.
Many corset makers now turn away prospective customers who want a plain underbust corset, because these makers only want to focus on luxury or couture work (and that is their right and their prerogative! If they’re able to maintain a successful business while turning away commissions, more power to them!). Other corset makers will take any commission they can get because it pays the bills – and what was once a lovely creative outlet for them has become a sad, drudging job.
Artists Sometimes Suck at Business…
…. Also, Difficult Customers Exist
Another potential issue with bespoke corsetry is that it’s so very personal: it’s designed to fit just one person exactly (even down to their anatomical asymmetries and idiosyncrasies) and the colors, fabrics, and embellishments are to that client’s specific taste. And oftentimes, if that commission is not 110% to the client’s standard, that is the difference between the maker getting paid and not getting paid. Of course, the maker should know this coming into the business – and know what’s fair and unfair in business dealings.
This is where contracts would be useful when taking commissions: be absolutely clear as to what’s included in the outfit / costume / corset commission, what communication and tasks are required of both the maker and the client (yes, some tasks are required of the client, like taking body measurements, being clear about what types of embellishments and how much, giving feedback during mockup fittings, etc), when payment(s) are due, etc. so there is less miscommunication and confusion.
Depending on a corsetiere’s PR skills, one really bad review can potentially ruin a maker’s reputation and put them out of business. (Some corset makers are really really good at making corsets, but their customer service leaves something to be desired.)
Several makers who have owned corset companies for 20+ years have all told me something similar (and somewhat controversial): for better or for worse, when it comes to the corset industry, it’s seldom that a laid back client comes along. While many don’t quite hit “bridezilla” status, occasionally a customer comes close, and the corsetiere has to learn how to be a good businessperson (not just a good artist) and know where to draw the line with “pickiness”: when to either put their foot down and when to cut their losses.
More unfortunately, there are many corset makers who hear nothing but crickets when their clients are happy with their commissions, and they only ever hear from their unhappy customers. This seems to be more universal: no matter what the industry or what the product / service is, unhappy customers are always louder than the happy ones. And this hurts businesses in real ways:
Let’s say a hypothetical corsetiere sells 50 corsets on Etsy. 48 of those customers are happy, and 2 of them are unhappy.
Let’s say only 3 of the happy customers leave 4 or 5 star reviews, but both of the unhappy customers leave 1-star reviews. That makes her Etsy rating look really spotty, close to a 60% satisfaction rate, even though in reality they have a 96% satisfaction rate.
I would not be willing to purchase from a corsetiere with a 60% satisfaction rate, would you? I might even think that they’re stealing photos from other makers and distributing knock-off designs, and the “three positive reviews” might be fabricated / shill reviews, or from customers uneducated about genuine corsets.
If many other prospective customers look at their poor ratings and think along the same lines, that corsetiere’s business suffers – she could be one of the most talented artists of our generation, but some people might never even give her a chance.
So if you purchased something off Etsy or even off a maker’s website and you were happy with your purchase, please consider leaving that corsetiere (or costumier, or artist) a positive review, or a testimonial that they’re able to share on their site – it only takes a minute, and it can really help with their reputation. If you have a bad experience with a corset maker then by all means speak your truth – but when you are happy with your product, also take the time to promote what you love, because some corsetieres’ livelihood depends on your feedback.
These are just a few reasons why so many makers decide to shut down their businesses. There are obviously many more reasons than these, some much more personal to the individual – this is why there is an entire industry (books, courses, mentorships, summits, etc) on how to properly run a business as a creative – no one is born knowing this, and most of us are flying by the seat of our pants, learning as we go. But if we’re to stay in business, we must be aware of these things and learn how to avoid them as best we can.
If there are any big reasons that I missed regarding why corsetieres or costumiers choose to leave their businesses, feel free to leave a comment down below and let me know. As always, be respectful in the comments.