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Exceptions to Corset Rules

There is a concept (that was popularized by Terry Pratchett in the Discworld books) called lies-to-children which says that we tend to oversimplify concepts and make “black and white” rules in order to familiarize beginners (or kids) with certain concepts before they can move on to understanding the more nuanced reality of these topics. Corsetry is no exception; there are so many “rules” that ring mostly true (like “good OTR corsets contain steel bones and not featherweight”, or “the waist tape’s purpose is to prevent stretching or ripping at the waistline”) but it’s high time we talk about the people who are successfully breaking corset rules – because not all corsets are made equal!

 

Corset Sizes

Rule:

Corset sizes are mostly 20”, 22”, 24” etc, and we should avoid any corsets sold in “street sizes” (e.g. US size 6 / UK size 10, or small / medium / large) because street sizes are arbitrary and not standardized.

Exceptions:

A few respected corset makers do prefer to sell their corsets by the S/M/L/XL system.
One of these brands is Ms Martha’s Corset Shoppe (I wear a size Medium in her shop which translates to waist size 22″).
Another maker is Ties That Bynde (I wear a size XS in her shop which translates to waist size 22″).

Jessica, the owner of Ties That Bynde, also wrote a testimony for my book Solaced last year. She’s an immensely skilled corsetiere who has made medical / therapeutic corsets for herself and others, and her corsets have been covered by medical insurance in some cases. Jessica suffered a debilitating car accident and she made several corsets for herself to helped her recover from her sustained injuries, and her corsets have also corrected her scoliosis. The reason that she prefers this sizing system over numbers, she says, is because she sells at conventions where the demographic can be a bit different, and many customers don’t like knowing what their waist size is in inches. They tend to be a bit more receptive to her current sizing system.

Number of layers

Contour Corsets blue summer mesh underbust
Contour Corsets blue summer mesh single layer underbust (with front zip and no waist tape!)

Rule:

Many OTR corsets will boast that their corset has three, four, or even more layers of fabric in their waist training corsets, because in the idea that “many hands make light work”, we also think it’s logical to believe that more layers equals more strength.

Exceptions:

I have worn some amazingly strong and comfortable single layer corsets, probably the most well known being my mesh corset from Contour Corsets, but also my spot broche piece from Bizarre Design. Both of these corsets started with premium quality fabrics that were painstakingly cut on grain, and constructed with external boning channels which straddle and reinforce the seams, and each seam is stitched multiple times (zig-zagged in my Contour Corset, and with a twin-needle machine in my Bizarre Design corset) so there is little to no risk of a seam ripping even under high reductions.

If I were perusing Ebay and looking at “corsets” shipped from China for $15, I would be a little hesitant to spend that much if they said it were a single layer corset, because I’ve tried one before and it didn’t do much for me. But a single layer corset made from a specialty coutil or broche, made by a reputable independent corsetiere? I wouldn’t bat an eye at that.

While on the topic of Contour Corsets and Bizarre Design, and how they have engineering backgrounds and like to bend the rules – neither of my corsets from them contain any waist tape.

 

Waist tapes

Rule: 

Gorgeous high-contrast shot of the gold bird’s wing sample. Photo by Sparklewren.

The waist tape’s purpose is to prevent stretching and ripping of the corset at its point of highest tension (the waistline) and corsets that don’t have a waist tape are unsuitable for waist training.

Exceptions:

My Contour corset was my primary training piece through 2012-2013, and it was still barely stretched or eased a fraction of an inch at the waist despite note having a waist tape. (The only reason I stopped training in that corset was because I found it a very dramatic silhouette, and once I achieved a waist of 20″ I decided I preferred to stay at 22″ instead.)

For cheaper quality corsets, having a waist tape is a sign of insurance: if one of the seams fail and the stitching pops at the waistline, at least the waist tape should hold fast because it doesn’t have any seams. But some corsetieres have appeared to construct their corsets in such a way that renders the waist tape superfluous because the corsets are strong enough on their own.

Some corsetieres, like Sparklewren and her Bird’s Wing corsets, would deliberately make her corsets a touch smaller in the waist than the customer wanted (0.5 – 1 inch smaller) – because she anticipated there would be a little bit of ease at the waistline without having a waist tape – however, once that fabric settled, it would more or less be around the size originally requested – so this is how some corsetieres are able to circumvent any complications around not installing waist tapes. The Bird’s Wing corsets are constructed with lapped seams (which are also extremely strong and secure – and because they can be made with a single layer of strong coutil or broche, adding a waist tape in these corsets would be tricky but also ruin the line of the delicate looking antique-inspired couture corset.

Also, consider that ribbon corsets typically never contain waist tapes. One exception to that is Pop Antique’s ribbon cincher.

 

A happy client snaps a selfie of her custom mesh underbust from Mitchell Dane (MDC Designs) with a front zip closure.
A happy client snaps a selfie of her custom mesh underbust from Mitchell Dane with a front zip closure.

Zippers

Rule:

Any “corset” on Ebay that shows a hook-and-eye closure, or a zipper on the side or back of the body (especially colored zips with nylon coils instead of metal teeth), are not genuine heavy duty corsets designed for waist training or tight lacing.

Exceptions:

Some corsetieres use zippers successfully in their corsets, even their tightlacing and waist training corsets! The strongest zippers have metal teeth – not plastic – and the zip is well-supported with flat steels on either side. The zip will also typically be placed on a seam that doesn’t have much curve (like the center front) and not on a side seam, so that there is no unequal strain on the zip that might cause it to fail.

I believe Amy Crowder of Wasp Creations had once written about how a good quality and well-installed zipper can possibly even be stronger than a conventional busk.

Some makers who utilize zippers in their work include Puimond, KMK designs, Mitchell Dane, Sin and Satin, and of course Contour Corsets. See my gallery of genuine corsets with zippers here!

 

Number of panels

Rule:

Karolina Laskowska shows the pattern and final result of her single panel corset experiment. Click through to see her Facebook post with more info.

A proper corset must have 4-6 panels per side (8-12 panels total).

I’m sure most of you have done this thing in geometry class where you make a square, and then a hexagon, and then a heptagon, and an octagon, and on and on until you have a polygon that has so many sides that it nearly makes a circle. And theoretically, this is what we aim to do with corsets – to take flat 2 dimensional panels, albeit made from malleable fabric, and wrap it around a multitude of curves. This is where we’ve arrived at the idea that “the fewer panels there are in a corset pattern, the less curvy / the more wrinkly / the more uncomfortable it is.” It would be bonkers to make every corset have an infinite number of panels, so we strive for a happy medium of 4-6 panels per side in most cases, and we can further tweak the fit with gores and fluted panels, like What Katie Did does.

Exceptions:

I have seen corsets with two panels per side, like Damsel in this Dress, and I’ve seen corsets with like 20 panels per side, like Sparklewren’s bird’s wing corsets. 99% of the time, OTR corsets will have between 4-6 panels per side.

Each seam is an opportunity to adjust the fit to suit your body, and oftentimes clean seams are more comfortable than sewing darts and pleats, especially when it comes to something as close-fitting as a corset. But I have occasionally worn corsets with four panels that were more comfortable than other corsets with more panels. And more panels does not necessarily mean that the corset will be curvier – the curve depends on how each panel is shaped, not how many there are.

Karolina Laskowska took this idea to new levels by making a corset with only ONE panel! Instead of adding more fabric where she needed ease, she started with her largest circumferential measurements instead and added tucks where she needed to take it in at the waist or over the bustline. It was very clever.

Bones

Antique (with real whalebone) vs Laurie Tavan’s reproduction (with synthetic whalebone). Photos by Laurie Tavan

Rule:

Featherweight boning is awful, Rigilene is the devil, and generally just run away from plastic boning and always look for steel.

Exceptions:

There are some people doing amazing things with synthetic whalebone – which is a type of plastic, but it’s from Germany and it doesn’t behave the same way as featherweight or rigilene that you find here in North America. Luca Costigliolo and Laurie Tavan are two corset makers who do beautiful Victorian reproductions and have worked successfully with synthetic bone.

 

Grommets

Rule:

Grommets in a corset should be size #00 (5mm) or #0 (6mm) and have a medium-to-wide flange to prevent popping out over time.

Exceptions:

Some older corsets like those made by Créations L’Escarpolette contained grommets / eyelets in size #x00 (an internal diameter of 4 mm) or even smaller, and with a teeny tiny flange, yet they’ve held up to a lot of wear, as these corsets are over 10 years old now (if I recall correctly). Even though the grommets are quite oxidized, none of them are actually falling out because they’re set so tightly.

On the other end of the spectrum I’ve seen corsets with enormous grommets (size 1 or 2), which are almost comically large, but I can see it working with a certain aesthetic.

 

So you see, although there are standards for most corsets these days, there are always exceptions to the rules. We live in an amazing time where we have access to laser cutting and 3D printing and so many awesome materials, and people around the world can blend their knowledge from previous backgrounds and apply them to the art of corsetry, and that is exciting and amazing.

Standards are usually set for a reason, so it’s good to learn why things are constructed in a certain way and using certain materials – it often comes down to accessibility, cost, tradition, etc.

I’ve experimented a lot with corset making in the past, only to reinvent the wheel and learn for myself why “some things are the way they are”, but that’s all part of the process, and I would assume that almost any experienced corsetiere has done the same. But innovation is the spice of life, so learn the rules as a beginner, so you can learn to break them later. ;)

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Can you Layer your Corsets?

Not long ago I received some questions regarding whether you can wear one corset on top of another, for greater control or more “effective” thermal conductivity. I’m presuming this question was actually inspired by Jessica Alba’s mysterious “double corset” from 2011 (which is now presumed to be two elastic garments, not two genuine corsets).

It is technically possible to layer one real corset on top of the other, but I don’t see the functional benefit because:

  •  corsets come in all levels of thickness and rigidity (the soft mesh corsets from Orchard Corset being the most flexible I’ve experienced, and the waist training corsets from Contour Corsets being the most rigid I’ve experienced – both with their advantages and disadvantages).
  • putting one corset on top of another is likely to increase bulk around the waistline, not decrease it.
  • layering corsets is not likely to improve the fit or comfort – on the contrary, it may worsen the fit of the corset by putting too much pressure on the ribs and hips.
  • if the corset underneath has a more delicate fashion fabric, there’s a risk of that fabric being damaged by the friction of the corset overtop.

Some corsetieres and designers may layer a cincher or a yoke on top of a corset as an accent piece, but this is more an aesthetic motive rather than a functional one – and these are typically custom made to fit perfectly overtop of one another.

But if you feel that your corset is not “strong” enough and you want more control, then you don’t need to layer your corsets – it’s just that the corset you have is not doing its job properly and it would be time to invest in a corset that has the rigidity and gives you the waist reduction you’re looking for.

Swiss Waists

In some fashion plates, you may see Victorian women wearing something similar to a waspie or underbust corset over their dresses – these were not real corsets per se; their real corsets were still underneath their clothing. The Swiss waist was simply an accessory to accentuate the waistline, usually in a darker color. Swiss waists may still have been lightly boned just to maintain some structure through the garment and keep it smooth over the bodice, but they weren’t as heavy-duty as a corset and not functional in the same sense.

Can you use a real corset as foundation under fashion corsets/ bustiers?

Absolutely – I’ve seen this a lot at conventions. Almost every costume shop stocks cheap, plastic boned fashion corsets that may be cute and interesting (especially the superheroine themed corsets around Halloween) but in my opinion, those are not the most comfortable garments. Once the plastic boning begins to warm to the body and soften, they may begin to warp and kink, poking into the body and collapsing in places which (at least on me) can create what looks like rolls on my body where rolls never existed before! By wearing a more structured, higher quality corset underneath, this provides support for the bustier and as well as protection for you against any rogue plastic bones threatening to poke you in the side. Note that the bustier is not as strong as a genuine corset, and don’t be surprised if the lacing in the back is a mess (see my video below).

A real corset almost always looks better (in my opinion) but using a cheaper garment over a higher quality corset may be a more cost-effective solution for those with smaller budgets – and corsets can transforms costumes instantaneously.

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Burleska Corsets Athena Underbust Review

This entry is a summary of the review video “Burleska Athena underbust review” which you can watch on YouTube here:

Fit, length Center front is 14.5 inches high (the longest OTR underbust I have ever tried!) and side seam is 12 inches. Not recommended for shorter torsos. Gentle hourglass / modern slim silhouette. Underbust circumference is 30″, waist 24″, low hip is 36″ (gives an impressive 12″ hip spring).
Material 2 main layers. Fashion fabric is black poly satin, lining is black cotton twill.
Construction 6 panel pattern, fashion fabric and lining were flatlining together, panels assembled using a topstitch. External boning channels (double boned on the seams)
Binding Hand-made bias strips of matching black satin, machine stitched on the outside and hand-finished inside for a couture finish. 6 garter tabs.
Waist tape 3/4-inch wide waist tape made from ribbon, stretching from panels 2-5 (first and last panels don’t have a waist tape)
Modesty panel 6 inches wide back modesty panel (4″ usable space). Two layers, unstiffened, attached to one side of the corset. No modesty placket in front by busk.
Busk 12.5 inches long, standard flexible busk with 6 pins (bottom two closer together). Supported by flat steels on either side of the busk.
Boning 26 bones total, 13 on each side. The flats by the busk in the front and in the back by the grommets are steel boned, but the side bones in the external channels are plastic boned.
Grommets 26 two-part grommets, size #0 or #1, fairly small flange. silver finish. Set equidistantly. Back of the grommets have multiple splits but don’t catch on the laces.
Embellishment 1/8 inch thick round, dense nylon cord. Quite grippy and holds bows well.
Price At the time that I’m writing this: £50 in the UK, or around $80 in the US.

Other Thoughts:

Burleska Athena corset as it is seen on the website

This is the second corset I’ve reviewed from Burleska (the first review you can read here). Two years later, Burleska had contacted me directly and mentioned that their line of corsets have improved and asked if I would be interested in trying some of their new stock. I agreed to trying this Athena underbust as it seemed to have the most unique construction and the most impressive curves! When I tried on the corset, indeed it gave a flattering silhouette, but unfortunately this piece had been plastic boned as well. The Burleska executives didn’t know that they were plastic as they had been told by their own manufacturer that they were steel – so these corsets are currently receiving an overhaul and Burleska says that they will be more careful about this in the future. I taught them the “magnet trick” to check for ferrous substances inside of a corset (like the steel bones) without having to open up the corsets. I’m not upset about this though; it takes great integrity in a company to admit that they were mistaken, to listen to their customers and to commit to changing their product to keep the trust of their clientele. So all is well that ends well; I wish Burleska success in the future and look forward to seeing what new items they design for their upcoming genuine steel boned line.

You can find the Athena corset on Burleska’s website, here.

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Gallery Serpentine Victorian Underbust Review

This entry is a summary of the review video “Gallery Serpentine Victorian Underbust Review”. If you would like more complete information and side notes about the corset, you can watch the video on YouTube here:

Fit, length Victorian Hourglass shape, nice moderate curves. Center front is 13”. Stops just at the upper hips, it is not longline. One “pro” is the unique feature of how low the corset stops on the back, it curves nicely over the top of the bum instead of cutting into it. One “con” is how distended my torso looks in profile.
Material 3 main layers – the outer satin, a thick cotton non-woven interfacting as interlining, and black twill lining.
Construction Made from a 4-panel pattern. The satin and the heavy interlining are either flat-felled or fused together (depending on whether the interfacing was fusible or not), then those panels are topstitched at the seams. Bones are placed either in the seam allowances between the panels, or internal channels are made with twill tape.
Binding Binding at top and bottom are made from black satin bias tape. Folded under nicely on the outside; on the inside the raw edge is serged to prevent fraying and just stitched down flat.
Waist tape None.
Modesty panel None. To get a modesty panel costs another $15 from the website.
Busk Standard busk (flexible), half an inch wide and 12” long, and 6 pins.
Boning 12 bones total in this corset, 6 on each side. All of them are plastic. These are heavier-duty polypropeline bones but I would still prefer steel. To get the steel bone upgrade costs another $15 from the website.
Grommets There are 18 2-part size #0 grommets (9 on each side) and have a medium flange. They’re spaced 1.5” apart on the top and bottom and are spaced closer together (1” apart) at the waist for better cinching control. Grommets are very sturdy, no popping out, no fraying. However I would have preferred to have 10 more grommets because lacing down is difficult on the top and bottom. On the underside there are no splits; they’re nicely set.
Laces The laces I received with this corset are reportedly not the original laces. The laces I got are 1/4″ wide single faced satin ribbon, quite slippery and difficult to grip. The laces that I have read now come with the corset are black shoelace-style laces.
Price Currently $190 (AUD) for basic fabric and standard sizes. $210 for made-to-measure, and add $10 more for Asian brocade fabrics. Note that steel bones/modesty panel also cost extra.

Final Thoughts:
This… was not my favourite style. A lot of people noticed that my review was blasé. Perhaps my review would have been more fair if I had spent some extra funds to get a made-to-measure item with steel bones, but for financial reasons and accessibility, this was the right option at the time. I doubt I would buy from them again, but I guess I should never say never. Many of their happier customers have contacted me to say that their corsets are much more flattering, better constructed and include things like a modesty panel, so perhaps there are several makers for that company and there are inconsistencies between their products. I will give them the benefit of the doubt, however this one simply did not go well with my body type and looked unflattering on me. I ended up altering this corset by adding steel bones and a modesty panel.