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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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How to measure your corsets with precision

For a detailed look at how I measure various corsets, see my in-depth tutorial below:

This is the third and final part to my OTR fitting mini series. In part 1 I taught you the various ways that an OTR corset company may share their fitting information (if at all), and the takeaway message from part 1 was to urge more OTR companies to display more than just the waist size – proportions are important too! Measurements of the ribcage, hips, and torso length all play a factor in proper fit, as well as the bust circumference if it’s an overbust corset.

In part 2 I showed you some case studies in determining if an OTR corset would at least approximately fit you. The point of this video is to show how to take your own body measurements and compare it with a sizing chart provided by your OTR company of interest – and really explain in detail why this exercise is so important. If you know for a fact that a corset is not going to fit your ribcage or hips properly for a given waist size, don’t waste your time and money! Move on and find a different brand that will fit you better. You will be more comfortable and your training will be better for it.

Here, in part 3, I will show you how exactly I measure my corsets. When I first receive a corset in the mail, I will take 5-8 measurements:

  • Circumference measurements: bust (if overbust), underbust, closed waist, high hip (iliac), and low hip (if longline).
  • Vertical measurements: center front, princess seam from underbust to lap, and sometimes side seam and/or center back.

I now log these measurements in the Corset Dimensions Directory, for everyone’s use. You can compare these measurements with your own measurements and see which corsets may fit best on you!

If the corset gets a lot of use, I may measure it again in a year’s time and see if it has stretched out at all.

Once you get the hang of measuring your corsets, it becomes intuitive: circumferential measurements should be perpendicular to the busk and back edge of the corset, or parallel to the waist-tape. Vertical measurements are always parallel with the busk or the back edge of the corset.  You may choose to measure your corsets several times and take an average, since the location of an iliac crest circumference or true underbust circumference may not be entirely obvious in some corsets.

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Using Measurements to Predict the Fit of OTR Corsets Online

Way back on January 7th, I posted Part 1 of this 3 part mini series on fitting OTR corsets, wherein I discussed the different ways that some corset companies use to describe the curviness or the proportions of the corsets they sell. To summarize this first part, there are 3 main ways: the use of size charts; recommending that clients’ natural measurements be within a certain range; or discussing the rib-spring and hip-spring of these corsets. If this does not make sense to you, I recommend going back and refreshing yourself on these points.

This is important because corsets don’t have ease the way that other clothes do – for the most, part they’re not supposed to stretch. In fact, corsets can be said to have what’s called “negative ease” (instead of your body manipulating the clothing around you, the clothing instead manipulates your body).

My favorite way for corsetiers and businesses to display their information is through the use of a size chart, because I can see everything at a glance. But why is it so important to know the precise underbust, waist and hip measurements of a corset before you buy it? Why not just go strictly by the waist size? By making the most of the size charts you may be able to fairly accurately predict whether a corset is going to fit you or not, before you ever buy it or try it on. Let’s look at some case studies. If you’d rather watch the video instead of reading through these case studies, I won’t blame you:

Let’s take a look at my natural measurements:

Screen Shot 2014-01-08 at 8.07.14 PM

I take my measurements to the closest cm (or in this specific case, the closest half-inch). Bodies are squishy though, so there is an acceptable range for the corsets I wear – especially if the corset is designed to have a small gap in the back instead of being worn completely closed (many corset makers draft their pieces to have a 2″ gap in the back, so I accommodate for this in my regular range). For the upper range, this is the maximum measurement I can wear before the corset starts to look visibly baggy on me (despite wearing jeans, poofy clothing underneath etc. that fill out the space).

Now let’s go hypothetical corset-shopping!

Case Study A:

 Corset_A

The waist of Corset A is 22″. As an experienced corset wearer, I already know that I can wear a size 22” corset – it’s a 6” reduction, which is fine for me. A corset is supposed to compress the waist, but not the ribs and hips.

But the underbust measurement of Corset A is far too small for me! On a good day, I can perhaps tighten the top edge of a corset to 28” but it’s not comfortable for me. This corset has an underbust of 26”. No matter how much I try, it’s not likely that the top edge of the corset will ever close on me, and I can’t expect it to stretch out because corsets aren’t supposed to stretch. It will likely cause muffin top/ flesh spillover, and if I pull it too tight then it may hinder my breathing. This is NOT supposed to happen with a well-fitting corset, so this corset is not right for me.

The hips are a little small as well, but as it’s only 1 inch smaller than my natural hips, I will be able to wear it with a small gap in the back and it would still look fine. If I could go up one size in Corset A, then the circumference measurements would be (underbust 28″, waist 24″, hips 34″) and would fit my body much better, albeit not perfectly.

But it’s also important to look at the length as well! Corset A is 2 inches longer than my own torso. I would probably be able to wear it fine when I’m standing up, but if I sit down, then the top of the corset may push up on my bust uncomfortably, or the bottom of the corset will dig into my lap – it’s probably best to just pass on this corset altogether.

Case Study B:

Corset_B

This corset would fit reasonably well in the underbust and waist. If I try to close it all the way, it may create a tiny bit of muffin top, but it won’t be that uncomfortable on me. However the hips of the corset (being 30”) is too small for my own iliac measurement of 33”. Knowing my own body, trying to wear this corset closed will likely result in my hips feeling very pinched and they may begin to hurt or go numb.

I can tell from looking at the length of this corset (7″ tall) that it’s more of a cincher. It’s 4” shorter than my own torso. I don’t have a protruding tummy so wearing a short corset is not a huge issue for me, but if you have any lower-tummy pooch or a pendulous abdomen, then you may want to bypass this corset and try a longer one that you know will hold in your tummy better. I explain why you may want a longline corset for low tummies in this video.

Case Study C:

Example corset C

I can immediately tell from the measurements that this is a super curvy corset! I know this because by the numbers, the ribcage is 8″ larger than the waist, and the hips are 12″ larger than the waist. The waist and the length measurements are fine for me, but both the underbust and the hips will be too large (larger than my wearable range). I would likely be able to close this corset right away from the first wear, and will still have room to spare in the ribs and hips – they’ll be gaping away from my body. In this situation, I don’t necessarily have to go with a different style, but I might want to try going a size down:

Corset C_size_smaller

Here is Corset C except a size 22″ instead of size 24″, and it looks like we hit the jackpot! Here is a standard sized corset that fits my natural measurements reasonably well in all four areas. If, however, I have no desire to go down a size and make my waist smaller, then I will need to find a different corset that is less curvy, and my search will continue.

When you’re shopping for an OTR corset, read everything you can on the website. Look for a size chart or fitting notes; and if you don’t see it, then email and ASK customer service if they have the proportions of the corset you’re looking to buy! Be sure to check out my Corset Dimensions Directory, where I have measured almost all of the standard sized corsets I’ve tried and logged their measurements so you can do this same fitting practice: use your own natural measurements, and compare them to the corset’s measurements. Try to find a brand and size that fits your ribs and hips within one inch!

I hope these case studies showed you how important it is to know the underbust, waist, and hip circumference measurements, as well as the length of the corset. In part 3 of this mini series, I will show you my own method of fairly precisely measuring my corsets – you can use this method to  corsets that you own as well, and we can share sizing information with one another in the Lace-Base.