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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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“Wrinkly Pig” Corset Case Study

This entry is a summary of the review video “Wrinkly Pig” Corset Case Study”. If you would like more complete information and side notes about the corset, you can watch the video on YouTube here:

***

Note: the following are the differences between the “Wrinkly Pig” and the “Tickled Pink” corset in terms of construction:

  Wrinkly Pig Tickled Pink
Fusing Fused the brocade to a layer of woven fusible interfacing, then flatlined that to coutil. Fused the brocade directly to a layer of coutil using “Heat n’ Bond” (fiddly sheet of glue, I don’t recommend it).
Roll-pinning Everything was flat-pinned, not roll-pinned. Some roll-pinning was done on the side panels.
Seams Lock-stitched seams; allowances were not trimmed or clipped at curves. Seams were trimmed and flat-felled.
Boning channels Double-boned at the seams, sandwiched between two layers of coutil. Single boned at the seams, used external boning channels (cuts down on wrinkles slightly)

***

And here is my review:

Fit, length Decent curves. Used to be a slightly long-line corset but I later shortened the hips so it is more of a cincher now. Center front is about 11″ long.
Material 4 layers including the interfacing: brocade fashion fabric fused to interfacing, then flatlined to interlining of coutil and another lining of coutil.
Construction 6-panel pattern. Seams were lock-stitched (stitched twice) at the seams, the allowances were pressed open. The brocade/interfacing/coutil flatlined panels were all assembled, then the coutil lining was assembled. The layers were then stitched together at first/last panels, flipped right-side out and stitched in the ditch between panels and also secured at boning channels.  Bones are sandwiched between the two layers of coutil.
Binding The binding at top and bottom are made out of commercial hot pink cotton bias tape, machine stitched on both sides.
Waist tape 1” wide twill tape between the coutil lining and interlining, stitched invisibly so it’s not noticeable.
Modesty panel Suspended modesty panel made from brocade fused to twill, and stiffened with plastic canvas. 7″ wide.
Busk A standard flexible busk, 1/2” wide on each side, with 5 pins, 9.5″ long.
Boning 22 steel bones in this corset not including the busk. The seams between the panels are double-boned (except the seam closest to the grommets with ¼” inch wide spirals, and there are a pair of flats sandwiching each column of grommets.
Grommets There are 30 2-part size #X00 eyelets (15 on each side). They have a medium flange around and are spaced out 3/4 inches apart. No pulling away of fabric yet but they are very small so many types of fat cord is hard to thread through.
Laces 1/2″ wide double-face satin ribbon, baby pink in colour. About 5 meters and not really long enough for my tastes. I think I may change out the laces for some longer ones.
Price If I were to re-make this corset, I would roll-pin the panels and also use wonder-under or stitch-witchery to directly fuse the brocade to a layer of coutil to eliminate wrinkling. Keeping other construction techniques the same, I would likely charge around $260 USD for a corset like this.
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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.

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Princess Tamina Corset Case Study

This entry is a summary of my videos for the Princess Tamina costume. If you would like more  information and side notes about the corset and costume, you can watch the videos on YouTube here:

 

 

Fit, length Self-drafted underbust corset with a peaked front top and bottom edge. Stops just at the hips, and features a high back (7″ above waist). Made to close at 21″ at the waist. I took 3 horizontal measurements and 5 vertical measurements to draft this.
Material 4 layers of material; fashion fabric is a very stretchy gold-on-beige lamé, two layers of down-proof cotton ticking (labelled “coutil” in French) as strength layer, and ivory satin lining.
Construction Drafted from a 5-panel pattern. Lining was flatlined to ticking and lockstitched between the seams, then joined to another layer of ticking (wrong sides together) via the sandwich method. Sandwiched boning channels were sewn through those 3 layers, then the fashion fabric was redesigned to look like a ribbon corset and was tacked down at center front and back seams; floating in all other places. Embellishment was hand-sewn.
Binding Made from bias strips of lamé and machine stitched on both front and back. Back of binding was not folded under but left raw; as it’s a knit it doesn’t fray.
Waist tape 1-inch wide waist tape, invisibly stitched between the two layers of ticking.
Modesty panel None.
Busk None; closed front.
Boning Only 12 bones including center front; all half-inch wide steels. Two at center front and one on each seam between panels; only a bone on the outer edge of the grommets, not the inner edge.
Grommets There are 22, 2-part size #X00 grommets (11 on each side), finished in gold to match the rest of the corset. This corset being the first time I hammered in grommets, the back of some of them are rough and catch a bit on the laces.
Laces Round nylon utility cord made for outdoor/sports use. It was loosely woven, frayed easily, slippery and didn’t hold bows very well.
Price The cost for materials was close to $70 because the only store that supplied steel bones near me charged me an arm and a leg for them. Otherwise this corset would have been closer to $35-$40 in supplies. If I were to remake this corset today and sell it, it would cost around $315 USD.
($225 underbust corset + $15 half-inch boning upgrade (I’d use spiral at seams) + $20 double (proper) coutil strength layer upgrade + $40 pattern modification + $15 hand-sewn embellishments)
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Grey & Green Longline Underbust Case Study

This entry is a summary of the review video “Grey & Green underbust case study”. If you would like more complete information and side notes about the corset, you can watch the video on YouTube here:

Fit, length Self-drafted, longline (low over the hips) underbust corset with a peaked front top and a straight bottom edge. Made to close at 22″ at the waist. I took 5 horizontal measurements and 9 vertical measurements to draft this.
Material Fashion fabric is a black/white fine herringbone weave with metallic gold thread pinstripes This was fused to herringbone coutil interlining and lined in fern green satin.
Construction Drafted from a 6-panel pattern and both topstitched and lockstitched for extra strength. Boning channels are external (made from green satin fused to coutil) and the lining floats.
Binding The binding at top and bottom are made from 2-inch-wide strips of green satin, machine stitched on both sides.
Waist tape 1-inch wide waist tape, invisibly stitched between the coutil and the lining.
Modesty panel Suspended modesty panel stiffened with plastic canvas and finished the same way as the corset – covered in the pinstripe fabric and bound with green satin on top and bottom.
Busk Heavy duty stainless steel busk (1″ wide on each side) and was cut to 13″ long, with 5 pins.
Boning 20 bones not including the busk; I had used 1/4″ wide spirals double-boned at each seam (except the one adjacent to the busk) in the external channels. By the grommets there’s a 1/2″ wide flat bone on the outer edges and 1/4″ wide flat bone on the inner side.
Grommets There are 32, 2-part size #0 grommets (16 on each side), finished in silver (Chelsea’s choice). The grommets have a large lip around and are spaced 3/4″ inch apart down the length.
Laces Flat nylon braided shoelace-style laces; 8 yards long. They grip well, are densely woven and are resistant to catching, fraying or snapping.
Price The retail price for something similar is around $280 (underbust corset + heavy busk upgrade + double boning upgrade + external boning channels upgrade).
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Homemade Corset: Grey Longline Closed-Front Underbust

This entry is a summary of the review video “Showing my homemade corset”. If you would like more complete information and side notes about the corset, you can watch the video on YouTube here:

Fit, length Drafted from Foundations Revealed pattern tutorial. It’s a longline underbust corset with a center front of about 13″ and a waist of about 23″, with an extreme hourglass silhouette. I made the ribcage a little too large so the back seams look like / instead of ||
Material Made out of a black/white fine herringbone weave (I call it grey because that’s how it looks from afar) with gold metallic thread as an outer layer, and one layer of down-proof cotton ticking as a strength layer, which generally doesn’t stretch, but isn’t as strong as coutil.
Construction Drafted from a 5-panel pattern and constructed in the “sandwich” technique in which each layer has its panels individually assembled and then the two layers are attached at the ends, flipped right-side out and then bones are sandwiched between the layers.
Binding The binding at top and bottom are made out of bias strips of the same white/black herringbone fabric.
Waist tape 1-inch wide waist tape, invisibly stitched between the two layers. It’s slightly tighter than the panels of the corset which is what causes the “groove” around the waistline of the corset.
Modesty panel None.
Busk None, this was before I knew where to buy busks (other than the overpriced ones at anime conventions) so I made this with a closed front
Boning 22 bones including the bones at the center front; I had used 1/2″ wide hoop steel for the center front and by the grommets, and 1/4″ wide flats double-boned at each seam. These particular flats were flimsy, which is how I got the silhouette without resistance to the bones.
Grommets There are 24, 2-part size #X00 grommets (12 on each side), finished in gold (the only colour I could find at the time). The grommets have a small size lip around. One of the grommets later popped out at the waistline.
Laces Flat cotton braided shoelace-style laces bought at Timeless Trends; 7 yards long. They grip well, have no spring and are very easy to tighten, however they do snap after about a year of regular use.
Price Cost me probably around $40-$50 in materials, and around 24 hours total to make – this was my 3rd corset so I was still moving very slowly through the steps.
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My First Corset

This entry is a summary of the review video “Case Study: My First Corset”. If you would like more complete information and side notes about the corset, you can watch the video on YouTube here:

Fit, length Made from Simplicity 9769 pattern. The pattern is larger than expected, so I recommend grading it in at the waist if you want an accurate reduction. Demibust, not longline. Has some slight curve – it was supposed to be a Victorian hourglass shape but it stretched in places. The center front is about 14”.
Material Made out of a single layer of a bedsheet, which has stretched over the years. The fabric is now more transparent. One part of the material ripped when I was letting out the seams and I was a little too vigorous with my seam ripper.There are some pink marks stained on the fabric from using sidewalk chalk instead of tailor’s chalk to mark the seams.
Construction This was my first time flat-felling seams. Internal boning channels made from 1-inch wide twill tape folded over double and sewn down.
Binding The binding at top and bottom are white cotton bias tape.
Waist tape None.
Modesty panel None.
Busk Standard flexible busk,  about 12″ long. I didn’t double-stitch it so it started popping out. I had to repair it several times with an overcast stitch. One of the loops are now bent from too much stress.
Boning 22 bones not inlcuding busk; I cannibalized a vintage corset it for its flat steel bones. Some of the steel bones were too short, and so I doubled up the boning with plastic featherweight boning along the full length of the channel, and then just the metal bit in the very centre of the bone at the waist. This is why you saw the corset buckling in places like in the demibust area when it was on.
Grommets There are 30, 2-part size grommets (15 on each side), finished in nickel. The grommets are sturdy with small size lip around. One of the grommets popped out at the waistline.
Laces White round nylon braided cord style. It has no spring, but tends to catch on grommet edges. Cuts into my hands when I’m tightening the corset.
Price Cost me probably around $35 in materials. As an end product, I would probably have to pay you to take it.
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CorsetDeal Waspie Underbust Review

This entry is a summary of the review video “Longline Overbust Review (CorsetDeal/Corsets-UK)”. If you would like more complete information and side notes about the corset, you can watch the video on YouTube here:

Fit, length Has very little curve; gives me a more tubular/cylindrical shape than an hourglass. The center front is 11”. The shortest part at the side is 6.5″. Very short, does not come over the hips at all. Even so, I wouldn’t recommend this for people with wide hips.
Material Two layers; the outside heavy polyester satin fabric, and the inside cotton twill.
Construction 6 panel pattern. Panels are top-stitched at the seams, and then internal boning channels laid down, made of black twill.
Binding The binding at top and bottom are black polyester bias tape. Also has 6 garter tabs, but I advise not wearing garters with this corset as it’s so short.
Waist tape Waist tape running through the corset, seen on the inside, made of 1” wide single-faced satin ribbon.
Modesty panel Unboned modesty panel, 6.5 inches wide made from polyester pinstripe on the outside and black twill on the underside. No placket beneath the busk.
Busk Slightly heavy duty, almost 1″ on each side. Stiffer than a standard flexible busk. 10″ long with 5 pins.
Boning 14 steel bones in this corset not including the busk. Single boned on the seams; all the other bones in this corset are spring steel.
Grommets There are 16, 2-part size grommets (8 on each side), finished in nickel. The grommets are sturdy with moderate size lip around, there is some pulling away of the fabric on the grommets around the bunny ears at the waist.
Laces Black round nylon braided cord style. Very strong, although fairly slippery. It has no spring. They are resistant to fraying and catching.
Price Currently ranges from $40 USD – 70 USD (£25 to £45 in UK).

 

Final Thoughts:
Many moons ago, I bought an underbust corset (“Candy” style) from Corsets-UK. I think I tried it on perhaps twice before selling it, because I felt that my solar plexus was being crushed and my hips lost all circulation. I decided to give this company the benefit of the doubt by trying their Waspie underbust a bit more than a year later, to see if their pattern had improved – maybe this one would be curvier, or more comfortable since it’s cut higher on the hips. I was disappointed. I know that many customers are very happy with this company’s corsets, and if you have the body to pull off this style, then that’s great. However I have to say that this corset did not suit my body type. It didn’t flatter me, and when I had altered it to make it more flattering to my body type, the grommets gave out soon after. I’m sad to say that I doubt that I’ll order from this company again. 

For those interested in trying a corset from CorsetDeal, I’ve found a coupon for 20% off anything on the CorsetDeal site here (aff link).