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 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Featherweight boning is awful, Rigilene is the devil, and generally just run away from plastic boning and always look for steel.
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 in a corset should be size #00 (5mm) or #0 (6mm) and have a medium-to-wide flange to prevent popping out over time.
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. ;)