Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Joys of (planned) Corsetry

So, I haven't even started my pair of bodies yet, and I'm already dreading it. For those of you who may not be familiar with 16th century terminology, a pair of bodies are basically a corset; they're meant to constrict and form the body into a fashionable shape, although in this time period they didn't reduce the waist in the way we tend to think of corsets doing. In fact, there's not a huge amount of evidence that corsets (or pairs of bodies) were even worn beneath clothing during this time period. Existing bodies are from about fifty years later, and while some paintings suggest a very rigid line under clothing, others allow for a degree of voluptuousness. Perhaps gowns were merely stiffened with buckram; perhaps a girlish figure was in vogue, and so women's curves were reduced when they were painted. Who knows. If you do accept that women wore stiffened foundation pieces, then you are faced with the problem of construction; what did they look like? What materials were used to stiffen them? Rope? Reeds? Whale bone?

I think that in order for me to get the right shape under one of these gowns, I need to make a corset. I could stiffen the heck out of the gown itself, but that's a lot of stress on the fabric, so the bodice would break down faster, and that also means that I would have to do this every single time I make a new gown. With a pair of bodies, I can just build all of my garments over the same foundation garment and not have to go through this step each time I want a new outfit. I also plan on costuming later in the period as well, so if I make something that will work under an Elizabethan gown (because really, most of our evidence on how to make these comes from then anyway) it can do double duty and work for that period as well.

Now, my corsetry experience is modest at best. However, I've learned from my duds. I've learned that compressing the bust too much isn't attractive. I've learned that if these are too flimsy, they'll fall apart after your first wearing, but if they're too bulky they won't work right, either. I've also learned that coutil is too dang expensive to mess around with when I don't really know what I'm doing. Because of this last point, I went to Jo Ann's on a mission to find a sturdy but flexible fabric with a little bit of slip and not a lot of stretch. Behold: canvas twill! Yay for twill; it's extra strong, and hopefully will keep my bones from poking out through the fabric. I've also read that cutting one layer on the grain and one layer across the grain will help make these stronger. I don't know if I believe that it will be stronger, but I do believe that it won't stretch as much. And when you're making a corset, a little stretching is to be expected, but a lot is bad news. I'll just have to be careful to baste and top stitch a little extra, because if these pieces do stretch despite that, they'll stretch differently, which is no bueno. I am also doing a layer of silk that was a red tag fabric at Jo Ann from the home decorating section; it's a dusky pink with woven, raised stripes on it. I figure the silk will breathe better than a synthetic, and even though I know it doesn't really matter whether this layer is pretty or not, I love the idea of having beautiful underthings.

Here is a picture of the pattern I am using (Simplicity 2621), as well as the materials!

With flash

Without flash
The color is somewhere between the flash/ no flash results in the pictures above, although everyone's moniter is different, so I guess you won't have a great idea of what color it really is, anyway. I bought a lot extra of the fabrics, partially to allow myself room to experiment (read: mess up), and also because I have some of the pink fabric already, which I bought as a remnant awhile ago, and figured having a little bit extra to go towards another project wouldn't be a bad idea. That would be beautiful for sleeves and an underskirt for an upper- middle class Elizabethan with a length of wine-colored wool I have... The grey underneath the pink silk is the cotton poly blend twill I am using, and I have lighter grey binding to use with it. I think the dove grey will look pretty sharp with the pink!

One thing about the pink silk that makes me nervous are the stripes. On the one hand, it may help to conceal some of the stitching for the bones, or at least act as a guide for me to sew them more precisely. On the other hand, if my casings aren't stitched perfectly straight, it will be more obvious with those stripes to compare to. I'll have to be especially careful about cutting EXACTLY on the grain and stitching really precisely!

The one material I don't have yet is boning. I'm not sure if I want to use flat steel, like I usually do, or try something like cable ties. Cable ties are more economical, but aren't as supportive. I am also concerned with them warping and holding my shape and not springing back the way steel will. I also haven't decided if I want to include a busk or not. If I don't use a busk, I could make this front lacing, which would be really nice and convenient. However, I don't want the lacing to show through the gown; I have seen front laced corsets that don't show at all through layers of fabric, but I'd hate to risk it.Then again, having a back laced corset AND a back laced gown might not be great, either. Side lacing? I feel like that would warp the shape of the corset a little bit... Instead of pushing things in, it might smash them out, instead. If that makes any sense.  Frankly, I'm just not convinced that a corset for this period needs a busk; lots  of paintings show a slight swell at the breast under garments, suggesting to me that whatever support garments were being used were at least a little flexible. And not that costuming is about comfort, but I think not having a busk would be more comfortable, which in turn helps make an historical costume look more like clothing when worn. One thought I had was just to put extra bones in the center front, and perhaps use 1/2 inch wide steel instead of the narrower kind.



  1. I think you should put extra bones in the front! :)

    Lovely pattern btw

  2. Thanks, Vintage! I think that may be the most practical thing to do.

  3. I have made several pairs of bodies and can offer a little advice. I am quite full chested (which causes other fitting issues because of the way the cone-shaped corsets create a concave curve under the bust. Aside from that issue though, no busk is necessary, but it's not harmful either. Just a personal preference issue. I have used 1/4" spring steel, and if you are concerned about the plastic cable ties not bouncing back... don't be. After time, spring steel loses its spring too. I disassembled an old corset to re-use some of the boning and quite a few pieces were too deformed to bother with. This was mainly because I made one with boned tabs, and my hip to waist curve is severe. I have boned a kirtle and some dress fronts with plastic, and they have performed beautifully.

    As for your striped fabric, I'd sew the boning channels into the twill interlining, and then use the silk as a fashion fabric over the top, without channels in it. You won't have to be self conscious about the lines then.

    Front versus back lacing - it makes no difference. I even have one that opens in the front AND back due to weight fluctuations, and the lacing never shows through.

    Hope that helps some - good luck!

  4. Hi Crystal, thanks for the advice! I have made corsets without sewing the channels through the fashion fabric, and sometimes the fashion fabric pulls funny on top of the foundation fabrics. Do you have any advice to prevent this? I am thinking that perhaps I could just hand stitch (so as to avoid the bones) through all the layers in the valley of the seams to secure it all and prevent different rates of stretch when the garment is worn. But I think you're right, that might be the best way to avoid some of these issues.

    I am also heartened to hear that you've had no problems with front lacing! Front and back is a good idea, I'll have to consider that; I like the idea of having a corset that is flexible with weight fluctuations, since even if I don't gain or lose weight, I feel like my weight often shifts and resettles.

    Thanks again!