Thursday, October 27, 2011

Proper Foundation Garments, Part 3: Corsets! (Everything you need to know and were afraid to ask) by Gail Carriger

So my dears it is time for us to discuss one of my all time favorite items . . .


Please allow me, Fashionable Reader, to do a quick proof of credentials. I've been wearing confining structured apparel since I was 14. I started out with a Ren Faire peasant bodice (which is NOT technically a corset) and moved on to work events as a professional corset fitter and sometime model for a well known bridal boutique and high-end custom corset maker for 10 years. I'm probably one of the fastest lacers (and tightest, if you want it) that you will ever meet. I've worked quick change runway situations ~ with corsets. I've had jobs were I spent over 18 hours a day (or night) in a corset, all of them on my feet, running around, bending down (not at the waist) and lacing others up, probubly nigh on 100 a day. So there you have it, there are others out there more qualified than me, but I do have some experience in this matter.

Before I start... 

The Question?

scullerym8d0182 asked Lord Akeldama . . .

Lord Akeldama, I am a girl of considerable girth and would like to find a corset to affect the illusion of a waist, but alas sizing seems horribly confusing. Any tips?

To which the vampire replied,

My dear sudsy muffin, what would I know of ladies foundation garments? I pass you along to my creator . . .

Gail says in answer to this particular question . . .

Truthfully, my dear, you must get thyself to a professional corset maker. And not a "friend of a friend" please. Someone who has made over a 100 corsets at least.

A good corset is even harder to fit than a bra, especially if you are uncomfortable with finding the right size. Dark Garden in San Francisco is my preferred vendor. They make corsets up to a 38" (and even larger custom). I can often fit up to a 48" measured waist into a 38" corset waist (explanation of sizing to come).

What to look for?

If not local to the Bay Area, you must seek out a maker who specializes in fully-lined spring-steel multi-boned corsets
  • no plastic boning (not strong enough)
  • no satin (not for your first)
  • no lace (too delicate)

Here are some other things to look for:

A steel busk up the front, preferably made in Germany.

Image courtesy of Dark Garden.

Corset  1883  The Victoria & Albert Museum, note the thickness of the busk near the bottom?

Ribbon laces up the back. 

NOT SHOE LACES or anything tubular, flat and not stretchy is important it will effect how tight you can lace and how much the corset shifts around.

Corset  1880  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, note front lacing over tummy to assist with pulling that area in.
This post, I should say, is not about tight lacing or waist training. Not my thing.

Cross lacing. 

This means the laces should loop at the center, and thus the center of back at waist is where you pull to tighten completely. The act of pulling the top part of the loop tightens the bottom part of the corset, and visa versa.

 Image courtesy of Dark Garden.

Correct lacing gap.

A corset that fits properly has from 1.5 ~ 3 inches "lacing space" at the back (see above image), so that you have room to tighten or to loosen. The two sides should never meet perfectly, unless it is being used as, for example, the bodice of a wedding gown (see below image). Nor should they stretch over too much space, a too small corset is ugly and uncomfortable because it puts the side boning (the curviest) too far forward (over your floating ribs).

 Image courtesy of Dark Garden.

Look for lining.

Check the inside of any corset: it should be lined completely with strong durable poplin (cotton) and have the internal waist tape present.

 Image courtesy of Dark Garden.
On this special corset you can see through to the waist tapes.

Price point.

Anything under $300 and you should be wary, not excited, about a bargain. 


scullerym8d0182's sizing confusion is due to the measurement system for corsets.  

Most (but not all) corsets are sized to the natural waist and then deducted. Run a measuring tape around your actual natural waist (below the ribs and above the hips). Then deduct anything from 4 to 8 inches depending on the maker and style of corset and your "squish factor." This will depend on your body and how tight you can go and whole host of other traits. 

For example, I have a 29 inch waist and wear an (off the rack) 22 waist cinch but a 26 overbust (and a 23 custom). I am not very squishy. 

Squish factor is not dependent upon your size as a person, but is an indefinable judgement call made by the corset fitter. This is the number one reason I never recommend buying a corset online. 
My small waist cinch corset.
Another kind of waist cinch, sometimes called the ribbon corset. 1900s  Redfern,  The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The extremes of corsetry: My tiny little Swiss waist under-bust comfortable at 22" called "The Circus," shown with a steampunk outfit and tight laced for modeling. Versus Jessica in a lovely full body corset (hobble hobble) image courtesy of Dark Garden.

Corset  1890  The Metropolitan Museum of Art
“This corset fully covers the bust. Because of this, it is most likely a design for a young woman, perhaps a teenager making her first steps into womanhood. The corset itself is minimally boned, allowing ease of movement, and the straps provide additional support.” via OMg That Dress

If you are hurting to find a place where you can go in and try a corset, there are corset makers at most SF/F conventions. Some dealer rooms are open to the public, so you may not even need buy a day pass. I'm a little snobbish about their wears, off the rack for a corset is just like off the rack for a bathing suit (who fits that perfectly?) but they can work as a first corset. 

Don't allow the vendor to argue you into buying anything that doesn't fit right

Or you can try a leather corset from a BDSM seller. Leather has a nice stretch and breath-ability to it that I love for a corset. Both of these venues should carry larger sizes.

Corset  1890  The Philadelphia Museum of Art

More advice?

Have the corset seller train whoever will be putting you into and out of your corset, or identify this person in your friendship group. Most men are often terrible lacers! They think you should grab and simply pull as hard and fast as you can from the waist, as if lacing a shoe!

Gone With The Wind got it WRONG, you work gently from the top down, then bottom up, and then pull through the middle. You tighten by pulling the laces out to either side, never straight back! Here's an excellent video on how to do it.

Bad bad bad girls!

It is possible to lace yourself in. I do it all the time. Contrary to popular belief, I do not travel to Steampunk conventions with a lady's maid. So every time you see me away from home and in a corset, I probubly did it myself. You will never be able to get yourself as tight as someone else can and it takes practice and flexibility. You need to be able to tie a bow behind your back. Many of my friends have "corset companions," fellow devotees who also wear corsets so they lace each other up at conventions or other events.

Why lace from the top down first?

So that the corset rests down onto your hips and does not ride up. You may need to lean forward (not bend) from the hips to settle your rack into the top of the corset. If a corset is laced too high you will get the "kidney feeling" which manifests differently in different people (and may not have anything to do with the kidneys, but that's what we've always called it). I feel it as a slight sick queesyness, others start to cold sweet, some just get an ache on their side. You should stop and unlace immediately. Wait for a bit, then re-lace, tugging the corset downwards to "settle" it.
My custom "Fancy" corset.

Please never never never tie your laces around the waist of your corset! Unless you want to shorten the corset's life. The laces cut into the fabric at the boning and will cause it to fray.

Don't bend in a corset. Get used to using your thighs to crouch down, it's good exercise anyway.

Always wear something under your corset, even if it is only a light slip (you can tuck the straps and such down so they don't show. This is to protect the corset from your sweat. Here are some things the ladies of old would wear under a corset . . .

Bust Improver  1900  The Los Angeles County Museum of Art

 Three versions of a long undergarment: Chemise 1876  The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Slip  1900-1908  The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Combination  1890s  The Metropolitan Museum of Art
 In the old days, incidentally, one also wore something over the corset to protect it from rubbing and from any chance of being seen.

Corset Cover  1900-1905  The Metropolitan Museum of Art

It is very hard to find anyone who knows how to clean a corset properly. If you do need to get it cleaned, hunt down a bridal gown specialist and keep your fingers crossed. 

Corset  1890-1895  The Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Make sure, if you have an underbust, that you are putting it on the right way up. Dark Garden puts a tag in the back next to the laces, the tag should be up.  

If there is no tag 99% of corsets have the pips (male) of the bust on the left side and the loops (hooks, female) on the right.

Choosing a Style?

 The waistcoat style under-bust I need to wear a bra with it, and Autumn in the original, Image courtesy of Dark Garden.

An underbust corset is not recommended if you have a massive rack. But the full back support is lovely.

Corset  Royal Worcester Corset Company, 1876  The Metropolitan Museum of Art
There are all sorts of other things to consider, not just the style of corset, but where the boning lies and how it is angled, like the balcony bra versus the full coverage versus the push-up versus the demi they all do different things to your rack and your choice should reflect how you want the girls to look.

Here is a small idea of the difference with my Rack as the model . . .

Sweetheart Overbust Victorian

My spoon corset is an off-the-rack 26 Victorian overbust. The boobs are not fully seated into the cups which are too small for me. (This was the fist corset I ever owned, made-over.) Next to it is the same corset in white made as a custom to my shape so it has about a 23 waist and much more room in the cups. This is a full coverage corset, which means breasts are meant to sit down inside the cups and be fully supported, not necessarily lifted up to the "butt cleavage" arena.

Historically most like?

Corset  Dr. Warner’s, 1889-1891  The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Scoop Neck Overbust Victorian

A modern cut scoop neck corset. This one is more like a demi-bra, my boobs sit down and inside the cup but are also pressed in and up with angled stays from the side, to give me a slight butt look.

Historically most like:

1891 Corset Gold Leaf

Straight Across Classic Victorian

Like the balcony bra, this Classic (straight across) corset has straight stays up-and-down all the way around, which provides mostly uplift. It's also laced very tight in this image giving me the uber butt look. Only in a corset or costume situation do I feel this look is appropriate. 

Historically most like:

1879-1881  The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sport Corset  1885  The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Summer Corset  1871  The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Nursing Corset  1890  Augusta Auctions

I hope that is enough on corsets for now. However, you don't have to take my word for it. And here's a blog post from Before the Automobile on her 1880s corset and chemise.

 Photo by J. Daniel Sawyer.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Proper Foundation Garments, Part 2: The Low Down by Gail Carriger

As much as the great agony of my life is the perpetual hunt for a pretty well-fitting vintage-style wire-free bra, there are other things than just bras to consider when dressing vintage from the bottom up. As I am certain you are well aware, Fashionable Reader. So, slips . . .

Since I dress vintage so often yet many of my dresses are on the cheaper end (read: not lined) this means I need to wear a slip underneath.

I prefer a vintage slip to shaper-wear under these circumstances because the two are designed to go together. Shaper-wear can bunch in odd places where a nice silky vintage slip drapes just so. Also it looks lovely if you happen to be caught mid-makeup application by the nice young busboy they sent up with your milk (for morning tea).

Chemise  1908  The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Like vintage dresses, I have very little difficulties finding vintage slips that fit me, they seem to be cut for a large rack, small ribs, and bit of hip. Almost any vintage shop worth its mothballs will have a slip section as well as a dress section, usually back in one corner. But vintages slips still also turn up in thrift stores, I've never paid more than $15 for one.

There are other options, like teddies and tap pants and the like. I'll use them for under full skirt dresses, but since I tend to opt for pencil dresses, anything that adds bulk down bellow looks . . . odd. This is also why, although I really prefer thigh-highs, I actually tend to opt for full coverage stockings most of the time. (Thigh-highs in a pencil skirt means you can see the garter clips, especially when sitting down, a big no no.)

Drawers  1900s  The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

And if there is one thing your foundation garments should NEVER do, it is show in ANY way!

Unless, of course, that is the whole purpose of the outfit.

 1950s The Victoria & Albert Museum
 My favorite garter. All of mine are from Held Over on Haight Street $8 ~ $12.
The obligatory matched undies.

So, a brief note about undies.

If you, like me, favor a pencil skirt, please find yourself some micro invisaline undies and wear with control-top stockings so you have no VPL (visible pantie line) or learn to love a thong or go comando. You have no other choices, I am afraid. There is no greater sin in the universe than VPL. Trust me, Fashionable Reader, there just isn't.

 Which brings us to stockings!

Stockings  1890s  2 The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Stockings  1900s  The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Something has happened to stockings over the past 20 years. They've started to suck. I mean, suck construction-wise. We have far more options so far as retro styles are concerned (just do a search for backseam nylons on Amazon and see how many hits you get! I remember the days when you were lucky to find one pair!) but they will only last for a few wearings. I have stockings from the 80s (not even the 50s) that I can still wash a wear today.

So you want my number one stocking tip?

Avoid Leg Avenue. 

I'm a size 4 - 6 on the bottom and stand 5"6' tall, not a difficult fit really (nothing like my upper half). Yet LA stockings NEVER fit me. They are invariably too long, cheaply made, and too tight around the thigh. They appear to be made for barbie dolls. If I need a quick pair I always go for Music Legs instead. I find their fit is far better. However, in general I haunt thrift stores for nylons from the 80s which occasionally turn up unopened and in nice pale creamy colors.

My number two stocking tip? Put a tiny dollop of clear nail polish on the back-seam on your Achilles tendon, stay still while it dries. It'll keep your seams from moving. I will say, for the record, this is the only tattoo I have seriously considered, because keeping the seam straight is still an effort.