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.


  1. Your spoon corset is AMAZING! And you look stunning in the last picture. I love your skirt and your shoes! Also the hat. And obviously the corset. So everything about it really.

    This was quite a fascinating article. I don't think I'd be able to wear a corset though. It just wouldn't suit me. I envy people who look good in them since they do look so pretty.

  2. As much as I want a corset (mostly to hold in the back and side fat) $300 seems way too much to spend on something that I'd only wear on dress up occasions and will never been seen.

    I'm always looking for the perfect shapewear. I don't expect it to make me look like I'm 135 pounds instead of 230, but give the illusion of shape. (While not making it too difficult to go to the bathroom! I'd have body shapers that every single time I needed a potty break I had to fully undress.) But having a short torso it's difficult. Seems all the premade ones are for women with long torsos. Even the corsets meant to go over the boobs still tend to dig horribly into my hips. So I'd have to go custom made. But dang, with that price tag, I'd either have to marry rich or win The Publisher's Clearing House first. LOL

  3. Hi, it's the sudsy muffin. Thank you so much for writing this!! I primarily want to get into the laces for waist training but being a girl with a 42b bust and a 52 (or thereabouts) waist makes this a bit of a challenge. I live in Maine so not so sure who will be around that can help but at least I know what to look for now. Thank you soooo much, Gail!

  4. Good luck. It sounds like your best bet woudl be to find a local SF/F convention and see if there it a corset maker in the dealers room.

  5. I'm DYING to buy my first corset. I too, used to wear bodices at Ren Faires. :-) Loved them, but they just don't have the support and boost. I quite like the modern scoop neck and surely there must be a shop in London somewhere (off to search the interwebs).

  6. I bought my first corset on line through Timeless Trends. While it doesn't fit all the criteria, it does have steel boning, and is fully lined. They were very helpful on the phone. I started to order online but called for sizing advice. They were extremely helpful. They recommended underbust with a bra for me due to my bust. They only make my cup size in custom orders and I wasn't ready for the financial commitment. I've worn it many times, and for hours at a time and never any discomfort. FYI, I lace in about 4 inches on average. For overbust, I will definately go custom.

  7. So THAT'S why sometimes I break out in a sweat when I'm laced. Eek!

  8. Wow! A truly stunning amount of info, with great presentation. Thanks so much for the enjoyable read!

  9. Absolutely brilliant! I feel much better informed now. I bought a waspie corset that turned out to be too big, but it will work as a decorative costume item while I'm knocked up and it still lets me perform. I was going to sell it and just replace it with a smaller one once I gave birth and got back to normal, but now I'm going to get a custom made piece instead. THANK YOU!

  10. My pleasure, I am delighted to be of help to you all! I hope you have great success if your corset futures, if you decide it is for you.

  11. Good lord, those look uncomfortable (but stylish!). I don't understand how you women do it.

  12. I am in love with your spoon corset! Actually I love all of your corsets here. I attempted making my own corset for Steamcon, but abandoned it due to time constraints (with the amount of effort I had already put into it I wasn't willing to go quick and cheap to finish it). I would love to take a corset making class as I have a feeling I am going to have to go custom fit if I want one that really works for me. I will have to let my friend know about the kidney issues when laced though, she went as tight as possible and was having some issues with queasy feelings.

  13. Sigh, massive rack here. Already bought an underbust corset and now I'm stuck with it. I do wear it with a bra, but the corset wants to sneak up under my breasts like a shy ferret. Any tips on counteracting that?

  14. Hum, are you tightening from the top down to the waist first, and the from the bottom up and then tightening fully? Otherwise it sounds like you either aren't lacing the whole thing tight enough, the corset is too big for you, or the corset pattern itself is cut too long for you. Are you on the shorter side as well? A corset shouldn't move at all, like a brace or a correctly wound ace bandage.

  15. Miss Gail,
    I am a 13 year old in the Columbus area who is wondering how to find her first corset. (I adore Victorian and vintage fashions). Anyways, would you know any good places to get corsets and other vintage clothing in my area?

    1. Dear Flannery, I am sorry I'm not at all familiar with your area. If there is a local anima or sci-fi convention your guardians could take you to, the vendor hall might have something. Good luck, Gail

  16. I am very short and very skinny. I really want a steampunk-ish corset but I don't want to make my waist any smaller. I think I want an underbust probably. Where do you recomend going to in the bay area?

    1. Dark Garden, Hayes Valley, San Francisco. They are expensive but the best and you can have a long chat about what you are looking for and what you want out of a corset. Visit the store and try on their many styles and get a good idea. It's worth the trip even if you don't end up buying or ordering anything.

  17. So THAT is why to tighten the lace from the top down first! I've read you're supposed to, but no one ever said why! Thanks. I tend not to do something if I don't know there's a good reason for it; now I'll do it.
    As for the corset example that's captioned "for tightening the tummy area" I thought maybe it was actually for pregnancy or postpartum-- adjustable!

  18. Ah, we know the secret of your great figure, Gail -- although a 29 inch waist is nothing to sneeze at. You wear a corset. In a Karl Wagner story, a woman finds herself in the 1890s, and women then urge her to wear a corset and have a decent figure.


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