Sunday, May 26, 2013

Victorian Ensemble: Corset Confection

What is the main structural element in any woman’s 1870s outfit? Yep, the corset. As a gardener I did not need a fully boned one. In fact, a corded corset probably would have been better. Heck, the museum told me to just put a few bones in the dress bodice and not wear a corset at all. But as a historical costume geek I’ve always wanted one. I could not pass up the opportunity to acquire a real one.

I was too intimidated to make one myself. I knew enough about corsetry to know that I did not know enough to attempt it. At first I looked into purchasing one, but to get a real one would break my paycheck. Luckily I have an amazing friend who is a professor of theater and historical costuming, who does not mind working on her weekends off.  She even already had all the supplies. So one weekend in April I grabbed some pink fabric for the top layer of my corset and made my way across Massachusetts to spend the weekend with Brittney.

She bought a lovely bungalow a few years ago and it is absolutely darling. She and her boyfriend had waffles waiting for me when I arrived. After breakfast we went to her costume shop at the college where she teaches. She had a few previously made corsets for me to try on so we could see if we could use an existing pattern, or if we would have to start from scratch. The second one I tried on fit almost perfectly. I was amazed to learn it was based on a Simplicity pattern, but Brittney vouched for it and that was good enough for me. My goal was to make a corset that would give me the correct shape, but not necessarily a smaller waist. Not long before attempting my own I read this lovely blog post by Lauren from Wearing History and I fell in love with the idea of adding padding at the bust and hips while leaving me able to breathe in the thing.  Brittney was able to adjust the gusset pattern pieces in the bust and waist accordingly, and we were ready to cut.

Corsets are lined with special corset fabric called coutil. It is bizarre stiff, very flexible, but stiff at the same time. It is soft, but hell to push pins and needles through. We basted the whole thing in pieces before doing any sewing in order to make sure it laid in curves around me with no wrinkles and no pulling. We basted the gusset pieces together, we basted one layer of coutil to the outer pieces, inserted the gussets, then basted the 2nd piece of coutil on the inside of all that. It took all Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning with us both basting like crazy to get all the layers basted, then all the pieces basted, then the edges and on and on. I admit I was not the biggest help, but I basted like anything and I hope I sped up the project at least a little.

By the time we got to Sunday afternoon I was pretty much useless but I tried to keep on gamely as Brittney started in sewing the boning chanels, the busks, and all the fiddly bits. I cut boning, but then was not able to get the metal caps on the ends, I was able to make grommet holes and pound grommets! Brittney just took off and even squeezed in enough time to add the white binding ribbon to the top and bottom before I had to hit the road and head back home. It is an amazing pink confection.

iPhone photo, but I got both the back and the front!
I’ve had a few weeks at the museum now, and I’ve worn the corset while gardening 7 days now. It is remarkably comfortable, even when gardening. I still need to add the flossing to the boning channels, but it is good enough to wear under my outfit.

Now if only I could actually finish said outfit…

1 comment:

  1. That is adorable! I'm (very timidly) making my first 1860's corset. That coutil is a pain and a blessing all in one! :)