The Corset Saga (pt. 1)


(Kind of sounds like The Forsyte Saga?  Maybe?  Not really.)

This post is for anyone who’s considered skipping making a mockup of a new pattern.

So I’m making two new late-1850s-early-1860s outfits for some programs that I’m doing at the  Merchant’s House Museum this spring.  A key component of any mid-19th century outfit is a good corset.  The mid-19th century corset I have been wearing up until now was made for me by a lovely classmate in undergrad five years ago.  My body is not shaped the same way it was five years ago, but I continued wearing the same corset because making a new corset is a lot of work and once you have one it’s just easier to keep wearing it and the nature of corsets is such that you can do that, though it might not be 100% comfortable (whereas a correctly fitted corset IS, in fact, 100% comfortable, as the majority of correctly-fitting-corset-wearers are happy to tell anyone that will listen).  Since these programs are part of my masters thesis, and part of one of them will involve wearing just the corset and other appropriate undergarments in front of the general public and talking about them, I figured it was time to bite the bullet and make myself a nice new corset.

I used the recently published Stays and Corsets: Historical Patterns Translated for the Modern Body by Mandy Barrington to draft the pattern.  Her draft for a mid-century corset comes from this beautiful piece from the Symington Collection:

For whatever reason I can’t seem to find any pictures of this corset on its own and not from the cover of this book? Anyway, modern people like this corset because it’s colourful in a period when most corsets were white.

I have learned from my previous experiences with making and wearing corsets that fleshier bodies like mine are able to corset down a lot more than slender bodies, and most patterns don’t account for this when they are graded up to larger sizes.  I suspected this would be the case with the patterns in this book (and  I would later find I was correct), but at least in the initial draft I followed the instructions exactly as they appeared in the book.  To compensate a little, though, when my measurements fell between listings on the measurement tables I rounded down and used the next smallest entry.  


After a super fun afternoon of drafting, this is the pattern I ended up with:  

I made the mockup out of grey cotton duck cloth that I happened to have in my stash and I taped the bones in with masking tape, a technique I was taught when learning to make corsets in college. 
The finished product will have 4-6 bones on each seam, but for the mockup, using the random boning lying around in the studio, I ended up with 1-2 strips of boning per seam.  This should be enough to get a good basic idea of how the pattern is going to fit.  Here is the first fitting of the mockup:



As I suspected, it was too big overall, especially in the bust.  The top edge was pulling away from my body and my breasts were not supported at all.  It was too tight in the hip, though, creating what someone on the Civillian Civil War Closet Facebook group called “reverse muffin top”.  The first alteration I did was add in a big hip gusset.   

This released the hip to a comfortable dimension, and brought it to a too-big-ness proportional to that of the bust and waist (did that make any sense?).  I also sewed some real bone channels into the seam allowances instead of keeping the bones taped in – there was some horizontal wrinklage happening, and I needed to see if it was because of the temporary boning or if I actually need to take out some length.

At this point it started to take a recognizable mid-century Hourglass-tastic shape, it’s just too big.  So I moved the lacing strips over an inch on each side, in hopes of creating the ideal 2″ lacing gap at the centre back.   

Much better already!  My bust feels much more supported.  I think this is going to be pretty close to the level of compression on the final piece.  It does still lace all the way closed down the back, so I’m going to take another 2″ out of the back to get the lacing gap for reals this time.

So here’s what will happen going forward.  I’ll move the lacing strips, and I’ve got a friend recruited to help me with an in-person fitting on Tuesday. It’s hard to fit something as fiddly as a corset by yourself, and you can only give so much feedback based on photos.  I suspect I’m going to have to take out about half an inch of length all the way around, and I may try to blend the hip gussets into a few of the seams instead of keeping it on its own.  I’m envisioning at least one, maybe two more fittings of the mockup before I move into final fabric (which is good, because I haven’t picked it yet!)

More to come after my fitting on Tuesday!


All the Bits: L’Hermione Outfit Dress Diary, Part 2


To begin today’s post, I present you with one of Google’s more questionable associations… IMG_2267 So that happened!  Also, I found a perfectly-sized basket to carry with my 18th century outfit! Someone was getting rid of it on my block and it was just sitting out on the stoop.  I picked it up on the way to work and carried it around with me for the rest of the day.  I couldn’t figure out why I was getting weird looks, but apparently casual basket-carrying is not common outside of Colonial Williamsburg… IMG_2233 Anyway…


It needs a press, but it looks nice!

After working on my super awesome red shoes, I was so excited to get started working on the rest of this outfit.  I immediately started working on a shift, which I figured wouldn’t take me more than two or three days…but it ended up taking about a week and a half.  I did a lot more of it by hand than I originally intended to – because speed is of the essence on this project, I am trying to work as much on the machine as possible without any machine finishing being visible on the outside of garments – and as much hand sewing as I do, I am not very quick at it.  So it took forever, but the shift has hand-finished seams and hems, which look quite nice!  I used this tiny rolled hem tutorial for the neckline.  I’m probably going to press it flat, but it made it very easy to sew a teeny tiny hem! IMG_2257 Continue reading

The Red Shoes: L’Hermione Outfit Dress Diary, part 1


If you haven’t seen my summer update, you might not know that the Hermione, the replica of the Marquis De Lafayette’s ship that he sailed to America during the revolution, is going to be in New York at the beginning of July, and I’m working on a 1780 outfit for this event.  I bought a pair of Pemberley imperfects from American Duchess during their last spring cleaning sale, and hadn’t decided what to do with them until this project popped up!


18th Century Shoes, Chamberlain & Sons. Photo from Curating Fashion.

The design for these shoes is inspired in part by this pair of 18th century shoes.

Continue reading

Procrastination Nation: Tissot Portrait Dress Diary, Part 3


Hello again!  It’s been a while!  But I’m back, and this project is finished!  I didn’t work on it for a while because the bodice needed to get fitted, and I went to a Markland event, and auditions for the New Jersey Renaissance Faire, and interviewed for an internship, and then there was a blizzard…but enough of my excuses!  Here are some of the last bits of progress.


PS, I am in love with this jacket!  I want to wear it in real life, but it doesn’t fit so well without a corset on (as it should be).

I put the jacket together using the Truly Victorian Spanish Jacket pattern (TV444).  I was doing this pretty frantically this week, so I didn’t take any process shots.  For those of you who remember the Great Pompom Debate, I ended up going with the smaller pompoms because the proportion and the spacing looked more correct.  The jacket is made of a beautiful soft red wool from Mood (I had so much fun playing Project Runway…until I ended up sitting on the floor in front of two bolts of slightly different red wools for about fifteen minutes trying to make a decision), and is lined with red cotton broadcloth that I was extremely lucky to find in my stash.

In addition to the pompoms, I trimmed the jacket with a thick wool braid to represent a vague second set of trim that you can sort of see in the portrait.
Continue reading

Stacks on Stacks: Tissot Portrait Dress Diary, part 2

Stacks on stacks on stacks on stacks

Progress has been made!  Huzzah!  I finished the skirt last night, and I mocked up the bodice this afternoon.  I did a rough fitting, which was very difficult without a second set of hands, but the bodice pattern (Truly Victorian 446 – Darted Bodice) actually fit pretty well.  I don’t have to add any extra length, I don’t think, which is good because that’s often an issue for me.  I think in order to just move forward I’ll cut the pieces out of the real fabric with some extra seam allowance and see if I can find someone to help me actually fit the darn thing next week.  I haven’t even started thinking about sleeves yet!


After some debate on the HSM Facebook group, I kept with the cartridge pleats rather than take everything apart and make gores. I think it worked out pretty well!

Continue reading

Balls: Tissot Portrait Dress Diary, part 1


I’m not exactly sure how exactly to keep a dress diary, but the next task for blogging 101 is to write a post aimed at a ‘dream reader’, which for me would be a fellow costumer who’s interested in my process and those sort of details, so I figured I’d give it a shot.  I’ve looked through a bunch of dress diaries on other blogs and hope that I’ll be able to keep up.  As usual the challenge will be to try to make it interesting and coherent to people who don’t live in my brain!

Mountains of ball fringe!

Mountains of ball fringe!

First: I ordered two different sizes of red ball fringe – extra large and jumbo.  Of course the ideal size would be about half-way between the two, but what can ya do!  So now I need to decide which will be a better proportion.  Any opinions would be most welcome!

IMG_1504 IMG_1506

Continue reading