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!


History Twins!  Also, so much stuff is happening!


Ok, news first!  I’m going to be doing all sorts of cool stuff in the next few months (and never sleeping!):

  • My thesis programs are up on the Merchant’s House website!  I’ll be Bridget Murphy the kitchen maid on St Patrick’s Day, and Julia Tredwell talking about etiquette on April 23 and talking about fashion on May 21.
  • I’m also helping out with the interactive kids’ tour on February 20, which is going to  be really really fun.  If you are interested in daily life in the 19th century and have access to a child, I suggest checking it out!
  • On April 24 I will be modeling my Tissot dress in the New York Nineteenth Century Society Extravaganza fashion show at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn.  Not a lot of info on this event yet, but I’ve really enjoyed the other NYNCS events that I’ve been to.
  • I am very excited to be participating in Fashioning Weeksville, an awesome program that will involve creating a costume for a new living history presentation at Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn.

Holy crap, right??  So much awesome stuff. When it rains it pours!

And now for something completely different: Remember my Ren Faire gown?  And St. Cecilia from 1568, who was wearing a very similar outfit?    

Well guess what!  I found another portrait that is even more eerily similar to my gown:

Right?  RIGHT???? This is basically exactly the same as my gown. And I’d never seen it before someone posted it as a one-off response to something on the Elizabethan Costume Facebook group maybe two weeks ago.  It’s like the time stream cracked open in a moment of perfect transference.

Or just a huge coincidence.  But hey. (Incidentally, anyone has any info about this painting please let me know – the Kunsthistoriches Museum webpage is really unhelpful).

I always love having history twin moments like this.  They provide unique insight to me as a modern person trying to recreate historical clothes in that they show that the choices I am making in color, cut, material, styling, accessorizing, etc are appropriate for someone who looked like me in period.  This is information that people were unlikely to write down, but very inportant for getting that truly authentic look.  So in this case, well done me!  I think now that I’ve found her I’m going to continue using her as inspiration – I love her hairstyle and jewelry, and the long pearl strand I wore for faire last year was really annoying.

I’ve done the history twin thing before – avid readers may remember my Tissot gown – and I’m doing it again for Bridget’s costume for my thesis: 

Painting : “The Jolly Washerwoman” (1851) by Lilly Martin Spencer, fabric is a reproduction from the collection of the Virginia Quilt Museum


Have you ever had a history twin?  Found your doppelgänger in a portrait or an old photograph?  I’d love to hear about it in the comments!