Thursday, July 7, 2011

Some Thoughts on Corsets

Corsets are one of the most common parts of a steampunk costume. At least they are if you're a woman, and sometimes even if you're not. A woman's steampunk costume needn't include a corset, of course, but the majority of them do. In my opinion there are three main reasons for wearing a corset:

1. They look cool.
2. They improve the shape of your figure.
3. They are comfortable.

Lots of people would probably argue with me on that third point, but it is absolutely true in my experience. If your corset is uncomfortable it is either most likely cheaply made or simply doesn't fit you correctly. Corsets are very complicated articles of clothing that really require custom fitting to be absolutely right. I think most women expect a corset to be uncomfortable because corsets have gotten bad press over the years and so when they try a cheap, mass-produced corset their suspicions are confirmed.

Let's face it, most women have no need to know much about corsetry. I certainly didn't when I first started in steampunk, although as someone who had dressed up for Rennaissance Fairs and who was a goth, you'd think I'd have known more.

First, a primer on what is and is not a corset.

This is me at a the Texas Renaissance Festival wearing a Renaissance-style bodice. It is not a corset.

The only boning in this one is at the very front. Bodices have solid backs, straps, and lace in the front. They do a good job of making your torso cone shaped and pushing your boobs sky-high. You can certainly wear this style of garment for steampunk, but it's not Victorian and it's not a corset.

Next there are bustiers, which is what you are likely to find in lingerie stores and sections. They are essentially strapless bras with a light plastic-boned band that goes down to your waist. They are really only good for wearing for a short period of time in the bedroom to look sexy, or wearing instead of a bra under a prom dress. There is a lot of variations in bustiers, and some look very similar to corsets, but are generally distinguished by shape and flimsiness.

And finally we have corsets. Corsets generally lace in the back and have hooks in the front (called a busk.) There are a million different styles of corset, but the main groupings have to do with what the corset covers. So there are overbusts, underbusts, midbusts, and waist cinchers. Overbusts cover the entire bust, underbusts stop right under the bust, midbusts (most historical Victorian corsets) stop at the nipple line, and waist cinchers are the smallest, only covering the waist. Which style you want is mostly a question of your own taste and the look you are going for.

But now we get to the important stuff: quality. The main obstacle to people getting decent corsets is price. No one wants to shell out several hundred dollars for an item they are only going to wear once, or maybe once a year. Of course, if you're anything like me, what you think will be an infrequent costume event may turn into something of a lifestyle and you'll save a lot of money in the long run by buying quality to start with. But how can you tell what you're buying?

I'm going to use myself as an example of what not to do.
First, I set out to find a cheap corset that looked awesome. I ended up spending a lot of time on the internet looking around. I discovered that there are a bunch of dirt cheap corsets for sale. What a deal! I found a gorgeous corset on sale for $15, straight from China. I was out of work and broke, and I went for it. Now, the corset I got was actually not terrible quality, for a $15 corset. But it was kinda small for me, and even worse it turned out it was a midbust, which meant my large breasts just fell out all over the place. And naturally it was boned with plastic, which didn't help support the girls any.

From A-kon 2010

After one event in that "bargain" I decided I had to get something else. So I hit ebay again and found something I liked that would keep my boobs in place.

From San Japan

That's right, it's a bodice, but a rather elaborate one. This isn't particularly Victorian, but it works for both steampunk and Renaissance. The only problem with this item is that the boning is again, plastic. This is a picture from the first time I wore it and you can see the plastic boning at the front has buckled. After a few more events?

From Dickens on the Strand 2010

The plastic bones were permanently bent, giving me the dreaded Cheap Corset Pooch. It's when plastic boning buckles and bends outward, making you look fat, which is certainly not what a corset is supposed to do. You see this all the time at steampunk events, and I just want to pull these poor girls aside and say, "Honey, you poor thing. Buy STEEL." I saw one girl who bought her corset new on Friday and by Saturday night it was a hot mess. Unfortunately, most of the corsets you see for sale at cons and even Ren Fairs are boned with plastic, which is just not going to last no matter what. How can you tell? Well, you just can if you've been exposed to plastic, spiral steel, and flat steel. But if you don't know, ASK. If you're honestly only going to wear it once and it's really, really cheap, fine, buy plastic. But you can buy a basic underbust corset with steel bones starting at about $60 online. (Yes, you can. I did.)

So, now we're into the realm of what I think you should be buying, and what anyone who knows is wearing: steel boned corsets. That sounds scary and uncomfortable, doesn't it? Wrong. Steel is much more comfortable than plastic because it doesn't bend and poke you in the ribs all day. Most steel used in corsets is what is called spiral steel boning and is extremely flexible but never gets bent out of shape. These bones are actually bunches of coiled steel wires, like a spring. But don't get these confused with "spring steel" which is actually another name for flat steel. Most steel-boned corsets have both spiral and flat steel bones. The flats are used at the front and back to allow the corset to be laced correctly, while the spirals are used everywhere else to make the corset comfortable and flexible.

This is me in my first steel-boned corset, which I purchased online. I finally figured out that I needed an underbust corset, since I wasn't going to find one that was ready-made and fit my bust. With an underbust corset, you still wear a bra to support your breasts, but the corset is shaping your waist and making you look cool.

From Pictures

And finally, I've taken the next step and started making my own corsets. Making your corset yourself isn't a quick or easy task, and it requires good sewing skills, but with patience and research, it's not as hard as you might think. The advantage is that you can make yourself a custom-fitted pattern for way less than it would cost to have a custom corset made by a professional corsetier. Here is my first corset, of which I am very proud.
From sewing

For the curious, the materials are poly brocade exterior, cotton duck interior, and cotton twill lining, spiral and flat 1/4" steels. All told I probably spent about $150 on materials and it took me about a month, start to finish.

I've taken to wearing my corsets around the house to help with my back pain, and have made a special medical underbust to wear at home and under my clothes. I'm less proud of the way this one looks, but looks wasn't the primary goal.

From sewing

So, from someone who didn't know better than to buy a $15 corset from China, to someone who made her own in two years. Not too bad, but I hope I can save someone some money and steps along the way.


  1. I have always wanted one but havnet got one yet.Be wonderful to make one you have done a great job.

  2. Did you know that back when corsets were worn by every woman, that some women wouldn't be able to even stand without a corset? It was because they relied on the corset to keep them upright, and not their own muscles. I'm not saying that this might be related to your back pain (and if you're wearing corsets anyway, what does it matter?) I just thought it was a cool little fact.

    Cool blog