Monday, September 30, 2013

Corset Buying Guidelines and Where Not to Buy a Corset, Part 1

I often get questions from people interested in buying their first corset. They want to know where I recommend they buy their corsets.  In the past I've hesitated to talk specifically about different shops and brands, but I now feel more confident in give some recommendations as to where to look and where to avoid.  Because I have a lot to say on the subject, this will be a series of posts.

Disclaimers - I am a corset maker and I sell corsets for money.  So I DO have a vested interest in where people chose to buy their corsets.  I also don't purchase ready-to-wear (RTW) corsets myself anymore, because I make all my own custom.  I haven't purchased a corset since 2010, so I can't personally speak to any of the sellers I mention, but my information is based on examining corsets from various sellers, and from reports from others.  Finally, this is all my personal opinion.  Opinions and experiences differ from person to person and that's perfectly fine.  Also, unless noted, I have received no compensation in any form for any of my opinions.

General Corset Buying Tips

What you're looking for in a corset will vary wildly from individual to individual based on the look you're going for, your experience with corsets, and your own body shape and specifics.  So it's difficult to give general advice for what to look for.  Here are a few things I would pay attention to.

  • Steel bones and the type of bones  - Most corset buyers these days know they are looking for steel instead of plastic.  Plastic bones warp very easily, sometimes in only a few hours of wear.  They also can be uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous and generally are not worth any amount of money.  But beyond steel, you should look into the type of steel bones used.  Most quality corsets are primarily boned with spiral steel, which is flexible, comfortable, and encourages curves.  Many cheap corsets are boned with flat steel, which makes them less comfortable and more cylindrical in shape, but cheaper to produce.  
  • Type of fabric - what gives a corset its strength isn't just the bones, but the type of fabric(s) used.  High quality corsets typically use coutil as a strength fabric, but there are cheaper alternatives that work almost as well such as cotton duck and twill.  Not all corset listings will tell you all the fabrics used, but it's something to look for and be aware of.  
  • General shape and construction of the corset - A corset can only shape you to the extent that the corset itself is shaped.  If the corset is only gently curved, you won't get much of a waist reduction out of it.  What are the waist and hip measurements and how do they relate to your own?  Many cheap corsets are less curvy than the average woman is naturally.  Which defeats the whole point, IMO.  As for construction, you won't really be able to tell much, except you can see or read how many bones a corset has.  In general (to a certain point) the more bones a corset has, the more comfortable it will be, the better it will shape you, and the stronger it will be.  Another important number is the number of panels a corset has.  The more panels, the better shaping the corset can give and the more curve it can have.  A common number of panels for a corset is 10-12, or 5-6 per side.  There are an infinite number of ways to construct corset panels, however, so this can vary.  However corsets with a very low number of panels, such as 4, should be a sign of low quality and cheap construction.  I have a hard time calling 4 panel constructions corsets at all.  They are more like boned garments to me.  
  • Reputation of company/maker - When buying anything online, especially if you're going to be spending a significant amount of money, it's a good idea to do your research.  Some sites (such as Ebay and Etsy) allow you to look at the feedback of sellers.  But there are also lots of sites out there devoted to reviewing corsets to help buyers make good choices.  I recommend you start your research at Lucy Corsetry.  Lucy has tons of reviews of corsets up, and her site is a treasure trove of information about corseting.  But a general googling of the seller/company you are considering buying from should be helpful, too.
  • Shop around - Corsets vary hugely in price, style, and quality, so it helps to know about as many options as possible before you buy.  

More general advice:  I have an old post about what to look for in a quality corset and the Lingerie Addict has a good article on the topic as well.

Where Not To Buy A Corset

1. Ebay

Now, right off the bat this one has exceptions.  It's not that you cannot find a good quality corset on Ebay.  But the ratio of quality, real corsets to horrible, horrible crap is not favorable for the buyer. Ebay is filled with cheap rip-offs of better quality corsets.  I've personally taken apart several cheap corsets bought off Ebay, and the quality is so bad I consider them actually dangerous.  The plastic boning used has the strength of a plastic coffee stirrer, and the fabric is typically some hideous satin leotard fabric.  These are "corsets" so poor in quality that I doubt you could get through a single evening before the boning sags outwards and gives you a cheap corset potbelly.

Moreover the sellers on Ebay (and other cheap corset websites) tend towards very dishonest selling practices in which they use photos of designer couture corsets to sell their cheap knock-offs.  If they DO post pictures of their actual product, the photos are usually manipulated, either digitally or through sneaky lacing techniques, to look curvier than they usually are.  The standard shape for these "corsets" is a straight up-and-down barrel shape with no curve at all.  They don't even have a waist!

As I said, there are reputable makers who still sell on Ebay, but unless you have reliable information as to a maker's reputation and quality, I would avoid Ebay.

2.  Renaissance Faires or other Festivals/Conventions

Look, it's possible to buy both very, very poor quality corsets and decent quality corsets at in-person events.  I personally sell corsets at conventions, so it's not that I'm telling you never to buy a corset in person.  "Wait," you might say, "wouldn't it be a great idea to buy a corset in person because you can see what you're getting and try it on? "  Yes and no.  In theory the idea of buying a corset in person is fantastic.  But in reality there are a LOT of very shoddy corsets sold to people at these events.

Ren Faires and other large events feature a variety of sellers, from truly skilled artisans to people who sell their wares overpriced and in large numbers.  The corset sellers I've had interactions with and heard about unfortunately seem to fall into the latter category.  The vast majority of the corsets you will see for sale are plastic boned.  Some of them are of truly ASTOUNDINGLY bad quality and moreover, way overpriced.

Someone brought me a corset to look at once that had been bought for over $300 at a Renaissance Faire.  My reaction was mostly speechlessness, but I did manage to say that it looked like what someone would make if they had had a corset described to them but had never actually seen one. (Guys, the bone channels were about an inch wide, with plastic 1/4" bones just floating loose in them.  And this is a very well known seller.)  In this particular instance, the corset had been laced onto the buyer by the seller and looked decent at that time, but the buyer never examined it closely until they got home and took it off.  And it never looked that good on again.  Some sellers unfortunately know how to pressure people into sales and are experts at avoiding or lying in response to questions about materials and quality.  And I have personally been chased out of shops/stalls multiple times when I was looking too closely at the corsets on display.

So if you are going to buy a corset at an event, make sure you do your research about what makes a quality corset first.  Ask specific questions about the materials used (boning and fabric) and examine the corset closely. A reputable maker/seller will be happy to talk about the construction and materials used.  If you get too much pressure from the salesperson, leave and think about it before buying.  Hey, you have the internet on your phone, right?  Do some quick research on the shop name.  And don't shop drunk.  Unless you're shopping at my booth.  ;)

In the next post, I will be tackling that megalith of corset sellers, Corsets UK/Corset Story.  I will explain why you should really think hard before buying from them. And eventually I will get to where you SHOULD buy a corset.  :)

The rest of this series is now up: Where Not to Buy a Corset, Part 2: Corset Story
Where You SHOULD Buy a Corset, Part 1
Where You SHOULD Buy a Corset, Part 2


  1. There are 2 ads for Corset Story on your page. Thought you might like to know.

    1. I know. I kinda like the irony. And unless I block them, they will show up when I mention them even if my mentions are negative. I'm actually going to talk about that in the next post.

  2. Excellent article. I look forward to your next, as I was just thinking of buying one from Corset Story, and it sounds like that is a bad idea.

    I have some questions that you may or may not address in your later articles, if you don't mind handing out some random advise to strangers. I am in the process of shedding some extra pounds. Do you think it would be better to buy a corset after I reach my target? If I did buy one then lose additional inches, is it possible to resize a commercial corset or would I be better off re-selling it? Would you recommend a beginner sewer try making one?

    1. Well it depends how much weight you're planning to lose. You can buy a corset smaller than you normally would, and have a bigger gap in the back that will close as you lose weight. Corseting can also help with weight loss goals but restricting your portion size. If I were you, I would probably buy a cheaper corset in a size a little small now and wait to invest in a more expensive one until I reached my weight loss goals.

      Resizing a commercial corset is possible, but probably not worth it for cheaper models. And whether you should try to make your own depends on how much of a beginner you are. I had been sewing about a year when I made my first corset. It's totally possible to do if you have basic garment construction skills, but I'd suggest being comfortable with your machine and your basic skills first.

      (For cheap, decent corset options you might want to check out this site. I'll get to recommendations eventually, but at least not until next week...maybe later.)

    2. You rock, thanks for the suggestions!

  3. My wife and I once made the mistake of walking into a corset booth at the local Medieval Fair. The proprietor was a skeezy dude who first asked if he could "tie up" my wife. We first wrote this off to harmless even if off humor. When he tightened the lacing on the demo, he knotted it around the pole that held up the center of his tent and asked me what I was going to do about it. Before I could answer, my lovely wife chimed in and informed him that her husband carries "a very sharp knife." When he looked at me inquisitively, I confirmed the statement and he rather reluctantly untied the lacing. We left without consideration of giving him our business, of course. I'm not saying that anyone else will experience anything similar at a fair, but it is possible. Some booth operators aren't much more than carnies in their social skills. As a personal benchmark, if they must touch my body or my wife's body to make the sale, they don't get the sale. Especially when they don't have a permanent shop set up that can have a reputation tied to it. Just my $.02.

  4. I'm sorry for all those who had bad experiences with vendors at Renaissance Faires. As a Renaissance Faire employee for over a decade now (Street Cast performer at the Bristol Renaissance Faire in Bristol, WI), I can only say that the quality of a Faire's vendors pretty much reflects the overall quality of the show as a whole. Well established, high quality Faires do not allow their vendors to abuse customers or sell them junk. Unfortunately, the number of long-standing, truly professional Faires has dwindled over time in response to the poor economy, but I can assure you that there are some still standing that would encourage you to give Renaissance Faires in general another try.

    I would say, however, that trying to purchase a Victorian Era corset at a Renaissance Faire is a bit self-defeating. A sixteenth century corset, or "pair of bodies," essentially shapes the torso into an inverted cone with little to no curvature; the higher up you were on the social ladder, the stiffer and flatter your bodices tended to be. I would venture to say that the best costume vendors at any Renaissance Faire probably won't be selling such garments because the shape is "all wrong" for the event they are selling at. If you want a nineteenth century style garment, you should look for a vendor at an appropriately themed event. I would never recommend buying a corset for use in a steampunk costume at an event that "takes place" 300 - 500 years earlier than your target date range. Just my opinion.

    1. Unfortunately, the corset I described above was sold at the Texas Renaissance Festival, which is certainly established and huge. And the shop is a permanent fixture at the Faire (and many others). I can also say I have NEVER seen a historically accurate corset/stays being sold at any Renaissance Faire in Texas. You could not find a pair of Elizabethan bodies, or Tudor stays or even a well-constructed 18th century corset at any of the Renaissance Festivals I've attended. You are much more likely to find a decent quality pseudo-Victorian hourglass shaped corset. I have seen several vendors reselling Timeless Trends corsets at Faires, for example.

      I WISH you could find a quality reed-boned pair of stays for sale. If the Faires you are familiar with sell these items, I'm seriously impressed. Unfortunately most garments I see being sold feature very few bones, if any. They are most frequently plastic boned bodice tops, with as few as two or four bones. (See Damsel in this Dress.)

      Some events in other parts of the country with more of a reenactment attitude and stricter historical guidelines may be different, but I speak from my own experience and that of the people with whom I interact. Most customers don't know the difference between a Victorian era corset and a historically accurate Renaissance corset, and whatever those things are that are mostly sold at Ren Faires. Thus they end up buying something they are told is a "corset" when in my opinion it doesn't deserve the title.

      And in general I consider steampunk as historically accurate to the Renaissance period as at least half of what is presented as "Renaissance" at the events. I mean, I know TRF is particularly bad but they have a Roman weekend, for gods sakes. And, you know, fairies.

  5. love your posts but ACK, you've now got me thinking maybe I should try making a corset myself and that is very scary. I have a couple of Corset story corsets I'm wondering if I can rework. My first thought was it wouldn't be too difficult to buy spiral steel bones and replace the current boning. But now I understand I probably need to rework the shape... will keep pondering and reading your blog. I have another corset I love so everything you've written makes sense to me (shape and boning make a huge difference). Thanks for your posts!

  6. This is a great guide when it comes to buy a corset. Nice to know I should stray away from Corset Story!

  7. Do you make and sell corsets to ship as well?

    1. I do. I have some samples for sale on my etsy, and I also do custom work, including long-distance custom fitting.

    2. Sorry to read about this. I have a small corset business and sell at only one Renaissance Faire. I am aware of the shoddy corsets out there and the fact that people will still buy them because they are "cheaper" than mine. I go through great lengths insuring that mine are quality in their craftsmanship as well as the materials that I put into them. Maybe this is why I will never do well at the big faires. I do know however that after selling for 3 years at this faire I have a great reputation for beautiful and "expensive" corsets.I do not sell on Etsy but would like to some day and my only public contact is The Dimpled Dragon on Facebook -Jackie Lucchesi