Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Where to Buy a Corset, Part 1: Independent Makers

So I've talked about some general corset buying guidelines, and where NOT to buy a corset, but where SHOULD you be looking?

Now there are a lot of great, reputable, quality shops, websites, and makers out there.  I can't list all of them, even if I was aware of all of them.  So I'm going to first talk about buying a corset from a independent maker and then in later posts I'll be recommending a few websites to buy OTR (off-the-rack) RTW (ready-to-wear) corsets.

But first let's talk about some common corsetry terms and what they mean.

OTR/RTW- As spelled out above these mean "off-the-rack" and "ready-to-wear" respectively.  These terms are used pretty interchangeably to mean a corset that is made to a standard size, from a standard pattern.  They are made/sized before you ever enter the equation.  Corsets are sold by waist measurement, meaning the measurement of the corset fully closed.  Therefore you will buy a corset with a waist size probably several inches smaller than your natural waist.   How curvy the corset is (and therefore what the rib/bust and hip measurements are) depends on the pattern and can vary a huge amount.

Made to Measure - (Sometimes called semi-custom) In the corset world, this means that you give a corsetiere your measurements and they make you a corset to those measurements.  This means they are drafting a pattern to fit you personally, but typically is only available in a certain style or choice of fabrics.  This is a good compromise between OTR and full custom corsetry as it takes less time and is therefore cheaper than a fully custom corset.  Beware, some unscrupulous websites have been known to advertise made-to-measure corsets which are actually just standard sized corsets which they pick based on the measurements you give.  They aren't made to fit you.  So beware of prices that seem too good to be true.

Custom (or full custom) - A custom corset is just that, completely customized to the buyer.  This may involve a corsetiere creating a completely new style/pattern to your specs, using any fabric(s) or embellishments you want, one or more mock-ups and fittings, and in general meeting whatever needs you have.  The main difference from made-to-measure is the mock-ups and possibly more tailored patterning, for example to address any assymmetry in your figure or acheive your designs.  Full custom will involved a lot more back and forth with the maker and a lot more time to make sure everything is perfect.  Which is why it's obviously the most expensive option.

Independent Corset Makers

So the first place I have to recommend that you purchase your corset is from an independent individual maker of handmade corsets.  For one thing, I am such a maker, so it's in my interest to encourage this.  But there are a lot of us out there trying to make a living or just some extra money by making corsets.  Corsets appeal to a niche market of individuals and buying mass-produced corsets takes business away from the small corset businesses out there who really need it.  

But it's difficult to talk about buying from independent makers because there are so many of us out there and makers vary so widely in style, specialty, price, and how we do business.  On the high end, there are corsetieres who offer incredibly time-consuming works of art to a few luxury customers for well over a thousand dollars.  If you're able to buy from them, that's awesome.  Have fun.

On the end of the scale are corset makers who sell either custom, made-to-measure, or OTR corsets for relatively cheap prices, probably somewhere around $200.  There are lots of Etsy sellers who offer these services.  There are a lot of reasons why corset makers sell their corsets cheaply: they are just starting out and need experience, they need portfolio work, they are testing their patterns, or they just make things for their friends.  I myself fall somewhere in this group.  I charge what I do for my corsets because I need experience fitting bodies that aren't my own, recently because I'm working on a standard corset pattern and need guinea pigs, and sometimes because I just happen to really need the money.  

So this is one of the reasons why it kills me that people pay close to $200 for a Corset Story corset when they could get a much higher quality corset for nearly the same price.  Now, dealing with an individual corset maker isn't as easy as clicking a button and adding a corset to your cart.  You might not be sure of the quality of what you're getting if you buy from a random individual on the internet.  If you are getting something made custom, you might be afraid of not getting the fit of your dreams, particularly if you're working long-distance.  These are somewhat valid concerns, particularly if you're trying to find a deal over the internet.  

To pick a corset maker, you can look at various things: reviews of their work online, feedback from other buyers, examples of their previous work.  And you can use some of the guidelines I posted earlier to help you ask about things like materials and construction to make sure you're getting what you think you are.  

Ultimately, when you hand someone your money, you're placing faith in them.  You have to trust that they are going to give you something worthwhile.  Not every corset you buy can be the ideal corset of your dreams because there is so much variation in shape and style and options that it can take years to find what suits you best.  But hopefully you'll be getting something worth what you paid, that meets your immediate needs.  

(Ok, I could write a whole post about what to expect when ordering a custom corset and what to do and not to do.  And maybe now I have to write that post.  Damn. ) 

Anyway, the point is that buying from an individual can be a little scary and we aren't as used to a transaction that is more personalized than buying something from Amazon, but with good communication and some luck, you can get truly exceptional things.  

So besides Etsy, where else do you find corset makers?  Well most corset makers have a website of some kind.  There are various lists of makers, such as Lucy's Corsetiere Map where you can find corset makers near you and Corset Fakery's List of Reputable Corset Sellers

You can also find corset sellers in the flesh at costume events, conventions, and other gatherings.  Different corset makers cater to different communities and might be found at steampunk events, reenactment events, goth events, pin-up events, etc, etc.  Sometimes they will have a booth and sometimes they might not, but you might strike up conversation with anyone wearing a particularly nice corset.  I know I'm personally almost incapable of accepting a compliment about my corset without somehow blurting out "I MADE IT" in what is probably a really awkward way.   At the least the corset wearer may have had theirs made for them by someone they can refer you to.  Having a corset maker in your area is always great because it can allow for in-person fittings which will improve the ultimate fit of your custom piece.

And I suppose that's enough blathering for today.  Next time, I'll recommend a few RTW corset sellers in a range of prices.


  1. Hi Violet, So glad I "stumbled" on your blog. I cannot say how strongly I agree with your post and appreciate your taking the trouble to write it. I make (professional) ballet costumes (tutus, bodices etc.) and like you I sell through Etsy. I am still "unknown" and it kills me that people think they can get a complete costume for less than $300 (especially since all the fabrics can cost as much as $150 or more). Ballet bodices are similar to corsets in the they need to fit very well, not stretch out but still allow movement and using quality bones (spiral steel is the only ones that move with the dancer!!!). May I link to your two posts about corset making/buying on my blog Never a dull Moment, http://sharpsewingny.blogspot.com/ or would you prefer that I write my own blog post about costume costs ( I actually did but I doubt few people read it)? Thanks again, best Hilary Sharp

    1. On the Oregon Ballet Theater's Facebook page last December, they showed a new Sugarplum Fairy costume, and said it cost over $3,000. Some people were LIVID, as in PISSED OFF, that the OBT was "wasting" money on a costume when they didn't have the funds for a lice orchestra every single night, and then people started posting those cheap Chinese sweat-shop costumes made in one piece from polyester, and saying they should buy those. You know the costumes. The $90 pieces of dung useful only for Halloween parties, with some boned with plastic or flat (which won't work for dancers for obvious reasons), or not at all (also won't work!!). A few of us jumped in talking about why natural fibers, like cotton and silk, are so important, and how a two-piece tutu allows for more flexibility that polyester one-pieces, and how a well-make tutu will last for YEARS while the cheap things might last a night under the stress the real things go through. The arguing got fierce. So many people simply refused to understand, and argued that that money could have paid the orchestra for a couple nights. Um...an orchestra costs more than $3k for a couple nights....

  2. I think I'm alone in this department, but I don't do typical cheap mock-ups for custom corsets. In place of a typical mock-up, I make the corset in full and send that to check the fit. I think of it as a full dress-rehearsal, the sort where even make-up is applied since makeup and costumes and everything work together and need to checked under the lights, not just part of it and hoping the rest will work on opening night. If something needs to be tweaked, I make it all over again. My firm belief is that there is such a big difference between a typical mock-up and a finished corset even from the exact same pattern that a typical cheap mock-up only give you the ghost of an idea of the finished fit. Unless using all the exact fabrics that the finished one will have, then the corset simply won't behave the same way. Without the top and bottom casings, which serve to give a little more stability, and without waist tape, and so on, there's still a lot of room for error, especially if the client is an amateur and you don't get to fit in person. So I eat the cost of sometimes making a corset three times. But when it fits the client the way they want the first time, then they have their finished corset in hand to keep instead of having to send a inexpensive mock-up back and waiting a while longer. And when they do need something tweaked, I donate the corset sent back to a local community theater. I think this is a good balance that minimizes the waste associated with a typical mock-up.

    I know there are people who say do a typical mock-up anyway, but why, if making the corset in full to check the fitting works? Now when it's client-provided fabric, obviously the rules change since there is no remaking a corset since there's only so much fabric in the first place.