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.
See the rest of this series:
Corset Buying Guidelines and Where NOT to Buy a Corset, Part 1
Where Not to Buy a Corset, Part 2: Corset Story
Where You SHOULD Buy a Corset, Part 2