• JoJo

Corsets: Why I Love and Hate Them

I’m hoping to bring a fraught relationship between me and corsets to a neat and tidy resolution with my current, and somewhat ongoing, sewing project. Theoretically and aesthetically, I love corsets. A well-made corset is a thing of beauty. It takes time and skill to produce and consists of many different opportunities for individuality and creativity that need careful consideration.

Pattern pieces of a corset laid out ready to be cut
Original pattern pieces ready to be cut out and stitched together for the first fitting

Will it be an underbust corset (aka waspie) or a full corset?


This comes down to what it's likely to be worn with as well as personal preference.


What fabric will you choose?


It needs to be strong enough to the hold up to a human breathing, wiggling and eating in it all day long but should also be sexy, fun and complimentary to the rest of the outfit it will be worn with.


How is it going to fasten? Will it fasten at the front and the back?


Traditionally, you use eyelets at the back and a busk at the front but there are other solutions available, such as these swing hooks (see picture below) for a particularly steampunk vibe. If you’re going for eyelets and a busk then what colour do you want them to be, how big and what style?


What type of boning (yes, this is a funny word and it’s going to come up a lot while discussing corsets) are you going to use to give the corset its structure?


There’s plastic covered steel boning, polyester boning, synthetic whalebone boning, soft boning, carbon fibre boning. Spiral wire boning. The boning possibilities are almost endless (tee hee, boning).


How are you going to finish the edges of the corset?


Generally, these are finished off by covering them in bias binding, but you have to decide whether this will be done to match the main corset fabric or in a contrasting fabric for a little more interest and flare. There really are so many options to choose from when designing and making a corset. You really can personalise it to suit your style and, ideally, fit the contours of your body perfectly. 

All images above are from www.venacavadesign.co.uk and I cannot recommend them enough for all you corset construction needs


And, let’s face it, they look glorious. I’m not talking about the frighteningly tight, worryingly organ shifting, disturbingly waist distorting style corsets. They frighten me. But a well fitted corset gives a lovely and gently exaggerated hourglass figure and creates a great silhouette. You can use them in fabulously over the top outfits with ruched skirts and enormous poofy sleeves. Or you can pop one on over a shirt with jeans and add a bit of interest to an otherwise straightforward outfit. They’re versatile and glorious and, as previously stated, I love them.


I also hate them. For me, the corset is a garment that embodies the sense of disappointment that certain items of clothing can leave you with. While trying them on in the changing room, you imagine how magnificent you are going to look in this garment and dream about how every time you wear it you will feel glorious and majestic. People will stop and stare at the wonder that is you and your epic sense of style. We’ve all been there. You’ve tried an item on in the shop and painted a picture in your head of how great this piece of clothing will look on you out in the real world as you both live together happily ever after. However, when you take your newfound best friend out into that bitch known as the reality, the cracks begin to show in your relationship and the fairy tale becomes a tragedy. And cast in the starring roles are shirts that get stuck at the shoulders whenever you reach for anything off a high shelf, jeans that flash most of your arse-crack when you bend down to tie your shoes, and skirts that trip you up on every single step that has the audacity to be more than 2cm high.


This has been the case with me and corsets. The idea of wearing them never lives up to the actual experience. I try them on and tell myself some bullshit like, ‘yes, it’s a little tight but you’ll get used to it’ or ‘that’s probably how it’s meant to fit’ or ‘you can always skip pudding, it will be fine’. But reality, as I mentioned, is a bitch. I’ve bought two corsets and made two corsets for myself in my life and I’ve ended up strongly disliking all four of them. 

The two I bought were worn to formal occasions with three course meals. I don’t think I need to explain why that didn’t work out too well. Let’s just say I lied to myself about not needing pudding. They were also full-length corsets rather than underbust corsets and they never fit well around the bosom. I am perfectly comfortable with my cup size, but you would certainly not describe my figure as busty. Both corsets fit reasonably well around the waist, but my tits simply could not live up to the amount of fabric provided for them. So, both of those corsets were sent to the charity shop and hopefully found a less hungry and bustier lady to help them live their best lives.


The two corsets that I made were similarly disappointing. I made the first one at college out of very badly chosen, black and white, loose weave, houndstooth fabric following a ye olde 17th century pattern with off the shoulder straps and lots of little finger shaped bits that splayed out over the hips at the bottom of it (I really don’t know how to describe these bits of the corset, just have a look at the pictures below of the pattern and the fitting). The fabric I chose induced headaches as I stitched dozens of straight lines over the houndstooth pattern that messed with my eyeballs and my sanity. I also had to hand sew metres and metres of bias binding around all the little fingery bits at the bottom of the garment that had me hating my former self for not picking the much more straightforward Tudor style corset. By the end of it, I had a something that got me a great mark for all my endeavors, but I would absolutely never wear. I realise the point was to pass the assessment, not to make myself a shiny new thing to wear but it’s always somewhat disappointing when you spend a long time making something and then have absolutely no use for it.

The second corset I made was made on a whim and in a bid to use up some random fabric I had lying around. This time I did go for the simpler Tudor style corset, but I went rogue on the fasteners and decided to use plastic buckles rather than lacing. So quirky. Again, it fit perfectly well and thanks to the big plastic fasteners I could fasten it easily all by myself. What I failed to take into account when making this stupid garment was that the rest of my wardrobe is in no way Tudor in style and the results of my labours just didn’t fit with anything else I owned. Once again, I’d made a perfectly nice thing but the chance of me actually wearing the bloody thing was a big fat nil pois. I cared about this garment so little that I have no photographic evidence that it ever existed. You’ll just have to trust me on this disappointment and believe me when I say it really wasn’t worth the effort.


So, to get back to my current project, this corset is going to be different. First of all, I’m abandoning the idea of full-length corsets and going for a little waspie. My sense of style is not based around my cleavage and, though I know a really well-fitting corset would do wonders for my bosom, it’s just not what I base my wardrobe around. I generally have a more masculine sense of style and prefer straighter lines or gentle curves. In my opinion, my greatest assets, when it comes to style, are my long legs and gently nipped in waist. For this reason, we’re going with a waspie this time. I’m also looking to expand my collection of things I can wear over shirts and t-shirts to make my more basic outfits a bit more interesting. So, underbust is the way to go.


As I want it to be versatile and fit with many of my current items of clothing, I’ve chosen plain black fabric that was left over from making my wedding dress. I’ve used this for the main body of the corset and the binding around the edges.  As I type this, I realise this seems unbelievably boring after preaching to you about the versatility of corsets and how design choices can be used to express your personality. Sometimes it just turns out that your personality is boring and if you were to sum up my sense of style in one word, that word would probably be ‘black’.

Pieces of an underbust corset cut out in lining and top fabric ready to be sewn together
Black outer pieces at the top, blue lining pieces at the bottom

I also would really like to resolve the issue of my love of both corsets and cake. This is not exactly a match made in heaven but I’m hoping with a bit of fabric experimentation and different types and amounts of boning, I can find a happy compromise that creates a nicely shaped waistline and allows me to eat a decent amount of banoffee pie. As I mentioned above, I don’t have a hugely curvy figure and I’m not looking to use this corset to drastically change my shape. I think this means it shouldn’t need to be too heavily structured to create the slightly cinched-in waist I’m looking for. So goes my theory at least.


Finally, I’ve chosen not to include any type of fastening down the front and the traditional eyelets down the back. The main reason for this is simple. I’m a cheapskate. As this project is a tentative toe dipping experiment into the world of corset making rather than a full on, well researched, deep dive, I’m using stuff I already have in case it all goes to hell. I’m sincerely trying to avoid ending up with something that I will absolutely never wear, as has been the case with my last two homemade corsets. However, I am also aware that this is the start of my journey towards, hopefully, finding the perfect corset pattern for me, so it’s unlikely I’ll get it just right on my first attempt. So, best to save the pennies for when I have a better idea of exactly what works for me.


At this exact moment, this corset is not quite finished so I cannot report how successful I’ve been at achieving my dream of corset-based joy, but I will keep you posted. I realise this leaves this post with an infuriating lack of closure and for this I apologise. I really am not going for a dramatic cliff hanger. The reason for my unfinished business is nowhere near as fun. Unfortunately, I’ve had the flu and simply been too ill to sew.

Lining and top fabric corset layers sewn together ready to be attached and have the eyelets put in
The current state of my corset. The seams of each layer are sewn together and the boning has been sewn to the lining

For now, let’s just say that I am thoroughly enjoying the process of designing and making this corset. As with the waistcoat I was making a few weeks ago, it’s been good to really think about this piece of clothing and consider what I’m actually trying to achieve with it, rather than just grabbing the shiniest piece of fabric and running down impractical-alley while shouting about my ridiculous ideas of dressing like a steampunk queen with a 24 inch waist. Hopefully, with a bit of work, my previous disappointments with past corsets can be put to bed and we can build a happy relationship in a less bitchy version of reality. Fingers crossed. 

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