1870's with all the elegant ruffled trains has always been one of my favorite fashion eras, or at least ever since I saw Martin Scorsese's "The Age of Innocence" at a tender age. When I began making historical costumes I began with another of my all time favorites, 18th century, and then friends introduced me to SCA so I added late medieval to my sewing list. I was quite busy with these two eras for several years, and I still have a lot of ideas for both, but at some point I began to hark to the siren call of late Victorian again, and my pinterest boards began to get filled with late 1870s fashion plates. Then last year I suddenly couldn't resist buying tickets for the Prior Attire Victorian Ball, which meant that I would really have to start sewing and not just planning. The first thing to do was of course the corset.
|I had chosen a late
1870s style for my evening dress. As I was not sure
about which year I might eventually end up in with my
sewing ventures I decided not to be too strict about
dates and just make a sort of generic late 19th century
corset. The main thing would be a correct enough
The ideal Natural Form fashion of late 1870s is tall and somewhat curvy but the waistline is not yet as tiny with the huge difference between bust size and waist size that you see in 1880s fashion plates. I thought that this could be achieved to some extent without making the corset super tight and uncomfortable.
|On one of those
internet search quests I stumbled upon this H.S. Strauss
corset pattern. It was patented the same year as the
fashion plate that served as my main inspiration for the
ballgown, and moreover it looked rather simple and easy
to adjust to my measurements. I already had a pattern
for a tightly fitting boned dress bodice that I had used
for this dress,
so consulting that I began to draft a pattern that would
match the Strauss pattern pieces but fit my body.
As could easily be predicted, I had to take in quite much at the bust area, but still managed to come up with a mock up which looked something like a corset surprisingly easily. Compared to 18th century stays a Victorian corset is actually a lot easier to draft as it follows the natural curves of the body instead of molding the body into a cone shape.
|The first mock up
needed some adjustment of course, mainly getting it
tighter. I was seriously tempted to try and go for a
more pronounced hourglass shape, but the decided to be a
realist. It would be so much easier not to panic before
every event whether I would fit in my dress or not
(because no matter what I eat or don't eat I seem to get
bloated so easily nowadays), so left the waist reduction
on a very comfy level. I could always make a tighter
corset later if I felt the need, but for now it was
safer to start with something I could easily wear for a
The Strauss pattern has a straight busk, but as the spoon busk appeared very soon after the date I decided I could use one. It does give nice support for the abdomen, and, well, just looks so victorian. My spoon busk is not very much shaped in profile, so I don't think you can tell the difference in dress silhouette.
|For the boning I used
7mm wide spiral steel, except for the sides of back
lacing which have flat steel. Spiral steel is a period
material, though it was mainly used for more flexible
riding and sports corsets. I wanted to use it, however,
as it bends nicely to a curvy shape and does give enough
support for my figure if you just use enough of it.
The corset fabric is Belle Modeste's plain coutil. Had I been true to the period I would have either left it white or dyed it off-white or drab, but that would have been so boring. The brilliantly colored silk corsets are more of an 1880s and 1890s fad, so I aimed for something more neutral, and decided on dying the coutil pale blue.
|For figuring out the
corset construction and details I looked through a lot
of pictures of museum pieces, but the thing I found most
helpful was Before
the Automobile's post on her pink corset of the
same era. From that I learned about the one fabric layer
technique, which seemed brilliant and might even give
room for tiny fitting adjustments if needed. After I had
figured out how it works I begun spotting this
construction method in museum pieces too.
While the basic construction is light, the seams are supported by three bones each in a casing stitched over the seam. If I read the Strauss pattern right it seems to me it has similar construction. Anyway, my slight figure does not need extreme support so I thought this light construction would be ideal. Besides, at the waist the the ground fabric is almost covered by boning channels, and the bust area, center back pieces and a piece on the hip with a larger gap in boning are supported by a double layer with cording.
|After drafting and
fitting the pattern the actual sewing was super fun and
even relaxing in a way. Compared to 18th century stays
it went so fast when you could sew everything by machine
and just hammer metal grommets on. I had also dabbled a
bit with modern corsets before so it wasn't such a big
leap as with stays.
I also made the conscious decision not to strive for perfection but rather make a serviceable corset to test the pattern and get started on the new period. The cording channels, for example, are not quite even or symmetrical, but it hardly shows.
technique of one coutil layer with seam allowances left
on the right side and then covered with boning casings
is rather brilliant. I cut the boning casings with wide
seam allowances which I slipped under the ground layer
seam allowances, which made it super easy the keep the
casings in place for stitching.
The underside of the corset looks neat enough too. I could, of course, have added a floating lining but didn't feel the need to. The less fabric layers the cooler it will be on the wear.
|I'm especially happy
about the bust area fit. The curved bust shaping seam
sometimes tends to give a too sharp bullet bra-kind of
look instead of a smooth curve (I guess this is why they
often used gussets for bust shaping), but now I was able
to smooth it into a slightly tight bone casing band
which gave a very beautiful, softly rounded look. The
corded pieces also help to give a nice shape and
I put the corset together rather quickly and, unfortunately, didn't pause to take any pictures of the process. But then again, the internet is brimming with wonderful corset blogs, so anyone with further interest on the technical side will find information and instruction far beyond what I, as a fairly new to corset making could offer.
|I had aimed for a
functional corset, but of course I could not leave it
completely plain. I added a double width of cotton lace
on the top edge and finished the boning channels with
simple flossing. These modest decorations made the
corset rather pretty. Maybe sometime in the future when
I have more time, energy and ambition I will make the
fancy elaborately flossed satin corset, but for now I'm
really happy with this one.
|The main thing of a
corset is of course the fit and silhouette. In regards
to those my first attempt at a victorian corset was even
surprisingly successful. The side profile might be a bit
more curved, but as my spoon busk was not very much
shaped in profile that didn't happen, partly because I
also decided to leave the waist reduction on a
comfortable level. The waistline is more pronounced when
looked at from straight front of back, however. The
corset also fits smoothly at the lower edge, which is
important with hip-hugging Natural Form dresses.
|The corset is also
very comfortable to wear, even so that it makes my 18th
century stays feel rather uncomfortable in comparison. I
guess the victorian shape is just more natural to my
body. I wore it for the first time to a ball, and can
happily report that I could easily dance waltzes and
gallops almost all evening!
The lovely embroidered combinations on the photographs are not my handiwork, they are an antique piece. They probably date from a bit later time than the corset but look pretty anyhow.
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