I have kind of a love-hate relationship with corsets, and one which seems to be not uncommon amongst women of A Certain Age, with health issues, etc. I love the support my corset gives me in the chest, but I do experience the “droop” that larger busted ladies get when there is not some sort of cup or padded roll in place to stop the breasts from following gravity. I like having the tabs on the bottom to support the weight of the skirts. I am fortunate in that I don’t have a problem breathing in my corset.
My biggest problems with corsets are twofold: 1. The tightening of my waist and what that does to my internal organs and 2. The overheating that happens with adding one more layer to my body. Particularly one made of canvas or coutil.
Over and over I have seen it written on listservs that many women have problems with the pressure of their corset on their abdomen. Whether it is due to stomach issues, intestinal issues, kidney issues, leftover issues from surgery, etc., it seems that many people are getting to the point that they would rather A)not wear corsets if it is going to cause them pain/discomfort, or B)have their bodices laced tightly on top and are wide open on the bottom. Whenever corsetry is discussed on the listservs I am a member of, there are always at least 1 or 2 people asking for suggestions on how to resolve this problem. Possible suggestions have included using Powernet on the sides of the corset, making the corset lace on all 4 sides so as to give more space for loosening the bottom, and wearing nothing but loose gowns or other items so that they can just skip wearing corsets altogether. Loose (or comfort) gowns are awesome, but limiting when that is the only thing you can wear.
The problem I have also had is that when my corset is laced properly I end up with my upper body looking very barrel shaped. I may have an hourglass figure (heavy on the bottom end) normally, but when corseted I turn into a tube. Thus I am not as excited to wear my corset as I am never happy with my appearance in it. The only corset I have ever liked is the Victorian one I made, and this is because it conforms to the curves of the body and emphasizes my hourglass shape. It still is uncomfortable on my stomach, but at least it looks good.
I was starting to think that “barrel chest” was going to be my only option till I read two posts by Missa on Sempstress.org. The First showed how the altering of the waist shape can make a huge difference in the appearance of the upper body. You can take a barrel shape and by careful design can give it the appearance of actually having a waist. It is all a trick of the eye, but it makes a huge difference. (And yes, I am playing the part of Miss Piggy in that post.)
For instance: one of my first bodices. Note the barrel chest. And the wrinkle right in the middle…
My Venetian bodice – the V front and curved waist give me more of the illusion of a narrower waist.
And finally, my Florentine doublet. The angle of the waist, the open front of the doublet and the rows of piping on either side of the opening all contribute to making the waist look smaller. Adding braided rolls at the shoulders also makes the eye think that the shoulders are wider, and thus the waist is smaller. It is all tricks with design.
I was terribly excited about this (especially since I hadn’t even realized I had been doing this in my design process), but it gave me many ideas on how to change new outfits I was making. And then I saw something she had written in the post that changed the way I thought about corsetry (at least 16th century anyway): “And yes, that means that sometimes, you’ll actually look slimmer in a period costume if you don’t compress your waist. Crazy, right?… I’m generally an hourglass, but I’m a little under-tall for my weight. I also find I really don’t like pain, and don’t tend to take much off my waist in corsets anymore. I pretty much rely on this trick.”
And I realized that Missa was making corsets that didn’t change the size of the waist. That there was no tight lacing going on.
Then the birds sang and the flowers bloomed and I e-mailed my closest friends and was all, “YOU HAVE TO READ THIS, IT IS A MIRACLE.” And luckily for me, Missa wrote a Second post describing this idea in more detail.
Now this might be obvious to anyone who has ever done historical costuming, but even though I have read Janet Arnold and Norah Waugh (I just got her Cut of Women’s Clothes for a steal and it is EXCELLENT) and Jean Hunisett, I never even once thought about this. Because conventional wisdom when it comes to corsetry says that you tighten your waist. Everyone who has ever read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books knows that when Ma and Pa got married that “Pa could span her waist with his hands.” (This of course changed after childbirth…) Everyone has seen Scarlett clutching the bedpost as her corset is tightened. It is just a given.
But the thing is, it’s not. Missa makes a strong argument that you can (with the addition of breast binding or some such) support the chest, not tighten the waist and STILL get the conical shape of the time period. My favorite part? She demonstrates it on dolls with actual shapes, so you can have a visual of it. She even mentions Eleonora and the stomach bands that are mentioned in Moda a Firenze that were worn for warmth. (Eleonora is EVERYWHERE folks. Seriously.)
Consequently I have been inspired. I am working on drafting a version of Margo’s Effigy Stays pattern (which she tells me was designed with zero ease versus negative ease) and I am going to try to make it without tightening the waist. As to supporting the bust, I will likely either put in some sort of padding underneath the bust/attached to the corset, use my square-necked chemise pattern with the built-in sports bra or just bind my chest with Ace bandages. Artemesia talks about breast binding, as well as Marie-Chantal. There are many excellent tutorials on how to properly do this.
But this brings me back to my second issue – overheating. If one extra layer (corset) makes me warmer, then two (binding) will surely exacerbate it.
Not if I make changes to the corset and the binding. I was given the suggestion by Jen to use these Ace bandages that are actually cooling bandages. They should work well for breast binding. If I were to put in cups, I can use these nifty little things, which are like cooling “cutlets.” Otherwise I am going to do what I did with an old corset, and make sure that I have enough space between boning in the back and sides to leave pockets in the corset to slide in cooling packs. I did this last summer and it helped tremendously. The longer-lasting packs you can find, the better. It is based off of this idea, which was developed for women following breast surgery.
I spent a lot of today feeling down about my velvet fabric problem, but am now feeling pretty energized and excited about moving ahead with my corset. The idea of being unsquished, comfortable and cool in the unpredictably warm weather of August in MN is VERY appealing.
I highly suggest that if you are looking for how-tos on corsetry and Elizabethan garb that you check out Missa’s website/blog.
Thank you Missa! You are the bomb.