Mid-to-Late 19th Century Corset

No Throwback Thursday yesterday because I'm all out of pictures (for the moment.  I'll have to go digging through old boxes to find more).

Instead I bring you: the corset-that-was-supposed-to-be-an-1860s-corset-but-I-changed-it-and-decided-to-make-an-1880s-corsets-because-it's-more-comfortable-and-I-wanted-a-blue-corset-and-I-can-because-that's-the-beauty-of-an-independent-studies-class. 

Do you recall the independent studies class I'm taking this year?  Do you recall that I'm supposed to be recreating an 1860s ensemble?  Good, we're all on the same page.  Adi, why on earth did you a) make an 1880s corset instead of an 1860s corset ('cause there is a difference!) and b) why did you make it blue?!?

Before I get to answer my own question, let me show you my research!  Because researching is fun and it is what I do in my spare time.  

According to a study of Édouard Manet's Nana by Valerie Steele in Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, custom made corsets in fine fabrics and lovely colors were strictly for those who could afford the price:
"By 1855 some ten thousand workers in Paris specialized in the production of corsets, and in 1861 it was estimated that more than one million corsets were sold annually there.  The majority were mass-produced, made of sturdy materials such as cotton twill with metal boning, and sold for between three and twenty francs.  There were also custom-made corsets in silk with genuine whalebone stays that cost from twenty-five to sixty francs, and lace-trimmed luxury corsets that cost up to two hundred francs.  The majority were white or off-white."
Conclusion: the average 1860s corset was boring.

For the sake of comparison, I've divided the corsets below into "typical," "atypical," and "very atypical" for the 1860s based on Ms. Steele's research.


c. 1865 front lacing corset

Cotton corset, 1866-67, at the Met.

Cotton corset, c. 1862, at the Met.


Embroidered cotton corset, 1860s

Silk moiré corset, 1860-70, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Very Atypical

1860s wool corset

Corset, 1860-1870

Hmm, no blue.  

Something I hear all the time in regards to the shape of the 1860s corset is that it is comparatively shorter on the hips because women's  hips would be hidden by their crinolines, so there was no need to smooth them.  The Corset: A Cultural History by Valerie Steele mentions that:
When the crinoline was in style in the 1860s, fill skirts made almost anyone's waist look relatively small, and most corsets were relatively short.
Since I didn't want to buy or draft a pattern, I used the same I used for this one.  I fixed the issues I had with it (namely that the bust was too big and the waist too long), and cut it down at the top to de-overbust-ify it.  The result was not pretty.  

(Please ignore the ceramics students in the background.  I share the studio with a ceramics class that meets at the same period.)

Ugh.  There was absolutely no bust support going on (which is a problem when you consider that a corset is first and foremost a supportive undergarment and is basically the historical equivalent to a bra) and the bottom felt awkwardly short on my hips.  To make it worse, the pattern pieces themselves are actually the paper embodiments of Frankenstein.  They have been cut up and taped back together so many times during the overbust class and then again when I revised it that they were barely working together. 

Time to rethink the whole deal: did I really want a short corset that would only work for a portion of a decade in history?  In terms of historical accuracy for my class, the answer would be yes, that is exactly what I want.  However, I realized that Adi, the person, would not be happy with a corset that is limited to the 1860s, especially considering the cost of making a corset with the proper materials.  I needed a corset that could work for a variety of styles in the mid-to-late 19th century period.

Then I remembered this gem that I'd seen a very long time ago:

Blue silk satin corset, 1884, at the Chicago History Museum
Without even mentioning what it so obviously resembles (and which I can't tell those of you who don't recognize it because of the whole no-mentioning it bit), I liked it because it has the longer hips I was looking for, it looks very supportive, and it's fun: it's a historical object that ties in strongly to a modern object related to a certain TV show I like.  Basically, it gives me free range to make a fun, but historically accurate corset (even though it's accurate for a period other than my target), that I will get a huge kick out of wearing.  

I sat down with my old pattern pieces, some blank paper, and a french curve template and trued up the pattern, adjusting the bust and the hips.  The paper pattern pieces are so beautiful now, I could weep with joy.  And it looked good when I made the second mockup.  The bust felt supportive and the hips flared out wonderfully.

Yay!  With the success of the second mockup, I was finally ready to buy the materials I needed.  (A note to readers in Los Angeles.  Richard the Thread is worth visiting in person when you need corset supplies.  The staff is so friendly and helpful and suddenly know me by name and know where I want to go to college and are rooting for me.)  

Though the 1884 corset is blue silk satin, it has been worn away to black in some areas, which is probably what makes it so similar to the certain objects I refrained from talking about earlier.  In order to keep the same color scheme going, I used blue dyed coutil and black bias binding.  The main difference is the use of trim: the 1884 corset uses a strip of the same blue silk satin fabric finished with an embroidered scalloped edge along the top, but I used some lace I had left over from my Halloween costume that I threaded skinny black ribbon through (there's a technical term for this kind of trim, but I don't know it). 

I'm ridiculously happy in this picture because making the corset was an extremely nerve-wracking experience, considering the failure that the last corset was.

(I should mention that I'm technically not done with this corset since I still have to floss it.  I'll be posting a more in-depth summary of the construction of the corset at another time.)

Also, since it's done on time, I can submit it as my first(!) completed Historical Sew Fortnightly Challenge.  I'm using a steel busk closure in front and metal grommets in back.  Steel busks were invented in 1829, but were not common until after 1850.  (So basically, I'm using the fact that I can get into this and lace myself up without assistance as innovation.)

The challenge: #2 Innovation
Fabric:  Blue coutil
Pattern:  It started off as Simplicity 9769 the same way humans started out as just a few cells in the right place at the right time in the primordial soup of early earth.
Year:  1884
Notions:  White and black thread, busk, spring-steel boning, lace and ribbon, boning channels, twill tape
Historical accuracy:  Fairly decent.  Read this post again if you've missed that bit.
Hours to complete:  Twenty-ish.
First worn:  January 30, 2014

This corset has the honor of being the last garment I made as a minor and this post has the pleasure of being the first thing I'm posting as an adult.


  1. From a fellow Marlboroughnian (alum) and Historical Fortnightly Participant (well, sortof, I haven't actually posted anything yet), I'm enjoying your work! Jealous of that independent study, I wish I had thought of that!

    Coincidentally, the garment that took all my time last year was an Elizabethan and have been working on an 1850s for the past few months.

  2. Oh my goodness! I'm so excited to meet an alumna interested in historical fashion. Please let me know if you visit campus. I'd love to chat!

  3. Beautiful corset, and I'm glad to hear a review about Richard the Thread since I'm actually planning a trip down in about a week. You have a great writing style, and now I'm insanely curious what the thing that can't be mentioned is.

    1. Thank you! (And I would tell you the thing that can't be mentioned, but, well, it can't be mentioned!)


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