Corsets 101 – An Essential Guide

Corset literacy is not what it once was.

For centuries people of all genders wore corsets, including military men and dandies, though corsets or ‘stays’ were a famously prominent aspect of dress for women, from external stiffened bodices around the 1500s, to flat fronted Elizabethan ‘corsets*’, to the more tightly waisted corsets worn under clothing in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. (*Likely the term ‘corset’ was not used until the 19th century.)

As standard items in many a wardrobe in Europe and the ‘West’, much of the population knew a thing or two about them, how they worked, how they fit and how they were to be laced. As mentioned at the Australian Museum, ‘Up until the late 19th century, both men and women regularly wore variations of this corset. Army officers wore corsets and tightly tailored uniforms to emphasise their straight backs and rigid discipline’. Standards of dress have changed radically since corsets gave way to girdles in the 1920s, (albeit with a temporary resurgence thanks to Dior’s New Look fashion for women of 1947), now largely replaced by shapewear, cosmetic surgery, fitness and diets for achieving a ‘fashionable’ or desired body shape – some of this being a very healthy development, some of it not so much. In that time, ‘corset literacy’, as I call it, has diminished enormously and unhelpful misinformation has spread.

In the years since corsets were largely replaced by other forms of dress and underwear, the corset has been incorrectly associated exclusively with women and a strong association between the corset and ideas of female oppression has complicated the image of this once common garment, thanks in part to persistent myths that Victorian women and girls were sadistically tied into their stays until they couldn’t breathe. (This blinkered view is particularly convenient as corsets are now uncommon, and as such, presumably oppression can be safely out of mind.) The notion of rampant Victorian corset sadism/masochism largely stems, it would seem, from myths about women’s dangerous vanity, inferior sense and morals, and from fetish literature, not real life. Dr Valerie Steele, among others, debunks this myth in her work. Though the idea of a 13 inch teeny Victorian waist persists, evidence points to most surviving corsets from the Victorian era being no smaller than 24 inches when fully closed, and those were often worn with a lacing gap of at least an inch or much more. Full skirts, and some doctoring in formal portraits added to the illusion of the small Victorian waist.

Corsets are still worn today by people of all genders, for a variety of reasons. I have written in the book Solaced: 101 Uplifting Narratives About Corsets, Well-being and Hope, as well as The Sydney Morning Herald (‘I wear a corset for pleasure, but also to avoid pain‘) and in this blog (‘Wisdom, Autonomy and Corsets‘) about how corset wearing has revolutionised the management of my lifelong scoliosis in the past year, allowing me to reduce and manage physical pain and engage in a variety of activities with less pain or worry of injury. My reduction in pain killers has been significant. (Studies and anecdotal evidence point to this as a successful pain management option for some conditions, including but not limited to scoliosis. *Remember, always consult your doctor.)

Corset wearers today each have their reasons – for support, for fashion, for shaping, pleasure, posture or to prevent or manage a range of painful conditions – but for many of us, there are regular questions about how we can speak, eat or breathe. (Easily! After all, opera singers wear them.) There is no need to lace a corset so tightly it hurts, folks. It should seem obvious, but those laces go both ways, making corsets more versatile in terms of size than most other garments today.

However, I must stress that proper fit is key, and that is what this blog hopes to address. I also hope to help people who are new to corsetry to avoid the many cheaply made and ill-fitting products online that are often called ‘corsets’ but are often not corsets at all.

After hundreds of questions from women keen to find out more about corsets to benefit their own health and back issues or fashion and fancy dress needs, I thought I would put together this Corset 101.

(Due to the nature of my experience and the gender of most of those who have been asking for my advice, most of this info will focus on corsetry designed for women, but there are links at the very bottom for info on corsets specifically designed for other genders.)

Types of corset:

What is a corset?

To qualify as a ‘corset’ for the purposes of this blog the garment should be steel boned and should not have stretch. It will generally (though not always) have a steel busk at the front with metal loops and pins, and lacing at the back.

If it is stretchy, or does up with a hook and eye system, it is most likely a girdle, bustier, ‘merry widow’ or other type of shapewear. The information below applies to steel-boned corsets only, but please, don’t let the ‘steel’ thing intimidate you. Steel bones are comfortable and will not snap or warp on you like cheap plastic will. Spiral steel bones, for example, have considerable bend (you can even loop them to make the ends touch) and will not warp or break.

If the ‘corset’ is made with plastic bones, I advise you to avoid it.

(Just to confuse things though, the exception to this rule is high quality ‘synthetic whalebone’, which is a special type of plastic, but this is less commonly found and the beginner corset wearer is unlikely to come across it.)

If you see a corset online for under $90.00 US I would be wary of what you will get. Quality and comfort usually comes with a higher price than that. These are not quick items to make. (One basic underbust I made, with no frills, took 30 hrs.)

Overbust or underbust?

There are two primary types of corset today – overbust and underbust – and just as the names imply, one sits over and supports and bust while the other sits under. At the top of this blog I am wearing one of my overbust corsets, photographed for Stevie van der Chys for her Body Love fundraiser for the Full Stop Foundation, with the hair and makeup kindly provided by Rachel Montgomery. (See more from this series here.) I have worn this corset as part of a ball gown ensemble before.

However, in general underbust corsets are considered more versatile and less restrictive as they cover less of the torso, and it is underbust styles that I wear on a more regular basis. Underbusts are also frequently less expensive because they require less fabric, boning, and time to make.

If you are new to corsets, want the option of wearing your corset under clothing or want to wear a corset for long hours, I recommend you focus on a good fit in an underbust corset. 

For most women, an underbust is generally worn with a bra, and some bras are better for this purpose than others. Some underwire bras or bras with boning channels can rub or chafe against the top edge of an underbust corset, when worn for an extended period. If this happens to you, try another bra or even remove the boning (I have done this, and it fixed the issue.) Full busted women may find that overbust corsets further relieve back strain by supporting them firmly, though many reports indicate that simply wearing an underbust will provide a lot of relief without needing the corset to come up over the chest fully. Find out what works for you.

Below: A rare photo in my first custom underbust corset, by Sheri Jurnecka, ordered through Ann Grogan at Romantasy. Photograph by Berndt Sellheim. This has been a great ‘work horse’ corset worn under clothing for the past year and bringing back relief. 

taramosscorset

I own both types of corset, though my overbust corsets are strictly for special occasions, cosplay and for outer wear, and most of my day-to-day corsets are underbusts I wear under my clothing. It is hard, in fact, to wear an overbust corset under clothing without significantly changing the shape of the clothes and clearly showing the outline of the corset bust and boning, so unless you want to wear a corset as a stand alone top, perhaps as the upper part of a formal gown or for fancy dress, you will likely want to focus on a well fitted underbust corset. Even those who often wear corsets over their clothes will frequently choose underbust styles, which can look beautiful over tops or dresses as a feature.

As an example, I am wearing a custom underbust corset above, and the What Katie Did ‘Vamp‘ underbust corset, below, over a skirt and sheer top. You can see the underbust sits below the bra (but with a slight peak at the centre back in the Vamp design). This is a beautiful off-the-rack corset, below, and I have it in two colours. However, as a ready made corset it naturally won’t be as comfortable as a custom corset, fitted to my specific measurements. (I’ll write more about custom vs OTR below.)

Below: No, corsets aren’t only for devil women – or even just women. Corsets are worn for a variety of purposes by all genders. Photograph by Berndt Sellheim.

taramossunderbust

Silhouette 

Different corset shapes or silhouettes are available, like conical or cupped ribs (think of a ‘cone’ or V shape coming up from the waist, or a more rounded shape if cupped), what is often called ‘hourglass‘ (wide chest, small waist and wide hip to accommodate a person with wider hips and naturally small waist), and less commonly worn silhouettes like the pipestem. What suits you will depend largely on your natural body shape, your comfort and your desired shape.

The image above shows the conical rib shape of the What Katie Did ‘Vamp’.

Lucia Corsetti of Lucy’s Corsetry has kindly provided the image, below, of her Gemini twin corsets to show the difference between a conical and cupped shape. These Gemini twin corsets she has designed for Timeless Trends are not identical – the corset with a conical rib shape is at the left and on the right, you can see the one with a cupped rib shape. Giving clients these options is excellent. As I have a naturally small but asymmetrical rib cage, with some protruding ribs due to my scoliosis, I can wear either style but a slightly cupped rib gives me more room for long wear. Preferences and comfort levels vary from person to person. If your lower ribs don’t feel good in corsets, or if you have a larger rib cage, consider trying a cupped shape.

gemini

 

Length

Lengths also vary, with longline corsets and ‘Edwardian styles’ coming further over the hip area. Longer styles and can be good for taller people, those with longer torsos or those with fuller hips who want to shape that area more. I own one custom Edwardian-style corset by Sheri Jurnecka, seen below, with very slightly cupped ribs. As a corset with a custom fit, it is incredibly comfortable and I can wear it all day if needed. If commuting or needing to do activities that usually aggravate my back, I end up with fewer aches and pains and headaches. As a style, it works well under full skirts or belted dresses, providing excellent back support, but can’t really be worn under pencil skirts or jeans, because the long, lower bottom edge shows too prominently. Again, it depends on what you want your corset for.

 

 

Shorter styles are preferred by some for greater freedom of movement or because it suits their shorter torso length. Keep in mind that really short styles, like corset ‘waspies’, won’t suit everyone, particularly those who are tall or who have a lot of curve, as they will generally result in an effect like a belt being worn very tight, with a bulge above and below. Unless you have a short torso, there will be a gap between the top of your corset and the bottom of your bra in a ‘waspie’. Your preference will depend on your body shape, what you want to achieve with the corset and what clothing you wish to wear with or over the corset.

As a rule, what is often called the Victorian underbust style is very common and makes a good starting point for most new corset wearers. This is a good example of a modern ‘Victorian style’ corset length, below. It goes from right under the bra to just over the hips:

 

 

For a guided gallery of corset types, check out the always informative Lucy Corsetry.

Fit:

Fit is the most important aspect of any corset, regardless of style. A bit like quality leather shoes, the fit needs to be right or even the finest item will cause discomfort. And like a leather shoe or boot, it will usually need to be seasoned – worn in slowly until it moulds to the body and is comfortable for longer wear.

Remember, that off-the-rack corset someone cinches you into in a random shop will almost certainly feel restrictive and awful (even if it happens to look great). A corset needs to fit your measurements properly, and then it needs to be seasoned. Once both of those things are taken care of, corset comfort awaits you. But until then, don’t judge your comfort in corsets by that mass produced thing you tried on once.

Fully custom, or made-to-measure personalised fit by a qualified corset maker will always be more comfortable than off-the-rack. It is worth the extra expense and wait if you plan to wear a corset with any regularity.

(Note for scoliosis sufferers: if you have severe scoliosis, you may need a custom corset fitted for your specific skeletal asymmetry. A gallery of examples can be found here. However, I favour custom symmetrical corsets for myself – where the same measurements are used for both halves of the corset – as these gently correct some of my spinal curve. For minor to moderate scoliosis, symmetry is often preferred. Ask for advice from an experienced corsetiere, check with your doctor, and listen to your body. One case study involving corset use as part of severe scoliosis correction in an adult patient can be found here.)

Before you start seasoning and enjoying your corset, you need to choose one online or in a shop, or ideally, commission a custom corset to get made to your measurements. For both types – custom or off-the-rack – you are going to have to get out your measuring tape and preferably enlist the help of a friend or your corset maker.

Picking a corset waist size:

This is probably the thing you will think about first, but it is important to note this is not the only important aspect of the fit of your corset, as I will explain below.

As a general rule, 3-4 inches smaller than your natural waist measurement is a good ‘corset size’. This is often what you will see listed as a size guide. (Try not to be intimidated by the sizing system and what the numbers mean.)

If you are curvier or more experienced with corsets, 5-6 inches smaller than your natural waist measurement is common.

Some people also comfortably wear corsets with more reduction than this. Bodies are different.

A personal example:

My natural waist measurement is 27 inches, and I own both size 24″ and size 22″ corsets, depending on the corset style and shape.

Like many people, I generally like to wear my laces with a gap of 1 to 2 inches, as this allows a bit of give and take with the size and I find it easier to unlace when it is time to take it off. As I mention above, try not to be intimidated by the sizing system, and just go by the recommended sizing according to the corset maker’s guide and the general guide I have given above.

Keep in mind that while some corset silhouettes may look dramatic on me, or on others, this is usually due to ‘hip spring’. While my corset waist may measure 25-26 inches over the corset, my hips are over 40 inches. 25 inches is not a big waist reduction on me (barely 2 inches), but my waist to hip ratio is very ‘hourglass’ in proportion, at 14 or 15 inches. For this reason I have to buy corsets with a large hip spring because I don’t want something that will press down uncomfortably on my hips, rather than sit over them snugly and comfortably.

In essence, you can’t tell how tight a corset is by looking at someone. Just go with what works for you, following the corset makers guidelines or your own knowledge of your body, and try not to compare or judge other people’s bodies.

It’s not all about the waist.

Most people think that corset sizes are all about the waist, but several vertical as well as horizontal measurements are key to getting the right fit for you. If you are buying an off the rack corset rather than custom, and the corsets are labelled S M and L, walk away now.

If the corsets are labelled by waist measurement, which is common, that should only be the starting point. They should also have a list of all of the other corresponding measurements.

If it is a ‘size 24’ (24 inches inside the garment at the waist when fully closed) what is the underbust measurement? The hip? The vertical length? The princess line? How high does it come under the arm? At the back? How long is the busk (the metal pieces at the front that fit together)?

A corset that fits you at the waist may nonetheless be too small or too big at the underbust – the horizontal measurement around your body just under your bra line. If it is too small there, it will be uncomfortable and will cause the flesh to ‘spill out’ over the top, like it would around a belt pulled too tight. If a corset is too big in the hip, it will sit out from the body, and if it is too small in the hip it can be uncomfortable or cause some of that ‘spill’ again, pinching in where you curve out.

The aim is to have a corset that follows your personal shape and size, and gives you the shape and support that makes you feel good.

Electra Designs has this helpful guide:

newmeasurementdoll

You can see that multiple horizontal and vertical measurements come in to play to get a correct fit.

As they note, ‘Complete and accurate measurements are essential to the creation of a properly fitting corset that is both flattering and comfortable. If possible, please ask a trusted friend, family member, or tailor to take your measurements for you, as they will be more accurate than measurements you take yourself.’

When measuring, use string and a flexible measuring tape.

Tie the string firmly around the smallest part of your waist, where the indent is when you bend to the side – your ‘true waist’ as it is called – which is usually about 2 inches above the navel, then use that string as an ‘anchor’, indicating your waistline. Many measurements will come up or down from that point.

Example: In the diagram above, if you are getting a Victorian-style underbust corset, horizontal measurements 2-5 will be needed, and vertical measurements  7-11. The others would not be needed as they relate to overbust or longer line corsets.

When buying a corset online:

Check the underbust (measurement 2 on the diagram above) waist (4) and hip (5) measurements at a minimum, and check the vertical length of the busk (8+11 combined).  When you sit, what is the maximum comfortable height for the underbust or top of the corset? You don’t want it cutting into your bra or breast tissue. What is the lap measurement, or measurements 8 and 9 when you sit? If this is too long it will cut into your thigh and sitting will be uncomfortable.

If you can, ask for advice from the corset maker.

Many companies, like What Katie Did and Orchard Corset, have exhaustive info, tutorials and FAQs on their corset range, and free customer service to answer any questions and to recommend corsets for better fit. If you are getting a custom corset (which I do highly recommend) your corsetiere should be a good communicator and help you through the process.

My personal collection

Thus far, I have custom or made to measure corsets from the following corsetieres:

Vanyanis

RetroFolie

Sheri Jurnecka

I have off-the-rack (OTR) corsets from the following makers in my collection:

What Katie Did (You can ask for pattern adjustments to their designs here.)

Mystic City

Orchard Corset

Gallery Serpentine

Axfords

None of these have been given to me, and this blog is not sponsored. I am providing the above list because I can personally vouch for the good customer service of each of these makers. Unfortunately there are corset brands/makers with bad reputations, so word of mouth counts for a lot.

I look forward to trying – and making – more corsets in the future, and I am open to recommendations in the comments below.

Where can you get a corset?

Word of mouth counts for a lot among corset wearers, as I’ve mentioned, and I can recommend all of the corsetieres listed above, as I have tried them myself, though the appropriateness for you will depend on the price range, style and fit you are looking for.

Keep in mind the following things:

  1. Off the rack and custom can’t be compared for comfort. Go custom whenever you are able to, or if you plan to wear your corset frequently and for long periods at a time. I can’t stress this enough.
  2. You generally get what you pay for. Cheaper corsets are often factory made, bulkier, less comfortable – great to show off for a cosplay or event, but not so great for comfort or regular back support.
  3. Different corsets suit different uses. Will you wear it to show off over clothes, or will you wear it under clothing? Often a corset that is good for one is not ideal for the other. Avoid lace, delicate fabrics, and thick external boning channels (these often show through clothes) if you are getting a corset to wear primarily under clothing.

Most corset wearers have been disappointed or thrilled by different corsets, and no corset will be perfect, but a corset maker should be exacting, experienced and should use quality spiral and flat steel bones, and provide a professional service. If you are buying a ready made, ‘off the rack’ OTR corset try to get as many measurements for the corset as possible to avoid disappointment.

To find out who can make you a corset in your area, try Lucy Corsetry’s map of corset makers.

 

lacingsml

 

Lacing

Now that you have your corset you will need to get used to the lacing to get in and out of it. There are several ways to lace a corset, but the most common way is using what are called ‘bunny ears’, where long loops are left hanging at the waistline. As this is a 101 for beginners, I will focus on the bunny ear method.

I self-lace, always. You really don’t need ‘servants’ and the like, so ignore the anti-corset cartoons suggesting exaggerated exertions of multiple servants and bedposts. Some people do have challenges with that range of movement, however, and if that is you, try not to be discouraged. (Some tips on lacing yourself in can be found here, including the famed ‘door knob method’ for those with less flexibility. I haven’t tried it but I hear it works well for some people.)

The info below is for self-lacing, for those who can comfortably reach behind their backs with both hands.

*Note: Don’t tighten your corset all the way the first time you try it. See ‘seasoning’, below.

You will want to undo the corset as much as possible before you put it on (don’t untie the knot that holds the two ends of the laces together though), then open the busk, put the corset around your body right way up (check it isn’t upside down!), do up all of the metal busk pins at the front through the metal busk loops, and slowly close the back by pulling on the bunny ears that are at waist level behind your back. Unless the laces are threaded through a floating ‘modesty panel’ (back panel) or the bunny ears are ‘inverted’, the bottom of the bunny ears will generally close the bottom of the corset and the top of the bunny ears will close the top. Pulling both top and bottom at the same time is fine. You can also pull on the crossed part of the lacing where needed to tighten, but in general, you will use the bunny ears at the waist to tighten your corset, eventually tying off (but never knotting!) the laces in a bow at your back. Most people then tuck the hanging laces under the bottom edge of the corset.

In the photo above, you can see me pulling on the ‘bunny ears’ of my corset lacing to close an off-the-rack underbust corset. You can see my skirt is getting slightly caught, so I will want to work that flat. This is one issue with wearing corsets over, rather than under clothes – waist bands, buttons and fabric can get caught up or press against you under the corset. A bit of ‘back cleavage’ is normal, so don’t worry about it as long as you feel comfortable. Do what feels good for you. (Photograph by Berndt Sellheim.)

Corsets may have cord or ribbon laces. This is personal preference, though some ribbon laces are more slippery and may not always be ideal for beginners.

To take the corset off, untie the back, then loosen the laces with your fingers, up and down the ‘crosses’ at you back until it is as loose as possible. Then undo the busk at the front and take it off. Hang your corset over the back of a chair to air it out. If you look after your corset and wear liners (see below) you should not need to wash it or dry clean it, (in fact, putting it in the washing machine will be the end of your lovely steel-boned corset, so avoid) unless you are unlucky with food or other stains. Water and a cloth should help in those rare circumstances. Treat your corset – and yourself – kindly.

Here is a demonstration in one of my underbust corsets:

Liners:

Wherever possible, wear a camisole or ‘corset liner’ between you and your corset and wash that liner with each wear, especially in warm weather. More on liners (I make my own by cutting up camisoles) can be found here.

I wear a liner 99% of the time.

Seasoning:

So now you have your first corset. Congratulations! As mentioned above, seasoning is usually important for both you and the corset, and your corset maker will probably advise you on how much is needed. Thicker corsets made of brocade or multiple layers will usually need more seasoning time than others. Even if you only plan to wear a corset for a couple of hours, never skip basic seasoning. In fact, wearing a new corset for the first time is one sure fire way to ruin a night out. For corsets you plan to wear often or for long hours, seasoning is very important, so follow the corset makers instructions.

One system for comprehensive seasoning is outlined in this helpful infographic from Orchard Corset, who sell a variety of relatively inexpensive off-the-rack styles:

Corset Seasoning Schedule FINAL

For more on seasoning, check out Orchard Corset’s Seasoning Your Corset 101.

Don’t be worried if you have ordered a very curvy style and the hips and underbust sit out during early seasoning. This is normal. If the measurements have been taken properly, the corset will gradually come in and mould to your shape. Be patient and contact your corset maker with any concerns.

Finally, good luck and happy corset wearing.

I hope this basic corset 101 for beginners has been helpful. Experiences vary from person to person, but there are many frequently asked questions and issues that commonly arise, so if something isn’t working for you, try not to be discouraged. Check out the ‘Additional Resources’ links for more info, or feel free to ask any questions below.

Additional resources:

There are many other great resources. If I have missed an important one, please let me know below.

  • Note: Because I do not have expertise in men’s corsetry the above largely relates to a 101 for women’s/feminine shape corsets available today. For info on corsets designed specifically for men, check out The Lingerie AddictContour Corsets for men, and Lucy Corsetry. For info on feminising corsets and corsets designed for the needs of trans women see Lucy’s excellent page.
  • This blog has not been sponsored.

Written by Tara Moss, AKA Victory. Copyright reserved.

 

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