Or "GNAP" (#GNAP) as it became known, is a project that we initiated for OCOC via our private members group in Facebook which is open to all attendees of OCOC past and present. As a bonus side-effect of the conference, this group has become a fine resource for all questions corset as well as a friendly meeting place for those connected to each other via the conference - it therefore also provides a perfect space for extended learning between events.
When Leicestershire County Council released 109 images from their collection of Symington pattern books for sale online, we immediately jumped at the chance to create a project which would help develop our corset making skills together, with the end result being that the corsets made during the project would be at OCOC15 as a display of brand new 'antique' corsets.
Sarah Nicol who looks after the real Symington Antique Corset Collection blessed the project by telling us "Your idea for a project based around the patterns just sums up completely the reason for making them available" .
The GNAP project was open to all OCOC attendees past and present as a vehicle of learning, where information would be freely shared in order to create a unique opportunity regardless of distance, and to make participants who were not able to attend the conference this year, feel part of the event in absentia. Whilst modern twists and brand aesthetics were not discouraged, the point of the project was to learn from the antique styles and preserve as much as possible the 'purity of silhouette'.
During the GNAP project the group shared hints and tips on scaling up the patterns, problems encountered with mock-ups, challenges and successes encountered during production, best and worst materials to use and different techniques learned through the process. The group was also an excellent forum for trying to decipher the sometimes very cryptic notes written on the patterns themselves.
As our yearly opportunity to study antique corsetry up close and personal at the Conference thanks to the Symington Collection and the incredible private collection of Steph Selmayr has been so popular, we knew that this project would inspire further debate around past, present and future issues in corsetry - many debates did arise, one of the biggest and most publicly discussed being the question of sizing and 'the modern body'.
But why do this? Why go to all this trouble to make an 'antique' corset which may or may not fit a person today?
Well firstly there's the inspiration. I simply don't know a single corset maker who is not inspired by corsets from the near or distant past, be it their imagery, their social history, their beauty and elegance or their body modifying properties. Not so many corset makers have had the opportunity to examine real antique corsets and before I was lucky enough to so, the nearest thing I could do was to make up an antique corset pattern just for the sake of it, regardless of fit and I was blown away by the number of lessons I learned, large and small ... from the way that certain seams went together to 'new' ways to insert a busk, or indeed ways to hide a busk. My primary source back then were the incredible patterns by Joelle of Atelier Sylphe who has an extensive collection of antique corsets from which she makes excellent and very accurate patterns. There are scant instructions with her patterns, but this only serves to exercise the little grey cells and help cement findings in ones brain (with the help of a notebook of course!).
As a teacher my advice to my students is always always to try making up at least one antique pattern for the self learning experience. In this respect the Symington patterns are a little more challenging than other patterns available such as those from Atelier Sylphe and consequently not really suitable for absolute beginners, but the learning opportunity is no less great - there are just different things to learn.
Moving forward, for all makers, as well as the huge and almost endless supply of antique information on corsetry available at the tip of our fingers through the internet, we also have 100 more years of technology that followed the hey-day of Victorian and Edwardian corsetry, where other methods of smoothing and constraining the female body were developed in the shape of couture dress foundations, girdles, bra's of all kinds and even the most modern of elastic shapewear, (hideous as the latter is). We also have different fabrics and materials to work with and a far greater selection to play and experiment with. Our own veteran OCOC attendee Nikki Swift, recently made one of her famous Sanakor corsets (inspired by and patterned from the original 1901 Sanakor corset in the Symington Collection) from brass mesh usually found in engine filtering systems!
It goes without saying that we modern corset makers are in the very fortunate position of being able to take all of that knowledge and apply it to our work today, so although learning from antiques, is an essential part of our training, we should not overlook the things that followed in order to make our modern corsetry the best it can be. Nikki's metal Sanakor corset is one example, along with many other innovative designs of today which can be seen in the work of many makers, from the intricate and modern 3d designs of Royal Black and Bibian Blue to the simple and elegant historically inspired designs of Morua which are defined by their comfortable modern fit with sleek antique lines, to the 'mixed media' designs of Sian Hoffmann and the innovations of countless other makers, who although greatly inspired by the past, have a firm focus on fashion and the modern aesthetic.
There is one other defining factor of modern corsetry and that is that back in the 19th and early 20th century, corsetry was an every day functional item, Symingtons was the "M&S underwear department" of it's day. Worn sometimes under sufferance (in the same way as we wear bras and high heels today), there were luxury corsets too, just as we have luxury lingerie today, but those corsets of yesteryear were never made simply for the sake of creating something beautiful as they are today, so we have yet another dimension to work with now, Corsets as art - barely functional but stunningly beautiful, and corsets as design, where all factors are considered to provide the best aesthetic with the best function.
We will be sharing more about GNAP and our thoughts on fit and the 'modern body' on this blog, with the help of those who took part. Watch this space!