OCOC BLOG


The Misapprehension of the Modern Body by Alison Campbell

In the world of corsetmakers there has been some debate lately over whether there's a modern body or not, and I've read and taken part in discussions over the years where it's come up. Largely the debate is between those who approach corsetry from the historic and costume angle and those whose base is in contemporary and fashion corsets. I'm not sure that it hasn't taken a turn into an avenue of misunderstanding about what people actually mean about a modern body.  In reality I don't think the two supposed camps really disagree, but are disagreeing on a misapprehension. 

Have we changed?
At every point in history there has existed some representation of all shapes and sizes. That is a fact. There has always been fat, thin, tall and short, despite what extant museum garments would suggest. For instance, notable Glasgow woman 'Big Rachel' who stood at 6'4" and 17 stone and worked in the Glasgow shipyards in the 1870s. Uncommon enough (even today) to warrant making the history books. But she existed.

Glasgow shipyard worker, special constable and latterly, agricultural worker Rachel Hamilton, or 'Big Rachel'.

Glasgow shipyard worker, special constable and latterly, agricultural worker Rachel Hamilton, or 'Big Rachel'.

However at different points the general trend has been in different ranges, due to diet, childhood health, genetics, environment and so on, that is also a fact. Currently, the general trend is larger, taller, fuller busted. A study by the London College of Fashion discovered the average woman's waist is 6 inches larger than in the 1950s, and that she is also taller. That is dealing in numbers, averages, trends. This is very relevant for mass production,  for smaller scale ready to wear, but not so much for bespoke. Other than in relation to access to numbers of clients for a specialism such as full bust, bespoke is largely unaffected by general size trends. The very nature of bespoke is that we're often dealing with the people who fall outside the general anyway. Therefore, whether 5% or 75% of the population is larger and curvier, whether they are an 'antique' or 'modern' body is largely irrelevant to the bespoke maker. And... I think everyone involved in corsetmaking is well aware of this. If however you are developing a ready to wear line then of course, the general size trends in your demographic are crucial. Target market, location etc all have to be taken into account. No point using short body measurements from a typical Victorian pattern for instance for a RTW range in the Netherlands (which averages out as the world's tallest country http://www.averageheight.co/average-female-height-by-country). So averages and trends are important in that context. But not so much when discussing what is or isn't a 'modern body'. 

What is really meant by the modern body.
The term, as I see it, relates more to how we choose to look and the clothes we currently wear and have been used to wearing. There is a modern aesthetic and a modern cut of clothes and feel of clothes, which does need to be taken into consideration for customers wanting contemporary and fashion corsetry. This includes non-period bridalwear. Especially if it's a corset for underneath clothing or a gown. Shapes are different, bust shapes are different, the bust definition is different.

This sloping Edwardian bustline would not be seen as partlcularly atrractive by many women with no interest in historical clothing, and if made for under a modern bridal gown for instance, it would look very strange indeed. By Thylda (http://gallica.bnf.fr/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This sloping Edwardian bustline would not be seen as partlcularly atrractive by many women with no interest in historical clothing, and if made for under a modern bridal gown for instance, it would look very strange indeed.
By Thylda (http://gallica.bnf.fr/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A woman used to only wearing a bra is used to feeling a defined underbust and clothes are cut for that. I've spoken to clients who find the ideal of a sloped bust completely alien. A cupped shape rather than a slope just works best under a modern dress. An overbust rather than a mid. A flat rather than curved abdomen. Perhaps a plunge or a dipped back. There is a modern body but it has little to do with statistics in time periods and all to do with what we're used to wearing in other clothes. It is the aesthetic of our time, just as the 1890's was different to the 1790s. 

A plunge gored cup corset by Crikey Aphrodite worn by Evie Wolfe and photographed by My Boudoir. Hair & Make-up by Sarah Elliot. This shape is dramatic, especially on a full bust. But it has a bra type fit which works under modern clothing. Great as outerwear too.

A plunge gored cup corset by Crikey Aphrodite worn by Evie Wolfe and photographed by My Boudoir. Hair & Make-up by Sarah Elliot.
This shape is dramatic, especially on a full bust. But it has a bra type fit which works under modern clothing. Great as outerwear too.

That of course doesn't mean the shapes and patterns of the past are not still relevant. They very often are, both as reproduction and as a starting point for hybridisation or innovation. Elements can be borrowed and altered (the bust of Regency stays for instance is rather akin to a modern half cup bra, but the overall corset shape is not particularly popular today where we look for more waist emphasis). There is always a lot to learn from the past. But neither should the needs of today's women be discarded as less important than the needs of the Victorian or the Edwardian woman. Corsetry did not stop 100 years ago, it kept adjusting and responding to it's time throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, and it will and should continue to do so. An eye on the past and on the future is surely the best approach for those of us making contemporary rather than reproduction corsets.  I've seen lovely corsets in recent times which marry period shape with modern colour combinations and fabric choices, as well as traditional styling applied to more modern shaping. We have access to all of the past as well as constantly changing materials, which offers us a wonderful array of resources. And, offers our clients unprecedented choice. Want a 21st century plunge bust welded onto an 18th century tabbed stays bottom with Victorian flossing? Go for it! We can if we want to, and that is...well it's fabulously 'modern' of course! 

One of the prettiest combinations of period shape with modern materials I've seen. The very same Evie Wolfe as above but this time wearing a corset and skirt by Laurie Tavan.

One of the prettiest combinations of period shape with modern materials I've seen. The very same Evie Wolfe as above but this time wearing a corset and skirt by Laurie Tavan.