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.

Gaultier at the Barbican - Details Part 1

Now that it is September already and the conference is done for another year, I realise just how jam-packed 2014 has been so far! One thing that stands out as a definite highlight is all the wonderful contemporary corsetry I have had the pleasure to study. 

Alison, Julia and I (Jenni) visited the Gaultier exhibition at the Barbican a few months back. I think most of our corsetmaking friends have done likewise since! As you might expect, it was full of incredible things, and joyously the exhibition is allowing photographs. I certainly think this is a wonderful idea, as seeing so many teasers via Instagram and the like whipped me into a bit of a frenzy for this exhibition! I highly recommend attending. I have even been told by a corsetmaking friend that the official exhibition book features a double-page section on the talented Mr Pearl. 

Here are just a few of my favourite details from the exhibition (all iPhone snaps by Jenni Hampshire, courtesy of the Barbican, London). 

 This corset-body was the star of the show, to my eyes. I had always wanted to see this piece, ever since discovering it in Dita von Teese's book. Made by Mr Pearl, it featured elegant cutting, beautiful brown lace, and gorgeous lacing detail. As delicious as I'd imagined and wonderful to briefly study. I wish I'd had more time with this piece! 

This corset-body was the star of the show, to my eyes. I had always wanted to see this piece, ever since discovering it in Dita von Teese's book. Made by Mr Pearl, it featured elegant cutting, beautiful brown lace, and gorgeous lacing detail. As delicious as I'd imagined and wonderful to briefly study. I wish I'd had more time with this piece! 

 Oh, how I adore those tiny eyelets over the hips... Seeing a picture of this corset of Dita von Teese might be my first memory of seeing proper couture corsetry and really appreciating what I was looking at. 

Oh, how I adore those tiny eyelets over the hips... Seeing a picture of this corset of Dita von Teese might be my first memory of seeing proper couture corsetry and really appreciating what I was looking at. 

 Though it is a crying shame for something so beautiful to suffer damage, I actually rather love signs of use, wear and tear. It means a thing has had a life. I also loved discovering that the lace and flat lacing were brown in colour. I had thought from small photos that they were black. So so gorgeous. 

Though it is a crying shame for something so beautiful to suffer damage, I actually rather love signs of use, wear and tear. It means a thing has had a life. I also loved discovering that the lace and flat lacing were brown in colour. I had thought from small photos that they were black. So so gorgeous. 

 These delicious stays finished in a very interesting point where all the exterior casings overlapped. I'm not entirely sure how it was done (I remember having a good idea at the time, but didn't write it down!), but they do remind me of antique pre-boned casings that I have seen at Snibston Discover Museum and elsewhere... I believe they were sold so that women could add them to their existing corsets, perhaps as extra support or to replace damaged casings. Either way, it's a lovely idea that I'd adore to see explored in contemporary corsetry. 

These delicious stays finished in a very interesting point where all the exterior casings overlapped. I'm not entirely sure how it was done (I remember having a good idea at the time, but didn't write it down!), but they do remind me of antique pre-boned casings that I have seen at Snibston Discover Museum and elsewhere... I believe they were sold so that women could add them to their existing corsets, perhaps as extra support or to replace damaged casings. Either way, it's a lovely idea that I'd adore to see explored in contemporary corsetry. 

 Building around corsets is still something that really appeals to me. I suppose because it has such scope for playfulness. One could do something structural and humorous like this, or something subtle like the hidden "integrated" corsetry of our "corset fellow" Marianne of PopAntique. Other wonderful details in this piece are the sloping waist-tape (if you wrap a tape around a corseted form you will see that it makes sense) and the apparent delicacy of the fabric. 

Building around corsets is still something that really appeals to me. I suppose because it has such scope for playfulness. One could do something structural and humorous like this, or something subtle like the hidden "integrated" corsetry of our "corset fellow" Marianne of PopAntique. Other wonderful details in this piece are the sloping waist-tape (if you wrap a tape around a corseted form you will see that it makes sense) and the apparent delicacy of the fabric. 

 I'd be so intrigued to see this piece being laced on, to know exactly how it all fits together. The spine detail is so gorgeous. 

I'd be so intrigued to see this piece being laced on, to know exactly how it all fits together. The spine detail is so gorgeous. 

 Sure, not obviously corsetry, but I love this gown. Kylie worn it in the imagery for her X tour which I thoroughly enjoyed. To the right is a silver corset-body that she then wore on a later North-American tour, and it was interesting seeing how the piece had more detail and textural interest than you can see from pictures. 

Sure, not obviously corsetry, but I love this gown. Kylie worn it in the imagery for her X tour which I thoroughly enjoyed. To the right is a silver corset-body that she then wore on a later North-American tour, and it was interesting seeing how the piece had more detail and textural interest than you can see from pictures. 

So, the end for today dear reader! There were many more wonderful corset-based details and I took many more phone snaps... but they will have to wait for another day.

Have you attended this exhibition at the Barbican or elsewhere? Let us know your experiences in the comments. 

A place for lace

The hunt for good suppliers is always a mixture of frustration and elation as you follow the detective trail to find that elusive company that will offer you something different. Especially if like me you have criteria you try to meet. In my case both an extreme pickiness about quality and a desire to support local businesses for the knock on effect to the economy and the environment. Sometimes you want to keep the suppliers you find close to your chest but other times it pays to shout their name. This was the case with Morton, Young and Borland, or MYB Textiles.

 Ecosse Noir outfit by Crikey Aphrodite featuring lace from MYB. Image copyright Louise Cantwell Photography, modelled by Kasumi Noir

Ecosse Noir outfit by Crikey Aphrodite featuring lace from MYB. Image copyright Louise Cantwell Photography, modelled by Kasumi Noir

MYB are a lace manufacturer based in Ayrshire, Scotland. They've been there for over a century and produce lace for some very exciting clients on original looms. No other company in the country is doing what they do. More on their history here, https://www.mybtextiles.com/history. Their lace has been spotted in Hollywood movies (the latest one, look for it in the nursery in Maleficient), and used by international designers. More locally they collaborate with interiors stars such as Timorous' Beasties and talented Scottish designers like Judy R Clark. It's just been reported that their latest big name client is clothing retailer, Hobbs.

I had looked at the website for a while but had hesitated to approach them. I shouldn't have worried, I was invited down for a visit, welcomed warmly with a cup of tea, given a tour and allowed to browse samples at leisure. It's developed into a good relationship where I've loaned them garments for showing as far afield as Moscow. It also was key to me being part of a local exhibition on lace and it's connection to the region. 

 Exhibition on the history of lace in Ayrshire at the Dick Institute in Kilmarnock

Exhibition on the history of lace in Ayrshire at the Dick Institute in Kilmarnock

But now to the extra interesting bit, the tour. This was truly fascinating for anyone interested in textiles. To repeat, they've been around since 1900. The business has literally grown around the huge looms. The building is a maze of doors and stairs and rooms squeezed in where they can. Very easy to get lost in. Funnily enough it reminded me strongly of the newspaper office I used to work in, which was another old industrial building with no fixed layout which had grown around the heavy machinery. And I was struck very much by the similarity between the enormous blacked looms chugging away noisily in the heart of the building and the old printing presses that crouched into the dark and noisy press hall in the newspaper office.

 Image copyright MYBtextiles.com

Image copyright MYBtextiles.com

The patterns are filed on huge punched cards the size of doors. Many of them original. Technology of course has also entered in as computerised design has taken over. This leads to an odd mix of hi-tech and tradition, the old and the new co-existing. Which rather sums up the use of the fabric too. Lace, the most 'antique' of fabrics being used in new and exciting ways.

The jet black looms rattle away either side of long access galleys with raised platforms. These looms are enormous, enabling them to be able to produce large widths for items on the scale of theatre backdrops. It's a strange contrast, this fine light cloth cobwebbing off the blackened iron. In another side of the hall the cotton madras unique to MYB is produced. And then through into a huge room where yards of cloth are hand checked by women bundled up in jumpers perched on tiny stools amid a sea of lace.

  Image copyright MYBtextiles.com

Image copyright MYBtextiles.com

In another room curtain panels are made up, boxes of lace are everywhere and there's a cheerful atmosphere of a business where people work for years, not just a year before moving on. A company where the employees are as 'in with the bricks' as the machinery. I like that in a company, it's becoming rare.

At the end of the tour I was left among racks of samples to note and snap the ones of interest to me before popping back through to the office and design room (another familiar atmosphere for an ex graphic designer like me) for another cuppa and to discuss what would work for me.

A Crikey Aphrodite corset using cotton madras from MYB overlaid on copper metallic silk.

I would definitely recommend you research textile companies in your area and make contact. Not only is it interesting and educational, but it's building contacts and relationships like these that make a difference to your business. And of course, it can take you down unexpected routes in your own work, especially if you're like me and dictated to by the materials in your hands. But most importantly, it's these contacts that make your work stand out. Don't fall into the trap of always using the same suppliers and materials as every other corset maker. Find the difference and build on it.

Take a moment and watch the wonderful video above.