Written by Alison Campbell.
Right at the start this year we had decided to each make a showpiece corset exclusively for the conference, but the form of that was vague at first. We were all chatting general conference plans one day when we had the bright idea to follow a theme, and the theme we agreed on was to be Jesus college itself. It was a lightbulb moment that went on to inform some of the class content. It was especially relevant to my inspiration class as I'd already planned on getting all the delegates out and about around the college.
All my life I’ve been fascinated with the Tudors and Stuarts. Childhood holidays and day-trips usually involved visits to whatever castles were in the area. I collected the costume dolls sold in the gift shops and one of my earliest favourite books was a Jean Plaidy novelisation of the childhood of Mary Queen of Scots. I also have strong family links to Falkland where Mary Queen of Scots’ favourite palace and hunting lodge was (and is), a place with many happy memories. So as the leap from Mary to Elizabeth is a short one I rapidly decided on the Queen Elizabeth I portraits as inspiration. I gleefully announced my decision to go for Queenie to Julia, Jenni, Gerry and Marianne and especially my plan to use ALL the pearls! As after all you can’t go Elizabeth without a massive dose of pearliness (she even ‘acquired’ Mary’s rare black pearls).
The Design Process
Next step was to find source images, put them together on a mood board and take a good hard look again at those portraits. I found I was more swayed to the smaller portrait in the Peter North Room, I liked that it was less ornate than the ridiculously overwrought gowns she’s usually portrayed in.
I didn’t want to actually replicate the period, after all we’re most of us in fashion corsetry rather than costume. Stays would’ve been a predictable route but way too literal. Also it had to suit the model I was going to work with. There is no way Evie’s generous assets were going to be done justice by a conical stays shape, those boobs need support. That took me straight to bust gores, straps and a sweetheart neckline. I decided to revisit the shape I’d been working on with the recent black gold corset as the multiple hip gores gives a dramatic shape and I’d been investigating a split bust gore for side support, so it seemed like a good option to pursue.
One of the things that appealed in the portrait was the sleeve of blackwork embroidery. Whilst looking for something else I found my favourite local lace company produce a design in their cotton lace that is very close to the stylised florals of the time. They had two designs, a madras in almost exactly the same design and a lace in a slightly later, more Jacobite style. I ordered a metre of both and found the scale of the madras was too large. But the lace worked, and especially if I dyed it black to overlay on an off white silk, giving the impression of the blackwork without the hours of stitching.
I had already decided to use a leather remnant I had in a strange matt texture as it rather reminded me of old vellum. I’d gathered together various pearls and semi-precious garnet chips and other beads to work out my design.
I tend to work by sketching a design, then letting the materials take over and move on organically. Often the result ends up very different to the original. And so it happened with this. I went through a patch of utterly hating it. I’d chose a red suede for some contrast parts, and in retrospect I wished I’d chosen something more muted as the contrast was too much. I looked at it for days, pinning bits on, going away and coming back to it. I knew it would change once I beaded it but I could not get the visual back into my head. Then I overlaid some fine ivory lace over parts of it and it clicked back into place. Lace can be a useful blender, as well as adding texture.
The beading also took some playing about with. It went from an original plan of draped pearl strands, to pearl and crystal drops before growing into areas of solid pearl beading studded with garnets. I’m sure you won’t be surprised that I was sewing the last of those pearls on at 2am on Saturday morning before the conference started!
Fit without fitting
Fit was going to be crucial for this, and nerve-wracking. Normally for a sample corset I work to a tried and tested pattern that seems to work pretty well on a wide range of models. The black gold ones I had Morgana shoot for me recently also were worn by local alt model Kasumi Noir and on the catwalk by some 6 feet tall agency girls. But this approach wasn’t going to work with Evie’s curves. Due to the distance it was going to have to be measurements only and no fitting. So I got the measuring tape out, the bag of padding and bought a bra in her size. This is when my bra fitting experience is an advantage as I reckoned from pics she was on the top side of the bra size so I padded it out to the maximum. In fact in retrospect I realised her preferred bra runs a bit large so I was glad I picked the same brand, although a slightly smaller cut one. I found the rest of the adjustable mannequin didn’t need much in the way of padding as her measurements matched it pretty closely. I then proceeded by fitting the drafted pattern to the mannequin and used a flat pattern/drape mash up to get the final corset. The results weren’t bad at all. Had I had a mock-up fit obviously it would've been better, as supplied measurements are always a bit of a gamble.
I was relieved to see the final piece come together in a way I was happy with, no mean feat considering I was fitting it in between client work, and the peak of the graphics work for the conference. I wouldn’t say it’s my best piece ever or the piece most reflective of my own aesthetic. Working to a theme stretches you and takes you out of your comfort zone to some degree. I learned some things from it, I tested out a bust cut that worked well on a full bust, and I did way more beading than I ever normally do. I felt it did answer the brief and had attitude to suit the inspiration source and the model.
The final stage was our all too brief photoshoot on the Sunday morning. Having met Evie the night before I was glad I’d gone with my instincts for something pretty dramatic. I don’t think she’ll mind me saying it just was more her than a refined and sedate piece would’ve been. I was nervous lacing it onto her, you always are when there’s been no chance to fit. But although it wasn’t quite perfect, it wasn’t half bad. The bust fit was good, gave her the support and coverage I wanted and the whole thing worked on her. I had intended to make a collar and skirt but ran out of time. We got some really nice shots, you can see a couple taken by Chris here, and I’m hoping to do a more styled shoot in the near future when hopefully I'll have all the other bits in place. So all in all, I’m happy with the result and the gains from the process. And I hope you’ve all picked up some useful info from it too. And of course I’m very much hoping that some of the designs being worked on in the inspiration class turn up next year as Jesus corsets of your own.