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.

The Great New Antique Project

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.

GNAP corsets at ococ.  © Beth Moody

GNAP corsets at ococ.  © Beth Moody

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" .

One of the patterns chosen by Sara Huebschen for the OCOC GNAP project © Leicestershire County Council

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'.   

Final corset by Sara Huebschen from the picture above.  © Sara Huebschen

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'.

Steph Selmayr of Past Pleasures brought a fraction of her incredible antique corset collection for us to examine and learn from at ococ15. © Caroline woolin

Steph Selmayr of Past Pleasures brought a fraction of her incredible antique corset collection for us to examine and learn from at ococ15. © Caroline woolin

But why do this?  Why go to all this trouble to make an 'antique' corset which may or may not fit a person today?

Barbara Pesendorfer of royal black trying on an antique corset from the collection of Steph Selmayr.  © Julia Bremble

Barbara Pesendorfer of royal black trying on an antique corset from the collection of Steph Selmayr.  © Julia Bremble

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!   

Old and new Sanakor Corsets.  L-R:  the original black Sanakor corset from the Symington collection.  the original copy patterned from the original and made up by Nikki Swift.  the 'iso' corset - a modern Sanakor made from brass mesh by Nikki Swift.  © Nikki swift.

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.  

A thoroughly modern Sian Hoffman corset girdle which uses inspiration from across the centuries together with modern fabrics to create a whole new aesthetic.  © Nadia Lee Cohen

A thoroughly modern Sian Hoffman corset girdle which uses inspiration from across the centuries together with modern fabrics to create a whole new aesthetic.  © Nadia Lee Cohen

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!