Written by Jenni Hampshire.
After the first Oxford Conference of Corsetry, we "corset fellows" had the idea that our second year should have an overarching theme. We wanted to take our attendees through the design process from start-to-finish, with a couple of tangents along the way. This meant beginning with design challenges and ending with embellishment/manipulation ideas, via notes on general patterning principles, resizing/grading, and (my own offering) detailed study of how antique-inspired corsetry can lead to interesting new ideas.
We scheduled and planned our classes to reflect this, and set about dreaming up our own Oxford inspired corsets with which to illustrate.
The Design Process
My Oxford corset was very clear in my mind at first. I knew exactly what I wanted it to be (a rare occurrence for me, since much of my self-directed work happens as a series of happy accidents). It was to be very much a contemporary revisioning of Renaissance angels. All that gilding, drapery, grandeur, and handsome androgenous beauty.
Even so, things didn't pan out quite as expected...
The initial wish was to create a Birds Wing corset-body, much like the Mink corset above, but with the "spine" of the corset extending upwards and radiating out into a disc behind the head.
This disc would be gilded and embellished, to reference Renaissance halos, whilst the mink coutil would be awash with pink and gold Solstiss lace, freshwater pearls (lots of freshwater pearls), beads and so on. There would also be a big robe of iridescent silk duchess, to hang heavily from the models arms.
Despite being turn-of-the-century inspired, my Birds Wing design is very naturally inclined to give a flattened chest, which was the first connection I had between my work and that 1600s aesthetic. Since my work tends to be about cherry-picking things of beauty (rather than adhering to any sense of historical accuracy), this was an appealing link. For my class, I really wanted to illustrate how things lead into one another, how you could begin by attempting a Victorian corset replica but end up creating a catwalk-style contemporary showpiece... Or how you could have an idea, face a technical challenge, and end up with an even more interesting solution. So in that sense, the challenge I faced with this design was no bad thing, I suppose!
It was a very small but very significant thing which killed the dream of this corset... I hadn't ordered the pink/gold lace in time. Without that particular shade of opulent lace, the entire design fell apart. I did not want to compromise on this one. If I couldn't make my angel, I would make something else instead.
In the end, that "something else" ended up being far more directly connected to Jesus College.
Whilst I didn't initially want to do a Queen Elizabeth I corset (my friend Alison had gotten there first!), I was drawn to the overlap of regal and religious iconography. My initial Renaissance Angel idea would have had fireball pearls around the halo/disc, in a little nod to Elizabethan whisks and so on, and so I ended up considering that idea more. Elizabeth's symbolic pearls (virginity), her impossible god-like power, her divine rights... I suppose all these things were jumbled up in my mind as I also kept thinking of Gaultier's exploration of religious iconography and the very archetypal way I think many of us instantly imagine icons. The subject very central in the image (often very symmetric), divine light coming from above, sometimes serene, sometimes tortured. I didn't have a clean and simple intent or meaning in mind (and I wanted to do something more "human" and grubby than Elizabeth's magnificent splendour), but the design was beginning to emerge. It was becoming more about the final images than the corset itself, and I could picture many of those images quite precisely. The lighting would be high up and dramatic, the pose inspired by iconography (by Jesus Christ), the tones and textures inspired by Queen Elizabeth I. This meant, as far as I was concerned, many many pearls and lovely silk duchess to capture the light, gleaming subtly.
Of course, there's never just one thing going on, just one idea in mind... This corset, being illustrative of my class, also became an experiment in single-layer silk corsetry. With diagonal seams, I knew I would encounter some challenges as I hadn't toiled this pattern in anything lighter than coutil. So indeed, we ended up with more ripples than a coutil version would have. And overall, I think that I still would have preferred a regular Birds Wing for this, with all those vertical lines nodding to stays. But I am happy to have continued testing the diagonals even so, and hope to take them further.
Wednesday before the conference I was sewing down pearls. Thursday, my assistant Holly finished the last of them whilst I played with all our guests! We had loads of lovely people visiting that day for photoshoot fun, including "corset fellow" Marianne (Pop Antique) who was going to be my model come Sunday morning of the conference. So we did an impromptu shoot on Thursday evening too. It was a great relief to check the corset on her prior to the conference, as my brand silhouette is not necessarily the best suited to Marianne's natural shape and we hadn't arranged any fittings. That said, she did well in the pieces we tried that day, which I think is in no small part down to the ever lighter construction. A single layer of silk-cotton or silk duchess is a light thing indeed, and a couple of our corsets (including this one) weren't as hard on her ribs as we had expected.
It was also a real relief that the corset didn't fall apart! I know these seams to be very strong (and I hope all our attendees got to see that for themselves during my class), but would the fabric itself be strong enough? I knew silk-cotton was, but what about pure silk? Well, so far it has proven very strong, and we haven't exactly been gentle with it. As a single-layer of silk, it naturally isn't intended for daily or frequent wear, which reduces how "strong" it needs to be. And then, a corset like this isn't intended for that anyway, it isn't built for tight-lacing.
As the "Jesus" corset landed quite low on Marianne, we also tried the "Rose Gold" Birds Wing (above) on her, and ended up layering this beneath the former for the official shoot in Oxford. We always need to take care to not be too risqué at the college!
Sunday morning of the conference, we "fellows" gathered to have our Oxford inspired designs shot together. Completely thrilling to see how we each took such different directions despite being inspired by the one place. Then Chris and Scott began snapping away, and I was thrilled to receive some perfectly beautiful pictures from Chris. I think this is my favourite.
I was also lucky enough to take 5 minutes to grab some of my own pictures of Marianne... But that's for another blog post.
If I were revisiting this design, I think I would want yet more pearls... I always do though. Plus, to return to the original plan of having vast silk duchess robes as part of the ensemble and perhaps some sort of larger disc, crown or halo to frame the head. Indeed, I had begun making such a crown, but ran out of time and so clever designer (and model!) Liv Free kindly loaned us use of the lovely halo shown above. I wish I had pushed through now, maybe slept one night less! I am pleased that we made those pearl eyebrows though. It's a shame I failed to bring them to the actual conference. They're bonkers, but I love them.