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.

On Fabrics

One of the wonderful things about corsetry is that you are contained by the relatively small area of the garment. Not only does this help the creative process, allowing you to explore ideas without being overwhelmed by dealing with everything! But, it allows for the use of materials that would be prohibitively expensive otherwise. In the same way as interior designers often suggest using the expensive paper in the downstairs loo, we can get a corset from just a metre of luxury. This also means we can be conscious of the enviroment and eek use out of every scrap with careful cutting for minimal wastage. 

Black and red rosebud corsetry brocade from  Sew Curvy . Copyright Sew Curvy

Black and red rosebud corsetry brocade from Sew Curvy. Copyright Sew Curvy

Of course the traditional corset fabrics are wonderful. Where would we be without coutils, broche and brocades. But when your imagination needs further exercise, well the world is your oyster, so don't fall into the trap of poly satin and chinese brocades. They have their place but it's a small place.

Satin coutil corset by Crikey Aphrodite. Image copyright Alison Campbell

Satin coutil corset by Crikey Aphrodite. Image copyright Alison Campbell

Satin
Funny thing, every client I have here in Scotland whom I suggest satin to pulls a face. For some reason it's not popular at all here, and yet I have colleagues in England who use nothing else. Now of course in the context of the post, we're not talking £5 poly duchesse here (and some of those are nicer than others) but rather the beautiful silk and silk mix satins or the traditional corset satin coutil. It's very often duchesse which is used for corsets. It's not the most forgiving fabric, it's not nicknamed Satan for nothing. it tends to wrinkle and stitches are very visible. It needs careful handling.  

Silk
The classic is dupion, both the smoother machine woven and the slubbier hand loomed. It's pretty ubiquitous in corsets, I've lost count of how many I've made from it. It works, people love it, and it's easy to handle. It also comes in countless colours. But, bit predictable. Why not look at some of the more interesting variations. There are silk and linen mixes, heavier textures and colour blends. Look beyond the obvious.

Textured silk and wool blend from  James Hare

Textured silk and wool blend from James Hare

Crepe
I'm a huge fan of silk crepe. It's not that common in corsets, as it needs a bit of extra work but it has such a beautiful feel; soft, matt and touchable.

Threnody In Velvet wearing silk crepe corset by Crikey Aphrodite. Image copyright Clare Loftus Photography,

Threnody In Velvet wearing silk crepe corset by Crikey Aphrodite. Image copyright Clare Loftus Photography,

Synthetics
These have improved greatly. I've always had a huge aversion to poly shantung, it makes my skin crawl. But I had a swatch recently for a faux silk that was really lovely! There are also some amazing blends. But if you prefer synthetics on ethical grounds your choices have massively increased. But you also now have the option of wonderful new fabrics from plant fibres such as bamboo which have a lovely hand.

Wool
I use wool a fair bit. I prefer to use as many local fabrics as I can, and I live in a country where wool fabric is rightly famed. Tartan (10oz), and various suiting weights work beautifully. So does Harris Tweed, if you can get a lighter weight as it does make a bulky seam, an issue in corsetry. You'll need to grade the seams carefully and keep your bulk minimal. It's worth it though, especially to support a traditional industry which is a way of life in Harris and Lewis. Artisans should support each other as much as possible.

Tartan corset by Crikey Aphrodite. This is a modern tartan from Anta.  Image copyright Alison Campbell

Tartan corset by Crikey Aphrodite. This is a modern tartan from Anta.  Image copyright Alison Campbell

Lace
The ultimate luxury, we nearly all love using lace. It is expensive, and if you're gong to use it then swallow that fact and appreciate why it is luxurious. Antique lace is still very available and beautiful, but do keep in mind that it's a finite and diminishing resource. If you're going to use then do so with care, avoiding destroying one beautiful (rare) garment to make another. Luckily, the nature of it's application to corsetry means that damaged pieces find their perfect use. 
Of course, the wonderful laces made in the north of France for generations are just astounding, and give a real couture edge to your garments. They are expensive but a little goes a very long way. We had Solstiss at the conference with samples a couple of years ago, and it was wonderful to have the time to browse the exquisite designs.

Gorgeous lace from  Solstiss  Image copyright Alison Campbell

Gorgeous lace from Solstiss Image copyright Alison Campbell


There are laces produced elsewhere of course. Many countries in Europe have a lace tradition, including the UK. I've made several pieces using Ayrshire lace, produced just 20 minutes from my home. Again, supporting a traditional product and keeping those miles down too!

Corset by Crikey Aphrodite using Ayrshire lace from  MYB Textiles

Corset by Crikey Aphrodite using Ayrshire lace from MYB Textiles

This is a very brief selection of examples of course. Largely based around what I use myself. Explore options, don't feel restrained by what other people use. Look at fabrics not meant for garment use (I used to use a glitter fabric meant for exhibition and window design!) and look at what is produced in your home country or even closer to home. It's a wonderful way to give your work a distinctive mark, not easily appropriated by others. Above all, have fun. Experimenting is the most enjoyable part!