January 9, 2014

Romantic Era Corsets

Having been quite successful making my very first pair of Regency stays (remind me to show you more about those later) and with a Romantic Era dress looming on my schedule, I've decided to dive headfirst into making a 1830's corset, complete with hand-stitched cording channels.  Only one problem- I know little about this era of corsetry.  So, research!

Corset, ca. 1825 - 1835, V&A museum number T.57-1948
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In addition to combing through my various historical costuming books, I went on a pinning spree and loaded up my Romantic Era Research board with corsets.  Most are from about 1820 to 1840, with a few earlier and later ones thrown in to get a sense of how corsetry evolved over time.  The majority are from museum collections, but a few are from auction sites or private collections.  I expected to see some obvious changes between Regency, Romantic and Early Victorian periods, but to my surprise that wasn't the case!  With a few exceptions, it was actually pretty difficult to tell at a glance which was from which era. 

Corset, 1840s, Met Accession number C.I.42.74.12
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Challenge accepted!  To tease out any differences, I selected several features to compare between 50 extant corsets (well, 49 extant corsets and one fashion plate).  I looked at differences in busks, grommets, lacing, cording/boning, gussets and more.  You can view the spreadsheet I made with all 50 corsets here.

A note on dating-  While I organized the spreadsheet more or less by date, I'm not sure how much faith I put in the dates given for each corset.  Most of these are in museums and would hopefully be dated more accurately than ones hanging around in private collections.  However, I noticed that several were displayed inaccurately, using criss-cross lacing when the eyelet placement was obviously designed for spiral lacing.  Certainly, the person who dated the garment and the one who set it up to be photographed may not be one and the same, and dating undergarments can be difficult anyways, especially in an understaffed or underfunded museum.  Still, if they can't recognize something as simple as spiral lacing holes, I begin to wonder if they know enough about this type of corset to accurately say when it was made.  Anyways, mini-rant over, back to corsets!

First off- busks.  Having read in Corsets and Crinolines that the split busk was invented in 1829, I expected that women would have rapidly ditched the old solid busk-in-a-pocket design, especially as a split busk makes getting in and out of a corset by yourself much easier.  Turns out, NOPE.  Even the corsets dated to the late 1840s sported a solid busk, or none at all.  The one and only example I found was in a fashion plate, dated around 1830.  I don't know if women were slow to adopt the new design, or if they wore them eagerly, but for some reason few early split busk corsets seem to be around.  It's possible surviving corsets of this type are mistakenly dated to the 50s and 60s.  Or perhaps thrifty Romatic Era women salvaged their still usable split busks from their worn out corsets to use in newer, more fashionable ones?  I've certainly done that before!

After the surprise persistence of the solid busk over the split busk, I was curious how another Romantic Era invention fared.  Metal eyelets/grommets were invented in 1827 (Corsets and Crinolines again), and were a big improvement over handsewn eyelet holes.  Stronger eyelets made it easier to lace a corset tighter without ripping it; very useful as fashion moved towards a lower, more defined waist.

I was happy to find several corsets in the 30s and later that sported metal eyelets.  I was quite surprised though to discover that ivory or bone eyelets were used prior to the invention of metal ones!  I'm still trying to wrap my head around how you would set a bone eyelet into a piece of fabric, since my only experience is with the metal ones that you pound into place.  However, not all of the bone/ivory eyelets were set into the corset as you might expect; some were sew onto the edge like rings.  See examples of both set eyelets and sewn on rings on the corsets below-

Bone or ivory eyelet set into fabric.
Corset ca. 1820-40, sold by VintageTextile.  Original link no longer exists.
Bone or ivory ring sewn onto back edge.
Corset ca 1810–20, Met Accession Number- 1970.106.5
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art


I could only tell what type of eyelet was used in 30 of the corsets, since many of the photos didn't show a back view or were too small to be able to see clearly.  Of the identifiable ones, 8 corsets sported hand-sewn eyelets, 16 used ivory or bone eyelets, and 6 had metal ones.  Of course, the metal eyelets only begin to appear in the corsets dated after 1927, but the other two types continued to be used during that time period as well.  I think it's safe to say I can use metal eyelets for my corset :)

Next I looked at how the eyelets were placed in order to tell if the corset was meant to be laced spiral fashion or criss-cross.  If you're new to spiral lacing, check out Festive Attyre's excellent post on the supject; pay close attention to how the holes are offset from each other.  As previously mentioned, several times I had to ignore the way the corset was laced in the photo; always look at the eyelet placement for the truth!  I've always associated spiral lacing with the 18th century and criss-cross with the 19th, but to my surprise I found both in equal measure.  Of the 35 corsets that had photos of the back, 16 were spiral, 16 were criss-cross, and one was fan laced.  Both types were evenly distributed across the whole timeline, so either would be appropriate for my corset.

 I had quite the time tweaking the gussets on my Regency corset to provide the appropriate...er... lift, so I was really curious to see how gussets changed across the decades.  Turns out, I wasn't really able to nail down anything specific.  Most of the 50 had at least two bust gussets per side, though there were examples of 0, 1 or 3 per side as well.  The length of the bust gussets ranged from fairly short, to down to the waist, with both early and late corsets sporting both extremes.  Hip gussets were less common than bust gussets, with a fairly even distribution of 0, 1 or 2 per side throughout the represented time periods. 

Corset ca 1830–35, Met Accession #- 2009.300.3031a–d
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art

I did notice a slight progression of corsets getting curvier as time went on, though since many of the examples are photographed flat or on poorly sized mannequins it can be hard to compare properly.  Regency fashion hid the natural waistline, so there wasn't really a need to have a small, defined waist.  As the fashionable waistline started to drop and the waist started to come back into focus, corsets needed to be able to nip things in around the middle a bit.  Those metal eyelets I mentioned earlier helped, as they allowed the corset to be laced tighter and take more strain.  Designing the corset to flare back out over the bust and hips made the waist look even smaller by comparison; thus, curvier corsets.  This trend toward curves is most apparent in the latter corsets, though of course there are examples of curvy corsets in earlier years and straight ones in later years, so it's not a hard and fast rule.

Now on to cording vs. boning.  Given the trend towards more shapely corsets with defined waists, I expected that latter corsets would use the firmer support of boning instead of cording.  Yet 30 of the 50 corsets used only cording, and those 30 are pretty evenly distributed between the early and late styles.  5 used only boning, but those too are scattered evenly across the timeline.  Of the remaining corsets, 11 used both cording and boning (though most of those had boning just along the back edge), 1 had none, and the rest lacked enough detail for me to tell either way.  Looks like I'm doing more lots more cording!

Last but not least, I looked at fabric and thread color.  I wasn't at all surprised to find that most all of these corsets were white or off-white, with the same color thread.  However, I did find 7 that were of colored fabric, and 9 that had contrast stitching (some boasting both).  Since I'm going to be investing a lot of time in this corset (hand-sewn cording channels!) I want it to be extra pretty.  I've decided to ditch the white and use colored fabric and contrast thread to show off all that work. 

Hey, you made it through this whole long-winded thing!  Here, have a photo as a reward-

Regency stays, doing their uplifting work!

Next time I'll try not to bore you to death :P

16 comments:

  1. LOL, that picture is the best.

    Thanks so much for posting such great research! That SPREADSHEET is awesome. It is also great to know the little details that usually take a look or two to notice - especially the colored thread vs. colored corset.

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  2. Awesome post, Lady! I love the spread sheet. Dang, you did a lot of research. Really helpful info.

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  3. Not bored at all! Thanks for this bit of research, I've wondered about a lot of these points for some time now.

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    1. You're welcome :) Most of these points were a surprise to me, so I'm glad I did it!

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  4. Oooo, great research! I've been wanting to get into Romantic era clothing, I just adore the 1830s, so this will be super useful! Thank you!

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  5. Totally *not* a fan of romantic era dresses (and especially not the updos!) but really love the corsets/stays. Really interesting article - thanks so much for sharing!

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    1. Haha, the fashion is a little out there, isn't it? Just wait until I get around to trying to replicate that hair!

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    2. This era's hair is crazy, but amazing in its craziness - I watched Wives and Daughters recently and was super impressed by whoever managed the wig/hair department. Those styles are epic.

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    3. Haven't gotten a chance to watch Wives and Daughters yet, but from the stills I've seen I've got to agree with you!

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  6. it's great to see someone else do the same research as me ... I wrote an article for YWU a couple or 3 years ago ... and it was fascinating to see consistent things were - less variation that I'd have expected too.

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    1. Cool! I'll have to go look your article up :)

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  7. Joining the clamour of "not boring!" I'm thrilled you've laid out your research in such a clear, neat way - I've got plans to branch out to the early 1820s this year, and since my short stays just won't cut it any more, I'm going to have to make a new corset. And this makes my life much easier! :)

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    1. Yay for new corsets! Can't wait to see it; glad this was helpful :)

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