And so it begins........
A Queen's Corset
In the 16th century two pieces of clothing were developed that
drastically changed the look of women's clothing. The first was the
farthingale or hoop skirt, the second was the stiffened underbodice. In
period this was commonly known as either stays or 'a pair of bodies', we
know it as a corset. Both these pieces are essential components in
making 16th century English fashions work. The farthingale held the
heavy skirts out in the cone shape that came to be considered essential
for a fashionable gown (less fashionable folks may not have worn one)
and the corset was essential to mold the upper torso into the smooth
inverted cone shape required by fashion. Here we will look at one
way of making one style of corset.
The first thing to be aware of is that we actually have very little
evidence for what period corsets were like. We have two surviving
examples- the Pfalzgrafin corset from Germany and the Elizabeth
Effigy corset which was identified as being Elizabethan only in the last
few years by Janet Arnold. Drea Leed has done a great job exploring the
construction of the Elizabeth corset on her Elizabethan Costuming page http://costume.dm.net/
We also have a couple of period, or close to period, paintings of
ladies in their dressing rooms wearing jackets over their corsets
so that we can only see the front. With the very small sample of period
evidence we can say that the typical corset of the period had shoulder
straps and was laced up the front, although the Pfaltzgrafin corset
laces up the back. Having established that, I made this corset without
shoulder straps. I did this because I made the corset after completing
the dress which was to be worn over it (the wrong order and not how I
usually do it) and the shoulders of the gown are so far to the edge of
my shoulders that I was afraid I wouldn't be able to get the corset
shoulders of the corset to sit under them properly. I generally
recommend making the corset with the shoulder straps- it has a better
To start, I gathered all the parts of the corset together.
I like to use the Mantua-maker 16th century corset pattern. It is simple
to use and fits me without much tweaking. I use two layers of sturdy
cotton for the base of the corset. This is where the boning channels will
be sewn and what will take most of the strain. A cotton or linen twill is
the best choice for this- you will need a fabric that doesn't stretch and
which allows sweat to evaporate (we costumers call that 'fabric that
breathes') since it will be laced tightly around the body. If you don't
want the lacing channels to show, you can then cover the corset with a
'fashion fabric' which is attached after the boning channels are sewn and
the bones inserted. In period they don't seem to have minded the channels
showing. The outer layer of the QE2 corset will be eggplant
purple dupioni silk with an antique gold dupioni silk cut in strips and
used as edging.
After cutting out the corset pieces (3 times- lining,
interlining, and fashion fabric) stitch the side seams and press open.
It's very important to reduce bulk at seams since this will be laced
tightly around my body and I don't want lumps of fabric that could rub
painfully. Using just the lining and interlining, I matched the seams and
pinned the pieces around the sides and bottom, but not the top. I then
stitched with a reasonably tight stitch all along the pinned edges to put
the lining and interlining together. Try to keep this stitching within the
area that will be covered by the edging.
When you are finished it should look like this.
The next task is deciding how many bones you will be using
and where you will put them. If you've read the QE2 page, you have already
read my essay on what to use for boning in reproduction 16th century
garments. Basically, although many people like to use white steel
boning, there is no evidence that metal was used in period for stiffening.
We have evidence of whalebone and bents (a stiff, grassy reed sort of
plant). Whalebone is illegal and bents are difficult to find.
Plastic zip-ties actually give a really good impression of whalebone,
having the 3 dimensional movement characteristics that both whalebone and
bents have, but that steel does not. I used zip-ties for this corset. They
are industrial strength zip-ties, but you can get a similar effect using
retail ties in groups of three or four in side-by-side channels. I cut the
ties to the correct length and then trimmed the ends to round them off.
Don't want sharp bits of plastic sticking me in the ribs!
Placing the bones in the corset requires a bit of thought
and consideration. The two essential places are the center front and along
the lacing holes at the back. Of course, if you are making a front lacing
corset, you only need to worry about the front. The number and placement
of the rest of the bones, depends on how stiff you want the finished
product and how much....um...flesh you have to control. If you are fleshy
in the upper torso or wear a very large cup size, you will want to be sure
to put lots of bones in all around the corset. Make sure that the front
center of the corset has either a wooden or metal busk (a thin triangular
piece that gives extra stiffness) or several smaller bones stitched next
to each other for a really rigid front. A couple of bones along the side
give a smoother line, but they should be placed at angles so that they do
not poke you under the arm. Once again, the fleshier you are (the more you
'squish'- technical term) the more bones you should use to give a smooth
line. I like to use integral waist tabs with the bones running down into
the tabs. I have found that it takes some of the strain off of the waist
and is more comfortable to wear for long periods of time. If you bone down
into the tabs, be sure that you use very flexible boning so that the bones
don't dig into your hips. Also, the thinner and more flexible the boning,
the more of it you will need. If you use thin retail zip-ties and you have
alot of squish to control, you may need to bone the corset solidly all
Stitch channels just a bit bigger than the width of your
bones all the way down to the edge stitching, leave the top open! Insert
your bones and stitch carefully across the top of the channels. The
tighter the channels, the less your bones will wiggle and the longer they
will last without wearing thru the fabric. Your corset is basically done
at this point. You could stitch some bias tape around the edges and add
the lacing holes and be done. But if you want a prettier corset, you can
add the fashion fabric to the front to hide the boning channels and give a
I used strips of antique gold silk to edge the corset, hey
it is for the Queen! But you could use commercially made bias tape. Since
I will be sewing this on by hand, I can take the time to fuss with the
fit. I've found that as much as I love the way the waist tabs feel when I
wear the corset, they just cannot be sewn on a machine with all the tiny
curves, so they must be sewn by hand.
I pinned the strip to go around the tabs on first and made
sure that I had enough fabric to go around the curves. Curves take up more
fabric to get an evenly gathered and smooth fit.
I then put a good costume drama in the DVD player and
started stitching using as fine a straight stitch as I could manage thru
two layers of cotton twill and two layers of silk. It's important to take
your time here- rushing thru this part will show in the work when you turn
it to stitch the inside down.
After the outside of the edging was sewn on, I turned and
pinned it to the inside, making sure that all cut edges were covered. The
edging strips I used were just over an inch wide, you want just enough to
go around the edge of the corset, leaving a small decorative contrasting
edge. The Elizabeth corset was edged with a very thin leather. The inside
edge is stitched down using a fine whip stitch.
I did the bottom edge with the tabs first because I knew
it would take the longest and also I wanted the strip around the top and
sides to come down and cover the ends of the bottom facing. This is
what it looks like when it's done.
All that was left was to add the lacing holes (I used
grommets but they actually aren't correct to period, simple button holes
would have been more correct.) and try her on.
But always remember, the best Elizabethan accessory is a
handsome courtier to escort you....