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By Lady Anastasia
Reprinted from The Renaissance Herald

Lady Kalin, of Riverside, CA, wrote to me earlier this year to ask my advise as to how she might obtain a bodice that is not made of tapestry or corduroy, has steel boning, can hold up a top heavy wench for a 12 hour day, is authentic, and that will not cost "a few limbs" to purchase. I was not able to fit a timely reply to her in this column, so I answered her letter personally. I thought it a good question, though, and I have since obtained further information, so I would like to address it now.

In my reply to Lady Kalin, I refered to a corset, rather than to a bodice, as she asked for a boned bodice. I have read that bodices of the time were sometimes boned. However, I have found that wearing a bodice with light or no boning over a heavily boned corset is a superior approach to the problem of proper support and fit, for the following reasons:

  1. Boning can wear on fabric. Therefore, the fabric in which the boning is placed must be strong and heavy. That is why we find most boned bodices constructed of tapestry or corduroy. Boned bodices made of lighter weight or more delicate fabrics must be double lined with canvas to prevent the boning from wearing through the fine fashion fabric.
  2. Perspiration is removed from cotton canvas by washing much more readily than it is through the dry cleaning process. Bodices made of fine fabrics must often be dry cleaned. If they are heavily lined with canvas and boning and have absorbed a large quantity of perspiration, such bodices may not come out as clean smelling as one might wish. Better to have a separate washable canvas corset to absorb most of the perspiration. This approach also cuts down on the number of times a bodice must be dry cleaned in a season, as well as causing such fine bodices to last longer.
  3. A corset made of washed canvas "breathes" a little more than tapestry or corduroy bodices and can be washed more often without fear of fading or undue wear. Cotton broadcloth or duck bodices breathe well, but, again, show wear readily with repeated washings.
  4. Wearing a bodice over a boned corset gives a much smoother appearance than does a boned bodice because the ends of the bones are smoothed over by the added layers of fabric.

I advised Lady Kalin that she have her corset or bodice custom made. These garments must be carefully tailored to fit each individual figure in order to be comfortable all day long. This often requires several fittings.

I have since spoken with Ana of Ana's Accoutrements, (see Resources and Cool links page for her contact info.), regarding the corset issue. Ana specializes in clothing to fit the "operatic" figure, and she tells me she has come up with a method of making comfortable and supportive mail order corsets for "top heavy wenches", as Lady Kalin puts it.1

Ana says that, actually, Victorian corsets are more difficult to fit by mail because they have an hourglass shape, whereas Tudor and Elizabethan corsets are easier to custom make because they are a less complex cylindrical shape. She also told me that she makes her corsets for larger figures with laces up the sides and with front closures rather than back closures. This allows for a more even distribution of "tightening", so to speak.

Corsets that lace up the back only often pull the shoulders back, causing back pain, especially when one loses weight and must tighten the corset beyond its original fit. Also, corsets with side lacings can be more readily adjusted for a custom fit than can corsets with just one adjustment point in the back. Corsets that lace up the front can also be sewn in the back to fit the curve of the back, while providing extra support in the front. This makes them fit better.

Ana will grommet the fronts of her corsets, or she will sew in hooks and eyes. This brings me to the subject of authenticity. According to "The History of Underclothes" by C. Willet and Phillis Cunnington,2 hooks and eyes were not used in corsets during the Renaissance. Now, I am not altogether impressed with this particular book. I believe the authors' research of this period is a bit thin and their deductive reasoning seems to me to be less than brilliant. Yet I have been unable to discover any mention of hooks and eyes versus grommets in any other reference works I have searched through.

Willet and Cunnington do say that side lacings in corsets were common, and they also mention that metal eyelets were not invented until after 1790. Before this time, holes for lacings in corsets were constructed like button holes, with silk or cotton threads sewn around the edges in the same manner as hand bound button holes. Ana tells me that metal rings were sewn into the garments with a "buttonhole stitch". (That is, a thick thread was sewn all the way 'round the ring and through the fabric at the same time, thoroughly covering the ring and strongly attaching the ring to the fabric.) The fabric in the center of the ring was then cut out. This arrangement acted much as our modern gommets do, adding strength to the edges of the lacing hole. As to what is "faire legal", (i.e. will pass inspection by picky faire administrators), I have never heard of any faire administrator going so far as to nix modern metal grommets on bodices.

I have often seen at faire a lovely court gown, made of luscious brocades, and sewn with great care, but which sagged and puckered miserably at the lacings, the metal bound holes of the bodice nearly pulled through the folded edges from repeated efforts to smooth the puckers by tightening the laces. This pitiful puckering can be easily prevented by the addition of boning to the folded edges of the bodice opening, between the fold and the grommets. This adds sufficient support to the structure of the bodice and prevents the metal grommets from pulling and warping the folded edges. I imagine this would work well for thread bound lacing holes as well.

For those folk who are willing to sacrifice some authenticity for a little more comfort and ease of movement, I recommend the substitution of Rigilene for metal boning. Rigilene may be purchased by the yard at most fabric stores. It is lighter weight and more flexible than metal boning, and may be sewn by machine right onto the canvas corset or canvas bodice lining. It also works well for sewing next to the grommets as explained above. Strips of Rigilene sewn about 1 1/2" apart all the way around the rib cage of the garment provides very good support and is more comfortable than steel boning, although it does not provide as rigid a look, and will not correct poor posture as readily as will steel boning. Rigilene can be cut to the proper length with scissors and then must be tipped with hot glue to prevent the plastic edges from poking through the fabric, which they will do in no time if not tipped with hot glue.

Now, as to the cost of a well made corset: Don't be penny-wise and pound-foolish! Lady Kalin did not want to pay an extravagant sum for a corset, and, of course, such monetary matters are all relative. I have been shown a lovely sword, the proud new owner of which boasted that it only cost $300. I am thinking what a significant portion of a month's rent that is and doubting that I would part with such a sum so easily for a shiny metal stick. Yet merchants may find themselves wiping my drool off of $400 dress forms and bolts of delicious $50/yrd brocade. All I can advise my readers is that, in the case of obtaining a good corset, if they want comfort and quality, they should save up their money and pay for professional work.

The making of proper corsets requires a process of learning through experience. I know that there is a wealth of experience out there residing in all the Renaissance Herald readers that have spent years sweating in canvas and putting ointment on corset wounds. Please do share your war stories and advice with me and I will write another column containing your collected wisdom. (And, as always, I will credit each and every source).

So, until next quarter, I wish you joy and good fellowship this faire season, and please keep your costuming questions coming!

1 Ana may be reached by calling 504 641-7501. Her address is 834 Pinetree St., Slidell, LA 70458-4514
2 "The History of Underclothes," C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington, Dover Publications, Inc. 1992, Michael Joseph Ltd. London, 1951


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