The average Victorian woman wore OTR corsets ordered from one of the many corset manufacturers operating at the time. Because corsets were pretty much universal in Western society, Victorian OTR corsets came in many different proportional variations to fit every body type. It is currently much more difficult to find this sort of variety in modern OTR corsets, but as the popularity of corsets grows, so does the selection.

In both the costuming and corsetry communities, there has been a debate brewing about off-the-rack (OTR) corsets vs. custom corsets. Here’s a link to an example of the OTR vs. custom debate on Lucy’s Tumblr page followed by her opinion on the matter. Both communities agree that a custom corset is the safest, most comfortable option, but OTR corsets are the most accessible to beginners who are still learning. I know I made mistakes with my first few corsets purchases. The learning curve is why OTR corsets are often recommended to beginners, but it is also why some corset wearers do not like OTR. Why risk wasting money on an ill-fitting corset that could potentially turn someone off of corseting? Going custom right out of the gate assures a better fit and often better materials. That’s very true, and an excellent point, but depending on the wearer and their goals, an OTR corset may be a good fit right out of the gate at a much lower price than going custom. It is also a good option for someone who doesn’t have the time, skill, or desire to sew their own corset.

—-*—-

Before I go much further, I want to identify, specify, and clarify that I am talking about corsets used for costuming, not modern waist-training. Waist-training is a form of body modification that takes dedication and time to achieve, as well as a different set of criteria for the corset itself. Waist-training corsets are usually underbusts and are designed to comfortably provide the maximum waist reduction possible. Historically speaking, underbusts weren’t really used until the late 1890s (though you can use them in a pinch for historical costuming, too). The majority of corsets used in historical costuming are mid/overbusts, which are not recommended for modern waist-training. Regularly wearing an overbust corset for costuming purposes may serendipitously cause your waist to train down (our Victorian ancestors wore theirs everyday, effectively waist training), but a corset used for costuming does not need to provide much waist reduction at all to be effective. For this reason, it is very important to identify your goal and purpose for wearing a corset before choosing one.

For information and advice about using corsets for waist training rather than costuming, please visit Lucy’s Corsetry or one of the many other corset community blogs/tumblrs/YouTube channels that deal specifically with waist training.

—-*—-

My first “real” corset was an OTR overbust. At the time, I had no idea that there was a debate raging or that there were online communities dedicated to corset wearing and buying. I approached the situation purely from a historical costuming perspective: I needed a historical-looking corset that would be hearty and give me the shape/support I needed to costume. That’s all. I made a wishlist, set price point, and got to shopping on the one website I knew I could find them: eBay (from “Glamorous-Corset-Boutique“) . And despite what many people assume are huge odds, I successfully acquired an OTR overbust that has lasted over two years now!

About 1 week after purchase.
You can read about that adventure here.

Two Year Old OTR Corset

Two years later: still cinchin’!

I made a few mistakes. For example, I bought a long line corset thinking I needed one since I have a long torso. While I do have a long torso, the majority of the length is above the bustline. I am actually short waisted, so the long waist-to-hip length of my first corset means that the bottom jabs into my thighs when I sit down. This is no fault of the corset itself, simply user error. It was a learning point, though, since I discovered that more measurements matter than just bust-waist-hip. Vertical numbers are important, too! Which is why I eventually saved up and bought a custom corset from Hourglass Attire that was drafted and fitted to my individual measurements.

Corset by Hourglass Attire

However, just because a corset is OTR does not mean that it can’t do its job and do it well. My white satin OTR corset, despite its flaws, still has many positive qualities. Indeed, the flaws in some cases are actually helpful which is why I continue to wear it even though I own other, “better” corsets.

— Materials/Construction —

Con: The fabric and sewing of the corset are of poor quality. The satin has stretched over time.
Pro: The satin is soft and forms well to the body without adding extra bulk.

My OTR corset is made of two layers: a very cheap, thin white satin with a cotton twill strength layer, all rather inelegantly sewn. It does have a waist tape, but over the years, the fabric has stretched, so it is about a half inch bigger (~24.5″ rather than 24″) than when I first got it. However, I have the smallest external measurement in this corset despite the fact that it has the largest waist measure of all my corsets because it lies so closely to my skin. Its thinness and rather lax rigidity molds to my soft body while still pulling in my waist. It’s lightweight to boot, and not too hot. I don’t think this corset is suited for daily wear, but it has lasted over 2 years of occasional (rather cruel, careless) wear. Because it’s not the finest quality or very expensive, I can use and abuse this corset without feeling guilty–okay, maybe a little guilty since it has served me so well!

IMG_2381

— Shaping —

Cons: Standardized shape does not fit my body exactly- Corset bust too small, length too long. Bland shape with minimal reduction.
Pros: Standardized shape creates a pleasant silhouette, smoothes, and makes fitting patterns easier. Reduces waist slightly comfortably and easily. It also more fully encases my torso, giving me good posture and alleviating my upper back pain as a bonus.

I’ve discussed this in a few other posts, but the shape of my OTR overbust is slim, long, and standardized. The corset is not overly hour-glassy and since it is made to fit about a B cup, it simultaneously tamps down and lifts my F cups. It basically transforms me from a short-waisted, low/big busted tube into a very average, moderately curvy figure all over. Surprisingly, it does so without being uncomfortable (lap-length aside). One of the big complaints about OTR corsets is that they are uncomfortable. I have worn uncomfortable OTR corsets, but this one is actually quite comfy aside from its excess length. In addition, the slim shape means I don’t need to perform as many pattern alterations to fit and people focus on/ask questions about my dress rather than gawking at the extremity of my figure. Make no mistake, I do like a very curvy shape, which is why I ordered a custom corset later. However, a corset doesn’t necessarily have to reduce your waist much or be a perfect match for your personal body shape to work. A corset can alter the natural shape depending on the wearer’s preference (lift/compress/enhance the breasts, nip in/elongate the waist, cup/shape the ribs, etc). So long as the size is carefully chosen and you aren’t trying to squeeze into a too-small corset, a little bit of body shifting can be a good thing. OTR corsets are not all created equal, so careful planning is need to make sure that the fit is going to be comfortable, even if it’s not perfect. The shapes may be similar between brands, but subtle style variance can make a world of difference!

differentcorsets

Top left: 1830-40
Top right: 1870s
Bottom left and right: 1890s

Corsets were not all the same shape or construction throughout the 19th century either. The ideal body shape varied by decade as did the construction of the corsets. While you don’t have to have an ideal body shape to wear a certain era of style, having different corsets with different shaping properties can help achieve a more accurate look. For example, my low-bosomed, short-waisted natural shape was in vogue during the 1860s and 1870s. My custom corset accents that shape even further, making it ideal for wearing under the fashions from those decades. However, other decades, like the 1840s, 1880s, and 1890s, favored longer waists. I still use my custom corset for these eras, too, but my OTR corset is perfect for giving my torso a longer look for these decades if I so choose.

—To Conclude —

There is nothing wrong with wearing an off-the-rack corset. If you find an OTR corset that works for your body and your costume, there is no reason to shun it. Wearing one does not mean you are lazy, poor, or somehow ill-educated about corsets, either. A corset’s main function is support and smoothing, so as long as yours does that comfortably, it will work just fine! You also don’t have to suspend all OTR corset purchases if you bought a custom. Once you get a custom corset, you may not find OTR as comfortable or satisfying as they once were, but that doesn’t mean that you have to stop buying them. Au contraire! Unless you have lots of money to spend on many different custom corsets (or the skill to sew them yourself), OTR corsets can offer you a wide variety of styles, fabrics, and trims and are a great way to test out different silhouettes.

—A Note on Corset Ethics—

Symington corset production line, circa 1895-1900
Most major corset manufacturers from the 19th century went out of business when corsets fell out of favor during the 20th century. Now that corsets are regaining mainstream popularity, new commercial corset manufacturers are popping up to fill in the gap.

There are some ethics-based arguments about OTR corsets to take into consideration.  Many OTR corsets are made in China, Pakistan, and India in less-than-ideal conditions. There is a reason many are so inexpensive, and it’s not always the materials. Cheap corset sellers import their corsets from overseas where fair labor laws are minimal if they exist at all, raising ethical concerns about supporting OTR corset companies that may be exploiting their workers. If you are concerned about the ethical origins of your corsets, many individual corset makers offer their own lines of OTR corsets made to a standard set of measurements for a lower price than their custom pieces. Many historical corset shapes aren’t manufactured OTR at all, so depending on your desire for accuracy, a semi-custom or custom corset may be your only option if you do not want to make one yourself. Plus, if you’d like to support your local economy and artists, Lucy has a corsetiere map to find a corsetiere near you! Other places to find fairly-crafted corsets include Etsy (though you must beware of resellers), Tumblr, artists’ personal websites, or through forums and Facebook groups.
(That’s not so say that people can’t take advantage of corsetieres as well. Even if people tell you that a corset can be put together easily with the right pattern and some time, the price of a corset also reflects the maker’s time invested in learning the skills necessary to design, pattern, and sew. Don’t expect to get a corset from an artist for the price of an outsourced corset from one of the big corset importers!)

January 2015

I began researching children’s clothes a while back because I had a few peole ask me about them. I don’t have children, so I don’t consider myself a good source of info for those kinds of questions. I did, however, start a Pinterest board for 19th Century (and some Edwardian) children’s clothes for those of you who are curious about how children’s clothes compared to those of adults.

Not long after I began my new branch of research, I went to the Azle Antique Mall with Becky to browse while Chris and Billy did repairs on the truck. The Azle Antique Mall has escaped the recent trend of antique shops being filled with boutiques of antique-looking-but-completely-new stuff instead of real antiques. In Azle, there are still bargains and treasures to be found crammed in every aisle!

I don’t shop for clothing at antique shops, but there is one booth that has great vintage accessories as well. I usually ignore the clothing racks, but there is a rack at eye-level filled with smaller pieces like camisoles and tons of baby christening gowns. Mixed into the sea of white linen, a dark little patch of brown caught my eye.

Lo and behold, it was an antique silk child’s dress!

dress 1860s

A quick snap when I got it home. It looks sort of strange on a hanger since this dress is made to be gathered by the belt and worn off-the-shoulder.

It was only $30, which is a good chunk of change for me, but incredibly inexpensive for an adorable antique silk dress, so I had to have it!
It’s in remarkably good condition for its age and is 100% intact! However, the silk is very fragile and splits easily. I’ve decided to pack it away in acid free tissue along with the rest of my antique clothing collection to help preserve it. Before I packed it away, though, I decided to get a few pictures of it.

1860s Child's Dress

Child’s Dress, circa 1855-65
The silk is mildly slubby and has some areas where the weft threads are poorly woven. It is also stained throughout, though whether by a clumsy child or storage I cannot say.

IMG_2189

Side, showing the faux pocket flaps.

The dress is only very lightly stuffed with polyfill and a bit of batting to give you an idea of the shape, so it paunches and poofs rather than hangs as it would on a child. It’s not a professional display by any means, but it does give a better impression of fit than a hanger. I had purchased a tiny vintage mannequin a while ago to display antique jewelry on and I was excited that it might work for this dress, but the form is about a 2T and this dress is much larger. It is meant to fit loosely and the fullness controlled with the belt, bringing the waist measure to about 24.” It would sit off the shoulder which, without a dress form, is hard to show, but here are two pictures of little girls in similar-fitting dress paired with pantalettes:

This dress isn’t necessarily for a little girl. Little boys also wore dresses until they were about 5 or 6 years old. They even wore their hair longer and curled, but there are some clues you can look for in old photographs to tell the gender of a young child. Girl’s hair is generally parted in the middle (as you can see in the photos above) and their dresses are worn with lace-edged pantelettes. Boy’s hair was often parted to the side and their shorter dresses are sometimes paired with loose trousers/breeches, like in this photo:

Young boy 1860s

Young Boy, 1860s

Another hallmark of boy’s clothing is a front button closure rather than a back button closure. Historically, children’s clothing closed in the back. In the 1850s and 1860s, boy’s short dresses often buttoned in front instead. My child’s dress has a very decorative button closure:

???????????????????????????????

Back of the dress (taken laying flat since the picture of it supported turned out too blurry)

???????????????????????????????
The glass buttons imitate the popular agate jewelry in fashion at the time. They are 19mm in diameter and have gilt brass settings. This is also a good detail shot of the tiny lace edging.

The glass and gilt buttons on this dress are so fancy I wonder if they actually belong in front, like in this photograph of a young lad:

Young boy, 1860s

The fancy buttons on my dress are purely for show. Underneath them, the functional closure is made of a strip of twill tape sewn with buttonholes, 3 calico buttons, and a brass hook paired with a thread bar:

???????????????????????????????

???????????????????????????????

The calico buttons appear to be style “124” according to the NBS’s Calico Button chart.

???????????????????????????????

The dress’s belt is attached at the side seams, and therefore always closes on the side with the buttons. It has one button to close it, but two placed in the center on the opposite side, which leads me to believe that it functioned as a girl’s dress. It’s very possible this dress served double duty for two generations: one male and one female. The construction of the dress is fairly symmetrical front and back, so it could easily be worn either way.
The front and back are each one piece and are jointed at the side only. The skirt is gathered under the pocket flaps at the sides under the sleeves. The dress is flatlined with plain brown polished cotton and is handsewn throughout with backstitching while the velvet ribbon trim is tacked with typical long running stitches:

IMG_2231

Inside back

???????????????????????????????

The pocket flap seam inside

I’m still learning about this area of costuming, so I’m not an expert. There may be some details I missed, so if you have more information or would like me to add more photos of certain construction details, just let me know!

IMG_2190

Self Fabric Piping on Sleeve

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 511 other followers