Bothersome Bosoms: Am I Too Curvy for Victorian Clothes?

January 6, 2014

Coming to Terms with My Curvature

Everybody has their own hang-ups and frustrations, especially when it comes to their own body. I’m just starting to feel comfortable in my own skin which I credit to supportive family, friends, and a husband who loves me no matter how monstrous I look when I wake up in the morning. Since costuming is an intensely body-conscious hobby, however, I often find myself fighting against my shape rather than working with it.

For example, I have a very boisterous love/hate relationship with my breasts. They are not massive–37 inches around (34F)–but they are definitely large and in charge. This becomes painfully clear in my costuming endeavors.


Shuttup, Camille! Nobody asked you!

Most commercial patterns are drafted for a B cup, so even if you try sizing up to fit you bust measurement, the pattern will still fit strangely because the underbust (and often waist) will be too big. This leads to some of the most intense pattern slicing and dicing that even handy fitting guides cannot make less tiresome.


I make this face much too often…

Another big hang-up? Corsets. If you dress in historical clothing, you will need one, either by sewing your own or, if you don’t have the skills or patience to make your own, buying one. Finding a historical corset is difficult on a good day, especially if you are on a tight budget (custom corsets run about $300-$800) and that trouble is compounded if you have a cup size larger than a C or so. However, I have managed quite well in my eBay corset almost precisely because it flattens my chest down. Why? Well, having a large, forward-protruding breast is decidedly modern and generally frowned upon in historical costuming. For example, a big no-no is princess seams on an 18th century court dress:

Under-boob Shadow = Bad

18th century stays should be funneling her torso into the famous cone shape. My eBay corset isn’t exactly historical, but thanks to its B-cup and thus tight boob control, I can get the sexy Marie Antoinette V in a cinch, plus some appropriate cleavage as it scrunches my abundant boobage upwards:


Here’s the shape my eBay corset gives me when it has an even lacing gap in the back. Not bad, right? Very smooth!


Cleavage = good
I altered this dress from a pattern that had princess seams that curved over the bust. I simply ignored the curve as I sewed the bodice together. Instant +50 pts. to accuracy! Still farbing it, though. A real pair of 18th century stays should fit like this.

Since my corset squishes my bust down from 37 inches to <35 inches in circumference, I also magically fit into modern patterns without having to make major alterations, a boon for my impatient side. By containing my boobs, my corset creates the standard proportions for most pattern sizes: a 7 inch bust-to-waist ratio and a 9 inch waist-to-hip ratio. Less boobs + less work = a win in my book!

But my heart isn’t planted in 18th century rococo. It likes to scamper freely between eras, and lately, it has been wooing the late 19th century. Despite their corsets, many Victorian ladies were actually very modestly proportioned. Not everyone laced down dramatically or was blessed with natural curves:

Woman from Nebraska, late 1880s from Etsy

In both photographs and extant garments, it’s easy to see that while many ladies are indeed tiny, they are often proportionately so– bust and hips included. When you look at photographs and dresses, the curve of their corsets is still fairly conical, just like the 18th century but with a little more curve over the bust, especially during the 1880s and 1890s when the long, slim look was popular:

Fashion plate, circa 1886
Corsets from 1880-1900 ended about mid-bust (also called demi-bust). Many photographs, however, show ladies whose corsets are full overbusts, especially during the 1880s when tightly-fitted bodices were in vogue.

For a more in depth analysis of late Victorian and early Edwardian “standard sizes,” click here. There’s a brilliant chart and you’ll see that most bustle-era women were only expected to be slightly curvier than modern women– a 9 inch bust-to-waist ratio instead of 7 inches. That’s equivalent to the standard modern woman wearing a corset lightly laced down 2 inches, and is fairly close to my own natural measurements without a corset.

Still, there is the matter of my corset. I love how perky and slim it makes me look, but I am so tired of smooshing my boobs. They may be annoying, but they give my otherwise straight figure some pizzazz. My overly-cone-shaped corset totally robs my pizzazz! Here is my hilariously bad attempt to show you what I mean:

differencesLeft: Hamster in a shotglass
Right : Monkey in a turtleneck

Bad graphics aside, you can see my dilemma. The shape on the left is how my body fits into my current off-the-rack corset. The bust is flattened and it doesn’t even touch my underbust. It appears “historical” enough that any passerby will notice how antique-looking my figure is since the bust is thrust up and the shape is very rigid. It’s very similar to a dress form, in fact, which is why fitting a dress to a conical corset is a breeze. What I lose, however, is a lot of definition between my bust and waist. I have an 8 inch difference between my bust and underbust. Aside from that, I am very tubular.  An overbust corset that lacks properly gusseted cups will actually make me larger in the ribcage because it skims over my ribs instead of fitting to them.


This is a CS-411 from Orchard Corsets. It is the only OTR corset under $100 that is short enough to accommodate my stumpy torso.

Most OTR overbusts are 15.5 inches long, which is too long for me to sit comfortably in. My underbust, however, is very comfy and provides good curve. It gives the same silhouette as my eBay corset, but without flattening my chest. It is shorter, closer-fitting, and allows me more freedom of movement. It’s also really easy to hide under modern clothes. When I pair it with my favorite sports bra or balconette, it also controls jiggle without squishing.

“Soutien des seine par une brassière” (Support of the bosom by a bodice), circa 1900

Underbust corsets (and even bras) became popular right around the mid-1890s–an era I love and am planning on costuming for, so I do not feel like I am sacrificing a terrible amount of accuracy by wearing one. But the amount of…erm…forward protrusion seems solidly modern. Surely our ancestors would have looked upon such a silhouette as vulgar…or did they?

1880s Victorian Tintype Portrait of a Couple from Etsy
This lovely young lady is wearing a classic demi bust corset. You can see the outline of it through her dress. But notice how her corset and bodice are fitted around her breasts instead of straight over them.

Portrait of a Couple, circa 1890s from Etsy
Sha-ZAM! Them curves! A very flexible busk at the front (possibly curved by design) gives this lady a slimmer line and more definition than a flat-front corset does.

The more I look, the more I find photos of women who are shaped like I am. And while picking through museum collections, there are even more crazy-curvy gowns:

Dinner Dress, circa 1878-80

Pastel Striped Silk Dress, circa 1885

Wedding Dress, circa 1889

The very first antique piece of clothing I ever purchased also has some pretty radical curves of her own:


Black Silk Bodice, circa 1889-95
This bodice measures 32 inches at the bust and 21 inches in the waist– a difference of 11 inches! Looks pretty wild, doesn’t it? It’s actually not too crazy. When I wear my underbust, my measurements are 37 bust, 26 waist– also 11 inches of difference! What makes this silhouette so dramatic is the extreme wasp waist fit which controls the ribs. Fashionable 1880s and 1890s corsets were rather tubular through the waist and flared dramatically at the bust, creating a “light bulb” shape.

What have I learned from all this?
Being a top-heavy Victorian is not a sin! Our ancestors came in all shapes and sizes. Many Victorian beauties corseted themselves at rather modest proportions, reducing their waists by only a few inches for a gentle, swooping curve. Others were very curvacious, both through corsets, padding, and genetics.
I’m not using that as an excuse to abandon my over-bust corsets forever to start prancing around in my push-up bra pretending it’s historically accurate. Even those “light bulb” bodices are relatively smooth-fronted from the side and quite rigid. However, the realization that I can be top-heavy and still be acceptable gives me the confidence to work with what I have until I can procure something better.

I am possessed by the spirit of possibility…

As for the “standard pattern problem,” you just have to buckle down and learn some pattern manipulation. If you are worried about how a pattern will fit your body, make a mock-up. It’s extra work and I hate doing it, but it saves so much misery later on! If you are concerned about how your alterations will affect the accuracy of the pattern, I recommend looking at photographs and extant garments rather than relying on fashion plates or paintings (for Victorian fashions. Earlier eras have other challenges). Pretty pictures are great for inspiration, but they are often idealized. Go for real instead!

American Corset, circa 1895

I’ll take the one on the left, please!
If anyone knows where to buy a short, busty corset under $300, please share!

If you love a good treasure hunt, Ageless Patterns is a website filled with genuine Victorian patterns drafted directly from originals complete with original measurements! Looking through the website gives you a good idea of just how varied in size everyone was (and is). I’ve found many patterns that list my exact measurements. I’m curious to give them a try, but I have so many other projects right now that I don’t need to keep starting new ones. I look forward to trying a pattern or two in the near future!

21 Responses to “Bothersome Bosoms: Am I Too Curvy for Victorian Clothes?”

  1. No one is ever happy with their own figure. When I was fifteen I started starving myself and doing manic situps, convinced I would get the flat stomach I longed for. It never happened because my body shape is basically round tummied

    • Liz Says:

      I hope your story has a happy ending! :(
      I’m soft tummied too, which is why I love my corsets. They give me a confidence boost.

  2. thanks or so much info

  3. I feel you. I have a large bosom too. At my thinnest they are a 32DD, so it’s hard to find clothes that fit. I’ve always been an hourglass (sometimes a two hour glass) which I’m grateful for, but is a pain in the tuckus to fit. I also hate pattern manipulation (well, I hate the idea of it, since I’ve never even tried) so I think I need to suck it up and learn. One of my goals for 2014 I think. I almost did a spit take at the Monkey in the turtleneck.

  4. Magrat Says:

    my curves make me schizophrenic sometimes – when I look at my photos in 18th century stays I love them, but when I try to fit any pattern… oh God, why…

  5. Ista Says:

    I’ve got an even greater difference between bust & underbust, and learned years ago to do Full Bust Alterations (FBAs) on all my modern clothing (have to make all but a few knit tops) and figuring out how to do it on historical clothing is a real challenge.

  6. Leia Tilton Says:

    You may already know of this site but just in case…
    Check out Lucy’s Courtesy. She posts so many wonderful blogs about different corset shapes & makers with price info. Recently her blogs have been categorizing different corset shapes and where you can find them.
    There is a corsetiere on etsy that makes many different styles for very reasonable prices! I think the name is Mystic City.

    Keep up the great work girl! I love reading your blogs!!! :-D

    Leia, fellow customer and daily corset wearer. I LOVE corsets!!!!!!

    • Liz Says:

      I love Lucy! :P
      She has lots of lists for specific corsets, but so far I haven’t found any that won’t require major customization (short overbusts are so elusive). So I am instead saving my money madly for a custom one. Lovesick Corsets are especially beautiful.

  7. Julie Jacobs Says:

    I have great results with the Super Curvy or Generously Endowed (style numbers beginning with GE) styles such as from Corset Story and since they frequently turn up on the COTD (Corset of the Day) sales they are often quite affordable. As a handicapped costumer who must sit frequently I prefer the gusseted hips for comfort and often choose the underbust style (with bra of my choice) to accommodate an F-cup more smoothly without massive smash!

  8. The Traveller Says:

    Try being an F cup with an 11 inch difference between full and underbust! I’ve given up.
    And there must have been women with a wide range of proportions all through the ages but fashion dictates certain desirabilities at different times. That doesn’t mean women did not find their own ways to ‘fake it’ for want of a better term. Little underbust half moon cushions inside stays are an example. While we have lots of examples of clothing which conform to the dictates of the styles of the time, I am pretty sure ‘Mary from the baker’s shop’ and ‘Ellen the glovemaker’ did their best to fit their ample curves into styles by whatever means they could muster.
    I’ll bet there were a few rebels too who dressed in ways that weren’t considered fashionable but were a damned sight more comfortable.
    I don’t like squashing what I was given, I don’t think it’s healthy. So anything I make HAS to be ‘quasi’ 18th century etc.
    50s styles are the only ones that come close to my proportions. It’s so frustrating because I love little straight 20s dresses.

    • Liz Says:

      I am a F cup, just a smaller band size. The 1950s do work out wonderfully, as do the 1830s, the 1930s and the 1890s. My favorite era ever, though? The 1980s. Seriously: so cheesy, so curvy, so fabulous!

      • Ista Says:

        As someone who was 20-something for most of the 1980s, curvy didn’t rule, androgeny did. I wasn’t a fashionable shape then.

      • Liz Says:

        I like 80s clothes because the triangle shape body type was in–one of the few eras when even I need shoulder padding! The slouchy and boxy cuts just skim over the chest, though, so I rarely need to alter many 1980s patterns. But you are correct: what we think of as “curvy” wasn’t it. You were supposed to be lithe and athletic.

    • I know this is 2 years late, I apologise, but…

      11 inches difference is either a H or K, or L cup depending on whether your bras are British, American, or European-designed. Don’t let fitters tell you you’re an F!

      • Liz Says:

        Never too late for smart advice! It’s 11 inches of waist-to-bust ratio in a corset, but only an 7-8 inch difference between my underbust and my full bust measurement au natural (ub 30, fb 37-38). I loathe bra fitters. They all say I am a 36C or 36D! Lunacy! I have never had luck with in-shop lingerie fitters. They all seem to be fibbers! :P
        I arrived at an F cup after much (expensive) experimentation on my own. I don’t have much upper breast fullness, so while a G/H cup is what I should wear, most cave in at the top because I lack fullness there. The F cup is my compromise.

  9. If you’re willing to give making your own a shot, I can recommend using this free tutorial to draft your own – Draft your own Corset. It’s easy and not at all scary, I swear, and you’ll end up with something that works for your waist length and curves.

  10. I sympathise as I have exactly the same bust measurements and am short from underbust to waist. My biggest problem is trying to find a Regency corset or short stays to fit. Corsetiers just can’t understand how somebody has such a small back and such a big front! The best fit I got was from Beth at Historical Designs. Thank goodness I’m not into 1920s!

  11. it’s the misogyny of the modern fashion industry – and society (it started mid-19th century) that fashion illustrations, readymade ​​clothes and patterns leave so little room for a bosom.
    and what happens to be that female accesoires? Breasts. guess why Victorian dresses are so high closed, heavy skirted? middle of 19.cent. men began in large numbers in “office jobs” instead of working physically. but mentally women for these jobs are better suited. therefore had to be designed a female image which acts helpless and fragile. not threatening to the men.
    I could give a whole lecture about it – but outside my native language, it is too stressful :-/

    by the way – your figure is very beautiful and well proportioned!

    the old woman….

  12. Nancy N Says:

    I would never call your figure anything less than gorgeous! I hope as you research you can come to realize its all just geometry, with different numbers in different places for each of us. Your redo of the 18th c gown proves you can tackle any era and make it work for you, so I have no doubt you’ll do the same with the 1890’s!

  13. AlexaFaie Says:

    I totally get you. My boobs aren’t huge huge, but they are bigger than they used to be after a medication related weight gain. So I’m a 32F. Bust is 38″, underbust is 30″, waist is 26″, high hip (2″ below waist) is 36″ and full hip (just a couple of inches below that) is 38″. I don’t really do standard sizes either. I struggle even with underbusts since they aren’t usually designed for people with natural hourglass figures. I’ve always had that issue though even when I was smaller as I’ve always been an hourglass figure (was 34″, 24″, 34″ from age 17 to 24).
    Still, its possible to find some out there which work. I got an MCC-36 from Mystic City Corsets ( which is made curvy enough for me to actually get a 4″ reduction in it. Their other styles have slightly less curve, but still more than most OTR corsets out there. Sadly their overbusts are cupped and aren’t going to fit a 32F any time soon. Since getting a Vollers many moons ago I’ve steered clear of overbusts/midbusts. They just don’t fit. Though I made one on a course I went on and its wonderful. If I hadn’t made it as instructed to be an inch longer (it needed an inch more waist up to account for my boobs, but could have done with being an inch shorter waist down to account for my short waist) then I’d have finished it off and would wear it all the time. Its altered from an 1860s pattern. Fits so well horizontally that I can lace it fully shut in one go (if I were being naughty) for a 5.5″ reduction. Would have been 6″ if I’d been more accurate in my sewing, but it was my first go at a corset and first project outside of making bloomers. When I’ve finished my other projects I’m going to make another one, but this time chop and inch or so off the bottom so I can sit in it!!

  14. Jo Says:

    “Hamster in a shotglass/Monkey in a turtleneck” just made my day. Your site and philosophy are fabulous!

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