Buying an eBay Corset Part II: Historically Accurate and Off-the-Rack

Finding a Historical Victorian Corset on eBay

This article is a continuation of Part I, so check out that article first for more information.

Let’s start this off by saying I make just enough to get life done and I don’t really have time to attend tons of events anymore, so I feel guilty investing $500 in a custom corset that I will wear in public, at most, 2 times a year. For that much, I could pay rent and buy two-weeks worth of food! I am also impatient, lazy, and incredibly miserly. I don’t live in a place where corsets can be bought from a shop or ordered from a tailor. All I have right now is myself, my cats, the desert, and an internet connection. So, as every penny-pinching lady in my family has done before me, I used what I had on hand: DSL and hours of mad scrolling.

Okay, to begin, here’s what I was after:

Athletic Corset, circa 1885

“Ball’s corset company specialized in creating healthful corsets and those appropriate for active wear. This particular type of corset was flexible, made possible by the shirred elastic sections over the interior coiled wire spring system. It was designed for women to wear while participating in athletic activities such as horseback riding, while still maintaining the acceptable silhouette of the period. According to Ball’s advertising, incorporating the coiled springs into the corsets was a ‘revolution in corsets.'” -The Met

The 1880s produced the “classic” corset shape, so it is the easiest to find. I wanted a corset that was simple and functional. Ribbons, lace, and brocade are all gorgeous, but a corset is like a bra: pretty things look great alone, but can sometimes be a nuisance under clothes. I wanted something I could wear under anything without worrying about strange bumps or bright blue brocade showing through a thin gown. I stumbled across this corset in the Met and I immediately knew that this was the corset I needed. The side springs I knew I probably wouldn’t find, but most modern corsets have spiral steel boning which is more flexible and comfortable than other types of bones, including plastic. I wanted something that would give me a more period-appropriate size and shape without suffocating or stabbing me.

Criteria for my Cheap eBay Historical Corset:

Budget of $75 (including shipping)
White or cream
Satin or Cotton
Back lacing
Spiral steel bones
Overbust
Capable of reducing waist 2-3 inches
1880s in shape

LET THE SEARCH BEGIN!

Here are four tips I learned when shopping for a corset:

PICTURES LIE. It applies in life and it applies to corset buying. Live models are especially deceiving because they make the corset look like it will make you smaller and hourglassed. However, Photoshop exists and these ladies are naturally tiny. Look for photos of the corset itself if you can. The worst listings are the ones where they’ve stretched or warped the picture so you can’t even tell what shape the corset is! GAAAAAA! Also, be on the lookout for fakes.

Make sure the corset has all steel bones. Many sellers will list “steel bones,” but the piece itself will actually only have a few while the rest are plastic. Some even list steel bones, but are all plastic with a steel busk.

When you find a corset with all steel bones, make sure the listing says how many. Many are all steel boned, but only have 8 or 10 bones. If you just want the support so your gowns sit right, these are fine for that, but they will not effectively reduce your waist or give you an hourglass. A really good corset will have 16-24 spiral steel bones with a few flat steel ones in the back by the laces. You can find corsets with even more bones (up to 60!), but most are from professional corset makers…far out of my price range.

Laces should always be in the back. Check out the picture of the laces to determine if it is properly laced or not. First, check what it’s laced with. Shoestring laces are generally stronger and more discreet than ribbon laces. Second, check how it is laced. If it ties with a bow at the top or bottom, either the manufacturer knows nothing about how a corset functions or it’s just for looks. Either way, skip it. Look for laces that are knotted at the bottom and have long tying loops in the middle of the back. Why the middle? Well, if you want your waist to be smallest, it makes sense to have the pulling ends where you want to pull in the most!

After a few hours of searching and a few days of arguing with my wallet, here’s the one I settled on:

Satin Corset, circa 2012

It’s satin, fully boned with 20 spirals, 6 flats, and has a steel busk and grommets in the back. It is cotton lined as well with sturdy cotton waist tape and a modesty panel (I removed it). Most corsets advertise a 4 inch reduction in waist size, but fall short. This one actually gets you down 3 inches– more on that later! The size charts you find in most listings will list natural waist sizes next to the corset size, for example a 22 inch corset will fit a natural waist between 26 and 27 inches (usually considered a size s-xs). Measurements, however, vary from seller to seller, so check those charts closely! For example, the chart for this particular corset listing looks like this:

I have a 28 inch waist. Do you see the quandary? According to their chart, I would fit in anything from a medium to an xsmall! I decided to go with the average, a small. If you are looking to reduce your waist at all, make sure your natural waist measurement falls in the middle or top of your size bracket. For example if you have a 30 inch natural waist and they suggest a large for 30 inch to 34 inch waists, go down a size.  However, trouble again arose when I tried to select a size from the drop-down menu:

According to this new menu, a 28 inch waist was actually the very upper limit of the small’s capacity! This is the hardest part of buying an off-the-rack corset online: measurements. However, I opted to go with the small. I paid $59.95 for my corset, well under my budget. I was a little miffed that I found a similar one at a Chinese wholesaler later, but Glamorous Corset Boutique on eBay was stateside so I didn’t have to mess with customs, plus they shipped super fast and free so I received it in the mail in just 4 days! Would I buy from them again? Yes.

After getting my new corset in the mail,  it was time for the moment of truth: the initial try-on. Prior experience in theater had educated me that the first time you try on a fresh corset, you will need help lacing it because the garment has not yet molded to your body. My sister agreed to help me and much stereotypical tugging and pulling occurred.

You can lace yourself up by tightening the consecutive “rungs” of your corset from top to middle then bottom to middle, but it’s fun to have someone else to giggle with as you hold onto a doorway! For those of you who have never laced before, it’s important that you don’t try to lace your corset as tight as you can right away. If you lace too tight too quickly, you’ll experience all the problems we’ve come to associate with corsets: shortness of breath, back pain, bruises, chafing, and sore ribs. If you lace slowly, however, your corset will bother you no more than your bra– sometimes less! For example, we laced 28 inch me down only to 27.5 inches. That may not seem like much, but remember a corset and a liner/chemise adds thickness over your body, so my waist was actually down to about 27 inches. That’s quite enough for the first fitting. I pranced around the house freely in it. Here I am after three days of wearing it at 26 inches:

I know, I know, tied at the front, but the strings get really long and I have a rambunctious small kitten that kept following me around attacking my corset strings as they slithered behind me! Also, you can see how the hips are a little too big.

It’s important to wear your corset for a few hours a day to get used to it before tightening it further. How tightly you can lace your corset depends on your body type, especially your fat-to-muscle ratio. I highly recommend reading the Dreamstress article “What Size Should Your Corset Be and How Tightly Should You Lace It?” for more information. It’s an amazing post and answers almost all the questions you might have about the general function and fitting of corsets!

Click to visit the Dreamstress blog

Eventually, I got this corset to close fully at 25 inches: the perfect waist size for wearing extant or reproduction Victorian pieces. I am rather “squishy,” so wearing a corset actually feels great!

My waist at 25 inches. That makes my measurements 36-25-35.

I love how this particular corset draws you into a gentle hourglass without jabbing you– praise the corset gods for flexible, spiral steel bones! For historical waist reduction, aim to reduce your waist about 2-3 inches. Keep in mind that as you wear your corset, it will stretch and mold to your individual body, so you shouldn’t share corsets with someone else.

No matter how many pictures of bare-skinned models you see, if you corset without a liner, you will get rope burns on your back.

Corset Burn. It doesn’t hurt during, but afterwards…..yikes!

I use a regular $3 cotton tank from Walmart as my liner/chemise. Many corsets come with a “modesty panel” flap sewn on one side to protect your back, but I remove mine. Unless they are also boned and floating (not sewn in), these flaps will crumple and get in your way. It is much, much better to wear a separate garment underneath you corset instead. I like modern cotton tank tops with some Spandex in them. These will hug your body and not wrinkle up. Wrinkles are the worst! I also like full-stretch tanks from Rue21 and the like for the same reason. They bunch even less than cotton, but you will sweat more. Which brings me to the next reason to always wear a liner: hygiene. Corsets should never be washed in a machine and shouldn’t even be hand washed if you can avoid it. Water will corrode the steel bones. A liner is easy to change and wash. Wear one!

The biggest challenge for me is “the Girls.” I am very top heavy and they are not…well, I hate to admit it, but they are neither firm nor perky. Victorian gowns (and many modern clothes) have a higher bust level than mine, so it’s impossible to fill out a dress properly without extra support. In addition to my new overbust corset, I like to wear a bra underneath. It’s not very historically accurate, but it’s in the spirit of these:

Bust Enhancers and Cover, circa 1890

The only issue with the corset I chose is that it’s made for someone with a B cup, so my 34 DDs runneth over at times, but a tight chemise/shirt or a bra keeps them in check. The hips also wrinkle a little because my 35 inch hips are Barbie-tiny, but 1870s-1890s gowns have full skirts fluffed out with petticoats anyways, so you cannot tell. Also, it means that I have no problems sitting or even riding a bike, which, by the way, I totally did:

1 hour after that first photo of me: Sweatier, but very pleased. Proof that a good liner will save your day (and your corset)!

It’s good to exercise if you plan on wearing a corset for long periods of time. Since the bones in the corset are doing all the work fighting gravity, your abs go on vacation.

In addition to being exciting, relatively simple, and cheap, buying an off-the-rack, mail order corset is super historically accurate!

This corset advertisement is from the 1897 Sears, Roebuck, and Co. mail order catalog. I have a Sears catalog from 1902 that still has the same kind of listing, just different styles of corsets since the fashionable shape began to change. Both catalogs feature a whole section of corsets ladies can send for by mail. At the top of the section is always a fitting guide that offers the same advice we follow today! Most Victorian ladies were on a budget, so buying the best, most fitted corset was out of their reach. It’s quite historically accurate for your corset to be a little wrinkled in spots, or even for the top edge to be visible under your dress if you are wearing everyday clothes, so don’t worry if your eBay corset doesn’t fit like a glove. For example, this photograph from my collection shows a young lady with the same fit problem I have:

I am very happy with my current corset! I’m giving up my press-on nail habit for the next year to save for my next corseting adventure.

Goodbye, perfect nails. Hello, perfect waist!

I’m going to finish my “Teacher Dress” soon, so you can see the corset in action. :)

Here’s a handy-dandy list of things to look for in a good corset and why.

16-24 Spiral Steel Bones
A steel-boned corset is weighty and will pull you in comfortably.
Cotton Lining
Helps keep you comfortable and strengthens the corset.
Waist Tape
Keeps the seams from pulling and helps compress the waist.
Center-back Cinching
You want to tie your corset at the waist, not the top or bottom.
Strong Busk
A wide busk will not deform or twist. Always loosen your corset as much as possible when clasping and unclasping the busk.
4 to 5 inches smaller than your natural waist
Allow extra space to lace it tighter than your natural waist.

Happy Corsetting!