Support Garment Showdown: Options for Creating a Victorian Look With or Without a Corset

For this post, I am focusing mainly on the Mid to Late Victorian Era (1855-1901). However, there are tricks for all eras and I will be covering them soon!

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Corsets are an essential part of almost any historical costume. For hundreds of years they have shaped and supported women and their clothing, creating otherwise inimitable silhouettes. However, corsets have long fallen out of the public’s good graces and only recently have they begun to make a widespread come back. Despite the revival, corseting remains one of the “hang-ups” for most new and casual costumers. We’ve already discovered that our ancestors came in many shapes and many different sizes, but what about their corsets? Many of us don’t corset on a regular basis; indeed, many of us have never even seen one in real life, much less put one on. Antique corset health myths and social stigma still hang around this staple garment, and many people are taught from grade school that corsets are enslaving, unhealthful, completely evil. It’s understandable, therefore, that some might be hesitant to give corsets a try. If the idea of a corset intimidates you, you are not alone! However, it’s worth trying and is the best way to get a proper Victorian shape.

Trying a Corset is Worth It!
(and easier than you think)

The biggest corset hang-up for many first time corset wearers is “the big squeeze:” the idea that the point of a corset is to squeeze you down to the smallest size possible regardless of comfort. While waist training and tight lacing were and are corseting practices to achieve greater size reductions, the average Victorian woman, working class women especially, used her corset mainly for supporting her breasts and the weight of her clothing (You can read more about the supporting properties of the corset here). When you first put on a corset, you need only lace as tightly as is comfortable. 2 inches is a good starting goal. If this sounds scary, measure your waist then suck in your stomach, pull your measuring tape tight and check the numbers again. You’ll likely discover that you can suck in your stomacher further than the 2 inches many costumers lace down in their corsets!

WaistMeasure

Light measurement: 29.75 inches
Tight measurement: 27.5 inches
“Natural” reduction: 2.25 inches
Ah, the unflattering pictures I suffer for costuming science!
Since weight and water retention fluctuates throughout the day, your measurements can vary quite a bit in only a few hours. A corset helps keep these measurements constant, which was great for Victorian women who could only afford one or two dresses at a time and didn’t have access to stretchy yoga pants!

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No Corset, Regular Bra: Bust 37″, Waist 29″

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Overbust Corset: Bust 36″, Waist 26″ (interior circumference)
This corset is being worn in this photo at a three inch reduction. You can see what a difference those three inches make! Even when I was younger and slimmer, I never had this much curve without a corset because I am naturally very tubular. Also, note the improved posture.

Historical silhouettes rely heavily on smooth curves to look correct. By putting on a corset and tightening it just an inch or so, you will notice a huge change in how your historical costumes look!

Before and After

Without a corset and with a corset.

There are many types of corsets/stays/”pairs of bodies” to choose from depending on what era you are looking at, but generally speaking, a classic overbust is a good place to start for a Victorian costumer. There are many modern corset options out there, but for a comprehensive list, I recommend visiting Lucy’s Corsetry. Picking a corset can be a daunting task, so doing research is important. I have bought corsets from eBay (with plenty of scrutiny) and from Orchard Corset with good results. If you enjoy sewing, there are also historical corset patterns available from Simplicity, Butterick, Laughing Moon, Ageless Patterns, and many others.

It may take some getting used to the sensation of being constantly “hugged” by your corset at first, but a well-made corset will not hurt you. Most corset-related tales of broken bones and the inability to breathe are based on sensationalized misinformation, or, in the case of rib or hip pain, the result of an improperly fitted corset.

Dealing With Corset Fit Problems

For women who want to wear a corset, but don’t fit in standard sizes, I feel your pain! Not all bodies are created the same and while there is a wide range of standardized corsets to choose from, sometimes it’s hard to find one that fits right. Overbusts are especially tricky to fit. So, if you find your cups running over or your hips pinching uncomfortably, what’s a gal to do?

For ladies with large breasts, underbusts solve any top-fit problems by fitting under the breasts instead of over them. Though underbusts are more suited to Edwardian (1900s) costuming than Victorian costuming, to approximate the look of an overbust corset, pair your underbust corset with a firm control sports bra! For A-D Cups, a regular “pouch” sports bra with firm control is usually sufficient. For larger-breasted or augmented women, a cupped sports bra may be more comfortable (I have a Wacoal underwire sports bra that I absolutely adore). To hide the heavy outline and prevent your dress bodice from bowing between the breasts, wear your chemise, tank top, or whatever liner you choose over the bra to hide it. Since a corset would hold the breasts firmly in place, you’ll need a bra that will stop as much overt jiggle as possible. It is also okay if it flattens your breasts somewhat since, unlike modern bras, Victorians were more concerned about creating radical side curvature than enhancing forward projection. )( vs. P, so to speak! However, having big breasts in Victorian costuming is not incorrect. There were plenty of ladies out there with killer curves:

Portrait of a Couple, circa 1895 from Etsy

If you have large hips, finding a ready-made corset that fits them can be a challenge, too. If you already have a corset and find that it fits well, but is too small in the hips, consider adding hip gores or ties.  Lucy has a handy tutorial on adding hip gores to a pre-existing corset:

This method may also work for adding bust gores as well, but I haven’t tried it yet. Hip and bust gores are period correct and many Victorian corsets used them, so they are an option for both improving a current corset or drafting one of your own. Gores allow you to custom-fit your curve without having to make complexly-shaped pieces.

However, some people don’t fit in standard size corsets, don’t feel comfortable making their own, or can’t afford a custom corset. In addition, some women may find wearing a corset uncomfortable for many reasons– medical conditions, heat sensitivity, or general dislike of restrictive clothing.

Foregoing a Corset Altogether

While a corset will give you the best possible Victorian shape, if a corset just won’t work for you, you do have other options! One option is to wear a modern girdle or shapewear. I own a Rago waist nipper that gives my tubular body a delineated waist. While it is steel boned, it is stretchy and light, so I have more freedom of movement. It only reduces my waist an inch or so, but it does smooth and give me some curve.

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Regular Bra Only: Bust 37″, Waist 29″

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Bra and Girdle: Bust 37″, Waist 28″

Boning isn’t just for undergarments, either. Many Victorian bodices had light boning built right in. This type of boning wasn’t made to reduce the waist. Instead, it served to support the garment, making sure it laid as smooth as possible over the corseted figure.

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Red Silk Bodice, circa 1890
The red channels around the waist have flat steel boning inside to help support it. While a corset allows you to fit clothes more closely, the bodice benefits from having its own support structure so it doesn’t twist, bow, or wrinkle.

Many modern costume patterns meant for theater or casual wear often have a few pieces of boning figured into the design for the same purpose. While thin, flat steel bones are the period correct way to support a garment, modern plastic boning is easier to find. I generally avoid the coiled “featherweight” boning found in fabrics shops and go for cable ties instead. Cable ties (also called zip ties) are flexible, but still firm enough to support things.

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Cable ties used as support boning in my 18th century embroidered stomacher.

Such boning will not give you the curves a corset or girdle will, but it will help prevent wrinkles.  In-garment boning also helps prevent the garment from riding up. If you have a well defined natural hourglass shape, adding a bit of boning to your bodice will instantly improve the way your dresses sit, show off your shape to its full advantage, and may be enough to give you a Victorian-esque look. Besides curves, a smooth fit makes any Victorian dress look much more authentic (though plenty of our ancestors still struggled with getting the fit just right).

The final option is to use visual tricks to create the illusion of a smaller waist. Many tricks Victorian women used are still in use today:

Belts and Sashes

Grace King Afternoon Dress with Belt/Sash, circa 1870-75

Sashes and belts varied in width from a thin, tasseled rope to 4 or 5 inches wide with a buckle the size of your hand! Some were made to match a particular dress while others were were mix-n-match.

Woman wearing a Belt and Buckle, circa 1855

In the Victorian era, belts were used to further highlight the corseted waist. However, sashes and belts can both help delineate the uncorseted waist as well and are especially helpful with placing the definitive waistline at the proper point for a particular style (1860s waists are high while 1880s waists are lower, etc.).

Swiss Waists

Woman in a Swiss Waist, circa 1860

A Swiss Waist is a type of belt/bodice that helped accentuate the waist. They may look like corsets, but they do not actually reduce the waist and were worn fitted over a corset. They were very popular during the 1860s. There are plenty of “corset style” modern belts out there that can mimic the look of a Swiss Waist:

While they aren’t suitable for waist reductions like a steel boned corset, many underbust “fashion corsets” with plastic bones can also be worn as a Swiss Waist or you can make your own.

Fabric, Color, and Trim Placement

Kate Winslet in her famous “optical illusion” dress.

Many modern dresses and theater dresses use contrasting colors like black and white to slim the figure. Adding black to the sides of the waist causes the eye to “ignore” the shadowed area, making the waist appear even slimmer. This beautiful purple gown is a perfect example:

Visiting Dress, circa 1863-65

The Victorians were adept at using visual tricks to emphasize curves, using striped fabrics, long lines of buttons, trim, and shaped inserts to draw the eye:

Day Dress, circa 1855-57
V-shaped trim placement on this heavily tasseled gown helps make the bust and shoulders look wider and the waist look smaller, creating an even more dramatic size difference. Other seamstresses would add trim to the bustline and shoulders only, leaving the waist plain so it would appear much smoother and smaller as a result.

Afternoon Dress, circa 1886
This dress combines three design elements to help elongate, slim, and accentuate curves. The first is the use of vertical stripes. This is case, the vertical movement is further emphasized by the row of bright, glittering buttons which draw the eye inward, enhancing the lengthening effect. Thirdly, the decorative, striped fabric insert in the center of the otherwise plain bodice creates a curving shape of its own, so the eye is drawn to its tailored outline. Lots of 1880s dresses have a contrasting insert in an hourglass shape because it adds interest, texture, and highlights (or creates the illusion of) those ever-important curves.

Much like color and print, another important factor is the sheen of your fabric. Generally speaking, shiny fabrics, polysatins, for example, have lots of forward presence while matte fabrics, like wools and cottons, tend to recede. So, if you are making an 1880s dress like the one below, putting a shiny fabric in the center and a matte fabric on the outside will draw the eye to the shinier center shape:

Walking Dress, circa 1885

Getting the Rest of the Shape Correct

Proper support garments like bustles, crinolines, hoops, and other skirt supports are also key to the Victorian silhouette, depending on which period you are attempting! All those big, fluffy skirts helped increase the illusion of a small, defined waist, so if you’ve foregone a corset, having good skirt  shaping becomes paramount. Online bridal suppliers offer many inexpensive hoops, pads, and petticoats that you can rent or buy if you do not wish to craft your own.

Basic Dress Silhouettes
This chart is a good timeline of fashionable shapes.
1850s: Layers of petticoats/crinoline and hoops
1860s: Full and elliptical hoops
1870s: Elliptical hoops and the bustle
1880s: Bustles
1890s: Layers of petticoats
It’s amazing how cyclical fashion can be…

Costuming isn’t just about looking good; it’s about feeling good, too! Whether you are designing for yourself or an entire theater troupe, it’s important to take comfort into account as well as accuracy. Our modern clothing is very different from 19th century clothing, so the layering, fluffy skirts, and tight fit take some getting used to. After some practice, you will be able to move as elegantly as you are dressed! Enjoy yourself and never stop experimenting with new techniques, eras, or (in this case) undergarments!

Helpful Links

Lucy’s Corsetry – Lucy is considered the internet corset guru! She has reviewed many styles and brands of corsets, makes her own corsets (and provides tutorials), and covered the health effects, myths, and modern evolution of history’s most controversial garment. Almost any question you may have is probably answered on her blog, Tumblr, or YouTube channel.

Historical Sewing – Jennifer is a very knowledgeable seamstress who is well-versed in Victorian fashion and sewing techniques. If you are seeking to make your Victorian ensembles more authentic or have a burning question about how to put a garment together, she’s probably got a blog post that answers it!

Foundations Revealed – This website truly is “The Corset Maker’s Companion!” This all-inclusive database is supported by subscription, which gives you access to a huge library of corset articles ranging from how to construct and S-bend corset to what sort of cording is best for bust support to how to draft the perfect corset for any figure and more. There are also many helpful articles about basic corset construction and history available for free!

Most of the pictures in this article are linked to their source page so you can get more information about them. There are also multiple links to other helpful articles or sources scattered throughout the text (links will appear as a slightly lighter color of text). Please feel free to click and explore! There is much more information available on this subject than I could fit in one blog post!

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UPDATE:

Lucy of Lucy’s Corsetry recently did a video on almost this exact subject! She shows how to layer Swiss Waists/Belts over your corset and how to wear a fashion corset over a real corset:

Bothersome Bosoms: Am I Too Curvy for Victorian Clothes?

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.

CondescendingCamille

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.

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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:

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

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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.

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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:

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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!