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.


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!


Sleep Tight! Edwardian Ribbon Corset History and Tutorial

The wasp-waisted lady in the above picture is Polaire, a French actress. She was famous for being quite ugly, but with her waist corseted down to a microscopic 14 inches, she was the belle of the ball. Achieving a waist like this was no simple feat (as explained in this post). To properly train their waists, a few fashion -conscious Victorian and Edwardian women didn’t just wear corsets in public; they wore them to bed, too!

“When the eventual size is decided upon, three pairs of corsets are made, one for ordinary wear, one for special occasions, and another for night wear.” –Wikipedia

During the 1890s and early 1900s, tight lacing became fashionable and some ladies opted to wear their corsets at night to achieve and maintain a smaller waist more quickly. But sleeping in a stiff day corset was uncomfy, making for a cranky Victorian socialite the next day. Night corsets had been around for decades, but they offered full coverage, similar to day corsets. Models, tight-lacers, or the fashionable elite needed a respite from the restraint of daily corsets in order to get a good night’s sleep while still looking pretty. To address this, turn of the century ladies turned to fashionable night corsets made of fine, fancy ribbon.

Ribbon Waist Cincher Corset, circa 1905

“The ribbon corset is made of pieces of ribbon, as opposed to fabric. In 1901, a simple pattern of silk ribbon, two bones, and a busk was available, allowing women to construct their own ribbon corsets.” –Wikipedia

These light waist cinchers were more like wide belts, serving to hug the figure rather than reduce it. This kept the waist from expanding too far– possibly undoing years worth of reduction work– while allowing the lady some breathing room. Ribbon corsets are also quite beautiful and were often made of fine embroidered silk or satin, elevating them beyond mere undergarments to lingerie status. I’m sure husbands appreciated the softness of ribbon just as much as their wives did!

Sultry silk satin ribbon corsets were worn in the boudoir while other made of sturdy cotton tape made sporting activities much easier. The minimal boning and flat profile also made a ribbon cincher easier to hide under filmy lawn dresses than a longer, fully-boned corset. By 1910, fashion began to turn away from the extreme hourglass to the Empire silhouette reminiscent of Regency fashions. The corset never really disappeared, though. Ladies who had trained their figures for their entire lives still used shapers to keep their waists trim well into the 1960s, until corsets were replaced by fashionable new girdles. These lovely corsettes, however, are still as beautiful as ever and are very, very wearable!

Sidney Eileen offers a comprehensive, step-by-intense-step on how to craft your own custom ribbon corset, just like Edwardian fashionistas did 100 years ago! You can find the 4 part tutorial here, with plenty of large pictures, to help you:

If sewing isn’t your forte, there are plenty of telented seamstresses that are making delightfully decadent ribbon corsets even as you read this!   One fine corsetiere offering sturdy ribbon corsets is Desert Orchid Corsets. These fine creations feature heavy boning paired with soft satin ribbon to help keep your waist in check.

If you’re looking for something a little less constricting with a pop of personality, HoneyCoolerHandmade on Etsy makes lightly boned ribbon cinchers starting at $105.

Perfect for those times when you’re feeling a little saucy! Oops! My dress just happened to “accidentally” fall off. ;)

Happy Corseting!

Find out more about tight lacing practices in the 19th and 20th Centuries in my post Wasp Waists: The Ultimate Thin

Wasp Waists: The Ultimate Thin

Tinier than Thou

Camille Clifford

During the Victorian Period, corsets became an indispensable part of a woman’s wardrobe. All efforts and styles– huge skirts, heavy decorated bosoms, wide belts– were made to emphasize the waist, whittling it down visually. For most ladies, a corsets were worn at relatively light reductions, but for some, the tinier the waist, the better! Scarlett O’Hara in the book Gone with the Wind famously boasts about her tiny, 17 inch waist and Caroline Ingalls from the Little House on the Prairie series recalls how her husband used to be able to put his hands all the way around her waist.

Gone with the Wind

In the real world at the time these stories take place, there were real ladies who practiced tight-lacing that had never before been achieved in recorded human history: the wasp waist. The invention of the Gibson Girl furthered this ideal, but tight-lacing gained a controversial reputation from it’s start.

Real or “Photoshopped?”

There are rumors that many of the famous Victorian images of wasp waists were victims of what we would call “Photoshopping,” where photographers would carefully shade away the sides of a woman’s figure with a charcoal pencil, much as modern magazines do to their cover models with computer software. Notice how in the above photo it is solid black around her waist, leading some to claim it was treated after the photo shoot. While this waist may look physically impossible, it could very well be real if the model had trained long enough! The corset came under fire from health critics, feminists, and institutions since tight lacing eventually alters the actual shape of the human body, rearranging where the body stores fat and reshaping the lower ribs. For the dedicated tightlacer/waist trainer, bodily changes do take place, though not to the level depicted in popular “anatomy” drawings from the era:

A Victorian illustration speculating what went on inside a corseted body

Corsets are not a relic of the 19th century. Tight corseting like this was fashionable well into the 20th century, culminating with the hour-glass figure popular in the 1950s. Many of the waspy models on the cover of men’s magazines may not be wearing corsets for their photos, but their strictly defined waists and rounded hips bear witness to their off-camera corset training. (We can’t all be Betty Bosmer!) The fashion died down greatly after that as “healthier” alternatives and changing lifestyles left the corset to history. The corset, however, did not disappear. Instead, it hid underground, becoming a fetish costuming staple, surging in popularity again with the turn of the millennium and the Neo-Victorian movement of the 2000s.

Today, there are still women out there who have wasp waists, even pipe-stems! They are all real! For example, this corset model, nicknamed Spook, has a ghostly 14 inch pipe-stem waist at her smallest:

In previous years, she attempted to break the world-record of the smallest corseted waist at 13 inches, but she has since stopped pipe-stem lacing and returned to much less restrictive wasp-waist garments. You can visit her newer site here where she breathes a little easier in a comparatively roomy 19 inch corset! (Makes the waistband of your skinny jeans feel a bit more comfy in retrospect, doesn’t it?)

The next amazing model with a wasp waist is Laci (19-17 inches). If you read through her profile (warning, there are some risque pics, but no pornography, PG-13), you will find that she notes the change in her rib size from 69 cm before her foray into corseting to an astounding 53 cm after.

To achieve this sort of shaping takes a deep commitment to the fashion, involving time, effort, and support from family or friends. The corseting site from which these pictures are taken offer plenty of information for novices, including an outline of proper techniques that must be used, stressing that you cannot just strap yourself into a 18 inch waist. Achieving such a tiny silhouette requires a passion for fashion. For example, Laci wears her corset 23 hours a day, even while playing sports!

For more information on wasp-waists in the modern world, click here to visit C&S Constructions, custom corset-makers. Their professional site offers a wealth of information about proper lacing techniques, styles, and applications that most historical corset sites don’t provide. They also provide information about male corsets, a fashion that began in the 1600s and flourished alongside ladies’ corsets until the 20th century (often called “posture aids“), but the trend has been conveniently forgotten by many costumers today.

“For men, corsets are more customarily used to slim the figure. However, there was a period from around 1820 to 1835 when a wasp-waisted figure (a small, nipped-in look to the waist) was also desirable for men; this was sometimes achieved by wearing a corset.” -Wikipedia, 2011

Whether you are a lady or a gent, costumer or casual, tight-lacer or comfort-seeker, there is a corset for you! You do not have to be extreme to be historically accurate since most corsets were used as a body support before the invention of the bra, not just for shaping. Wasp-waists and Pipe-stem figures are extreme, fascinating, astonishing feats of fashion, not the norm. Victorian corset models were just like the waif-like fashion models that strut today’s runways: on trend and idealized. Look at them, by all means, but don’t forget to check out “real folk” photos and sources as well to learn how the fashion epitomes were adopted by the everyday woman.

Happy Lacing!