We all know how to make a corset, right? Take a bodice pattern that’s too small, sew a lot of boning channels in it, a little jiggery-pokery to get the boning in, seal the edges, and presto change-o, corset. And that’s great, but it’s not the only way to make a corset. Well, ok, if you want to get all technical, then that is the only way to make a corset, but it’s not the only way to make a pair of stiffened bodies capable of supporting the body and forming it onto a conical shape. Here’s another method that relies on stiff sheets of interlining, rather than multiple thin bones.
Using fabrics that have been treated with glue or paste sizing to give them stiffness is a very old construction technique. It’s largely out of fashion in today’s styles (oh, spandex, you cheeky little monkey), but it’s still used in millinery, upholstery, drapery, shoe making, and book-binding. We’re talking about buckram and pasteboard. This is a period means of stiffening a bodice.
“Her mydle braced in,
as smal as a wande;
And some by wastes of wyre
at the paste wyfes hand.”
(Robert Crowley, One and Thyrtye Epigrammes, 1550. Waugh, 24, 27)
In Corsets and Crinolines, Waugh mentions that corsets weren’t stiffened with whalebone until the second half of the sixteenth century. The earliest of corsets were cut from layers of linen, possibly treated with paste to give them extra stiffness. (Waigh, 19) This would seem to be the case in both England and France. Fontanel writes, “The basquine, which derived from the midieval cottes and surcots, consisted of a tight-fitting sleeveless bodice worn over a shirt and laced at the back. To stiffen it, the basquine was lined with prepared cloth, and even reinforced with brass wire. Here, too, some historians of dress have seen an ancestor to the corset.” (Fontanel, 25-26) Anea has a marvelous article that covers the use of glue stiffened interlinings in italian dress in the sixteenth century.
That all said, the way I’m about to do it is demonstrably not period, but it’s going to give me a super-great right-out-of-a-portrait result. Take a look at the ever-popular Eleanora de Toldeo:
The fabric on the bodice is as tight as a drum. There are no stress wrinkles, no sagging, nothing, and by all rights, there should be stress wrinkles. I mean, to get fabric to stay that tight to an interlining, you practically have to laminate them together. So we’re going to, using an ancient millinery secret.
The secret for doing this is so well-guarded that my millinery teacher never mentioned it. I found it inside an old hat that I was either repairing or mangling for a theater (it’s hard to know). It’s one of my best tricks.
Are you ready?
Next: the Big Secret