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More Shape Matters: Why the Same Waist Curve Doesn’t Work for Every Body

I had this horrible, recurring experience with some of my oldest costumes: I’d put a zillion hours worth of work into making something, right, and lace myself into a corset to make me skinnier, and put on enormous skirts that should have dwarfed my waistline, and the bodice and the yadda yadda, and, like, fifty pounds of tightly laced clothing later, my torso looked stumpier and my waist looked wider than it had when I started. That’s a lot of work to go through to look shlumpy, you know? Fortunately, there’s a simple little trick you can play with the waistline on an Elizabethan dress that will help…

Lizzle and Piggy in the same bodice
I have two lovely models with very different body types.

They’re wearing bodices drafted with the same method, and which use the same proportions relative to their bodies to determine the length of the point at the center front, as well as the starting position for the curve. (Technically, they are both test drafts for the Pfalzgrafin corset.)

closeup of torsos
Lizzle's torso (left) has become late Tudor/late Elizabethan perfection, and has taken on an inhumanly long, slim line without sacrificing leg length. Miss Piggy, on the other hand....

Now, I’ll be the first one to tell you that Miss P will always look adorable, no matter what you put her in.  But this does make her little body look pretty boxy, doesn’t it? And it’s not doing the same things to her waist as the proportionally identical bodice does on Lizzle.

That’s because Lizzle has a moderately hour-glass figure. She’s not super-model thin, but her body size is proportional to her height. Even though the corset is making her less of an hourglass (I’m compressing her bust, but not her waist), the magic works because the corset is creating a unbroken visual line from the straps all the way down to the point. If you look closely, I’m lying a little – she’s facing a hair left, and you can see how the unbroken left side of the corset line is visually longer than the right side which has a tiny little jog where you can see the true side of the figure. From head on, it’s not visible because it occurs at the exact side of the body. Visually, that’s the line you want. And yes, that means that sometimes, you’ll actually look slimmer in a period costume if you don’t compress your waist. Crazy, right?

Piggy is just barely an hourglass, and I’ve tampered with her draft to make her a true column. (That and to make the bodice work over the skirts at the front – vinyl bodies don’t squish….) Her body goes roughly straight up and down at the sides. She’s facing a hair to the right, so we should get that fabulous unbroken line like we got on Lizzle, right? Well, no. Sadly, that’s just not going to happen with this body shape. So how do you make the torso look longer and the waist look smaller without major corsetry?


waistline alteration
Change the starting point and angle of the front point, and presto-change-o, you have the same hip line on both dolls.

This is nothing original – I borrowed it from Italian paintings of the period. This is, admittedly, a pretty heavy-handed example. (You need to be careful, or you end up somewhere in the 1700s instead of the 1500s.) It’s not just for column-shaped figures. I’m generally an hourglass, but I’m a little under-tall for my weight. I also find I really don’t like pain, and don’t tend to take much off my waist in corsets anymore. I pretty much rely on this trick.

It works for two reasons. First off, I’m now dividing her visual waistline into thirds. This is basically the same as how a great jacket, worn open, makes you look thinner. The eye is drawn to the obvious focal point, and the brain sort of dismisses the rest of the waist. Instead, it makes a judgement: that it’s looking at a narrow bit in the middle of a hip line, so clearly that’s the waist. Then the brain looks for confirmation of this proportion, and checks up to the shoulders, which is the second part of the trick: changing where the curve starts on the waist brings it into line with the shoulders, and the brain politely fills in a nice V shape. The human eye is hopelessly easily led…

In portraits from this period, you often see lines of decoration completing the literal line from shoulder strap to waist point. That’s another, slightly more subtle, way to make someone see the shape you want them to see. Combine the two tricks with a light hand, and you can reshape the body visually – without relying on uber-tight corsetry.

Incidentally, applying the same alteration to Lizzle’s bodice would make her look shorter in the torso and wider in the hips, because it would break the clean lines of the silhouette, and change the proportion of the center point of the bodice relative to the skirt.


  1. Noelle
    Noelle February 10, 2011

    Thank you, this is a wonderful tutorial, with great visuals! As I’m a Miss Piggy myself, this is incredibly helpful! :)

  2. Salma
    Salma February 10, 2011

    Thank you for the ‘aha!’ moment. As someone who has become ‘undertall’ for my weight, this info will come in handy!

  3. Sarah
    Sarah March 8, 2011

    I stopped wearing the historically accurate style of cartidge pleated skirt with bumroll for precisely the reasons above; I am extremely short-waisted for my height (I’m 5 ft. 6 and ALL leg) and I was always wondering why my bodice straps kept slipping despite having measured and then re-measuring everything over and over–the bum roll and the 2 inches of cartridge pleating were crowded into an already narrow margin of waistline and causing my bodice to ride up. I now cheat (yes, I don’t care how period inaccurate this is) and copied the way one of my rennie counterparts was making her skirts – by doing very narrow cartidge pleating and then stitching the skirt directly to the waistband int he same way as gathers are. Ironically enough, the person I learned this from is very short and is all waist, so I was always marvelling at how she never seemed to run out of room for her enormous bumroll, despite wearing skirts containing 7+ yards of gathered fabric! Because of my unique figure challenges (no chest, no waist) I’ve had to make a lot of non-historical changes just to make my garb functional. Thanks for your site, because I’ve learned a ton over the years.

    • missa
      missa March 12, 2011

      Hi, Sarah,
      There’s another easy solution that will keep your bodice from crawling up and that is (so far as I can tell) totally period. Just sew your cartidge pleats directly to the outside of your bodice. Not only do you avoid the pleats-waistband-bodice conflict, but the weight of the skirts helps pull the bodice down. Your skirts spend the day doing your bodice-tugging for you!
      Thanks for sharing another solution. I can think of a couple places where that will give a better result than my trick. :)

  4. Janel Messenger
    Janel Messenger September 6, 2012

    I found you via Pinterest. I love this! This is exactly what I try to teach my design students because I’ve struggled with the same thing for years.

    Thanks for the visual! : )

    • missa
      missa September 12, 2012

      *laugh* True story – It’s what I try to teach my design students too! Don’t give up because she’s not a 6 – use proportion to your best advantage! It sinks better with some of them than others. If you have any tips on how to get it into the majority of them, I am all ears! :)

  5. LadyD
    LadyD May 29, 2014

    Is this why being an hourglass and short in the leg, high waisted trousers seem to make me look more in proportion (It has to hit me at right point though….too high and I look like a squeezed tube of toothpaste)?

    • missa
      missa May 30, 2014

      Hi, LadyD – Yeppers! Visual proportion is a shockingly effective weapon in the fight to look like we spend more time in the gym than we really care too. ;) (Unfortunately, it can backfire. Badly.)

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