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Playin’ Around with the Pfalzgrafin Corset

Oh, that pesky Pfalzgrafin corset… It’s technically dated to 1598, by virtue of being found on the body of Pfalzgrafin Dorothea Sabina von Neuburg, who was buried then. It would be really-amazingly-super-conveneint if it was older, wouldn’t it? Seriously. I’ve really got an itch to do something from the middle of the 1500s. I’ve started the little chemise (I’m even trying to embroider the darn thing), and I’ve been messing around with recreating the Pfalzgrafin pattern based on the Basic Conic Block.

Pfalzgrafin corset, taken from Arnold
Here is the corset I want, taken from Patterns of Fashion 1 (pg 112).

Note: I reversed the front strap piece, because it flares away from the body when pieced as shown in Arnold’s original illustration.

Here are some critical measurements from the original:

  • Armscye->Waist: 6″
  • Front Top -> Waist: 8 1/2″
  • Waist -> Point: 5 1/2″
  • Bust: 28
  • Waist: 20

I made up a little paper reconstruction and folded it to get an approximate sideline. By this incredibly scientific method, I have a Front Bust of 15″ and a Back Bust of 12.5″. (A half inch has disappeared somewhere. Like I said, incredibly scientific…) The Front and Back waist are both 10″. The ratio of Bust to Waist for the corset is 7:5.

Out of the array of dolls currently lying sprawled on my desk (looking unfortunately like they went to one heck of party last night), Lizzle is closest in proportion to the original. I took a few more notes and metrics from Arnold’s work, and set about to altering a reducing block (ie, corset base) that I made for Lizzle. I ended up with this:

original and block alteration compared
The Block alteration (right) isn't quite the same as the one from Arnold (left).

There are some differences, right away: while both Center Back lines are vertical and both Center Front lines lie on pretty similar angles, the  bottom line of the corset is substantially different.  What gives?

front piece of original
The front of the Pfalzgrafin corset is cut as a straight panel. An inset at the side back increases the top of the corset for the bust.

You can see a faint fold in the picture – that’s the side-line I got when I put the front and back pieces of the corset together and folded them to get a rough idea of where the side-line is.  Yipes!

back piece of original
Further waist shaping is done at the side back of the corset.

All of the shaping in the original corset is done at the Side-Back seam. No wonder the waistline takes on such an angle when the pieces are put together! (This makes me suspect that the Pfalzgrafin corset uses somewhat older drafting methods. The famous Pheonix Dress, from a portrait painted of Queen Elizabeth I in 1575, is believed to have a bodice made from a single piece cut with the center back on the straight of the grain. To my way of thinking, that requires a decent understanding (visually, if not mathematically) of cones and smooth curves.  Even the neckline has been re-imagined to show off the curves. In the Pfalzgrafin corset, however, even the curve of the arm needed for the straps is achieved by angled blocks. It just feels like an earlier school of thought about the body. Cutting the front on the straight, shaping with angled back insets…. That’s practically Tudor.)

If you remember all the explanations on the whys and wherefores of the Conic Block Draft, one of the things we were trying to accomplish was to make sure that the block modeled the shape of the wearer. Our waist line is on a curve, rather than a straight, so that things lie more comfortably on the body. Now, on someone of Dorothea’s size (again, it’s a 20″ waist), that straight line isn’t going to be too much of a bother. On someone, say, my size (be nice to me and assume there’s only a 12″ difference between her waist and mine), that’s going to be tragic. The waist line will be long enough, and the difference between a curved and straight waist pronounced enough, that the bottom edge of the corset would angle over my hip. Youch!  That’s not comfortable. (I speak as someone who didn’t think about how things work so much when she was younger.)  Incidentally, if you’ve tried a straight size-up of this corset and had the waist mysteriously turn out to small, this is why. Shape really does matter.

So, about the veritable sorority of dolls on my desk… I did a little experimenting on how the shape of the corset changes with bodies of different proportions:

comparison of different corset patterns
The corsets are for a serious hour-glass (upper left), less hour-glass (lower left), almost-column (upper right), and true column (lower right). The blocks are with them to give you an idea of the original bodies.

The straightest body (lower right) is actually the closest to the angles at the bottom of the front piece of the original. (This is a shorter body, and I’m keeping the point proportional to the torso height, so it’s shorter than the original.)

Now, I can tell you that one of these will absolutely fail (especially on an unyielding vinyl doll body):

pfalzgrafin draft for Tyler
This one is based off the block for Tyler Wentworth. See how far back the waist point is?

Tyler’s an extreme example of an hourglass figure, but the point is valid: the more of an hourglass you are, the less suited your body is to a straight front line line this. In a corset like this, which is meant to have a solid busk at the front, you’re looking at having the busk poking into your tum all day. (The Pfalzgrafin hits 5 1/2″ below the waistline, placing that point conveniently in the region of your bladder. True story. On the plus side, that’s a fairly squishy bit of your abdomen. The negatives should be obvious…)

What if you don’t put rigid boning in the point?  Well….  Here’s the note I wrote myself about the problem:

illustation of straight front corset on curved body
If you put a moderately straight front corset on a curvey body (top left), the body will win (top right) and flip the bottom of the corset up to get a little breathing room. The solution is to angle the front of the corset outward to accommodate the body (bottom).

Corsets that move the entire torso like this do come into play in later eras, but they require a heck of a lot more engineering and a relatively firm foundation in the hip region. The bodice/corset of the sixteenth century is anchored on the waist and the shoulder. The front point really doesn’t have enough structural support to do any major containing of the stomach. (I suspect this is why the incredibly long busks of the early 1600s became all the rage – it was a line that had previously been impossible. Also, please excuse the slightly off waistlines in my drawing – I’m working inside the bottom margin of my notes for an eBook on block manipulations for 1550-1600. So, a) the drawings are really tiny, and b) I’m going to need a much catchier title. Teehee….) This is why most of the period patterns and reconstructions you see in Arnold, Alcega, etc show a slight curve to the front, especially at the waist. It’s not the bust that was giving the period tailor grief – it was the stomach.

Works Referenced

Arnold, Janet. Patterns of Fashion: The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women c1560 – 1620. New York: Drama Book Publishers, 1985.


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