Corsets seems to go hand-in-hand for many in BDSM and alternative lifestyles. Ranging in varieties such as classic black leather, colorful rubber and PVC, and a vast array of fabrics and patterns, corsets appeal to many regardless of gender, role, or dynamic. Personally I’ve always trained my girls to wear a variety of corsets. I’ve been especially fortunate with my present relationship in that my girl is very accustomed to wearing corsets and familiar with their crafting. Therefore we present the following post with the purpose of educating the reader on the history, types, and selection of corset options. As is the case with all of our writings, we offer information based on our experiences and research to help inform and educate. However it is by no means definitive, but rather offered for your consideration on your own development and journey.
What is a Corset? Technically a corset is just about any top which is designed to either add support to or change the physical shape of the person wearing it. To function properly these garments are typically reinforced by steel, plastic, imitation whale bone or reeds to help maintain the desired form and increase its strength.
The word corset is derived on the French term for a laced bodice. From about 1600 – the Victorian era the word “stays” was often used instead of corset. Stays now more commonly refer to the reinforcements within the garment.
Key components of a corset include:
- Binding – the strip of material or fabric which binds the various layers of the corset together along the top, bottom, and sides of each panel.
- Busk – a stiff front center panel which exhibits greater rigidity.
- Channel – a stitched sleeve or path between layers of the body of the corset to hold a stays or bones in place.
- Eyelets / Grommets – rings which reinforce the openings for lacings to prevent tearing.
- Interfacing – a layer of material often used on fashion corsets which is fused to the surface layer to add to its strength. If it’s not bonded, it is often referred to as a “strength layer”.
- Lacing – cord or ribbon often made of fabric, leather, or nylon to close the corset by alternating passes through eyelets.
- Lacing Gap – the space between where various panels are laced together.
- Lining – the inner most layer of a corset panel which often contacts with skin or underlying garment.
- Modesty Panel – a panel of material or fabric covering the main back lacing gap which helps prevent skin from being pinched or receiving friction burn during the lacing process.
- Panel – each piece of material or fabric which acts as the part of the body to create the general shape & fit; leather, PVC, rubber, latex, cotton, damask, silk, etc.
- Stays/Bones – strips of metal, plastic, spring, bone, reed, and other materials offering structural reinforcement.
- Waist Tape – a non-stretchable ribbon inside the corset to prevent the waist from deforming.
The earliest image of a corset shows up on a statue of the Minoan Goddess Chryselephantine around 2000 BC. It shows rigid stays from the waist to under the bust, a tight belt at the waist and a halter type top.
Corsets started to appear in women’s fashion in the 1300’s and at that time referred to any type of laced bodice. Originating as undergarment, Catherine de Medici brought the corset to France in the 1500’s. The design of this corset was to create an inverted cone with the narrow end at the waist. The design of this corset was to flatten the natural bust line and push the breasts up to create a bigger contrast between the breast and bodice. This style was made of stiffened fabric.
Corsets evolved into a design more similar to what we see today with the addition of the front busk in the mid 1500’s. By Elizabethan times whalebone stays were sewn into pockets to add additional support to the bodice. The busks then became more decorative being made of wood, horn, ivory, metal and whalebone. At this time the busk was still a one piece panel.
The next large change in design came in the 18th century. More emphasis was placed on raising and rounding / shaping the breast and then tightening the abdominal area (not nipping in the waist). The goals of these design changes were to provide additional back support and improve posture.
During the reign of Louis the XV, corsets fell out of style. The French Revolution also heralded in a revolution in fashion. Thanks to Empress Josephine, the Empire waist style was increasing in popularity, sometimes accompanied by wearing a short corset. Corsets at this time were often replaced with “jumps” which were made of quilted linen, and though had some boning or stays, provided a little bit of support without being restrictive. The stays were primarily designed just to lift the breasts.
The Victorian period, (starting around 1830), saw a return to the corset. The waistline on clothing moved down from the under bust height of the Empire cut, to the natural waistline. Skirts became more structured and the corset was designed to both support and enhance the bust and shape the waist.
Meanwhile the industrial revolution also impacted corsets. Machine made designs started around 1839, and by 1890 had replaced handmade designs in most cases. These technological advances allowed for the advent of what we now call tight lacing to create a smaller waist.
The fashion shift during this time was for a more modest shoulder and sleeve line in tops, since the broader shoulders and sleeves had made the waist look smaller in comparison in earlier times, the corset was now laced tighter to create the smaller waist. The fuller skirts also became more modest in width, so the corset now went to the hips to accentuate the hips and create the hourglass figure that had become the desired ideal.
Stays sewn into these corsets were made from spiral steel instead of whalebone or other lighter weight materials. The combination of stronger fabric, stiffer stays and stronger seams allowed for a more extreme modification of the female form.
These modifications sparked some concern over what harm was happening to the body by wearing these corsets and a line of “Health Corsets” was launched. These health corsets progressed to the “S” shaped corset of the Edwardian era. In this corset, the front of the body was straight, the thinking was that this would reduce the pressure on the abdominal area. However, such a shape drastically shifted the torso forward of the pelvis which unfortunately caused a significant increase in back injuries. This could be why this trend only lasted from 1900-1910.
Corsets were then replaced by girdles for many women. Girdles spanned the range from a long-line corset to a garment that would also cover the hips. buttocks and upper thighs. The longer length trend turned out to be restrictive of movement at a time when women where exploring more of their independence and as such didn’t stay in vogue. With the advent of World War 1, clothing styles continued to shift to designs that did not need corsets underneath so that the steel could be used for military support.
Corsets moved from undergarments to integrated designs as a part of regular clothing as seen with the return of structured evening gowns. The boning and design of many bodices, especially strapless styles, is based on the designs of corsets. Popular influences can be seen in increased use within film
with a variety of performers contributing to normalizing the look and use of corsets. Whether it was Madonna’s use during her “Material Girl” tour in the 80’s, or current entertainment personalities such as Beyoncé, Rihanna, Shakira, Jennifer Lawrence, Kim Kardashian, the use of corsets is on the rise.
Additionally, increased involvement in niche activities such as amateur theater and historical recreation, popularity of cos-play and Steampunk, and the recent adoption of BDSM elements in culture have all contributed to bringing the corset back into vogue. Certainly those within the BDSM lifestyle enjoy wearing, and sometimes making, corsets as part of their preferred look. Depending on its design, wearing a corset can announce one’s presence and portray either an authoritative or captive like quality – almost universally attracting if not demanding attention from those in view.
Styles of Corsets
There are many styles of corsets and present the more common ones below:
Under Bust corsets go from above or below the hip to just under the bustline. Women with larger cup sizes may find fitting an underbust corset to work much better than an overbust if they are not looking to spend the money on a custom made corset. Underbust corsets can be strapless, have shoulder straps or a halter neck.
- Over Bust corsets will start either above or below the hips and continue up over the bust. Because of this, the cup size of the wearer needs to be factored into the fit of the corset. Details like straps coming from the neckline of the corset to the neck of the wearer can further challenge the fit of these styles.
- Waspie is a short corset that generally runs from the top of the hips to just under the bust. They are sometimes called short torso corsets, corset belts, or waist cinchers. Designed primarily to shape the waist, it is important to see if there are stays in the waspie or if it’s just heavy elastic or spandex. Stays will range from lightweight plastic boning to various strengths of steel. For waist training or tight lacing, stronger stays are required.
- High Back or Corset Jackets have a back that covers the back up to the neck, and often has a higher cut stand up neck. This cut can be flattering on several body types because it creates a longer line on the torso and may smooth out the look of the back, which for some people will show lumps from the soft tissue of the body being shifted up from the torso being laced into the corset.
- Belt Corsets were a type of corset worn by men to help provide abdominal shaping while strengthening the back. These were often advertised as means towards a more masculine and athletic physique.
Selecting a Corset
A well-made corset, even mass produced, will generally start in the $150 price range. It is always advisable to buy a corset (or at least your first corset of a specific design) in person so that you can try it on and make sure it acts as you expect it to. Bear in mind that people wear corsets for a variety of purposes, and body and proportions vary widely. As such, one cannot assume that a corset which looks great on one person will necessarily be a good fit for you.
Designed for looks and comfort, not support. Boning tends to be either zip ties sewn into channels or lightweight plastic boning. These styles are comfortable for an evening out but are not designed to be used for shape modification. The materials of the actual corset are generally lighter weight and selected more for their looks than strength. These corsets are often available at very low prices, often sourced from Asia, and have very random sizing guidelines.
Tight Lacing Corsets
Tight Lacing is often appealing to those that enjoy bondage activities and body transformation activities. These corsets are designed with either flat or spiral steel bones, extra thick boning or now synthetic whale bone boning, these corsets are made from 2 or more layers of fabric that are fused together for additional strength. Many corsets are made from a variety of boning types as spiral steel bones work well in curved areas and other types of stiffer boning cannot flex along a curved path. Amazing results have been achieved through dedicated practice of tight lacing corsetry, of note is Cathie Jung who presently holds the recording as having the Smallest Waist On A Living Person – just 15 inches (about the same size as a regular jar of mayonnaise).
Corsets with Modesty Panels
The advantage of a corset with a modesty panels is that the panel can prevent skin from poking through the laces and create a cleaner, more polished look to the corset, in addition to preventing pinching and friction burn as one is laced. However, modesty panels will limit the sizing range that the corset will fit, since the corset needs to be able to lace tightly enough to secure the modesty panel without gaps.
Every company will have their own sizing guides, since many corsets, especially those in a lower price range, are made in Asia, it is very important to look at the company’s sizing recommendations. Corsets with steel stays / bones will be able to be laced tighter than fashion corsets.
Under Bust Corset Sizing
Steel boned corsets will often be sized by the maximum waist diameter with the corset laced shut. Corset sized this way usually run in even number increments. The suggested sizing will generally be 4 – 10 inches smaller than your actual waist*. The “squishier” / less toned or muscular your waist and abdominal area is, the more compressible you are and the bigger the difference between your actual waist size and the corset size. For example, if your waist size is 28 inches and your are well toned, you might want to start trying on 24 inch corsets, but if you had the same size waist and more fat than muscle tone, you might try a 22 inch corset.
* Your waist is generally the smallest area between your bust and your hips. It will be an inch or 2 above your navel and when you side bend, it’s where you “break”.
If you’ve never worn a corset, are going to be very active in your corset or have intestinal or breathing issues, get your corset bigger (maybe 3 inches smaller than your waist) and work your way down slowly if you decide you’re ready to try that.
Next, look at the length of your torso. Corset dimensions will include the length of the front busk (the center front of the corset), the side stays, and the back length. You want the corset to come to same place on your bust as the bottom of your bra (the corset is there to “pick you up”). Measure from there to the top of your hip (at the top of your hip bone) – unless the style is designed to flair over the hips (then you still need to measure above the crease made with your leg at your hip when you sit). That’s the maximum length you want for the front busk. When measuring, use a metal tape measure to get a more realistic measurement. Also, double check the measurement sitting down. You might find that you need a shorter length sitting then standing, don’t think you’re going to be sitting in your corset, remember having to use the bathroom often requires sitting or squatting. The closer your ribs are to your hips, the shorter your torso (sometimes called “short-waisted”). People with this body type would be better in a short or regular corset. Long line corsets are more appropriate for those with a longer torso (or longer waist). Neither long nor short waists have anything to do with overall height.
If your corset style goes past your hip bones, you will need to take your hip measurements into account. For corsets, the hip measurement should be taken at the front hipbone level, above where the crease of your leg and hip is. Many corsets will tell you the allowance for the hips by indicating the bottom edge width. For example, the corset we found above is a “curvier” model with an allowance of 11-13 inches more at the bottom edge. This means with the size 24, my upper hip measurement can be 35 – 37 inches. Remember this is a high hip measurement, most clothing measurements for hips are taken at the fullest part of your hips which is often about 9 inches lower than your waist (so it goes around your bum).
When you have the corset laced, it should not close completely. An even 2-inch gap along the length of the corset is often considered ideal (without use of a modesty panel).
Over Bust Corset Sizing
In addition to the sizing considerations above, you need to factor in your bust size. Measure your bust at the fullest part and then look at the corset description, most will indicate the maximum bust difference from the waist. Overbust corsets will also include the length of the corset from the center of the bust down to the bottom edge (think of this as from the top edge of the corset in line with your nipple).
Our example curvy corset indicates a 6+ allowance for the bust, which means the smallest your bust measurement should be 30 is inches with a B or C cup. If the corset is strapless or a sweetheart style neck, you have a lot of play with how much bigger your bust measurement can be and still work. If your natural proportions tend to be larger in the bust, you might find you want to go up 1 size in an over bust corset. For example someone with the measurements of 36 C, 28, 40 might find that they can comfortably wear 24 in an under bust corset, but needs a 26 in the over bust – even by the same company.
About the Stays / Bones
Stays or bones are how most corsets achieve their shaping abilities and help distribute the forces of closing the corset around the body. Below are the most common variety of stays used in corset design:
Extra Thick Boning
Corsets need to be seasoned before lacing tightly or being worn for long times. This is done by putting the corset on and lacing it to a comfortable tightness. Wear it for a couple of hours and then increase the tightness. This should be done a couple of times before wearing the corset for real. This helps to prevent kinking or warping of the stays. It also helps to prevent ridges and more permanent ridges from forming in the fabric.
Either find a lightweight camisole or top that can be worn under your corset (if your style has straps) or look for or make a corset liner that you can snap into your corset (unless the corset you purchased has a liner layer sewn in). This will help keep perspiration off of the fabric and reduce cleaning costs and prolong the life of your corset. In addition, you should fully open the laces when you take the corset off and allow your corset to dry inside out and wait until it’s totally dry before putting it away.
It’s always a good idea to discuss with the corset manufacturer proper care of your corset. The more exotic materials will of course require very different care than off-the-shelf fashion corsets. Tapestry and Damask fabric corsets often will require spot cleaning only, while leather, latex, and rubber will need routine conditioning to keep the material supple and suffering from drying out or off-gassing.
In this post we’ve presented the history and development of the corset, typical construction, purpose, and determining fit. In another forthcoming post we’re planning we will look at the health factors of corsetry and good lacing practices. A few closing thoughts regarding corsets from this post:
- Select the right corset for the job; don’t try to make a fashion corset into a tight-lacing one and vice versa.
- Accurate measurements go a long way to helping you find a corset that fits well; don’t fall into the trap of trusting vanity sizing.
- Forcing a corset that isn’t fitting you well will not compliment you; be honest with what fits and feels right when properly worn.
- Seasoning (breaking-in) a corset and good care practices will significantly extend the life of your corset and could very well last you a lifetime if it’s well-made and well-loved.
We hope you have found this article useful in your selection, fit, and care of corsets. If you have questions, please contact us at [email protected] and we’d be happy to try to help answer your questions.
Sir Vice & soumise
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