Monday, 29 August 2011

Antique corset show and tell at Symingtons

The things which struck me most about the Victorian and Edwardian corsets in the Symington collection, was their lightness, their diversity and the innovation of those who made them.  

All of the corsets, how ever many bones or layers, were extremely lightweight.  Many, though not all, were also very stiff keeping their hourglass shape in their boxes even when laid flat.  This can probably be attributed to the manufacturing process where the finished corset would be strapped onto a copper dolly - like a dress form made of copper - pasted with cold starch and then heated via steam in the dolly.  This heat process would dry the corset into it's final moulded shape.  The thought of pasting one of my painstakingly made creations with cold starch makes me shudder!!!

Not all were stiff though and some would have to be laid flat or stretched out to see how their panels were shaped.  This one above from 1911, has the most beautiful curved panels - there are 4 on each side which are gussetted at the bustline to accommodate the bust.  The shaping of the bottom panel means that no gussets are required to accommodate the hips, while the very curved panel in the middle,  seems to support, or anchor, the structure of the corset.

The Victorians are known for their innovation and corsets are no exception.  Here is one with a slotted back system which is tightened by two straps which enclose the waist on the outside - the straps are pulled around the middle and fastened with a buckle to tighten the corset.  This design therefore does not require eyelets or laces - the usual method of back adjustment for corsets of this period.

The corsets were given structure by a number of materials in combination or otherwise - there were flat steel bones, spiral steel bones, whalebone, cane and cording - all of these different materials, in various different widths, gave different levels of support.  The bones - whatever they were made of, were extremely thin, lightweight and flexible.

These bones strapped to the back of one semi 'de-boned' corset, are made from thin cane with ends dipped in what looked like enamel paint.  They are so thin they are almost cardboard like!

The cording on the corsets was so fine and delicate, but made rigid panels!  It was made on special machines and then cut to shape.  The 'cords' were made from a number of materials from something called Coraline which was made from specially woven vegetable fibres, to paper, to hemp twine.

The insides of the corsets were neat and tidy - no raw edges here.  This is because all the seams were lapped, sometimes through several layers - a popular interlining was hessian.  Whether they were interlined or not, most of the corsets were made of either cotton coutil, lasting, or sateen for the outer fabric, and cotton twill for the lining.

There was little mention of this lovely fan lacing on the museum card attached to this corset.  Fan lacing was thought to add back support to the corset - it is tightened by a strap which buckles at the front.

There were a number of "tropical" or lightweight corsets on display proving that a very wide range of materials, techniques and designs were employed in corsetry.  The corset above was a favourite with many in our group, but the one below, invoked the most 'surprise' because it is made of cotton lawn - a material which would seem far too flimsy to make a firm foundation.

There were many different types of busk fastener on display - straight, conical, spoon, and 'unidentified'!  When the two piece front busk fastener was invented  it revolutionised corset wearing for ladies because being able to fasten/unfasten it at the front prior to lacing,  meant that they no longer needed help getting dressed in the morning.

Unlike our modern corsets today, the bones in Victorian corsets - metal or otherwise - were moulded into shape during the manufacturing process.

Last but not least, my very favourite corset style of the day was the deep plunge corset pictured at the top.  There was an identical style in our display room which was so dilapidated, it was difficult to examine.  Both examples are French and from the period between 1905-1910.  It seems like an utter contradiction to suggest that both look remarkably modern, but they really do!

One day I will try to recreate it
In un-corset related news, stay tuned this week when I have an AMAZING giveaway to tell you about.  It's from Dragonfly Fabrics - click the badge on my left hand side bar to have a guess at what they might be donating to your sewing cause.

All pictures (c) Julia Bremble and displayed with kind permission of Leicestershire County Council Museums Service Symington Collection

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