Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Interview with a Corset Maker

A couple of weeks ago, I received a flurry of interview requests from trainee journalists.  I found the questions interesting and I love answering these types of requests.  It's always a mind stretch and what you end up with is an affirmation of your own practice in black and white.

So I thought i'd document it here.  For the sake of authenticity, I have not edited the questions so I do apologise for the grammar in advance.

Q: When did you first start being interested in corsets and what made you interested in them?

About 10 years ago.  I needed an outfit, wanted a corset, decided to make one.  I bought a kit, and have been obsessed with them ever since.  This is how most people get into corsetry.

Sophia Loren in the 1960 film The Millionairess. 
This is the image that inspired me to make corsets

Q: Considering the evolution of the corset over the eras of strict Victorian, Hollywood Glamour, Burlesque, Pin Up, Goth, Fetish and even it's use in modern fashion by designers such as Vivienne Westwood and John Paul Gaultier, why do you think the corset has become popular again over the past year and so - but this time in a much more mainstream way? (Do you think it has anything to do with the current 'body ideal' of Kim Kardashian hourglass figures or maybe the modern mainstream interest in pin up, vintage and burlesque fashions?)

An ancient Minoan Goddes statue from around 2000BC
The first records of corsetry being used as body modification date back to c.2000BC in the Minoan culture where it is evident from their art that athletes wore thick leather bands around their waists to make them appear more shapely  This is the beginning of corsetry as we know it - it did not start with the Victorians - there were many ages and fashions before them who used corsetry to create the fashionable silhouette of the day.  However, the classic archetypal hourglass shape was created by the Victorians and it is this shape combined with the flatter Edwardian shape that informs modern corsetry today.

A Victorian corset advert

Corsetry has never ever not been popular, it has always been to do with fashion.  We feel more exposed to corsetry currently because of the Burlesque scene, which in itself is far from 'new', even in it's current incarnation it was underground for long before it was mainstream,  and the current fashion for vintage and hand made.  However, many corsetieres of today have been in business for a very long time.  Autumn Adamme, the Godmother of modern corsetry, started her label 'Dark Garden' 25 years ago in San Fransisco.  It was she who bought corsetry out of the underwear drawer and made it into outerwear.  Today's corsetieres have much to thank her for.

Goth corset c.1980  Picture by Derek Ridgers

Velda Lauder was also a pioneer for modern corsetry, she started her business in the early 90's from Kensington Market in London.  The modern fashion for corsets as outerwear was underground in the clubbing scene for decades.  Famous designers such as Gaultier, Mugler and McQueen to name but a few, plus many more talented artisans were veterens of this scene and through their connections, their infamy and their famous clients, merely bought this new way of wearing corsetry into the public eye but it was around long before they thought of it.

Velda Lauder's 'Dita' Corset from the early 1990's.
 Velda, a veteran of the London clubbing scene herself,  was an inspiration to many a new corsetiere including myself.

As far as I know, Kim Kardashian (I have no idea who she even is) does not wear corsetry and certainly she has absolutely nothing to do with the current mainstream popularity.  Famous women who bought modern corsetry to the mainstream through their designers, were more like (in order of appearance)  Madonna (JPG), Dita von Teese (JPG/Pearl/Dark Garden), Isabela Blow (McQueen), Kylie Minogue (JPG), Beyonce (Mugler) -  in fact most of the aforementioned designers use Mr Pearl to create their corsetry.

Madonna in 1990 wearing her famous Jean Paul Gaultier corset which was made for her Blonde Ambition Tour

Certainly current fashions for Pin-up and Vintage has helped corsetry into the mainstream where importers of cheap chinese corsetry are doing well.  However the much easier accessiblity of corset making information through the internet has also created a boom within the crafting community and ensured a good flow of fresh artisan talent in the field of bespoke corsetry.  (There is a separate post with those sources HERE.) 

Thierry Mugler whose designs frequently feature groundbreaking corsetry provides inspiration
for many a modern corsetiere
This influence is very easy to see in his organic shapes and 3D designs using materials
such as metal and leather to create armour like designs.
3) What makes a good corset - what should a first time waist trainer/tight lacer/corset wearer be looking for (and to avoid the £10 Ebay corsets with additional free g-strings!)

A good corset is always hand made.  There are many things to look for in good corsetry and these depend upon the maker and the materials used.  It's impossible to give a definitive list.  However, it must be borne in mind that a dedicated corsetiere will make corset patterns for the modern figure - we are not the Victorians and our bodies are different - whereas mass manufactured corsetry will be made using standard patterns, with cheap materials.  Most mass produced corsets cost as little as USD$5 each wholesale,  wheras a proper handmade corset made with quality materials by a trained corsetiere will cost anywhere from £200 upwards - the materials alone will cost nearly £50.  If you can buy a mass produced corset for $5. wholesale, imagine how much the workers who produced it are getting paid and how cheap the materials are?  Mass produced corsetry is not only bad for the body but it is totally unethical.  Steel and cotton are two of the most expensive commodities in the world today.  Good corsetry is not something that can be created on the cheap.

Corset wearing veteran Cathy Jung has the smallest waist in the world after waist training for some 30+ years
She has had corsets made for her by many of the pioneers of modern corsetry including Dark Garden, and Bizarre Designs
4) What would would say to someone thinking about trying waist training but is scared to try?

Find a good corsetiere to help you.

5) How has the Oxford Conference of Corsetry gained in popularity since it's beginnings in 2013 and what can we expect from the 2015 event?

When OCOC started we had 25 delegates.  OCOC15 has space for 70 delegates and most of the places were sold a week after going on sale.  This year we have couture expert Ian Frazer Wallace of The Whitechapel Workhouse giving a workshop on integrated corsetry, other special guests are Barbara Pesendorfer of Royal Black Corsetry who will talk about 3d design, Autumn Adamme of Dark Garden, and Europe's top showgirl and burlesque performer, Immodesty Blaize.

This is me and Autumn Adamme at the Oxford Conference of Corsetry last year.
She is wearing one of her own bespoke Dark Garden gowns and we are standing under a portrait of one of her own inspirations, Queem Elizabeth I at Jesus College, Oxford
6) Why did you start the Oxford School of Corsetry and has it been popular?

I have been teaching corsetry for the last 6 years.  Oxford School of Corsetry is just a formal name I have put in place this year in order to expand my repetoire of classes (from beginners to advanced) it was necessary to make a dedicated website.  I have students who come to me from all over the world including Hong Kong, Norway, France, Germany, Poland, America, Australia and all parts of the UK.  It therefore seemed appropriate to make my classes into a 'school' because as far as I know, I am the only person in the world who offers such a wide curriculum of corsetry based lessons.

Class of '14 - this lovely bunch came back to Sew Curvy 3 times last year!
Pharmacist, Antique book collector, Engineer, Security expert, Social worker

The ladies who come to my classes are not all wanting to become corset makers.  For the most part they are very clever women (teachers, engineers, accountants, scientists are very frequent!) who have a deep creativ streak and who need something more challenging than simple dressmaking to work on.  Other students are historical re-enactors, tailors,  professional costumers, fashion graduates, school leavers who want to do costume at college,  ladies looking for a change in career and the odd burlesque performer who makes her own costumes.  I've also taught men.


Are you a corset maker?  What are your influences?

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