Friday, 3 June 2011

Corsets - the 18th Century

Marie Antoinette by Vigee-Lebrun 1778

So today's corset re-construction is all about the late 18th Century. The time of Madam de Pompadour, Madame du Barry and Marie Antoinette. The fashions of the court were expensive and extravagant. The ideal of the ultra feminine at this time was primarily about showing delicacy and yet contrastingly also fertility.
The corset of the period was the beginning of corset engineering as far as I am concerned. The use of boning started to become very sophisticated as it began to be used with a new understanding of it's influence on the body. Construction-wise the corset, or stays as they were called for this period, is made of stiffened buckram and whalebone that is steamed into the characteristic curved front, usually lined in linen and sometimes covered in beautiful fabrics. Interestingly, men used to make stays as it was thought that only men had strong enough hands to work the stiff materials, whilst women did the dressmaking. 

The shape characteristic for this era had the effect of elongating the front torso, pulling in the back until the shoulder blades would almost touch, which also thrust up the bosom to an almost indecent level and made the waist appear teeny tiny. The illusion of the tiny waist was ever more emphasised by extreme widening of the hips with paniers and voluminous skirts.

The particular corset I am recreating is held at the V&A Museum in London. The top layer is silk damask the inner structure is of stiffened buckram and lined with linen, it is bound with linen tape across the seams and is a fine example of half boned stays. The boning is 'whalebone', a bit of a wordie misnomer as it isn't bone it is the made of baleen the bit of the whales mouth that filters food.

Since I have not seen this corset in the flesh I am using a pattern which is supposed to be of this very corset from Corsets and Crinolines by Norah Waugh and using the visual references from the V&A publication Underwear Fashion in Detail by Eleri Lynn. I have super imposed the pattern onto my size 12 block to work out proportions and am making my mock up to see how the pattern works.

I've always loved the stay corsets, they have such romantic appeal.
It's amazing that these robust and beautiful garments are over 200 years old and made by hand! This is a good point to remember though, that most museum pieces in order to survive would have been worn infrequently or immaculately looked after and reflect mainly the creme de la creme of fashion at the time as working women and those of lesser status would have worn their corsets until they broke due to their expense. The pieces may also either have been ill fitting for the wearer hence their lack of wear, either way it is amazing that they have lasted so long.

More later on how I got on making this corset because I've run out of boning casing......
Madam De Pompadour by Boucher 1750      

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