The Modern Corset Renaissance. The Underpinnings Museum.

This exhibition is split into chapters, which can either be navigated page by page or through your area of interest with a full list of links at the bottom of each page. Clicking on images will take you to their dedicated object page, where you can learn about the individual piece in detail.

All photography by Tigz Rice Studios

Curation, object descriptions and commentary (highlighted in white) by Karolina Laskowska

Introduction by Lorraine Smith

Extended essay by Marianne Faulkner

Chapter 1: Drawing From History

The corset is an extremely misunderstood garment. Often portrayed as a symbol of the repression of women, with the ‘casting off of the corsets’ in the twentieth century frequently linked to liberation, the mainstream discourse is usually rather one-sided. However, much like high-heeled shoes are impossible to walk in for some yet a confident and powerful wardrobe essential for others, there is more than one side to the corset story. As Valerie Steele stated in her 2001 book The Corset: A Cultural History, “corsetry was not one monolithic, unchanging experience that all unfortunate women experienced before being liberated by feminism. It was a situated practice that meant different things to different people at different times.”

Vivienne Westwood is perhaps the first high profile designer to reintroduce the corset to the catwalk in her 1987 Harris Tweed collection, yet it was Jean-Paul Gaultier’s iconic design for Madonna’s 1990 Blonde Ambition tour that popularised the idea of the corset as outerwear. However, both of these looks were merely inspired by corsetry of the past and offered no more body shaping than your average bra. In the late 1990s, some designers took this a step further, reviving techniques used in Victorian corsetry – with the help of corsetier Mr Pearl – to create dramatic silhouettes for their runway shows. Thierry Mugler, John Galliano for Christian Lacroix, and Alexander McQueen all showcased breathtaking elaborate garments which paved the way for the twenty-first century’s corset revival.

– Lorraine Smith

To many, the concept of a “modern corset” is an oxymoron. Corsets are considered by the world at large to be outmoded and anachronistic, but for contemporary makers and wearers alike, we are in the midst of a modern corset renaissance. Modern corsetieres are reconceptualizing corsets both functionally and aesthetically.

At the beginning of the 21st century, corsetieres focused heavily on “The Rules” of the craft. A “proper” corset had to have a certain number of layers of coutil, for example, or one had to have made at least so many corsets before one should consider going into business. The rules were often based on what makers thought they knew of antiques at the time… but the understanding was incomplete.

The corset-making revolution had many key players, but Foundations Revealed stands out as the vanguard. Foundations Revealed offered a monthly subscription of in-depth how-to articles for creating period undergarments, written by professionals. Before Cathy Hay launched this resource, information on corsetry was either closely guarded, or scattered and confusing. With Foundations Revealed, corset makers came together. New figures rose to prominence, sharing their knowledge on techniques both new, and tried and true. From this tight sense of community arose the Oxford Conference of Corsetry, furthering the energy and knowledge sharing as begun by Foundations Revealed. The presence of The Underpinnings Museum at the 2017 Oxford Conference of Corsetry was another step on this path, revealing overlooked sources of historic inspiration to an eager audience.

c. 1890s Symington Reproduction Silk Corset By Cathy Hay. The Underpinnings Museum. Photography Tigz Rice

c. 1890s Symington Reproduction Silk Corset By Cathy Hay

Date: 2017

Origin: United Kingdom.

Fabric: Cotton/silk satin with cotton lining. Silk flossing. Vanyanis engraved busk.

Brand: Cathy Hay

 

This corset is made to measure from an 1890s pattern found in the Symington company pattern books. Original boning placement and flossing designs have been reproduced. Its base is a silk/cotton satin blend, with cotton lining and boned with synthetic whalebone. The corset has been constructed with an incredibly narrow stitch length and binding, both features that are rare in modern clothing but much more common in antique corsetry.

Cathy Hay’s belief is that the most innovative progress in the present day can only come from a solid grounding in the rich research and development undertaken during the 19th century. Modern corsetry is intrinsically connected to its Victorian roots, and from there, back through the whole history of fashion. She considers the corset to be so much more interesting as an evolving creature with a life of its own than it is as an isolated branch of modern dressmaking.

Modern corsetry is youth, exuberance, enthusiasm and experimentation – but it is also the latest chapter in a much larger story. I have a fascination with the history of corsetry in the same way that I am intrigued by the history of any place I visit – not just “Ooh, pretty!” but “Why is that here? Why is it arranged the way it is? What was the purpose of each of these elements when it was originally built?” With that depth of knowledge comes understanding – and I believe that modern corsetry will go to truly interesting places when it acknowledges and really makes time for that essential grounding, instead of guessing its way through modern sewing techniques to a reasonable imitation.

Cathy Hay, 2017

One of the greatest learning tools in a modern corset maker’s arsenal is the study of extant garments. Creation cannot exist in a vacuum; past design will always influence future creations. Modern corset makers have their own challenges to overcome, with different resources, materials and tools available, forcing them to engineer and adapt.

It’s easy to draw parallels between the modern renaissance and historical corsetry. Certain features remain unchanged, with makers still relying on busk fastenings, flossing embroidery, eyelets and lacing. We no longer have specialist flossing embroidery sewing machines, so this embellishment form has become its own painstaking hand craft. Endangered baleen bones were long ago replaced with steel… but technological advancements brought us plastic synthetic whalebone, which behaves comparably.

'Stella' Ivory Satin Corset With Flossing Embroidery & Cording by C. T., c. 1900, made in France for the USA market. 
The Underpinnings Museum.
Photography by Tigz Rice.

'Stella' Ivory Satin Corset With Flossing Embroidery & Cording by C. T.

Date: c. 1900s

Origin: Made in France for the USA market

Fabric: Silk satin outer, cotton lining

Brand: C. T.

 

Black Cotton Sateen Corset With White Flossing & Woven Trim by P. N., C. late 1880s - early 1890s, USA. The Underpinnings Museum. Photography by Karolina Laskowska

Black Cotton Sateen Corset With White Flossing & Woven Trim by P. N.

Date: c. late 1880s – early 1890s

Origin: United States

Fabric: Cotton sateen

Brand: P. N.

Calliope corset by Tighter Corsets. The Underpinnings Museum. Photography by Tigz Rice

'Calliope' Embroidered Overbust Corset By Tighter Corsets

Date: 2016

Origin: Duvall WA, United States

Fabric: Silk Satin, coutil, satin ribbon, silk floss, antique alenciennes lace, leavers lace. Linen/cotton blend lining.  Cotton twill waist tape.  A combination of flat steel and spiral steel.

Brand: Tighter Corsets

Designer: April Pullen

 

Calliope was commissioned as a bridal corset and also a contestant in the 2016 Foundations Revealed Corsetry Contest.  Calliope is a modified reproduction of an antique corset in the corset pattern collection of Joëlle Verne of Atelier Sylphe.  Atelier Sylphe corset patterns are meticulously drafted from Joelle’s personal antique corsets.  This corset was made using singly layer construction with applied internal bone casings and a floating lining.  All binding and embellishments were carefully stitched by hand.  The construction of this corset is recorded in this dress diary.

Modern corsetry to me is all about freedom of expression.  A corset is not merely required clothing, as it once was.  Today, corsets are worn by choice and hence, they are no longer just clothing… corsets are fashion.  They are, all at once, controversial, historical, and seductive…  Alluring, defining, and suggestive.  They are underwear and outerwear, both functional and extravagant.  And they are some of the most desired and defining pieces of the wearer’s wardrobe… often the owner’s favorite garment.

– April Pullen, 2017

Satin & Leather Ventilated Cage Corset by Corsets By Caroline. The Underpinnings Museum. Photography by Tigz Rice
Satin & Leather Ventilated Cage Corset by Corsets By Caroline. The Underpinnings Museum. Photography by Tigz Rice
Satin & Leather Ventilated Cage Corset by Corsets By Caroline. The Underpinnings Museum. Photography by Tigz Rice

Satin & Leather Ventilated Cage Corset By Corsets By Caroline

Date: 2017

Origin: New Zealand

Fabric: pink satin coutil, cotton coutil, leather, synthetic whalebone, steel bones, ribbon lacing

Brand: Corsets By Caroline

Designer: Caroline Woollin

 

The inspiration for this design came from the Victorian ventilated corsets (one of which the designers was able to see in person when the Symington collection was exhibited at the Oxford Conference of Corsetry in 2013). The corset belies a complexity. It appears that the vertical bones simply need to be attached to the three bands. However, it is tricky to angle the boning channels against the sloping top and bottom bands so that they fall plumb and are evenly spaced and symmetrical. The corset was patterned using Computer Assisted Design software, as it would have been difficult to achieve this level of precision using traditional paper and pen drafting techniques.

The vertical boning channels are strips of coutil binding faced with leather cut to the same size. The waistband is double layered satin coutil and the top and bottom bands are satin coutil faced with cotton coutil. The vertical channels slot into the bands between the two coutil layers and are constructed so there is no visible external stitching.

[Modern corsetry is] not about the design particularly (I think there are many historical corsets that look modern and fresh) – for me it is about how we take elements from what has gone before and add them to the mix using interesting modern textiles and technology to aid and speed up the process. In the historical camp we have corsets made using natural fibres and materials using age old drafting techniques. Now we have incredible possibilities – every conceivable type of fabric, 3D printing and body scanning to name a few – this is what makes modern corsetry so exciting.

– Caroline Woollin, 2017

Cotton corset with cording and exposed spiral steel boning, c. 1900-5, Denmark. From The Underpinnings Museum collection. Photography by Tigz Rice

Cotton Corset With Cording & Exposed Spiral Steel Boning

Date:  c. 1900-5

Origin: Denmark

Fabric: Cotton coutil

Brand: Custom made

 

Although corsets were always intended as a kind of underwear, they were never worn against bare skin. Whilst modern design plays with revealing and concealing the body beneath, historical design often played with revealing and concealing in other ways. This example features cut away bone channels to reveal the internal structures of the spiral steel bones beneath, a relatively new and still exciting technology at the time.