Chapter 5: The Corset As A Canvas, Part 1

One of the biggest shifts for modern corsetieres was the conceptualization of the corset as a canvas, as pioneered by Jenni Hampshire of Sparklewren. By 2009, corsetry was already well-established as outerwear and makers were playing with fabrics and embellishment, but Sparklewren strived to push aesthetics to their (il)logical conclusion. Embellishments were lavished on satin, like paints glazed on a canvas: layers of lace, beading, flossing, eventually even literal gilding. Style lines were explored; accuracy and reduction took a back seat to purity of form. Already tactile in nature, corsets became increasingly textural, mixed-media projects.

'Jonah' Silk & Feather Overbust Corset By Sparklewren. The Underpinnings Museum. Photography by Tigz Rice

‘Jonah’ Silk & Feather Overbust Corset By Sparklewren

Date: 2013-2016

Origin: Birmingham, United Kingdom

Fabric: Dark taupe iridescent silk duchess, black satin cotton-viscose blend coutil, bronze leavers lace, old gold lace trim, pyrite stones/beads, burgundy dyed freshwater pearls, copper and rose-gold beads, rose-gold chain, natural ostrich feathers, flat steel boning, front busk (sewn permanently closed), two-part eyelets, and flat cotton lacing.

Brand: Sparklewren

Designer: Jenni Hampshire


An extravagant, one-of-a-kind corset that utilises traditional construction techniques with contemporary couture embellishment techniques. An outer fabric of silk duchesse is lined with satin coutil. Each seam is sewn in a historically inspired ‘lapped’ construction, enclosing narrow 5mm spiral steel bones.

This corset has had many evolutions: it began its life as the ‘Bird Of Prey’, a corsetted dress with the feathered skirt extending to the knees and feathers framing the bustline. The pattern and construction technique for this design are based on the same ones as the ‘Strawberry Leopard’ corset. The technique for the sprays of feathers on the garment’s skirt were inspired by an Alexander McQueen gown and were applied with the help of an intern.

In 2016, the full feather skirt was cut off to leave only the hips of feather embellishment. The corset was then further embellished with rose gold chains, pyrite stones, metallic lace and baroque freshwater pearls. It was renamed ‘Jonah’, after a cat of the designer’s friends with the same colouration as the garment.

Jenni Hampshire began creating corsets under the moniker ‘Sparklewren’ in 2009. The designer’s background in Fine Art has resulted in a body of work akin to wearable sculpture. Historically inspired silhouettes and construction techniques are paired with lush, opulent embellishment and couture construction techniques. The brand specialises in one-of-a-kind heirloom garments, with each garment taking weeks of carefully considered embellishment and craftsmanship.

'Burned Earth' Silk Overbust Corset By The Velvet Letter. The Underpinnings Museum Photography by Tigz Rice

'Burned Earth' Silk Overbust Corset By The Velvet Letter

Date: 2017

Origin: South Africa

Fabric: Silk charmeuse fused to cotton coutil and steel boning.

Brand: The Velvet Letter

Designer: Anya Kovacs


This design was inspired both by the print of the silk charmeuse and its intended wearer. The print’s texture reminded the designer of local rock formations: ‘great chunks of granite that tower and soar’. Irregular rhinestone placement was used to enhance this print pattern, giving the impression of rock fissures within which ‘dark geodes glitter’.

The corset was constructed with a silk charmeuse outer layer fused to a coutil strength layer and lined with satin. It fastens with a front busk closure and is structured with a mix of 7mm spiral and flat steel bones.

The Velvet Letter was founded by designer Anya Kovacs in 2013. The brand specialises in one of a kind corsets and gowns, using traditional couture and corset making techniques.

Modern corsetry is a great lens through which to explore cultural ideals and experiences of femininity. The physical process of creating a corset is extremely meditative. I love to immerse myself in crafting something so exacting and so sculptural.

– Anya Kovacs, 2017

Weeping Hydra beaded overbust corset By Emiah. The Underpinnings Museum. Photography by Tigz Rice
Weeping Hydra beaded overbust corset By Emiah. The Underpinnings Museum. Photography by Tigz Rice
Weeping Hydra beaded overbust corset By Emiah. The Underpinnings Museum. Photography by Tigz Rice
Weeping Hydra beaded overbust corset By Emiah. The Underpinnings Museum. Photography by Tigz Rice
Weeping Hydra beaded overbust corset By Emiah. The Underpinnings Museum. Photography by Tigz Rice

'Weeping Hydra' Beaded Overbust Corset By Emiah

Date: 2016-2017

Origin: United Kingdom

Fabric: Coutil, embellished with freshwater pearls, glass pearls, goldstone beads and seed beads in various sizes

Brand: Emiah

Designer: Alycia Hirani


The corset’s base fabric consists of a single layer of hand-dyed coutil, which was used for its ability to mold around the body like a second skin whilst also adding needed structure to support the heavy amount of pearls. A custom 19-paneled pattern was constructed with internal boning channels, to create a smooth canvas without disrupting the embellishment. It’s cut with a cupped rib to create a full shape and emphasise the narrow waist.

This corset is the dark sister of Emiah’s first heavily beaded corset. The ‘Pearled Beast’ was more romantic, featuring pure white and pale pink baroque pearls, with a soft and round silhouette. The ‘Weeping Hydra’ however was created as its opposite. It is slightly more sinister with its pointed lines, inky black goldstone beads and dark oil slick pearls. This corset was heavily inspired by the organic way sea froth washes up onto the shore at night, creating glittering gradients of colour in the moonlight.

It features approximately 7,000 hand-sewn pearls and beads in various sizes and took over 170 hours to complete.

I use modern corsetry as a canvas in which to create beautifully wearable art, using embellishment to create exquisite textures and mold the body into striking silhouettes. I can do this because in my mind, modern corsetry has no limits, which I find very exciting. There is so much variety in modern corsetry… creators can express themselves in different ways.

– Alycia Hirani, 2017


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