Bones used in corsetry were not to benefit the tightness of the garment. Boning kept the shape of the garment free from wrinkles and sagging to guarantee a smooth fit. Much like plastic boning is used today in evening gowns and wedding dresses. “Whalebone” was originally made from the “teeth” of the Right Whale and was not bone at all. These whales strain their mouth full of water through a fibrous screen of teeth made of enamel covered hair (similar in construction to the horn of a rhinoceros) catching any food for consumption. This fibrous source could be split into various narrow flexible lengths, pliable when heated and yet retaining it’s shape when cool. Ideal in the manufacture of many items of clothing requiring support for shape and fit such as hats, bodices and shirt collars and corsets.
By 1860 alternatives to whalebone were introduced due to the whale being hunted into extinction, thanks to its many desirable by-products. Boning made of steel strips, featherboning made of goose and turkey quill and Platinum Dress Bones made from a mix of silver, steel and platinum were devised as a result. By 1900 whalebone became not only scarce but also expensive due to taxation on whale products and it was necessary to find a cheap alternative for the continuing growth of the mass production market.
“Flat or rigid steels,” also known as “stays,” which successfully replaced whalebone, can be ¼ to ½ inch wide and are usually made from 18-guage thickness tempered steel however, thickness can vary. These are best placed at the back of the corset either side of the lacing eyelets or in the front panels under the busk where little bend or flexibility is required. These steels were not necessarily the best replacement at times as they tended to rust. It was not before 1894 when galvanisation and a cellulose protective coating for the steel was successfully developed to prevent this problem. Steels made in this way are still commonly used in Victorian styles of corsetry produces today. In the 1950’s boning made of plastic nylon material, commercially known as rigilene, became available and is used quite widely today in foundation garments and dress bodices.
steels” were first produced at the turn of the century and are made
from galvanised steel wire that has been coiled into a spring and then milled
flat thus creating a very flexible strong “bone” or “stay”.
Spiral steels are most often used at the sides of a corset where the
garment needs to curve in different directions, i.e., in at the waist and out
over the hip. (use
illustrations of the various metal components mentioned in this section)
A further alternative or addition to boning was cording. This was the process of creating several narrow vertical pockets of fabric using fine stitching and inserting fine strips of stiff twine, rattan, cane, turkey quills or reeds into the pockets using a special needle. Contrast stitching was frequently used and made for attractive detailing. Warners in America referred to it as “cane cording” and used “coraline” a boning material made from a Mexican cactus plant. Warners patented this process and sold it to other manufacturers to replace the dwindling whale bone supply. Cording, as a successful stiffener, was also used in children’s stays and bodices.
Bone pockets are vertical rows of stitching which make pockets for the bones or stays to slide into. In the 1880’s embroidery and “flossing” machines were perfected which could sew elaborate detail on the corset in particular at the ends of the pockets to keep the bones in place. Also known as “bone casings.”
Busk or busc
There are many forms of busks the oldest of which is a flat stiff length of bone, horn, wood, ivory or metal which was slid down a front central pocket in a back lacing corset keeping it upright and from wrinkling. Whales which actually had “teeth” or “tusks,” contributed their “ivory” for use as busks too. Busks could be as thick as 3/16th of an inch, as long as 17 inches and as wide as 2 ½ inches. The busk or busc in earlier times could be held in position by it’s own lacing (a busc lace) and either the busk or its lacing could be presented to a suitor or champion, the lacing could easily be tied to an arm or hatband as a romantic favour. The gift of a highly decorated busk, as carved by a sailor husband for example, was indeed a very intimate gift for his beloved.
The busks we use today are the “split front busk” or “bifid busk” and were not developed until the 1830’s. They are manufactured from 2 pieces of flat tempered steel. This metal clasp has one side riveted with protruding studs known as the “stud plate” and the other matching “slot plate” is punched with keyholes for the studs to hook into. Seen as revolutionising the design of corsetry, as it could now be put on without having to unlace the back of the garment completely thus saving time and not requiring the assistance of a maid. In the 1880’s the spoon busk was developed with an enlarged spoon shaped bottom portion to accommodate the fashion of the day for a very long tight dress bodice. The corset style from this period is known as the cuirasse corset, which required an outward curved shape over the abdomen best created by a spoon busk. (use illustration) The spoon busk is still in use today and is usually used by the extreme tight-lacer or a lacer who would like additional “tummy control.” The spoon shape gives a great deal of support to the stomach and brings it in thus creating a smoother figure.
Corset fabrics were originally based on cotton or silk in acceptable colours of the early 19th century period, starting with unbleached cottons in a respectable white, grey, putty red or black. By the middle of the century, gold, Cambridge blue, navy and amber were available with pretty contrast stitching also known as flossing. Gradually pink shades became the most popular and later tea-rose or peach were favoured. Fabrics like coutil, jean, twill, batiste, poplin, venetian, sateen, satin, cotton-backed satin, heavy brocade or broche are best. Rayon and elastics would eventually take over in the 20th century in colours such as black, white and flesh tones for corselet foundations and girdle production. Few textile mills today produce corset weight fabrics but those who do still manufacture designs, weaves and colours from the last century which remain ideal for traditional rigid corset making.
Synthetic fabrics – Rayon, also known as “art silk” or artificial silk, is made by a chemical process from cellulose waas first developed for the garment industry back in the 1890’s. Nylon and Dacron power net
developed when the process of vulcanisation was discovered in 1839.
This was eventually put to practical use as garters
on the bottom edge of the corset in the 1890’s.
Mass production of modern suspender fittings from 1903 saw them used
mostly for corsets and suspender/garter belts.
Their purpose was not only to hold the stockings up but also to anchor
the corset down keeping the abdomen flat and avoiding a ridge forming along the
lower garment edge. The number of suspenders/garters can vary and the usual
recommendation is at least 3 and up to as many as 6 for each leg. (illustrate
with BRC’s Sweet Gwen) Elastic became vital to corsetry from the 1920’s
onwards as it was used to form the main body of the corset or girdle.
Elastic woven into the fabric ensured comfort and fit.
Elastic fabrics came in three distinct forms, woven, sheet rubber and “Eclast.” Woven fabrics were made using silk or cotton thread woven with rubber thread creating a strong elastic fabric. One of the most popular of these was known as “Lastex.” Sheet rubber fabrics were made using a sheet of rubber boded between a layer of cotton or rayon. This can be rather heavy and doesn’t offer the skin a chance to breathe. “Eclast” is a viscose and rayon fabric coated with latex using a spraying technique which is then dried or vulcanised. This fabric is lighter and is perforated in the processing to allow for some air to pass through it when stretched.
Lace - dating back in the UK to the 16th century when Flemish lacemakers settled in London and Devon. The art of lacemaking was learned by the daughters of the nobility as a genteel art. Later lace became manufactured by machine and is a common product of Nottingham and Buckinghamshire. In the 20th century stretch lace was produced which is suitable for decorative edging in the production of lingerie
Synthetic Rubber - Neoprene is a chemical compound derived from coal, limestone, and salt. When mixed with 25% natural rubber, it produces a suitable substance which can be used in elastic thread. Buna
Metal eyelets were first introduced in 1828 replacing hand-stitched holes. Small metal rings could be sewn by hand into the eyelet hole allowing for greater stress to be placed upon the garment. Today we use a crimped grommet eyelet, which is easily applied to the garment by machine. Reinforced eyeletting has an additional washer crimped into the back of the eyelet so as to allow for even greater strength when lacing down a corset and ensuring that the eyelet will not pull out of the fabric under pressures required when tight-lacing. Eyelets should be in a straight line and very close together to guarantee an even fit when lacing up the corset. They can be placed in the front, back and/or sides of the corset for practical use or just decoration.
Hooks and eyes, first developed in 1754 for Louis 16,th were not available to the masses until 1792. They were adapted to corsetry in the form of “hook and eye tape” in the twentieth century. The tape consists of two strips of fabric with hooks or eyes sewn at regular intervals which match up when the two strips are placed together forming an opening, like a seam, in the garment. Most commonly used in elastic girdle production, often combined with a zipper, to ease the task of getting into and out of the garment
Zippers were introduced to the fashion industry in the early part of the 20th century and are used like hook and eye tape and can be enameled in a colour to match the garment fabric. Zippers revolutionised the foundation garment much like the split-front busk did for traditional rigid corsetry. Dressing could now be even faster and easier!
By 1816 Flutes (also known as
gussets or gores) replaced tabs which in early times were the common
design solution to accommodate the hip. When
stays acted as part of the bodice of a dress, the stays would be placed over the
skirt with the busk over the top and tabs inside. Flutes are triangular sections
of fabric inserted into the corset design over the hip area.
Not all corset designs have them but they are commonly used corsetiers to
accommodate the hips comfortably when the corset is used for tight-lacing which
pronounces the hip. The term “hip
spring” was first coined in the 1940’s and refers to the difference between
the maximum hip measurement and the waist measurement taken over the corset
after lacing is completed. Flutes
are cut to size in the garment to fit the hip spring.
In modern foundation garments, an elastic gusset accommodates the hip
Lacing as we know it today is
said to have been introduced into corsetry by Isabelle of Bavaria in the 14th
century. As much as 20 yards can be
used in one garment in the form of ribbons, cotton or nylon shoe lacing or cord.
Cotton is most commonly used and should be narrow enough to slide through
the eyelet holes freely. The corset
wearer is always in control of their own personal comfort and the “staylace”
is the key. It can easily be
adjusted for fit by loosening or tightening the tension.
The number of laces and style of lacing used are also important. (illustrate
an example of fan lacing )
were common until the early part of the 19th century, their main
purpose being to help force the bust upwards and keep the corset in it’s
correct position. Occasionally they
were used to keep the shoulders back and ensure good posture or in rarer cases
to correct a deformed back. Children’s
stays always incorporate shoulder straps – some specifically designed for
A “stomacher” was originally a piece of stiff fabric placed behind the front laces of the early form of stays. Later it was placed over the laces as a decorated placard and formed part of the dress. A stomacher can also be a large piece of jewellery tied, sewn or pinned onto the front of a dress bodice.
A back protector acts much like a stomacher and does what the name says. A long section of stiff or boned fabric slides in between the lacing and the wearer’s back to prevent any discomfort caused by the laces as they are tightened. Also known as a lace protector or “gasket.”