Project Journal: 1880s Steam Molded Corset: Inspiration

The first corset I ever constructed was from a modern historical pattern company. While the corset was fitted to my specific curves, the pattern pieces for it still created a basically cylindrical shape without a lot of hip or bust shaping visible when the corset was laid flat. (I’m wearing that first-ever corset in the pictures in this past blog post.) I’m not saying that shape is wrong for the 19th century, because there are extant examples, patents, and other information showing us that style, such as the corset below.

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French corset c. 1885, The Met

Looking at corsets from the last half of the 19th century, however, there are a variety of other styles that have more interesting lines and definitive flare at curvy points than the basic cylindrical shape. My c. 1860 pink silk corset is an example of a style of corset that uses bust and hip gores to create a more curvy silhouette. (I discussed this in detail in a post about that c. 1860 corset that you can read here. That post has examples of extant corsets showing that shape.) Here is a catalog page of corsets from the 1880s showing that same style.

In addition to the hip gore style corset, there are also a growing number of curvy seam corsets as the 19th century progresses. Some of these also make use of bust gores while maintaining the curvy seams to really provide shape. These all lead up to the s-shape corset of the early 20th century, but we’re not quite there yet in the 1880s.

Here are some extant examples of curvy seam 1880s corsets: black, light blue, and ivory (very similar to the one pictured above, but more extreme in its curves if you look carefully). The curvy seam corset style is what caught my eye for this project, because it is a style that brings new challenges in terms of patterning and because it will be a new style in my wardrobe when completed. Compare this to the the photo above and you can see quite a difference in terms of the cut of the pieces.

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Edwin Izod corset, 1887, V and A.

This Edwin Izod corset from the V and A is my inspiration. I’m intrigued by the shaping of the panels and the completed silhouette, but also by the construction method. The V and A gives some tantalizing information about the steam molding process patented by Edwin Izod and used to create this corset, just enough information to make me want to see if I can create some form of steam molding and discover how it might change the finished silhouette and wearable feel of the finished corset when compared to other corsets I’ve constructed.

From the V and A:

Fashion and technological innovation changed the shape of late ninteenth-century corsets. As the bustle replaced the crinoline and bodices contoured the figure, corsets became longer to achieve the desired hourglass silhouette. They encased the abdomen and enveloped the hips, and the amount of whalebone also increased to give a smoother outline and help prevent wrinkling of the fabric. This corset from the 1880s is composed of twelve separate shaped pieces and forty whalebone strips.

To improve shape, performance and comfort, manufacturers claimed numerous inventions. One of the most successful was the steam-moulding process developed by Edwin Izod in 1868, and still used in the 1880s to create elegant corsets such as this one. The procedure involved placing a corset, wet with starch, on a steam-heated copper torso form until it dried into shape. The result was a beautifully formed corset, whereby ‘the fabric and bones are adapted with marvellous accuracy to every curve and undulation of the finest type of figure’ (The Ladies’ Gazette of Fashion advertisement, London July 1879).

I’ll be coming back to the nuggets of detail contained in this description, because some relate to patterning and some relate to the steam molding itself, but those are topics for future posts.

* In case you’re wondering why I spell steam molding without a “u” but the V and A quote spells it with a “u”, check out this little bit of information.

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