Tuesday, August 4, 2015

A New 1860's Corset

I have been thinking about making a new mid-19th century corset for a while now. With an event coming up in October that I hope to attend, a new corset has become a mandatory project. Over the last two years I've gotten out of reenacting and sold almost all of my things. Now need to sew up a whole new wardrobe. (well, wardrobe may be a bit too ambitious of a word. I will be content with one complete outfit. For now.)

I knew I wanted to make a corset with both cording and boning this time. I was stuck for a while on what pattern to use, but when I came across the pattern I used for my last corset I decided to go with it. It worked out so well last time and it will be nice to not have to fit new mock ups and fiddle with draping and drafting. So, this corset will be yet another version of Simplicity 2890. 
I spent a while looking for original examples of corsets that use both cording and boning. I found it a harder task than I thought. I've always "heard" that an 1860's era corset can be corded AND boned but I haven't found any documentation of that. Purely corded corsets? Yes. Boned? Abundant. Both? Difficult. It is made more difficult since when using digital images to conduct research, the appearance of cording in a corset can often be confused with narrow whalebone or steels. So unless there are really good close up photos of a garment it's sometimes impossible to know what materials are being used. 
This lovely corset came from an eBay auction and is described as being a riding corset and as being piped. Dated to the mid-19th century, its shape is consistent with the cut and shape of other corsets of the era. The auction description also indicateds that this corset has a few "broken bones" so this may be documentation of a corset using both boning and cording for support. 
My desire to use cording in addition to boning is two-fold. Number one, cording really does provide a great amount of gentle stiffening and body to fabric. It prevents unsightly wrinkling that can sometimes occur between boned areas. Number two, it just looks freaking cool. 
I'm not sure where I saved this image, so please let me know where to give credit! This corset appears to be tightly corded in between the bones. 

After the heavily boned stays of the 18th century gave way to softer corded corsets in the early 19th century, the more structured looks of the 1840's onwards necessitated a stiffly supportive undergarment to provide a smooth torso base for the very fitted bodices of the time. Dresses fit quite tightly to the body (with a few exceptions - loose fitting wrappers and gowns for maternity and apparel worn for hard physical labor come to mind) and a purely corded corset would not provide the extremely smooth, tidy line required by fashion. Even the 1857 Godey's pattern and instructions for stays call for the use of boning for support, rather than cording. 

This beautiful tiny corset from the Fashion and Costume History site is described as being made for a girl. It is completely corded for support with the exception of the front busk and bones at the back to support the eyelets.  The date for this corset is the 1870's.
Cording was still used for garments that did require some amount of stiffening, such as petticoats, sunbonnets and stays for babies and children. And, cording does still show up in some corsets.

The eBay listing for this corset is no longer up, so we just have the picture to try to gather details from. Is this corded? It appears to be, though perhaps later than the 1860's. Is it boned as well as corded? That is harder to see, but it looks as if it might be if you look at the seams bordering the corded bust area. 
There was also a movement for healthful corsets in this period that frowned upon the use of tightly restrictive undergarments. The example of the riding corset above gives credence to the idea that a corded corset was used for more physically active activities. This leaves questions like; were corded corsets used because they were more flexible and comfortable to wear when performing physical tasks? Were they worn because they were considered more healthy/less restrictive? Were they worn in combination with boning to provide a medium ground of support? Was cording used in corsets purely as a decorative element?

This photograph from National Trust Images gives us a tantalizing back view of a corset that certainly appears to be both corded and boned. The image is meant to display the cage rather than the corset, so it is hard to see many details!

These are questions I will keep looking for answers to. But the time has come to start my corset so I am going ahead with a boned and corded corset while not knowing all the answers. I plan to use cording to add some stability to the fabric between the bones and to add a fun decorative touch.

So far I have the corset cut from my fabric - about all I could do while the babies were napping or otherwise occupied!
And the busk, zip ties for boning and the cord I will use.
Next up, sewing in the gussets!


  1. Jill Salen's book 'Corsets' has at least 2 examples of mixed corded and boned corsets. One is from about 1876 (my copy's in storage, don't quote me) but it's Symington's Pretty Housemaid. And the there is an 1890/6 one with corded bust gussets. A quick Google search for the words Symington pretty housemaid corset does turn up a couple of examples, but mostly from later in the century.

  2. Wonderful research! Looking forward to seeing your corset come to life! (Also good to see you blogging again!)

  3. That pretty purple corset comes from here: http://www.abitiantichi.it/collezione/coll1890-00.html

  4. Excited to see the result! a new CW corset is on my list too!

  5. I am just starting this corset pattern. I read the pattern instructions and was a little confused. So HAPPY you have wonderful instructions with photos. Thank you!!!


Thank you for your lovely thoughts!