A common first question I get from new prospective clients is “how long will it take?” A perfectly reasonable question! Most of us have never had anything made to our specifications before and the process can seem very obscure. Anyone who has asked me this question in recent times has got a gradually longer lead time as my workload keeps increasing, but most commissions do not have the backstory that I am about to share with you. Ladies, Gentlemen, Non-Binary Angels, let’s talk about a very special corset dress, for a very special gentleman.
Way back in Spring 2019 I had an email from a new client (who I’ll call O) with a strong vision. “I have been fascinated with corsets ever since I was a child” he told me. O described a long held love of period corsetry, with a focus on the early Edwardian S-bend style, with its flowing lines, and graceful poise. For those who are unaware, an S bend corset encourages the wearer to hold themselves in a tilted fashion, with a very straight front and hips back, bust and rear full and rounded. It was popular at the turn of the century and misguidedly designed as a “health corset”, but in reality the design put a lot of pressure on the abdomen and the unlikely pose it encourages the wearer to hold could cause spinal issues. But its romantic, dainty image has captured the hearts of many a corset lover, who aims to use them safely for occasional wear, I might add!
At the time, O had quite limited experience with off-the-rack corsetry that hadn’t really satisfied his longing for something transformative, and I suggested that going straight from this to an S-bend might be a little ambitious. He agreed, and we decided our first project would be a training corset for him to get used to the feel of a “proper” corset and become more experienced with tightlacing. By the end of the month he had driven across the country for our first meeting, feeling apprehensive but excited about beginning the journey towards the corset he truly dreamed of.
O was kind enough to share with me a little about his awakening to corsetry as a child. He remembered a moment of watching a film about knights and princesses of yore, and being fascinated by the costume, the exoticism of the styles. Perhaps even daring to wonder what it might be like to wear something so precious. Our starting point was more modest; a plain black sateen coutil corset designed for sturdiness and practicality, but O was patient enough to see the benefit of starting slow.
Dreams Of “The Show-piece” Corset
As 2020 brought its trials along, O and I began to work on a design for what we would term “The Show-piece”. A corset dress that drew from the best of the S-Bend design elements, but extended lower down the body towards the knees. This piece would focus on exaggerating and framing the derriere, with a little help from some padded shorts that O had found! Our design incorporated the characteristic S-Bend feature of rigid steel bones running straight through sweeping diagonal seam lines to create a flat fronted corset that can feel much more severe to wear than curvier, Victorian inspired designs.
Working with O and liaising with him about ideas and hopes for this commission was a delight. He is endlessly respectful, open, and intelligent in the way he expresses himself, and clearly takes such solace and joy in his corsets. He has told me that his Orchid training corset is his “holiday in a box” and described the feeling to me. “I love wearing the corset, the feeling of security is lovely, and the constant reminder that you have to think about your movements. My body shape is unbelievable and I love that too. I really had a connection with the past, the transformation of the wearer’s ability to carry out everyday tasks without the constant reminder of the corset – I could barely concentrate on anything! It really is a holiday in a box! Perhaps you could advertise as such for people isolating on furlough!”
Toiles, And Mastering The Curve
By late 2021 with lockdowns (and my workload!) easing we were ready to fit O’s first toile. I had decided to start with a regular corset dress style (not S bend) so that I could draw onto the toile the exact lines I wanted the seams to follow, while taking my cue from O’s body shape in the corset. “What a wonderful experience it was! I cannot thank you enough. Such a lovely morning being looked after, and my first toile will be something I never forget. I cannot believe the shape you made me, with the straight front really surprising me.”
I think you can already see the period inspired silhouette coming through! We had adjustments to make, mostly elongating the corset for more coverage over the chest, and tightening the corset up below the buttocks to really showcase the fullness there.
From here I created the S bend corset dress pattern, ready for our second toile. This was a deeply satisfying process, translating the cut up toile into smooth curves and elegant lines! But I hadn’t quite bargained on how much of a difference changing the seam lines would make to our fit, as well as introducing the rigid steel bones at the front of the corset. The second toile needed far more adjustment than I had expected. But we were still encouraged by the look and feel O was experiencing, and agreed to a third toile fitting. Many commissions need three toiles to get things “just so”, and a corset dress can be quite complex to fit. So I wasn’t too dismayed by this, just disappointed not to be able to get O to his result any quicker!
But at last, earlier on in 2022 we were finished with our fittings and ready to get O onto my ever extending waiting list for construction! The corset dress itself was challenging in different ways to make. The sheer size of the piece meant rearranging my studio in order to be able to cut and sew it! One learning curve was learning how to use a bench grinder as I needed to cut custom length flat steels for the corset due to the length. Typically, I would be mostly using spiral steel, which is easy to cap by hand at the ends, but flat steel needs the ends gently rounded before coating with plastic for protection. Here’s a glimpse into that process!
Laced At Last
It was September by the time O arrived to collect his commission, almost a year exactly since our first toile fitting! Two and a half years since we first spoke about the project. Collections can be emotional moments for my clients, and it was clear that this was for O too. When I answered the door he was shaking, though still his usual warm and friendly self. He carefully took his new corset dress out of its box, surrounded by tissue paper and saw the piece he’d been dreaming of for so long. I began to carefully lace him in, letting the corset begin to hug and sculpt his curves, and letting the warmth of his body make the corset supple and turn it into a beautiful second skin. He told me how much calmer he felt as soon as the lacing began to tighten, how safe and secure. I could see it in his face, it was an incredibly rewarding moment, and I felt deeply honoured to be able to create that feeling for someone so receptive and appreciative. O pointed out that his Fitbit told him he was in rest mode while we were lacing him in, it truly was a full body response.
Before O came, we discussed taking some photos of him wearing the finished corset, I had prepared some lighting and a small set in my conservatory where the natural light was best, and just in time, the sun blessed us! It was my first time shooting and directing a subject on my own (without my guide Sally Sparrow by my side) and it was a wonderful experience, the perfect completion to our journey together. O did so well with posing, and had brought along an ensemble to compliment the corset. Despite my concerns that on a first fit (before seasoning the corset) we might not have the ideal fit for the photos, it really worked rather well, there was something rather wistful about the images and a little dreamy.
If I had Another Life
As our time together drew to a close and O packed away his things he said to me “Do you know, I’ve worked out that since our first meeting I’ve travelled 3000 miles coming to see you” That was quite a realisation! The dedication he had shown to this project extended far beyond the financial investment, or the time spent discussing ideas and swapping sketches. The corset itself, so much more than metres of silk, lengths of steel, thousands of individual stitches. This has been a journey in and of itself, years of longing, nervous expectation, the trust he put in me to share his passion for corsetry, and desire for an exquisitely feminine piece of his own. It encompasses so much of both mine and O’s fierce love for this art, it spans a global pandemic, and everything that gave and took from us. It is a moment captured in thread and miles and stories shared.
I’d like to leave you with O’s words, after lacing up at home. “The S bend really is beyond what I thought possible. There really is nothing like the feeling wearing a bespoke corset gives me, and this is so special. The whole anticipation while I am preparing, then the process of lacing and the final result is like nothing else. I love being held in place, slowed down and not being able to concentrate on anything else. It’s restriction, but in a sensual loving way that brings such a feeling of serenity and joy. The S bend especially, as movement is so restricted, and I cannot do much except stand around looking decorative – which is the whole point. I cannot wait to try it on again. If I had another life, I would lace every day. “