Saturday, October 17, 2015

Corsets: constricting? Hey, they can be fun!

CQA member Mary Berdan finds this corset rather fun!
CQA members had a chance to lace each other into corsets that reflected the styles of our foremothers from centuries ago at the group's October 10 meeting...and pronounced a number of them to be surprisingly comfortable!
Hilary Specht Coffey of Period Corsets, speaker at CQA's October 10 meeting

Featured speaker at the meeting was Hilary Specht Coffey, owner of Period Corsets of Seattle, a company that has been supplying corsets and related undergarments for theatrical and film use for nearly 18 years.

Some of Period  Corsets' models (above) that were available for "audience participation." The antique models (below) were mostly admired...and only touched while wearing gloves!

Coffey described the company as "a cross between a costume shop and a factory. We started as a costume shop, complete with a 'head draper' and costume designers, but it's hard to be profitable making 'one-off' pieces." The operation really took off when the decision was made to select a range of specific designs that could be easily repeatable, in a specific set of sizes, and now employs seven people. "We produce every undergarment from head to toe," she added.

(Above) Typical silhouettes from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries relied on specific undergarments (below) to mold the body to the shape of the outer garments.
Imagine trying to get through a narrow doorway with this 18th century petticoat (above), whose "hippy" shape relies on the "pocket hoop pannier" (below). Both are designs from Period Corset.

Coffey took an informal poll among the attendees, asking what the word "corset" evoked. The answers ranged from the expected--"tight, uncomfortable, stiff "--to the more surprising--"sexy!" She pointed out that whereas clothes are shaped to the body, corsets are used to shape the body itself. "Every 10 years or so throughout history," she added, "a new silhouette becomes the vogue." And each century had its own quirks: 17th century corsets had to be laced up the back, as front lacing was considered "immodest." (Does this bring to mind the usual cover art on "bodice-ripper" romance novels?) In the 1830s--the period of the "dandies"--even men wore waist corsets.
Many silhouette changes occurred between the late 1700s (top left) and the 2000s (bottom right)!

Period Corsets' products are not true, exact reproductions, as whalebone and wooden stays are either no longer available or no longer acceptable. The company's designers research shapes and details of corsets in the relative periods, then pick out the main elements of the historic models and adapt them to the modern customer.
Period Corset designers research historical corsets and other undergarments at a number of museums (above and below) as well as surveying artworks, cartoons, and other materials from the respective periods.

For example, steel is now used for the stays--in sizes from 1/4" to 5/16" and in a spiral version that bends in two directions. Coffey added that they were not into the super-tight lacing of the past, though all the products feature laces as well as, often, hooks.
After research from a number of different sources, Period Corsets' crew create a number of mockups (above), then proceed to create finished patterns in different sizes (below)

(Above and below) "Cone-shaped" corsets in the Period Corsets line and details of the master pattern. This design stops at the waist in the back.
Period  Corsets' "Hourglass" designs (above and below) and master pattern details. This version nips in the waist and comes low enough on the body, front and back, to "control" some of the hip area.

As part of her presentation, Coffey showed a fascinating video titled "Dresses Undressed" produced by Vogue Germany (available on YouTube) that shows the many layers underpinning styles of various eras--a pregnancy dress and its accompanying corset elicited a lot of startled reactions from the viewers!
From right to left: all the underpinnings required for this once-fashionable outfit! (From the video "Dresses Undressed")

Above, "pregnancy dresses" from this era are a far cry from today's maternity wear! (From the video "Dresses Undressed")
"Ghosted" side view (above) and front view (below) of the frightening-looking corset worn under the "pregnancy dress" shown in the video "Dresses Undressed."

Period Corsets' retail line includes models representing eras from about 1560 to 1912, and mostly European in design origin. All are hand made. The company sells only online, but does have fitting rooms available for appointments. And, of course, Coffey stands ready to create one-of-a-kind garments for special order, with costs ranging from several hundreds of dollars to several thousands, depending on the fabric and embellishments selected. While the company does not rent out its products, they are sold to rental houses that supply corsets for film and theatrical use. Their corsets have been used in the movie "Cold Mountain," and several TV series  including "Salem," "Hell on Wheels," and "Sleepy Hollow"....and of course there was the special corset for Madonna....
(Above) Ginnie Hebert gets laced into a nifty black velveteen number that absolutely requires the pose below!
(Above)  Sonia Grasvik adjusts the front of a corset on Sally Morgan--who asked for a bed post to hold onto when the back of this number was being laced up! (Below) What can you say after this but, "Ta-dah!"

Following Coffey's presentation, the audience members gleefully lined up to lace each other into some of the many samples provided. One person said she seriously needed the traditional bed post to hang onto while another person laced up the back of her corset! The challenge of getting ones', um, front body parts (Okay! Boobs!) properly situated in these unaccustomed garments provided a lot of laughs. General consensus was that the corsets proved to be surprisingly comfortable, once properly fitted and laced, especially in providing some back support.
(Above and below) Nicole McHale likes the feeling of this "cone-shaped" number, especially after being laced up by Period Corsets' Hilary Specht Coffey, above left.

For more information on Period Corsets, including company history and photos of models available, go to