Corsets have been a fashion staple for generations, yet many are still confused by these complicated looking pieces. How do you put a corset on? What do you wear it with? How do you store it when not in use? All of these questions can intimidate someone who wants to try corsets but does not know where to begin. To help, we have created this easy to follow guide on everything you need to know about corsets. You will learn everything from how they became popular to modern styling tips. And yes, you will even learn how to lace yourself in!
Image courtesy of Tumblr
Falling in love with the look of corsets is easy. Any photo of a confident woman standing tall in her tight-lacing is enough to have you itching to buy one of your own. That is, until you consider trying to put on that complicated contraption! All those laces, hooks, buttons... It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the thought of making your first attempt at wearing a corset top or dress.
Don't stress! A bit of knowledge will ease your fears and have you rocking your own corset in no time!
Unless otherwise noted - photos courtesy of Vincent Tam Photography
The History of Corsets
The modern corset as we know it has gone through many changes since the earliest versions. Their prominence in our culture began 500 years ago, when bodices were stiffened and shaped using everything from reeds to whalebone. Catherine de Medici banned thick waists in her court, and so sparked the immediate demand for these restrictive shapers.
As the years passed, these bodices remained in fashion with the aristocracy, becoming ingrained in the culture of the highborn. Images of Queen Elizabeth in a flat-fronted bodice, Victorian women with impossibly tiny waists, and tight-laced burlesque queens dancing with idealized forms- waist cinchers are a permanent fixture in our society.
Though corsets are largely fetishized now, this was not always the case. There was even a time when men wore them in daily life (though after the mid 1800s, they claimed the support was needed for back pain, and was in no way a cosmetic device). Early cinchers were more interested in flattening the body from breast to hip, accentuating the curves of the redirected bosom, and creating the illusion of larger hips, a desirable feature in women. Bustles and hip pads further exaggerated this, and it was soon found that as the waistline got smaller, these features became more pronounced.
Tight-lacing became more popular into the era of Victorian corsets; when materials used were better able to withstand the strain of making a 24 inch waist shrink down to 18 inches or smaller. The world record for the smallest waist is held by Catherine Jung, and she wears her corsets 24 hours a day to achieve a waist circumference of 15 inches. (Fun visual aid: Go grab three cans of soda and scoot them into a cute little triangle. That is a bit bigger than the waist Catherine can tighten down to!)
Catherine Jung photo courtesy of Corset Making
So, how does all of that work? Well...
How Corsets Are Made
Most corsets intended to reduce waist size will have several layers of material. The innermost layer is almost always a heavy, thick cotton fabric. Inside the layers are special pockets sewn in for the stays, the boning that creates and holds the shape. As mentioned before, these used to be made of reed, then baleen (called whalebone, which is why it’s called boning), and then thin metal. The best cinchers these days use spring steel boning; which are basically flattened steel springs that offer both flexibility and strength.
Many corsets for women will have a busk, a closure in the front that consists of a row of metal tabs and buttons that interlock to make putting the garment on and taking it off much easier. Some, however, will have zippers, more lacing, or no front opening at all.
Doing all the work in the back , there is a row of holes reinforced with metal eyelets. Heavy cord or ribbon is passed through the holes and through the applied use of leverage (sometimes a well-placed knee on the butt during the process), the lacing is pulled shut.
Photo from Tumblr
There is often a modesty panel under the laces, a flap of fabric to cover any skin showing between. The outermost layer of the corset can be a myriad of materials, pretty much only limited by your imagination. Spikes, chains, zippers, buckles, pockets, straps- anything and anything can be used to achieve the desired look.
There are also clothing pieces that are called fashion corsets, and when you see these words it is usually an indication that the boning material will be much lighter, usually a thin plastic rod. These can be cute and more comfortable for some people, but you won’t get much in the way of waist reduction.
Photo found on Tumblr
How To Choose The Best Corset
So you’ve decided to buy a corset. But where do you start? A good first step is to determine the correct size. To do this with a steel-boned corset, there are a few factors to take into account.
Firstly, you’ll need your actual waist measurement. A good starter corset should only be about two to four inches below this measurement, and on the piece it will show the measurement of the corset when it is completely closed.
Once you have this number, you can shop around and find the right style for you. Of course, you will have to decide: overbust or underbust? Straps or strapless? Do you want garter attachments? These are all important considerations!
An overbust corset will cover the chest completely. There are several styles of top on these as well- a sweetheart neckline will be roughly straight across, with only a slight rise at each breast to ensure coverage.
A Playboy style corset will have larger, more molded and defined cups- think of the old Playboy Bunny waitresses, and you’ll get the idea. These are the most common, but there are a great deal more styles to be found.
Photo courtesy of Selvedge Yard
An underbust cincher will end just below the chest and is often used as an accessory piece. They can feel less restrictive than an overbust style, and tend to be a more versatile option when putting together outfits. As with overbusts, there are a lot of varieties out there- so look thoroughly!
If you are already an owner of a corset (or several), you may be curious about tight-lacing and waist training. If this is the road you are looking to take, you will want to move on to the next level. Double-boned corsetry is what you need, and these will have two bones at each point instead of just one. These, however, are not for the faint-hearted, and not recommended for the first timers out there.
Kim Kardashian has been vocal about her use of fajas and this has led many beginners to try waist training with corsets.
How To Wear A Corset Out
So what should you match this new piece up with? Well, there are always a lot of choices, but it depends on your personal style and the type of corset you’ve bought.
Pretty much any cincher looks amazing with floor-kissing skirts, or conversely with some skintight leggings or miniskirts. As far as tops go, a good button-down with a slim fit can complement any look, or a looser, flowy style can contrast with the new slimmed down look you’re sporting.
Photo found on Pinterest
If you’re a fan of Jayne Mansfield, you may want to try wearing a waist training corset under a tight sweater with a pencil skirt. Another basic that looks great with a corset top, either over the outfit or underneath, is the classic Little Black Dress. You can also put a belt, waist chain, or wide ribbon over the corset at the thinnest part to accentuate your new tiny waistline; a look that is always unique and eye-catching.
To really set off the entire look; a great pair of heels can add even more to the illusion of an itty-bitty waist. So now you’re tall and thin! Isn’t fashion the best? It’s pretty hard to go wrong adding a corset to your outfits; so try it with a number of pieces and find what speaks to you.
How To Put On and Lace A Corset
Ah, the moment is finally here. You have received your foundation garment, and it’s time to get laced in! Where do we start?
Well, it’s important to first ensure your corset is laced properly. Your tying point will be in the middle, rather than at the top or bottom. This is important, because the points furthest from the tie will begin to loosen a bit as you wear it. Therefore, a corset tied at the top will see loosening at the bottom, and vice versa. Also, tying in the middle creates enough leverage to really pull your waist in as much as possible. Thus, proper lacing of a corset is vital! Most will be shipped out laced properly, but the below diagram shows the way it should be done.
The laces at the top of your corset will tighten the bottom portion, and the bottom tightens the top.
Now, before you put it on, loosen the laces all the way. This ensures plenty of room to negotiate your way in without hassle or entanglement.
Depending on the style you have purchased, step in or wrap the corset around you, making sure to position the garment appropriately. Slip the pegs of the busk, if you have one, into the holes in the tabs, working from the bottom to the top. If one pops out, don’t worry- it’s easy enough to slip it back together while the corset is loose.
Photo found on Favim
How To Tie A Corset
Now comes the tricky bit- the tightening. If you have a friend with a few spare minutes, all the better- it’s hard to see back there, and said friend can get much better leverage (as mentioned before, a knee in the right spot can really help ratchet that bad boy down!).
Tighten the corset SLOWLY, wiggling those middle loops out evenly. If you just yank on the cords and try to tighten all the way down too quickly, the resulting surge of blood to your head and rapid change in circulation can cause you to pass out, and that’s hardly ever the way to start a great night out.
Image courtesy of Corset Fakery
If it’s the first time wearing this particular corset, it may take some time to warm up and form to your body shape. I personally like to break in my cinchers before wearing them out, which means I’ll put it on for a few hours and tighten it every so often. This lets me get used to how it fits and moves, and also allows my corset to stretch and form itself to me, making the fit perfect. It really is important to do this nice and slow, using small adjustments to the laces and fabric to make sure the final look is as smooth as you want.
Now, a corset is usually not intended to be worn fully closed (about 2 inches or so between the eyelets is ideal) but this is totally up to you- if you like the look of a closed corset better, then go for it! Remember as you tighten down to re-position the modesty panel as needed to maintain a smooth look, or if you would rather you can always lay it flat inside the cincher if you don’t want or need it. It will not interfere with the look of the corset, and shouldn’t be uncomfortable at all.
Photo found on Tumblr
An important rule to remember, especially if you are dressing yourself: Boots first, then corset! After you’re dressed, bending at the waist isn’t really an option, so putting shoes on after the fact is going to be entertaining at best, and possibly a little frustrating. If you are doing this yourself, you may find it helpful to watch a video using the doorknob technique, where you use the knob of a closed door to hold the laced taut for you, ensuring a better tie.
The proper knot will ensure that your new shape will stay in place all night long. Once again, there are several options.
For corsets being worn on top of your clothing, a double bow works well. Simply tie one bow, making sure to even out the length of the bunny ears, then tie a second bow using the loops. You should have a knot that doesn’t have long, trailing loops- you don’t want to snag anything and anyone walking by!
Photo courtesy of Faery Leaflets
There are also more advanced techniques, including ones that end with a smooth look, which is great if you wear your corset under other items, but these just look silly when you try to type out instructions. YouTube is definitely your friend in this case, as videos make understanding the process of lacing your corset so much simpler. Look around and find the method that works best for you!
Enjoy your new shape. At first, it may be a little weird to discover yawning and sneezing aren’t really options, especially in tighter corsets- you just can’t get the expansion of the diaphragm to suck in big lungfuls of air. So marathons are definitely out. After a bit, though, you’ll get used to it- and if you’re like me, you’ll love the feeling of support (and I always feel so well-armored)- it’s almost like a continual hug.
How To Clean A Corset
Ah, it’s the end of the night, and time for one of my favorite things- taking off that corset! (I love my corsets, but man, scratching the memory lines left behind....magical.) But what do you do with it now?
To take it off, always loosen the lacing first. Trying to undo a closed busk on a snug corset is....well, tricky doesn’t even begin to describe it. Untie the knot, then do a little shimmying from side to side to get a little slack in those lines. Once you can get your fingers in there, pull the lacing open until you can comfortably undo the busk pins.
Once off, and if there’s no major cleaning to be done, drape it lining side up over the back of a chair. This lets the material dry to preserve the life of your shaper. If it needs it, a little Febreze never hurts anything and keeps things from getting funky.
Maybe you’ve worked up a sweat dancing, or maybe someone spilled something on you.
If washing is in order, as it is from time to time, NEVER put it in the washing machine! Seriously, this thing has metal in it, but is surprisingly delicate. You gotta hand-wash this baby. Or you could take it to a dry cleaner- but those people can be so judgmental, am I right? So lets take care of this ourselves.
The best option is to use a sponge that has been dipped in a solution of gentle fabric detergent (like Woolite) and gently dab the fabric clean. It’s also best to do this on a flat surface, as you don’t want to bend the boning around unnecessarily. After a nice sponge bath, rinse in cold water. The metal bones used these days are treated with a rust- resistant coating, so everything will be okay. After a rinse, blot thoroughly with a dry towel (no wringing!) and then lay flay away from heat to dry (A sweater rack with a fan nearby can help speed things along).
Image courtesy of The Dusty Victorian
How To Store A Corset
Make absolutely sure, under any circumstances that your corset is dry before storing! Your options there are availed too, but I like to buy couch pillows and wrap my shapers around those, to be displayed on the shelf in the top of my closet. You can also drape them over a hanger with the laces on the rod, or you can tuck them in a drawer flattened out. You really want to stay away from pant hangers, as the clips can mess up your fabric; and don’t try to fold or roll them. Your boning will hate you for it.
Corsets Are NOT Dangerous
I’ve seen a lot of videos and pictures of beautiful women in corsets, and in the comments, there are invariably things like this (these are actual comments):
She's beautiful, I just think that's scary! I mean, what about the long term problems?
When I think of corsets I just think of Elizabeth Swan falling off a cliff!
Where the hell do her internal organs go? Shoved up tight together until they slowly start to meld as one mass??
Sexy??? Absolutely DISGUSTING for the majority of people. The target audience probably less than 1 out of 10000. She would probably have much more luck being very obese or gigantic.
Friendly, right? Sadly, there is a lot of misinformation out there, and I think it’s time to clear some things up. I just hate ignorance, and that’s all this is. So let’s get started...
Photo courtesy of Cafe Mom
Wearing corsets can cause long term health problems.
Well, no; not for the vast, overwhelming, statistically important, majority of people. If you wear a corset a night or two a week, for a few hours at a time, like so very many of us- Congrats! You have no worries. You simply don’t wear a corset for long enough to cause any changes to your body.
If you are a tight-lacing aficionado, and you wear your corsets for extended periods (or for the truly committed out there- 24-7), then you are changing the shape of your body, possibly permanently. However, being obese does the exact same thing. Your body is a big, adaptable group of organs that adjust themselves to work better.
Therefore, constantly constricting yourself will, yes, change you physiologically. Studies on this are not very common, but there really isn’t anything to say these changes are actually harmful. It’s similar to the way the bones and tendons in your feet adapt to high heels. And no, your organs are not going to fuse together. They just shift around a bit- and even those changes are minor and typically harmless. Done properly and slowly, even the most extreme tight-lacing is unlikely to affect your health in a negative way.
And, I’ll have you know, there are documented cases of the steel boning actually stopping bullets. How many articles of clothing do you know of that can make you look thinner, are beautiful, and can save your life?
Wonder Woman feels safe in her corset
That’s just disgusting. Who would want to do that to themselves?
This one is sadly pretty common. You know what I have this opinion of? People who tan themselves orange- and that, by the way, actually CAN give you cancer.
That being said, it’s not my skin, so they can do whatever they like to it. And that’s why this comment is so ridiculous. If you don’t like it; hey, don’t do it. I won’t make you. But I do want to do it to myself, and you’ll just have to deal with that.
People modify their bodies all the time in pursuit of their ideals of beauty.Women in a small Burmese tribe wrap brass coils around their necks. Many cultures around the world have practiced head binding; where children’s skulls are bound to create an elongated, more aesthetically pleasing shape. A lotus foot used to be the standard in China, where the feet were broken and wrapped so they were small, delicate, and also crippling.
Chasing beauty is not, nor will it ever be, ending at a single universal point. On top of that- the lovely folks who say that it’s so terrible that the target audience is about 1 in 10,000? Go listen to the measurements in Brick House, and tell me again how corseting is so unattractive. I’ve got the 36’s both down, and my corsets can give me that 24 he’s singing about, so there.
Photo courtesy of Favim
Wearing corsets makes you faint a lot.
Yes, it can happen. Corsets are snug, and that can mean restrictions in breathing, which can lead to passing out. The best way to combat any possibility of this is to use a little common sense.
As I said earlier, no marathon running. Try to stay hydrated. Maybe if the situation is one where people would possibly black out anyhow- such as times of extreme, terrifying, stupid heat- it’s not the best time to take your waist training outdoors.
This is not, by any means, a common problem (I’ve worn corsets for years, and have never passed out- not even when I lived in South Florida.). If you find yourself swooning frequently, you may have to go see your doctor to see if there’s an underlying condition. Or maybe, just loosen the laces a bit, and try a different shaper. You really shouldn’t have that problem though.
Oh, and one more thing- how many of us live near cliffs, where we often have a situation that calls for our best, snuggest corsets right on the edge? Nobody? Yeah...that’s what I thought.
Photo courtesy of Tumblr
So there you have it...a full crash course in corsetry.
When I wear my corsets, I feel taller, stronger, almost impervious. I stand straighter and feel amazing. As an avid fan, I highly recommend you buy one of your own and try some completely removable, totally gorgeous body modification. After all...who doesn’t want to be mighty mighty?
Still have questions? Leave them (or feedback) in the comments section below!
Unless otherwise noted, photos are courtesy of Vincent Tam
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