Friday 27 October 2023

I think Victorian corsets are in fact still conical stays

Technically. At least some of them.

This is, sort of, a follow up on my last post, and sort of a follow up on an older one that preceded it. A while ago I posted about this 1840s corset from the Met Museum, and how, when I broke it down to pattern pieces and looked at the grainlines, it reminded me of J.S. Bernhardt's Fig. F pattern.

Corset, American or European, 1839-1841, silk. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, ID: C.I.38.23.10b-d

Well, now that I've looked at Bernhardt's book and not just Sabine's Short Stays Studies...

Nevermind Fig. F; look at Fig. B!

It has exactly the vertical seaming over the bust that certain mid-19th century corsets like the one above do. Also, hip gusset in the back.

Compare Fig. B to my rough draft of the Met corset:


Divide the back pieces of Fig. B differently - cut at the "i" hip gusset slit that's closer to the front and incorporate the gusset itself into the back piece (notice that that particular spot lies around the underarm line both in Bernhardt's draft and mine!) - and change the remaining tabs into a large hip-hugging gusset; raise it over the bust a bit... You've got yourself a mid-19th century corset!

Of course the pattern pieces are tilted slightly differently in my rough draft, because I wasn't drafting it on a conical plane. And in fact, I think the grainlines are the main difference between Bernhardt and the later corset - Bernhardt, or at least Sabine according to him, lays it out with the centre back on the grain and everything else fanning out from there, with the centre front almost on true bias. The 1840s corset also has the centre back on grain, but the tilt of centre front is more akin to its tilt on the draft itself, as if you left the draft as is and just rotated the back pieces so that they are on grain... 

On the other hand, though, if we consider Bernhardt-style stays as a precursor, it suddenly makes a lot of sense why a lot of Victorian corsets cut the side pieces tilted, on bias! Which otherwise comes rather out of nowhere if you're instead looking at them as a direct descendant of straight-cut Regency stays.

Fairly randomly chosen 1878 US corset patent from

All in all, it's fairly clear to me that if I started out with a conical block a la Bernhardt, it would actually be way easier to get exactly the results I need for this particular style - I would have far less counter-intuitive places to do subtracting of empty spaces in. The conical draft already wraps around the body the way you want it to and accounts for its non-rectangular nature; you just cut it up into sections where you need to and take it in so that it really hugs the body and supports the bust. Does that make sense?

Like so:


It's a quick and dirty draft and I forgot a couple things, like taking it in in the back. But you get the idea. One day I'll do it properly; it's pretty clear to me now that I will have to. :D

A teeny tiny detail, but even the fact the hip gusset is cut on bias now falls into place for me - it seems many late 18th century stays cut them that way.

Ergo: Victorian corsets are still conical stays!

But that's not all! There's another fun image to support my working theory!

The working theory is that professional staymakers continued cutting things the way they knew, and just kept gradually updating the styles. That the straight-cut gussetted columnal stays we think of as Regency stays, that we think of as the direct precursor to Victorian corsets, are, in fact... well, not an evolutionary dead end, I think they may well have contributed something. But it seems to me it makes a lot more sense if they contributed less than we think. I think that the picture will be more complete if we think of it as Victorian corsets having at least two ancestors, not just one. That all the experimentation of the long Regency era resulted in the subsequent designs picking up features from all over the place.

Which brings me to the aforementioned another image. This is a detail from a satirical print from 1823:

"Painting"´, William Heath, 1823. Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

Well, if that doesn't look a lot like what we consider to be 1790s transitional stays. In the 1820s! (And the picture can't be much older than its publishing date, what with her hairstyle, puffy chemise sleeves, and the dress to the left of her that I cut out from my selective image.)

I see two not immediately striking but I think very important differences in the image, compared to "transitional stays" like these:

Corset, 18th century, Met Museum, ID: C.I.41.94

One, the pronounced curve of her busk - really quite similar to the 1840s corset, especially in how it curves over the stomach instead of the more or less straight belly line of 18th century stays.

Two, the fact the bust cups do not look gathered but smooth.

Somewhat like these:

Corset/stays, dated to 1820s-1840s, Glasgow Museums, ID: E.1948.31.a

 I am currently aware of three 19th century corsets / stays with smooth cups of this sort - the Glasgow example above stands out among them by having seamed cups (really they seem quite similar to a modern bra), likely to accommodate a larger bust. Three still isn't much, but it already is more than the one I knew of years ago, and goes to show that this was, in fact, a Thing. The third one is in the Czech National Museum, was featured in Stays, or a Corset?, and unfortunately has no online presence that I know of. It also has fully corded cups, in a diagonal pattern that I am tempted to say I am seeing in the Heath print, but I think what's actually happening in the print is simply shading.

The three extants are all, more or less, stays of the columnal style, so seeing it done on the conical plane in this picture is super-interesting. And it supports my theory that there was a lot of experimentation and variety going on in the first half of the 19th century, the styles were by no means set in stone, and they did not necessarily conform to our modern ideas of what was happening when.

A pattern for the stays in the print could basically be achieved by combining Bernhardt's Fig. B/Fig. D with the bust cutouts of his Fig. C - although, based on comparison to the pattern draft of the stays from the Czech National Museum, you should probably make the cutouts a bit narrower and deeper - there needs to be a busk in the centre front going all the way up, and since there are bust cups in the cutouts, the bottom should likely reach the bottom of the gusset slit:

So, yeah. This patchwork of styles apparently existed. Or at least likely existed - we still have to keep in mind it's a satirical print. But since the stays don't seem to be being satirised and therefore don't seem overly exaggerated, and they show quite a lot of detail that actually makes sense in the larger context of early 19th century corsetry, I think the likelihood of them being a complete fabrication is low. Tabs in 1823 are a bit surprising, but the bust cups are not, and thirteen years earlier Bernhardt did include tabbed drafts in his book and apparently said one could and should mix and match according to taste. So... there definitely is more to corsetry of the first half of the 19th century than we used to think.

It makes a lot of sense to me that, as there began to be more emphasis on the natural waistline again, at least some staymakers simply returned to cutting stays the way that worked for that. They just added the experience gained from Regency styles to it - such as a greater reliance just on the cut of the fabric for bust support, as opposed to fully boning the stays and/or packing them with strength layers. And using gussets in more places than just the back hip.
Throughout the long Regency period there had been old-fashioned ladies who still preferred the old smooth cut of stays over the bust gussets (Bernhardt also mentions as much in 1810). And people in more remote, rural areas had not made the switch so swiftly - sometimes never. (Czech folklore collectors noted / recorded that fashions could take up to about twenty or twenty-five years - basically a generation - to filter down to regional dress more remote from urban centres at that point in history, and that's just talking about the elements of fashion that did filter down into it.)
The period of raised waistlines was not so long that all the old staymakers would have died out and taken their knowledge to the grave. It's not a breach and a complete change, it's a gradual evolution.

It actually possibly continues all the way to the Edwardian era, when we once again get an openly conical design with the "Corset Radical" that I did a Deciphering post on years ago:

Corset "Radical", Federer & Piesen, Prague, c. 1905. The Museum of Decorative Arts Prague, ID: 104484

One of the joys of my nerdy existence is that someone has actually made a corset like that since then!

Now that I have the idea of a basic conical block to compare it to, this design makes even more sense. I wonder how exactly A. P. McGraw (or Federer & Piesen?) arrived at it? Even if it was not through a conical block, I think my ideas of creating one could easily be applied to it...

More on those ideas later, I hope.

Wednesday 18 October 2023

Why I have not made the Bernhardt stays (yet). Also, J.S. Bernhardt is awesome and it is not stressed enough.

It's not for lack of trying. (Well, to a degree it is, but that has more to do with the past three years plus having been... A Thing.)

I wanted to make a variation on Fig. F - I did mention that some time ago.


But I just couldn't make the scaled pattern work for me. The operative words being "for me". They're great designs that clearly do the job and they explained a whole load of things to me - J.S. Bernhardt left an amazing legacy for people interested in Regency costuming (here's the original scan). But his gridded scaling method leaves a few things to be desired.

Funnily enough, the answer as to why does, I think, lay directly in Bernhardt's text.

"Such a body (i.e. "well-grown") has to have... the thickness and length proportional." (p. 43; 47 in the scan)

That, dear readers, is where it falls apart for me.

Not only is my torso proportionally longer, it turns out my back is probably comparatively narrower than my front. With Bernhardt's "measure the back and derive a square grid from it" scaling method, I ended up with a pattern that was a whopping 8 cm too short for me.

Trying to alter an essentially conical-shaped pattern by that amount of length is... frustrating.

I had to figure out where to do it, first. And I realised it needed to be done at both bust and above-waist level.

I might have been able to make it work, don't get me wrong. I got started. I just have too many other things to do, so it never got finished. At one point I managed to align my cutting lines wrong on my additional strip of paper, and there were too many curves to be trued over a pretty large distance and, well, there is such a thing as "more trouble than it's worth".

The good news?

Bernhardt may have provided us with a neat gridded sizing method, but it isn't the only thing he provided us with. He also shows how you can take a basic conical block and turn it into his stays designs.

So what I'm actually going to do is make a basic conical block for myself, and turn it into his stays design.

It turns out that drafting a basic block and messing about on paper is actually a perfectly historically accurate way to design Regency women's clothes.

Oh, by the way?

The book doesn't just feature stays patterns. J.S. Bernhardt is AWESOME.

(I've already cleared this image up because LOOK AT THAT MOTHERLOAD OF REGENCY AWESOMENESS.)





(Oh, and there's Part 2. With adjustments for posture, men's blocks, and stockings.)

I still need to properly read his text and see if he left any other pointers. Reading German in fraktur isn't the easiest thing for me to do; I can figure it out (with the help of online dictionaries), but it's slow going that tires me out quickly. So far I've learnt that I should start at centre front and draw the curves as they are on the body, according to sight, which... isn't particularly helpful.

(I mean, I do understand to a degree. I have successfully drafted a basic block for my grandma, long distance, applying the time-honoured method of eyeballing to some of the curves. The problem is that it's much easier to do that with the curve of a rounded back, which you can see clearly in a side view of the person, than it is to do it with the curve of a pattern piece wrapping around the body horizontally.)

No matter:

There's the arc method described in Patterns of Fashion 5, which right away takes into account torso length and different measurements for front and back. Which, phew.

There's Mariah Pattie's method.

I tried combining the two in 1:5 scale, and it seems theory does translate into practice thus far. I used two different radiuses for front and back. (Ignore the messy lines and unclear style, this is just doodling to see if theory translates into practice, and the 1:5 scale kind of messed with my numbers here and there.)

And then there's the... phenomenon... I came across when drafting my sister's folk costume bodice using a variation on Bilikis' (Nigerian) bodice drafting method.

I suspect my final method will be some sort of amalgam. I have an idea how I could combine the arc method and the... phenomenon... for an easy creation of curves.

Bilikis' method of aplying various lines for various vertical points on the body and differentiating underarm and full bust/chest definitely was another of the missing links that made me go "oh, of course!" I think basically the winning combination is doing that but on a curve.

(Mariah Pattie's method looks great and simple, but I have my suspicions regarding possibly too unrealistically large radiuses for some people. Generally, it doesn't look particularly friendly to small sewing spaces; until recently, I didn't have a good large drafting / cutting table myself. Also, in her basic method she has the same curve for front and back, and that's not what I'm seeing in Bernhardt's draft. But if it works for you, more power to you!)

It's funny, because this burst of Regency inspiration actually came about from my pondering of 1780s stays and possible local folk costume variations thereof. It turns out the local harvest festival in September (more or less a harvest festival) references the elevation of my current hometown to town status in 1788. Which gives me the perfect excuse to finally make the jacket-and-petticoat ensemble I've been dreaming of since 2015 (although it won't be happening in such fancy fabrics). No promises as to when - I have bad track record in that regard - but it's definitely going to happen. I have a printed cotton with personal significance that is waiting to become some variation on the Amalia jacket. I hope I can get a collar out of it, too.