Corset Guide Pt 1: Buying; To bone or not to bone

Time to talk waists? Corset Is! Many performers believe a corset is the quintessential costume piece when it comes to burlesque – but a corset can be quite a complicated piece of kit! So, here’s we’ve got the start of our 3 part corset guide – which will take you through buying your corset (part 1 – this!) lacing your already existing corset (part 2) and removing your corset (part 3)

Saturdaynightathemovies_missmoth_talulabluemexico7When it comes to buying your first corset there are a whole load of questions… To steel bone or not to steel bone? Are plastic bones just as good? Under bust or Over Bust? Cheap or custom made? And now you’re telling me there’s even different shapes? It can be an absolute minefield when it comes to choosing one so here’s a guide to the (basic) different types of corset, bones and what they all mean to perform in – and believe is, we’ve tried and tested many corsets across the years!

Shopping for Size…

Sizing a corset can be a nightmare – while most of the time we buy our clothes in general sizes of 10, 12, 14 (etc) / s, m, l, and our underwear based on ribcage size and cup size (eg 34DD) corsets can be sized totally differently. Often you will see 26, 24, 30… These are actually waist measurements in inches – and to make matters more complicated, it’s the waist measurement you want to achieve, which is usually no more than 4 inches smaller than your natural waist (so a natural waist of 30″ might want to buy a corset sized 26″ – this will fit loosely laced but when you draw the waist in, will give you an hourglass shape with the smallest waist measurement of 26″). Beware! don’t buy extra small because you want to (unreaslistically) shave 10 inches off your waist – unless you practise tight-lacing/ waist training all the time, this won’t work – and you will also need to purchase a custom corset for this purpose – which will fit around all your curves and enhance the waist.

Custom, off the peg or cheap from ebay?

This is entirely up to you! How much do you have to spend? And will it be worth your while getting a custom made one? If you are performing an act enough and it is making you money, it would be worth getting a custom corset made. A good corset maker knows how to bone and cut for your shape (and good ones off the top of our head include Angharad Gamble, Jill Salen – she’s actually written books on corset making…). But don’t expect it to be cheap! A ‘proper’ custom corset is made of many layers – the outer shell (the fabric you see on the outside and the lining on the inside), two layers of a stiffer fabric (which could be canvas) in which boning is sewn, and also boning on the seams, and front and back opening. It’s made of many panels, all cut to enhance a waist. And usually takes at the least a few days to make (sometimes more than a week) so when you consider time, effort, cut and materials going into a custom one, expect to pay £150 plus.

Off the peg corsets can be very reasonable in price – anything from £30+ and some companies do a deal if you buy more than one (Corsets UK often do buy 2 get one free deals – they must be the same waist size, however, but great if a group of friends forming a troupe all have similar waist sizes or if you want a few different styles).

Cheap corsets can look cheap.In general, if you are corseting on a budget, you can get okay looking corsets that will do the job just as well.

  • Look for plain colours (usually dark, richer colours look better than the pastel pinks, whites etc).
  • You can always add your own embellishments – and this is actually advised – as you definitely want it to look unique to your costume and act, rather than the generic image accompanying imported corsets (you know the ones, they notoriously come with a free triangular g string – too small even to use as an eye patch!)
  • The golden rule? Stay away from anything frilly or with lace on as this really does make a cheap corset look really cheap.
  • If the corset is laced with cheap ribbon, this is no problem, you can always replace ribbon (Find out how to properly lace a corset here
  • Don’t be put off by it being plastic boning – some performers prefer this as it enables movement on stage
  • Cheap hooks and eyes or a mismatched busk can be replaced with a zip
  • Do not buy corsets with boning sewn directly onto the fabric. These are generally rigeline boning, made up of plastic filaments – if they poke out of the fabric, it’ll feel like a pin is stabbing you! Also they can bend in half at the waist with the pin stab feeling too – not good for stage at all.

What shape?

ExcessAllAreas_LillyLizzie3_MartaWhat you need to ask yourself is what is your theme? Are you performing a historical act or something more modern? Corsets have been around since tudor times, when ‘stays’ were brought in to cinch in waists to enable the wearer to clothe themselves in the fashions of the time, and have changed shapes throughout the centuries to match the changing fashionable shape of women – and of men! Victorian-style corsets were generally longer line and modern corsets come with a shaped bottom edge and either over bust or under bust form. Lilly Laudanum (left) often prefers a more historical shape like the stays pictured (which she usually zips!) but other things to think about include the shape across the bottom – straight across is not very flattering, it’ll draw a line across the body. Instead look for corsets with a shaped bottom edge – curved or v-shaped are generally the most flattering.

Under bust or over bust?

felicianoir_jugs_MissMothPhotographyAs a collective, Lilly and DeeDee generally prefer an under bust corset, and usually recommend these to their students. While over bust corsets can look good, in general it’s very hard to buy a size that will fit properly. Remember the post above about corset sizes? When you buy an over bust corset, you will be buying your garment based on waist size, and we don’t know about you, but we would never buy a bra without first considering the cup size! If you are lucky you may find one that will fit but in general, if you are of the smaller bust you may find a gap between you and the corset, and if you are of the more ample persuasion you will find yourself spilling over the top or cut in two. With an under bust corset, you can wear whatever bra you like! It will always be more comfortable and look better. Plus as a bonus, they look great over dresses, shirts and more so you will get more wear out of it! And for those more conscious of their curves, you don’t even have to remove it on stage when you are doing a pastie reveal!

Bad to the bone? The plastic Bone? 

Boning is a complicated matter – but it need not be. You can use any corset you like for performing in, you just need to decide which you want. And let’s just put this out there – plastic boning IS NOT BAD! There – we said it! Some performers actually prefer plastic bones. Here’s why… If your choreography requires a lot of bending, wiggling, bumping, grinding, etc, you really want to be able to move rather than be stiff and look like ‘professor yaffel’ from Bagpuss as some full steel boned corsets can feel like trying to perform in a drainpipe and be very restrictive. The type of boning you get depends on the type of moves you are going to do on stage. If you want to be very stiffly held in (and restricted in moves) then a fully boned corset is the way forward, on the other hand, a lot of performers use semi-boned corsets (the front busk is steel boned and so are the bones either side of the lace up section at the back but the rest of the boning is plastic) as it allows for more of a flow when moving. and also, you might want to consider how soon your corset is removed – as you can save all the bump and grind moves for afterwards.

Boning – a quick guide: 

  • Plastic boning – is bendy, flexible and sometimes a solid strip or rigeline – which is a strip with thin bits of plastic woven together so you can sew directly onto a costume. You can easily tell this type as it will be very light and bendy
  • Flat steel boning is not as flexible, usually used in the more surgical corsets for supporting, so any corset with this in is going to be a lot more restrictive. You can tell this corset as it will be really heavy!
  • Spiral boning is more flexible than the flat steel boning – you can move more comfortably (but still with the held in feeling).
  • Semi steel boned is when the eyelet opening at the back is steel boned and there’s a busk (metal hook and eye), but the rest of the bones may be plastic or spiral boned. This is the most common type of corset. It will be solid at the front and back and bendy at all other seams.

ExcessAllAreas_DaisyChampagne_hiphop2MartaYou can always replace boning! On good corsets, there will be boning channels (it’s very easy to open the top of the channel and put in new bones / take out old bones / put in a different type of boning…) And also look for the way a corset is boned – if there are straight up and down boning, the chances are the corset isn’t going to fit properly – it’ll fit more like a pipe, the best boning has a few diagonal bones on the front which will help accentuate the shape better

Will a corset be heavy-duty enough to last if it’s plastic boned?

The type of boning has no effect really on whether the corset would be tough enough to perform in, it’s more down to the fabric – as cheap fabric will give up quicker than any boning (and even heavy duty fabrics can sometimes wear at the top of bones, resulting in boning peeking through on the inside)..


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