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No, Bones Don’t Make a Corset Curvy

Today I’m here to put to rest one of the most common misconceptions about corsets. (No, not the lie about how terrible they are for you.) Many people seem to think the presence of steel bones is all that defines a “real” corset. Sometimes this is expanded to a specific number of bones, typically 20 bones, being necessary. But what does corset boning really do? And if it’s not the bones, what makes a corset curvy?

Dark Garden "Pearl" corset | Model: Autumn Adamme | Photo © Joel Aron

Dark Garden “Pearl” corset | Model: Autumn Adamme | Photo © Joel Aron | Exquisite many paneled shaping is supported by broché fabric and plenty of steel bones, including a stiff underbusk.

A couple quick basics: There are a few different types of boning, as well as several weights and standard widths. Most bones are either “flats” or “spirals,” both of which are made of steel. A good corset uses good quality bones, but it’s pretty easy to put good bones in a shapeless corset and it won’t do you a lick of good in terms of adding shape. The purpose of boning in a corset is to maintain vertical tension. Without boning, your corset would fall down (like most strapless dresses) and crumple around the waist (like your typical tube top). Vertical tension holds the corset upright. The overall construction of a corset, including the number and type of bones, supports the design and shape but doesn’t create it. Bones in a corset are like load-bearing beams in architecture: they hold up the shape and can be incorporated as a design feature, but their presence alone doesn’t define the lines.

Pop Antique "Valentine" overbust corset | Model: Victoria Dagger | Photo © John Carey

Pop Antique “Valentine” overbust corset | Model: Victoria Dagger | Photo © John Carey

Boning […] does not create shape. The number and type of bones needs to support the shape of the corset. The shape of the fabric panels creates the fit, which will determine how effective and comfortable the corset is. […] you could put 20 bones in a pillowcase and it wouldn’t magically become effective shapewear. There is no magic number for bones.

-“20 Bones, Broken Ribs, and Other Myths about Waist Training
on The Lingerie Addict

So it doesn’t matter if your corset is a tube or incredibly shapely. The bones serve the same basic function, no matter how many of them you put in.

Pop Antique "Vixen" ribbon corset | Model: Nicole Simone | Photo © Max Johnson | Though boned only at the center front, back, and side seams, this ribbon corset is very shapely. If you include each individual strip of ribbon, there are a total of 26 panels contributing to the fit.

Pop Antique “Vixen” ribbon corset | Model: Nicole Simone | Photo © Max Johnson | Though boned only at the center front, back, and side seams, this ribbon corset is very shapely. If you include each individual strip of ribbon, there are a total of 26 panels contributing to the fit.| Fur wrap used in styling is vintage.

The shape and fit of a corset is primarily decided by the number and shape of the individual panels. This is why fit in corsetry is so much more than just measurements. A typical corset has a total of 12 panels. Since humans aren’t generally shaped like lampshades, each one of these panels has to be a different shape from the others to contour around your anatomy. How each measurement is distributed across the panels, and the shape of the transitions, is the roadmap for fit. The fabrics, seams, and hardware used will have some impact, but they are in no way the primary means of shaping.

Vanyanís underbust corset in sari silk | Model: Victoria Dagger | Photo © Sparklewren

Vanyanís underbust corset in sari silk | Model: Victoria Dagger | Photo © Sparklewren

Incidentally, the other misconception I see about boning is that it needs to fill the length of its channel. This is said to stabilize it and prevent any twisting. Each corsetiere will have their own combination of techniques, of course, but it’s been my experience that the angle of the bone channel is far more important than how tight the bones are. Indeed, bones that are too snug in their casing are far more likely to wear through the fabric of the corset. Tight bone channels only treat a symptom.

Neon Duchess embellished sheer cincher | Model: Victoria Dagger | Photo © Matthew Kadi | Fur wrap used for styling is vintage

Neon Duchess embellished sheer cincher | Model: Victoria Dagger | Photo © Matthew Kadi | Fur wrap used in styling is vintage.

I hope that cleared up some of the confusion around boning for you! As ever, corsetmaking isn’t so much about any one material or method. It’s the combination of techniques and materials which is critical to the final result.

Do you have any other questions about corset construction to help you with corset shopping?

Marianne Faulkner

Marianne Faulkner is the designer of Pop Antique, a clothing and corsetry line specializing in sustainable materials and comfortable curves. She is based in San Francisco where she earned her MFA in fashion design at the Academy of Art University, and has been a columnist at The Lingerie Addict since 2011.

2 Comments on this post

  1. Lucy says:

    While I agree with the majority of this article, I don’t agree that a bone filling the length of its channel is said to prevent twisting of the bone within the channel. The length is fairly independent of the bowing issue.

    I personally believe that a bone should at least mostly fill the channel, within 1/4 to 1/2 inch shorter than the total channel length (so the ends don’t bust through the binding), *because* the very purpose of the bone is to maintain vertical tension. If corset bones are significantly shorter than the length of the corset, this will create flaps of unstructured fabric within the corset that will fold back and crinkle (having bones shorter than their channels are a feature of the longer teens-era corsets to allow the wearer to sit down, but otherwise a pet peeve of mine in modern corsets) or the bones would be allowed to potentially slide up and down in the channels, again creating unnecessary friction and potential locations where the fabric may wear down. In corsets I’ve worn where the hand of the fabric was fairly light, I’ve seen and felt boning channel crumple like a sleeve until the length of the channel matched that of the bones. While a tiny amount of vertical shrinkage can be seen in most corset, one has to set arbitrary personal limits on what they find acceptable. If a corset has to collapse itself to match a shorter bone, then the bone is not doing its job.

    If a bone is significantly shorter than its channel, I would personally add hand-flossing (or bar-tack) to keep it in place. But I would simply prefer to use a longer bone or simply cut the corset shorter to match. A few corsetiers in the past (Michael Garrod and Fakir Musafar) I believe used to “cement” the bones in place within the channels to prevent sliding or twisting, although I haven’t personally tried it.

    Regarding the twisting of bones (a separate issue), the one area that I most frequently see bowing or twisting of the bones is the center back (CB) by the grommets – an area where the pattern of the back panel calls for a straight line (barring those interesting curved CB patterns from the Edwardian era, or adapted patterns for swayback as seen in a recent Foundations Revealed tutorial). My three techniques for preventing twisted bones in the CB include tightening the channels, decreasing the space between grommets around the waistline (where the tension is greater) and using bones of a certain rigidity (and curving them for lumbar support where necessary). Often, I will also use wider bones (or at least, bones that are significantly wider than they are thick). I’m interested to know what you would do to improve the bowing issue in the CB where pattern modifications and angle of the bones are a limited option.

    • Marianne Faulkner says:

      Hi Lucy,
      Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond to your query at the end! Wedding and all.
      1/4 to 1/2″ of ease is my preferred range for channel ease as well – as you say, too much ease and it totally defeats the purpose. I did want to address the misconception a bit in the article, though, because less ease (in the length as well as width of the bone channel) is often suggested as a cure-all for a wide range of fit maladies. One of the most frustrating things I experience as a maker is being thiiiissss close to finishing a corset and having to fight to get bones into a channel that’s a hair too narrow! It’s so maddening. If the angle is right, then you can allow much more ease in the width of the channel, although of course if your bone is too short then that’s just more room for the corset to collapse, as you say, like a sleeve.

      Getting CB to lay well is indeed tricky business, especially with unusual postures and extreme curves. While I don’t have a sway back, my rib cage and shoulders tilt back enough to create a similar angle along the back of my corsets, and I have had issues with my personal corsets tending towards the dreaded ( ) shape as I try to match my spinal curve, avoid back pudge, and allow of my preferred/required level of shaping. What I did on my wedding corset (19″, bespoke, low back) was to put two 1/4″ flat steels on top of each other in the same channel. The flats I like to use tend to have more give than a lot of makers’, but doubled they seemed to have the perfect amount of rigidity. I think overlaying the two created a bit of extra flex as compared to using a single bone that is twice as thick/rigid. I want to work more with this before making it a standardized practice, but as a business owner it offers a much more practical solution than the sourcing required to use a different, particular weight of bone for just the one placement.

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