The Oxford Conference of Corsetry 2015 (A Newcomer’s Perspective)
While there are relatively few networking and professionalization events in the lingerie industry, one of the most revered is also one of the newest — The Oxford Conference of Corsetry, held over the summer at Oxford College.
For those unfamiliar, The Oxford Conference of Corsetry (otherwise known as OCOC) is a three-year-old event, created by corsetmakers, for corsetmakers, and dedicated to the study of corsetry. People fly in from all over the world for the weekend — sleeping, eating, networking, and yes, partying at the college. It’s an event full of expert-level educational seminars as well as the opportunity to simply admire gorgeous, wearable works of art.
This year’s conference had two key highlights: a visit from the king of corsetry himself, Mr. Pearl, and a burlesque performance with after-dinner speech by the world-famous burlesque artist Immodesty Blaize. It’s a testament to the name and reputation of OCOC that it would have such prestigious guests after so short a period of time. Yet even the conferences “regular” attendees are notable figures in their own right. Autumn Adamme of Dark Garden was there, and so were Cathy Hays of Foundations Revealed and the eponymous Lucy of Lucy’s Corsetry. Simply put, there is no other conference like this in the world.
Though I’m not a corsetmaker (or even a hardcore corset wearer), I’ve been intrigued by OCOC since the very beginning. I appreciate corsets, both as examples of historical fashion and material culture, as well as modern works of art. As a lingerie blogger, I both wanted to support the event, and also see some of the best corsetry being made nowadays. And I won’t lie, getting to see two of my writers in person — Karolina and Marianne — was a definite factor in the decision as well. While it often seems like the basic black underbust dominates the tightlacing and waist training scene (for good reasons), The Oxford Conference of Corsetry is a place for corsetmakers to show off in front of their peers. I saw corsets that quite literally took my breath away.
One of my worries before attending was that, as someone who doesn’t sew, I would feel out of place or like an interloper, but my experience was exactly the opposite. There’s a strong sense of community here, a genuine urge to make people feel welcome. Being interested in corsetry is enough to attend (though, to be fair, the conference price would probably dissuade most casual visitors). Everyone there is there to build up and encourage each other, and while this year’s conference was reportedly the largest by a wide margin, it doesn’t feel too large. It’s quite easy to meet others, introduce yourself, and talk with both new corsetmakers and corsetry legends alike.
In this era of fast, disposable fashion, the corset world is an anomaly. Yes, there are plenty of budget corsets available now, but OCOC is specifically dedicated to the craft of corsetmaking. Here, people discuss — in rigorous detail reminiscent of academic conferences — skills, techniques and materials that only otherwise appear on the runways of haute couture. Everything is labor-intensive, hard to automate, done by hand. The inefficiency of these processes is astounding; I saw corsets that took literally months to create. The fostering and reproduction of these mostly “dead” methods could make the Oxford Conference of Corsetry more than just a place for corsetmakers in the future; it could be a venue for art historians, costume specialists, and museum curators. This event is a treasure.
Yet while there’s an appreciation for the past, the corsetmakers at OCOC never feel wedded to it. That may sound strange on the surface because a corset is an inherently “old” garment, but it turns out there’s a lot of room to modernize what a corset can be in the 21st century… in the same way a dress made in 2015 and a dress made in 1885 are very different pieces yet both still recognizable as dresses.
There’s also a distinct lack of preciousness regarding the garments, even with antique corsetry. Trying on and examining the pieces (with permission and freshly washed hands, of course!) is encouraged. Here, respect and admiration for the techniques of the past isn’t limited to looking at clothing in a dark room behind a glass case. The opportunity to closely examine historical, museum-quality corsets is one I’ll never forget.
Related to this sense of community (and something I hope I’ll able to convey adequately here), while there are male corsetmakers present at OCOC as both delegates and speakers, the event is primarily run, taught, and attended by women. Even though that aspect isn’t a part of the conference’s “marketing pitch,” so to speak, this is a space that centers the stories, voices and experiences of women… not as a specific objective, but just as a way of doing things.
Getting a chance to see another side of the lingerie community, all on the historical Oxford campus, was an incredible experience. I left with a renewed sense of appreciation for the story of intimates, a stronger sense of how vintage silhouettes connect to modern day underpinnings. And, of course, getting to see a few priceless works of art in person was definitely a perk! All in all, it was a wonderful, worthwhile trip.
What do you think of The Oxford Conference of Corsetry? If you’ve attended, do my impressions match up with yours? If you haven’t, is this the sort of event you’d like to attend?