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In Defense of Ready-to-Wear Corsets

Victoria Dagger in a RTW "Vamp" corset by Pop Antique. Photo by Karolina Marek.

Let me start this post with two disclaimers:
1) I love corsets.
2) A good fit is absolutely key in a corset.

But I don't think that fully custom is the only way to achieve a good fit in a corset.

Victoria Dagger in a Pop Antique "Flirt" RTW corset, which has a fit comparable to the Valentine shown below. Victoria is 5'3". Photo by Andres Razo.

(Bonus disclaimer: I'm not talking about the kind of ready-to-wear corset that is sweatshop mass-produced with no shape and/or flimsy plastic bones, etc. As far as I'm concerned, those aren't even really corsets.)

I touched upon this a bit in a previous post, What (You Didn't Know) to Look for in a Corset, but I'd like to go into it in more detail. Unusual for an independent, handmade corsetiere, I actually love to specialize in a ready-to-wear fit rather than bespoke. My line is called Pop Antique, and to me, there's a really exciting challenge in creating a single corset pattern that fits an assortment of bodies. It really pushes me to think about the body, what works, what doesn't, what has the most wiggle room, etc.

Ulorin Vex in a Pop Antique RTW "Valentine" corset, paired with latex leggings and bolero. Ulorin is 5'9" tall.

Now, don't get me wrong: this is not an article about how custom corsets are redundant and a waste of money, by any stretch. The going theory is that because RTW corsets try to fit everyone, they actually fit no one, because the percentage of people with truly standard proportions are so small.

Victoria Dagger in a Dollymop for Dark Garden RTW bridal corset. Photo by Chris Gaede.

And maybe that last part is true. Maybe no one is the ancient Greek ideal of proportion in every single limb. But most corsets fit only from mid-hip to just above or below the bust, so it doesn't matter as much if you have short legs or a long pelvis or long arms or broad shoulders or a short neck or a big forehead or any number of other minor differences in proportion. And in my experience, even if you do have a proportion difference in your torso that affects corset fit, it is often something that can be addressed with one or two simple pattern changes, if it's not corrected by a slight variation in the lacing gap. Most commonly, the top or bottom edge will need to be raised or lowered to accommodate torso length, or there will be a circumference change to the rib or hip.

The fact of the matter is, ready-to-wear, when designed well, is designed to fit as much of that corsetiere's target market as possible. Key to that train of thought are the words "target market" and "designed well." Just as each corsetiere has their own aesthetic in terms of color, embellishment, and fabrication, each corsetiere has a different silhouette ideal in their mind, is particularly sensitive to certain fit or comfort issues, and has a different demographic forming their local client base. If a ready-to-wear fit isn't right for you, it may just be that the corsetiere's ready-to-wear line is designed for a different body type or standing posture. It doesn't mean their patterns are bad or that your body is shaped weirdly. And if you are tied to working with that particular corsetmaker (we appreciate your interest and loyalty!), then that's a great time to talk about pattern adjustments or bespoke fit.

Victoria Dagger in a custom Dark Garden "Grable" corset. Though Dark Garden typically uses flat steels throughout, this fashion show piece was made with spiral steels in deference to Victoria's preference: having worn many ready-to-wear corsets, it didn't take long to find out that flat steels bruise her rib cage. © Mask Photo.

You may be wondering if the bespoke corset wouldn't be a better choice anyway --- why not just go for full custom for the first time, and every time? I want to play devil's advocate with you for a minute (although RTW corsets are far from the devil). By wearing corsets, we learn about corsets and our own body and how the two interact. You learn things from wearing a fully-constructed corset for hours or days that you wouldn't know from having your measurements taken or a mockup fitting. You learn that your ribs are really squishy --- or really not. You learn if the compressible part of your waist is very short or long. You learn about the shape of a back curve that puts pressure on your spine, or your favorite hip spring silhouette. The more experienced corsetieres will know what to look for and how to balance a lot of those things out, but ultimately we are not psychic, especially if you are ordering online and doing a remote fitting and we can't even touch you. And that's why I think wearing ready-to-wear corsets before you launch into the investment of a fully custom corset is not only valid, but valuable.

Model Raven Le Faye in a Pop Antique RTW size "Demoiselle" sweater corset. Photo by Andres Razo.

Ultimately, ready to wear and custom corsets both come in different grades of quality. No matter which route you choose, do your research. A handmade RTW corset is very different from one produced in a Chinese sweatshop, of course, but consider this scenario: some bespoke corsetieres may have a RTW line they rarely sell and therefore haven't fully developed or prototyped in an adequate range of styles and sizes. When designing my ready-to-wear line, I did extensive market research into sizing, then used three fit models of the same size with very different body types to test my samples. I'm still making tweaks here and there (and that ability is one of the great things about being a small designer and doing everything in-house). Dark Garden built its ready-to-wear line based its exhaustive archive of custom corset patterns. And a custom corset from a corsetiere with five or ten or 20 years of experience is very different from one made by someone who is just launching their corset business after making a few corsets for his or herself and a few friends. When you are corset shopping, that is not the time to bargain hunt.

Model Whitney McCabe backstage at a Pop Antique fashion show, in a RTW Vixen. Whitney, who has only occasionally corseted in the past, wore this ribbon corset all evening - it was so comfortable that she didn't take it off until after our round of post-show drinks, when she had to leave her ensemble with me.

Do you own any ready-to-wear corsets, or only bespoke? Who makes your favorite ready-to-wear fit?

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.

13 Comments on this post

  1. Georgia says:

    I love OTR corsets! I buy exclusively from Orchard Corset because their prices are completely within my budget. I would love to get a Contour Corset made sometime in the future, however I simply cannot afford to go custom as well as pay for shipping (I live in New Zealand). There are so many beautifully made corsets out there that I have seen and would love to make my own, however it simply isn’t possible due to where I live…
    Bottom line: Orchard Corsets fit me like a GLOVE and are the most comfortable piece of clothing (accessory?) I have ever owned, and they are totally affordable as well. Win.

  2. Cat says:

    Thank you! I got into corsetry by getting an inexpensive but well-made OTR for an event. I never would have discovered I liked it otherwise; who’s going to take a $300 to $600 gamble on something they don’t know if they’re like? I also learned a lot about how my body is put together, and while I discovered it is very unlikely any OTR will ever fit me well because my torso is unusually proportioned, I also learned how to get a corset that will fit well and how to ask for exactly what I need. I also plan to make a couple minor alterations to my OTR which should make it fit reasonably well and thus I will wear it more — as you said, it isn’t a huge leap.

  3. Sara says:

    I often do a combination of RTW, demi bespoke and bespoke depending on the brand and style of the corset. I did a demi bespoke with a corset I loved just to change the material because it wasn’t traditionally done in black leather and so they did a special one off just for me (yay!). I prefer overbusts which can make fitting difficult as there is over 12 inches between my corset waist and my bust, 15 inches between my corset waist and my hips….finding something that fits can be a real struggle but I persevere! I have a great collection and I’m lusting after great designers all the time :)

  4. Anonymous says:

    I would say to thanks for sharing this information.keep it up!!!!!

  5. Maria Von T. says:

    My first corset was a ready to wear corset by Corset Wholesale. I reduced my natural waist 5 whole inches with it. I went from a 28” waist to 23” in 6 months. I loved that corset so much. I paid $60 for it, it was nothing special just a normal off the rack steel boned corset. Since then I have purchased 2 fully custom made corsets and 2 off the rack corsets. I love them all. If it fits and you feel comfortable in it, custom or not, go for it. Remember quality is key and do not get into serious corseting without educating yourself first.

  6. Thursday says:

    I started my grown up corset collection with an RTW underbust. After I had my first custom overbust made, I discovered two things:
    1. Overbust corsets will probably never flatter my body in the same way an underbust does.
    2. A local designer does a RTW gored hip underbust that fits me like it was made for me.

    I’ll be ordering a custom made fan-laced underbust from this maker, but the combination of 1 and 2 reinforced the relative benefits of both custom and RTW corsets for me. Whilst the custom overbust fitted me very well, I was even happier with my well-constructed RTW, in a style designed for my bady shape. I will most likely own both in future, but you should definitely not discount RTW as an option.

  7. Personally, I would say that RTW definitely have a place in the wardrobes of many. Although not the ultimate fit, how many of our off the peg clothes can we truly say that about?

    Corsets are something that is becoming quite fashionable again at the moment, and therefore are something that many ladies (and gents) want to try, without the expense and time that it takes to get one custom made. It is used for a night (or two) out, rather than as a regular item.

    Selling RTW corsets, I keep a variety of shapes in, and encourage my customers to try more than one, in order to get the best fit available for them. My prices are reasonable and my corsets are all steel boned. Occasionally someone will fall in love with a corset and buy it regardless of fit, but generally women want the fantastic figure that only a corset will provide and will choose the best one for their shape.

    As you say, RTW will never, and should never, replace the custom made corset, but RTW does give the fledgling corset wearer a good insight into the joys of corset wearing, and therefore should be encouraged, rather than dismissed.

  8. Mia Culpa says:

    I own three Dark Garden RTW corsets. It turns out they fit me nearly as perfectly as a custom would, which helps stretch a budget considerably. I also love that RTW at Dark Garden is a bit of a misnomer – you can pick your fabric, laces, and add garters, and they’ll make your corset to their RTW measurements. The RTW corset they made for my wedding ensemble last year is a spectacular object of beauty, and could not have been more perfect.

  9. Cris says:

    Definitely good points, and I do like the idea, but I don’t think it will work for me, no matter the designer.
    I’m 3 RTW corsets into my search, and I don’t think I’ll ever find one, RTW or distance-ordered custom, that will work. Short waist, wide ribcage, not much squish, and floating ribs that get cranky when crunched = I give up, I’m not designed for corsets. One of these years I may figure out a pattern that works when I’ve got some free time and a lot of muslin laying around, but until then, no historical fashion for me.

  10. AlexaFaie says:

    Sorry for the wall of text; I *did* put spaces between the paragraphs but it seems it got rid of them. :(

  11. AlexaFaie says:

    OTR corsets definitely have a place in the market and are a fantastic introduction into the world of corsetry if you can find somewhere which has a shape suitable for you. I have tried a few different makes of OTR corsets and have found that for me, I really do have to go custom. I’ve yet to find anywhere which sells OTR corsets with a 30″ underbust, 20″ waist and 38″ hips. For a short torso (1″ wide gap between ribs and pelvis). And which also take into account the curve of my spine.
    But if I hadn’t had the chance to buy an OTR, I’d have never learnt that. And I might never have decided to take the leap into trying my hand at making my own corsets. Eventually I would like to be able to produce (amongst other things) a range of corsets which I feel would bridge the gap between OTR and fully custom. I played around not too long ago with some paper and a few “measurements” of theoretical mini-people to create flat shapes (front view) which highlighted how even with the same horizontal measurements, you could get a different fit in a “standard” corset just by altering the torso length from waist up and waist down. I made an “average” template based on the measurements I used and then put the different “mini-people” on top. All had the same waist size, but the underbust and hips differed, as did the distance between each. I used straight lines for simplicity. Out of 16 combinations of measurements, only 4 (1 from each “set”) fitted the average template well. The position on the body the “corset” had to be to “fit” differed quite a bit too. For some the theoretical corset would be too loose in the ribs/hips for others too tight. Anyone creating an OTR range has a lot of work cut out for them!

    It is therefore very important to know (or to ask to find out) what proportions an OTR manufacturer makes their corsets to. A What Katie Did Morticia underbust will fit VERY differently to a Corsets-UK underbust. For me to wear a Corsets-UK corset I’d have to pick one with a waist size bigger than my natural waist. But I could just about get away with a WKD Morticia in a size 4″ smaller than my natural waist because the proportions they use are more curvy. Its just the length which is a bit of an issue there.

    I agree that the two elements of the corsetry industry compliment each other. Though I’m now more against OTR than I used to be purely because it bugs me that I can’t fit them and some are really pretty! I still recommend them to people interested in trying corsets but who don’t want to spend a huge amount of money on something custom only to find that they don’t like the feel of it. With no returns on custom goods, that’s an expensive lesson to learn. But you can also be put off by a poorly fitting OTR. So I always ask for more info on their proportions and suggest a different company depending on how they are shaped. I have a friend who fits the Corsets-UK corsets just fine and can wear them with an even lacing gap at the back. So she hasn’t yet bothered going for a custom made corset as she can get something suitable for herself and her intended use of the corset (occasional wear) for a lower price.

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