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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.