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What Is a "Real" Corset, Anyway?

Disclosure: This blog post contains an affiliate link.

In online corset communities, there's a lot of talk about "real" corsets. The current latex shaper craze has definitely exacerbated this. (Spoiler: Those aren't corsets.) But what is a "real"/"authentic"/"true" corset anyway? I find this sort of denomination to be muddying rather than clarifying, personally. Partially because, while I may not like them, even bad corsets are still corsets. There are also some really good corsets that break the Rules. But there are definitely some garments thought of or even sold as corsets that are plainly something different.  So where's the line?

Pop Antique "Gibson Girl" corset | Model: Victoria Dagger | Photo © John Carey

Pop Antique "Gibson Girl" corset | Model: Victoria Dagger | Photo © John Carey

(Oh, and don't get me wrong.  While I say "bad corsets" and "good corsets," I don't actually think these descriptions are much better than "real" and "fake" corsets. First of all, they are far too subjective, but also I'd love to find categorizations that sound less judgey!)

What a Corset Is and Does

So let's start with what a corset actually is.  This is my personal definition, which I feel encompasses the key commonalities between both historic and modern corsets. A corset is a strongly structured (under)garment used to create a desired silhouette, fitted by means of lacing which controls compression and re-shaping of the torso.

Morua corset in bobbinet | Model: Victoria Dagger | Photo © Sparklewren

Morua corset in bobbinet | Model: Victoria Dagger | Photo © Sparklewren

Let's break that down. I say "strongly structured" where others might say "steel boned" and "has no stretch." I think stretch is going to be the next frontier of corset rule breaking in this contemporary corsetry renaissance we're experiencing. (Well, it seems like a renaissance from here! More on that another day.) Sian Hoffman already blurs the line between "corset" and "girdle" with her powermesh longline, and some of the mesh being used for sheer/summer corsets has give even if it doesn't have any lycra content. Sparklewren has also been making (to great success) single layer corsets without a waist tape.

Sparklewren "Rose Gold" single layer silk/cotton sateen corset, sans waist tape | Model: Victoria Dagger | Photo © Sparklewren

Sparklewren "Rose Gold" single layer silk/cotton sateen corset, sans waist tape | Model: Victoria Dagger | Photo © Sparklewren

As for boning, while steel is the standard, there's at least one corsetiere out there using a high quality plastic with wonderful results (the types of plastic bones that are widely available are still mostly crap which will warp instantly, though). Cane/reed is still used for historic recreations. Home corsetieres often use cable ties for their personal corsets. Cording can even replace boning. On the flip side, there are plenty of cheap, shapeless, corset-like garments with steel bones slapped inside.  Steel bones alone are not enough to define a corset.

Dollymop for Dark Garden underbust corset | Model: Khadijah | Photo © Joel Aron

Dollymop for Dark Garden underbust corset | Model: Khadijah | Photo © Joel Aron

I say "desired silhouette" because stays, which are included in the corset family, had more to do with shaping upper torso, including bust and shoulders, than just the waistline. Hip shaping for a lot of periods was more determined by skirts and underskirts than the corset itself. Modern corsets focus on the lower ribs, waistline, and hips, but their antecedents are still relevant.

Lacing. I have written so. many. articles. on. lacing, and you know what, I bet I am still going to write more. Functional lacing is so important for creating controlled and variable compression. I cannot think of a single exception to this part of my definition, though I am open to the possibility.

Pop Antique corset featuring upcycled tshirt, styled with a vintage fur wrap and tulle skirt | Model: Victoria Dagger  |Photo © John Carey

Pop Antique corset featuring upcycled tshirt, styled with a vintage fur wrap and tulle skirt | Model: Victoria Dagger
|Photo © John Carey

Lastly, compression/reshaping of the form. Throughout history there have been plenty of foundation pieces and garment add-ons that structure and build up the form, from bum rolls to shoulder pads. A corset sculpts the body by carefully compressing and redistributing the existing flesh.

The Grey Area

So, my definition does, unfortunately, include bad corsets, at least a little. Poorly made corsets with little shape, cheap boning, cheap polyester fabric cut off grain, grommets spaced 2" apart... They may do a poor job of  it, but in a way that requires more finesse to spot.  These are the sorts of corset a teenager might wear to a Rocky Horror midnight showing, which is probably the best use for them. They're sometimes called "fashion corsets", but as modern corsetry is moving in an increasingly fashionable direction (a trend which I personally am committed to furthering), I find this moniker inadequate. Those godawful eBay knockoffs are in this category.

Pop Antique Valentine corset with fashion-conscious details and styling | Model: Victoria Dagger | Photo © John Carey

Pop Antique Valentine corset with fashion-conscious details and styling | Model: Victoria Dagger | Photo © John Carey

For a starting point in identifying quality in corsetry, check out What (You Didn't Know) to Look for in a Corset. Some will try to say that a good corset or a corset fit for waist training must have a certain number of bones or layers of coutil. My definition is much more fluid. The materials and reinforcement appropriate to a corset will depend on the goals for wear, and even waist trainers will have varying needs and desires for their training corsets. As ever, I strongly advocate for handmade corsetry - I find the fit and finishing to be superior, and the designers of handmade corsetry are usually those leading the way in innovative techniques  and design. There's also a flexibility of design in made-to-order and bespoke corsets that is currently literally impossible in a mass-produced, factory-made piece. Yes, handmade corsets are more expensive, but justifiably so.

That still leaves us with a couple things commonly called "corsets" which are, in fact, a different type of garment.

Not corsets:

-Latex waist shapers/fajas. These are more like girdles than corsets as they have only a hook closure and seem to be entirely stretchy with very little stability and structure. Personally I find the fine-tuned fit of a corset to be much more comfortable than the squeeze of a stretch shapewear.

Latex waist shaper (girdle) by Leonisa. Not a corset.

Latex waist shaper (girdle) by Leonisa. Not a corset.

-Fashion corset tops, which are essentially boned bodices with no waist shaping and a zip closure. They may have a decorative lacing detail but no functional lacing.

What do you think of as a real corset? Have you found your stance on real corsets changing as time goes on? What terminology do you use to distinguish between good and bad corsets, or corsets and other shapewear?

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.

3 Comments on this post

  1. Sophia Chidgey-Hallan says:

    Early period pairs of bodes and stays of the type which use reed/fine cane/bent grass are not designed to reduce the waist at all but to mould the silhouette in particular give a smooth front and controlled bust line. They are also predominantly sporal rather than cross laced. They were not in use until the last couple of decades in the sixteenth century even abs court level and didn’t become ubiquitous until the late seventeenth century. Earlier sixteenth century clothing was stiffened with linen canvas amd sometimes linen paste buckram (not modern buckram amd somewhat different from layer buckram as far as research can tell) and the line was created by excellent cut and fit, latest research also indicates that there were no separate bodies and separate skits were rare until the later period and again an upper class thing and very late. It is only when boned shaping garments decone more common that you see the rise ofthe trade of Staymaker separate from Tailor and then the rise of the Mantua Maker as women’s garments start to predominantly be made by women unless there is hard tailoring involved in which case they remain the preserve of male Tailors (formal Tailored riding habits being a classic example. This is a fully established convention by the Regency period from the research I have read.

    I know you are not writing a historical garments piece but it its important to not give a false impression. Paires of bodies and early stays are the ancestor of what we know as the corset but not corsets.

    (Please not that my primary area of interest is Tudor through early Jacobean. The other periods i habe a genetal knowledge of so may have missed the most recent research)

  2. Helen says:

    Thank you for a definition that can include lower-end corsets! As someone who can only ever afford “bad” corsets, I prefer to distinguish by whether a corset is worth the money paid for it. I would kill to be able to buy a beautiful, custom made corset perfectly designed for me, but I’m in a near-minimum wage job in a field which I love but never pays well, so buying one can only be a dream for now. I tend to ask two things: Is it comfy? Does it shape my torso at all? I try to look for signs that something is going to be as good quality as possible, but I accept that I’m just not going to find a perfect corset which I can afford without selling my kidneys! I currently have one which I love, but many people would probably say is really bad. It doesn’t tick all the boxes for great quality, but is steel boned with a waist tape, comfortable, it gives me a lovely shape and takes a couple of inches off my waist, and it only cost £30. If someone were to tell me to my face that it wasn’t a “proper” corset, I’d consider them really insensitive. It’s not like I wouldn’t get something handmade if I could!

  3. Estelle says:

    Nice explanation :) I tend to say ‘proper’ corsets but I always put it between bunny ears because I realise the cheaper ones are still corsets too. I guess high-quality/low-quality corsets might be better wording, but then I have 2 Agent Provocateur corsets worth a ton of money and that are definitely high-quality garments (steel bones, beautiful fabrics, thick cord lacing, really well made), but they don’t really reduce the waistline at all so are they really corsets? I don’t know…

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