Corsets and Queerness: An Interview with Lovely Rats
All images via Lovely Rats.
In the world of queer women’s lingerie there’s a lot of emphasis on butchness and masculinity, from TomboyX to Autostraddle’s Underwear Week. But boxers aren't the only game in town for queer folks. Queer entrepreneur and lingerie designer Amber Welch has been sewing corsets since 2008, the same year she opened Lovely Rats, her custom shop. She was recently profiled in an award-winning article and has designed multiple pieces for alternative model Penny Brown.
Amber’s corsets are beautifully designed and executed, but what interests me most about them is their playfulness: she has one corset that uses a fabric featuring a print of a Bosch painting. In another, she adds Cthulhu-esque wings to the exaggerated hips of a corset with the face of the monster across the basque. Almost all of these designs show an interest in playing with beauty and with femininity, the same interest that led Amber to name her corset shop Lovely Rats. As she says, "I've noticed both corsets and rats have a bad reputation based on common misconceptions. They are perceived as ugly and unhealthy, when really they can be quite beautiful... I love the idea of making something lovely out of something twisted."
All of this talk about corsets and rats intrigued me, so I got in touch. Amber and I talked about corsetry, entrepreneurship, and (because it’s me) gender and sexuality.
What initially drew you to corsetry, and what's kept you engaged in it as time has gone on?
I have always loved the Victorian era and historical costume, my interest just kind of naturally progressed to corsets. I got hooked by the challenge and what a versatile platform corsetry is.
What is the most creative or challenging piece you've worked on?
I'm currently working on an overbust corset pattern for Penny Brown, and it is an extremely difficult project for me. I'm determined not to give up until it's perfect!
You stated on your website that you get requests for bras, but aren't ready to make those. Can you tell us a little bit about the difficulties of bra design and construction, as opposed to corsets?
It's just not an area I'm practiced in at all, and I feel that there are people in the industry much more qualified to be charging for custom bras. I made a longline bra pattern for Penny Brown, which was designed more for smoothing the figure than support. It definitely wasn't what I would consider a 'real' bra. I got a lot of positive feedback and requests from it, so I'm learning to make traditional elastic bras now. I've had some success with cupped corsets so far, but bras are just a different discipline as far as sewing and function.
What challenges do you face as a small lingerie brand?
Overhead! While the materials for individual pieces don't eat up a ton of my profit, the cost of keeping up supply and upgrading my equipment gets very high. If anyone is ever thinking of starting their own business, I'd emphasize really keeping tabs on your business related expenses and make room for it in your prices.
As a queer woman (if you're okay with that term) running a small business, do you find that your customers come from primarily queer communities or elsewhere? Do you think that queer customers feel a solidarity with queer business owners?
I actually don't think most of my clients know that I'm a lesbian. I haven't advertised my business much as part of the GLBTQ (and the rest of the alphabet soup) community. But I've often hoped for more business from transgendered [sic] clients. In my personal life I've had a long standing association with the transgender and genderqueer community, and I would really love to be able to make pieces that have the ability to improve someone's quality of life and self perception. In addition I'm also a huge fan of drag, and don't have nearly enough drag queen clients!
What do you typically think of when you hear a phrase like "queer lingerie"? Does your definition of queer lingerie include corsets?
It's not a phrase I've actually heard before, and I wonder if it's something Lovely Rats is or can be more a part of. Corsets definitely have a place in that. For a lot of people, feminizing corsets play a role in how they present their gender and feel more comfortable in their own skin. There are a lot of brands like Romantasy and Dark Garden that have established a real relationship with the queer community, and I think that below the surface corsets are a small part of GLBTQ culture.
What's coming up in the future for Lovely Rats?
This week we're finally moving into a bigger space. I'm working on a few articles for Foundations Revealed and I'm running another corset giveaway right now. This summer there are a lot of cool projects coming up, including a Jessica Rabbit dress for Penny. In the far future, I'm slowly saving up money to open a shopfront one day.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know?
The only thing I can think of is that I recently married my partner, and we 'll be having a wedding ceremony next year!