Corset Shopping for Trans Women
The corsetmaking community, in my experience, strives to be very inclusive. In making a product that is both intimate and highly customized, corsetmakers work with not just a full range of body sizes and shapes, but also a diverse array of gender and sexual identities.
A corset has the potential to be a powerful garment for a trans woman. A corset's advantages lie most obviously in its physical effects, by immediately enhancing a feminine silhouette. But corsets also have positive psychological effects, conveying strength and support to their wearer, an un-warlike armor.
As I was researching for this post, I noticed a few trends from the accounts of trans women I was reading. (Full disclosure: I personally identify as a cis queer woman.) Even with a mildly shaped mass-manufactured corset, the difference in silhouette is noticeable enough to be worthwhile. Many even waist train in their budget off-the-rack corsets.
The downside to this is that excitement can overcome best practices --- I implore you to listen to your body and loosen, adjust, or remove your corset if you feel discomfort or pain. A good fit and easing into wearing your corset regularly will give you the best results. (Pro tip: if your corset is consistently uncomfortable, it doesn't fit!)
I suspect part of this enthusiasm is the fact that a corset itself is perceived as inherently feminine. As I mentioned, a corset isn't just a garment --- there's a psychological component. The ritual of lacing in can be grounding, and actually wearing a corset can provide a sense of calm through deep-pressure therapy. (Sadly there haven't been any official studies on this, but I've heard many anecdotal accounts to that effect.) A corset that fits well is often described as feeling like "an all day hug," and can provide the same feeling of well-being as an actual hug. Others describe the feeling of wearing a corset as being protective, like armor.
Setting aside the mass-market off the rack brands, there are two currently active corsetmakers that are most consistently recommended for a trans clientele: Contour Corsets (which is a trans woman-owned business) [Editor's Note: As of April 2017, it appears Contour Corsets is no longer operational.] and Dark Garden (where I also work part-time). On Lucy's Corsetry, you can check out a more exhaustive list of brands that create feminizing corsets.
While all corsetmakers who create custom pieces will have experience with a range bodies, if your needs are very specific I really recommend investing in a piece by a master of the craft. This absolutely is an investment --- corsets are not cheap. Look to corsetmakers who either specialize in this sort of work (such as Contour Corsets) or those who have been established since the days when corsets were largely the province of the queer and fetish communities (like Dark Garden). They will be the most in tune with your needs.
Romantasy is also a well-established brand in the latter category that has worked with many trans clients over the years. It's a bit trickier to discuss their work, as Romantasy does not make their corsets in-house, but is instead more of a middle man between clients and a select rotation of various corsetmakers.
A while back I did a post highlighting 10 Specialty Corsetieres, featuring Contour Corsets for transgender corsets. Fran of Contour Corsets intimately understands the needs of the MTF trans demographic, because she's a trans woman herself.
The "Sweetheart Mid Hip" corset was designed specifically to feminize an AMAB body, using the lines of its seams and the distribution of its shaping to maximize this effect. Contour Corsets are also known for medical and waist training corsets: what all these needs have in common is excellence in fit and sturdy construction. To my knowledge, Contour Corsets only does custom work.
Dark Garden has been making corsets in San Francisco since 1989. Today I took some time to sit down with Dark Garden's proprietress/my boss Autumn Adamme and pick her brain. The timing couldn't have been better: Autumn had just finished a consultation with two trans performers from AsiaSF. Autumn's been making corsets for San Francisco's famous LGBTQ community for just about as long as she's had the business: more than a quarter century of experience.
The ready-to-wear line is based on an average of thousands of custom patterns, and Autumn was one of the first corsetmakers to offer a standard size corset for an AMAB body. This style used to be called the men's waist cincher, but we changed it to the Tailored Cincher some years back in order to be more inclusive. In general, it fits a body that is slimmer through the hips and broader in the ribs. The dimensions as well as the shape of its seams are contoured to the angles and proportions of an AMAB skeleton. On some people, it works better upside down --- a principle that can be employed with many off-the-rack underbusts, from any brand, to invert the rib and hip proportions. "A lot of clients ask for a higher waist on a feminizing corset, but what the eye responds to is the shape and the reduction. You'll get a better reduction if you wear your corset on the natural waistline, and AFAB bodies come with a lot of variance as to waist height anyway," Autumn told me.
If you're looking for more dramatic shaping than that offered by the Tailored Cincher, you have two options. Natural waists of about 33" or less are more compressible and can sometimes fit into the standard Cincher, which has a different proportion throughout and a more rounded hip curve. Or, you can have a Tailored Cincher altered to a more dramatic reduction with a "gap adjustment," maintaining the same overall lines and vertical height but changing the relationship of the underbust, waist, and hip measurements. Dark Garden has a boutique (production happens on-site) where you can walk in and try on corsets with the help of trained corset fitters.
How much of a shaping effect can a corset really have? It depends on what you want. You can use corsets to very subtly define your waist for just an evening... or you can effect a semi-permanent change to the shape of your ribs and shrink your natural waistline by several inches through waist training.
The current waist training craze has, predictably, created a waist training backlash, but please don't worry about crushing your ribs: when practiced with common sense, wearing a corset is quite safe. Your ribs are attached to your sternum with "costal cartilage," providing them with the flexibility to expand and contract with your lungs.
Waist training can increase this flexibility and cultivate a change in the resting position of the ribs, as well as to the soft tissue of the waistline itself. In slimmer figures, an AMAB body is often more compressible than an AFAB body, in no small part due to the lack of a space-consuming uterus.
The recent photos of Caitlyn Jenner show her in two mildly shaped corsets, almost more what I would consider a basque. The ivory corset on her Vanity Fair cover is by Trashy Lingerie, the black lace by Agent Provocateur.
Light corsets like this very gently define, reduce and/or reshape the waist. Reshaping the waist creates the illusion of a smaller waist by redistributing, rather than compressing, the soft tissue --- one of the tricks employed to create Cinderella's fantastically small waist. From a style perspective, it's also worth noting that both fabrics, ivory satin and black lace, have a very feminine feel/social connotation.
If you're looking for more dramatic shaping, handmade corsets are your best bet, like the brands I recommended above. The fit is more carefully developed and easily personalized. A handmade corset will be more comfortable, create a more refined silhouette, and last longer.
Either way, I recommend an underbust style corset, one that fits from just below the breasts/pecs to the mid-hip, especially if you are looking to wear corsets regularly and not just for special occasions. Underbust corsets are more discreet under clothing and easier to style over clothing, generally allow for more dramatic waist reductions, and allow for greater mobility.
As your proportions change (through HRT, cosmetic surgery, weight fluctuations, and so forth), an underbust will also be more accommodating, and they can be worn with whatever type of bra and/or level of padding you prefer. Shorter corsets are easier to fit but will be less effective for training the ribs and often don't work as well on fuller figures. An in-person fitting/measurement session is ideal, but experienced corsetieres have a system for working with clients remotely.
Are you trans woman who wears corsets, or would like to? We'd love to hear about your experience in the comments below.