Back in March, scrolling through 2017 entries for the contest, I lamented that, yet again, I hadn't managed to get my act together to enter. I made an open promise that in 2018 I would embrace the challenge. With the decision made long before the “theme” was announced, I wanted to have a trial run at making a cupped corset. Despite the fear of taking on something entirely new, my ambition burned strong and in May I attempted a cupped bridal corset. Barbara Pesendorfer’s article “Corsets with Cups” was very helpful, but being the sort of person that enjoys making her life difficult, I decided that a fully inserted cup wasn’t for me.
I settled on a design were the cup is only partially inserted into the body of the corset, leaving a keyhole cut out at the sternum – fastening the cups together with a G hook, and allowing for a split busk closure at the front. Ambitious for my first cups… some might say completely bonkers. It was a very steep learning curve. Using Barbara Pesendorfer’s Foundations Revealed article, tweaked for my design modifications, I got there. Estella was born. She wasn’t perfect, but she was pretty good.
©Tara Hills Photography and Design
I was blown away by the positive response my prototype Estella received. Buoyed by my success, I decided to create another cupped corset before I attempted my contest piece and so Narcissa, Estella’s sister, was created. This gave me the opportunity to work out some of the design and construction kinks that happened with the first.
I’ll write a more detailed blog post on the sisters at a later date.
Finally starting to feel quite confident, I was then totally thrown when the theme of ‘insects’ was announced. I was overwhelmed, and unsure of how to translate the theme to a corset without it becoming too “costume-like” I spent a long time researching all kinds of exotic insects; surely anything native to the British Isles would be too dull to inspire an astounding piece of corsetry? I began sketching designs based on Locusts and Cicada, but they didn’t feel quite right.
It wasn’t until a moth flew into my sewing room, and inspired by this transient tiny fragile creature, I was suddenly certain that I needed to embrace my British heritage. (I’ve still got the moth. It died, poor thing, and now lives in a jam jar on my shelf in my sewing room). I narrowed my research to British lepidoptera and stumbled across the Muslin Moth.
The imagery of moths really began to excite me. The more ethereal version of butterflies, they seem otherworldly. Only awake in the dark, but attracted to light, like little dusty ghosts of our ancestors. The Muslin Moth seemed to epitomise all of this; beautifully monochrome, delicate wings, fuzzy heads. It even dictated what fabric I should use: Muslin. I really relish the idea of using less common fabrics in my corsets. Muslin was a very commonly-used fabric in period fashions, particularly popular in regency fashions, and still favoured for 19th century dress making. It has fallen out of favour, now commonly used to strain cheese and mop up baby vomit. I really wanted to give this fabric a renaissance.
I chose to draw on the idea of these ethereal creatures being like ghosts, or time travellers, or just from another world. The colours, shapes and textures of the Muslin moth really reminded me of 18th century high fashion, while the dusty nature of moths reflected the powdered wigs.
Using my cupped corset design as a base, which itself lends to an insect-like structure, I incorporated elements of 18th century fashions, while trying to keep a nod to modern design. I added a ruffled centre panel to capture the “fluffy” nature of the moth’s body, with straight diagonal side seams similar to the stomachers of the 18th century. I continued the ruffles down into the knickers for continuity. The knickers are a modern interpretation of the “long drawers” as worn in the early to late 19th century.
I designed the “wings” to fall from the hips, hinting at a panniered gown. I felt this incorporated the wings without the design becoming overtly “fancy dress”. I added the centre black panel between the breasts to draw focus, to break up the white, and to mirror a detail on the back of the head of the moth (although it is white on the moth).
Patterning was relatively straight forward as I was I had worked out most of the kinks in my two previous attempts: adjusting the centre front panel to create the right lines, drawing it up between the breasts and creating the flat front I had in mind. I adjusted the sizing to fit my model and drafted new cups, as my model would be a smaller cup size than my previous two cupped corsets. Getting the fit right is, as always, incredibly important. I had to ensure this corset was going to fit correctly, but I knew I wouldn't have any opportunity to do a fitting before the shoot, which always makes me nervous!
I drafted the new cups by utilising the moulded cups from a strapless bra in the right size. I covered them in masking tape and drew on the lines where the seams would be. I could then cut the masking tape, flatten and take my new pattern pieces from there. The cups and underwires of this bra would then be used in the construction of the corset.
After a bit of deliberating, I decided to picked black coutil to use as my strength layer fabric instead of the more obvious white. The muslin I used in this piece was a very loose weave and the colour of the coutil could be seen through the fabric. The white seemed too stark and the detail of the weave of the fabric was lost. I settled upon using two layers of muslin on one layer of black coutil. This created a depth to each panel, and also reflected the body of the moth, which, – on close inspection, – appears to be a black body with white fur.
I am fortunate enough to have a ruffle foot for my sewing machine, so creating the ruffles for the centre front panel wasn’t too arduous. I deliberately made the ruffles for the centre panel made them slightly irregular, and kept the edges raw, to add to the “moth eaten” aesthetic and reflect the often “tatty” wings of moths.
I used two layers of coutil sandwiched together for the centre front panel, I stitched in the boning channels in a fan pattern, and then attached the frilly panel over the top securing with stitch lines just on the side seams. This allowed me to create the boning structure I wanted with an 18th century feel without having to sew over my lovely frills.
When it came to marrying the muslin to the coutil, I began using the roll pinning technique to ensure I would have a smooth finish. However I soon realised that the muslin was such a loose weave, with such give in it, that roll pining was entirely unnecessary in this instance. Working with the muslin was really quite challenging. Every-time I moved it my panels seemed to change shape. One heavy breath and there would be tiny little white threads everywhere!
I constructed all the panels of the corset first, basted in a waist tape and then stitched the internal bone channels. I chose to press seam allowances to the back, top stitch, trim and then apply boning tape.
Once the body was complete, but before adding boning, I attached the cups. Each cup was constructed using three panels, each with two layers of muslin flat lined to coutil. Once the fabric cups were attached to the body of the corset (seams pressed upwards, notched, top stitched and trimmed), the moulded cups were hand-stitched into position, and followed by the underwires to give shape and support to the bust. Hand stitching this kind of moulded bra foam is very hard on the fingers! The remaining fabric at the top of the cups was folded down to the interior over the cup and machine top stitched. I trimmed off the excess fabric and covered the raw edges with black bias tape, also hand stitched into place. This gives a clean, smooth and comfortable finish.
I used a combination of 7mm spiral steels and flat steels for boning: 10 spiral steels, one on each seam, 6 flat steels for the boning on the centre front panel, and flat steels either side of the eyelets.
Muslin bias was used to finish the top and bottom edges of the corset. I quickly learned that muslin does not want to be pressed into bias tape, and has a habit of unfolding itself whilst still warm. I discovered the quick application of a heavy book to freshly pressed bias tape would ensure it stayed folded.
I chose a rich black velvet to use for the centre black panel on the corset. I felt that velvet gave depth and also mirrored the “fuzzy” quality of the moth. I cut a piece of velvet to the appropriate shape to fill the gap between the cups and down to a point, I added a little excess to each edge to enable me to roll the edge under whilst hand stitching it to the corset. This, too, was hand-stitched into place and I continued the velvet over the top edge of the corset and onto the inside at the breastbone. This covered my last remaining raw edge but also added comfort for the wearer at a pressure point on the corset – where the flat steels press on the breastbone.
The wings were made using two large, triangle pieces of muslin, with the bias edge to be attached around the hip of the corset, this would enable the wings to sit smoothly over the hip. Before attaching, though, I wanted to add the veins of the wings as they are on the real thing. Keeping it subtle I chose to use satin ribbon on the inside of each piece, carefully pinned into place and then machine stitched. I mirrored the pattern of the veins onto the second wing. Again I kept the bottom edges raw to add to the worn look.
The wings were then hand stitched onto the corset following the line of the iliac crest over the hip and meeting the eyelets at the back and the centre panel at the front. I feel this really captures the shape of gowns worn with panniers in the 18th century without adding the extra bulk.
To finish the wings I added small pieces of the black velvet to mirror the spots on the Muslin Moth’s wings. Once again these were hand stitched into place with raw edges rolled under.
To complete the corset I wanted to add a little vintage glamour. I had some Victorian jet beads from an antique (and broken) necklace that had been hanging about in a jam jar for many years. They were the perfect compliment to this piece. I layered the beading heavily but kept the bulk of it to the black panel in the centre as I really wanted to keep to the subtle and delicate concept, spreading out slightly over the cups to give some depth and highlight the shape.
The final piece of the design puzzle was the frilly knickers. I’d not draped a knicker pattern before, so that in itself was a challenge. To create the right “bloomer-esque” shape I desired, I went for a four- panel construction with centre seams, side seams and a crotch seam. I sewed the centre and crotch seams together first then added the ruffles (again keeping the edges raw as always). This took both more time and more fabric than I had anticipated.
Top and bottom edges were folded over and nude, wide elastic added at waist band and for each leg hole. I was concerned once I finished these that the elastic was a little obvious, but fortunately once on my model you couldn’t see it at all. I was very pleased with these knickers; they completed the look, and fit really well.
In one of my more insane moments I decided to shoot the completed piece myself. I have almost no photography experience and am very lacking in equipment. However, I had such a definite idea of how I wanted this to look when it all came together I felt I had to try. My model is a dear friend of mine, who I chose as she had the perfect look for what I was after. My make-up artist interpreted my “modern 18th century mothy masked ball” brief perfectly, and I created a modern 18th century hairstyle with a lot of back-combing and white chalk hairspray!
We shot the whole ensemble in my living room with a few chosen props.
Overall I am really pleased and proud of what I have achieved here. I went from feeling like I was completely unable to create anything worthy of the contest, to creating precisely the corset I had in my minds eye, but also matching knickers, styling and photographing the piece – creating final images exactly how I’d imaged them.