Learn from my (many) mistakes as I attempt to draft an 1850s corset from a Godey’s Lady’s Magazine pattern.
Disclaimer: I have no idea what I’m doing. This is not a tutorial, rather a study in overconfidence and chaos. We are going on a journey of learning together.
To begin our story, I occasionally volunteer to do interpretation at a local living history museum that interprets the year 1855. I’ve been slowly working on building my own wardrobe and I want to do as much as possible myself. Previously, I’ve made my own corded petticoat and a serviceable shift. The next piece I really want to make is a new corset.
My current corset isn’t terrible, but it is not a great fit and starting to get too small. Not to mention the green and black can show through if I wear lighter colors.
Now, I’ve done very little corsetry. The closest I have come was adding boning (aka giant zip ties) to my Tudor style kirtle that I wear to my local Renaissance fair. Boning wouldn’t acutally have been used during that time, but it gave me some extra bust support.
For this project, I want to make something that is close to the right silhouette for 1855 that actually fits me.
The first thing I needed to do was figure out what a historically plausible corset in 1855 would look like.
One thing I have learned about 1855 fashion is it can be a difficult time to track down reliable resources to help in recreation. It was just before the iconic crinoline area, but after the equally memorable Regency silouhette of Austen and now Bridgerton fame. There just aren’t that many people interested in this fashion era.
The Dressmakers Guide
I started with my copy of The Dressmakers Guide by Elizabeth Stuart Clark that was extremely useful when I made my corded petticoat. There is entire chapter devoted to Early Victorian corsets and how to construct one, so it was a great place to start.
This book breaks corsets of this time into gored and gusseted corsets. According to The Dressmaker’s Guide, gored corsets are made of narrow panels with curvy seam lines. This style is very similar to my green corset. Gusseted corsets, on the other hand, have fewer, straighter panels, with roughly triangular inserts to get a figure friendly shape. There are also examples that use features of both styles.
With fewer pieces and (theoretically) easy to adjust gussets, I decided the second style would be an easier style to make for my first corset. It also seemed more comfortable and flattering for my curvy figure.
Looking for more information, or even some original sources, I took a look at Elizabeth Stuart Clark’s blog I found a couple of useful blog posts about making an 1860’s corset. This is a little after the time frame I am aiming for, but quite close, and seems to fit the guidelines for the 1850’s from The Dressmaker’s Guide.
While I didn’t find a historical source, this did lead me to look at Red Threaded’s website.
While I have never used a Red Threaded pattern or purchased one of their corsets, they are always highly recommended.
This is where things get a bit confusing. The Dressmaker’s Guide refers to this type of corset as “gusseted.” Here, it is called a “gored” corset. It seems like more places refer to these inserts as gores, and I will also do so, going forward.
There is a pattern available for this corset. There is also a kit available that comes with fabric, tapes, and all the hardware you would need. But I have never used a commercial pattern and don’t particularly want to start now. I am also aware that a properly fitting corset will take multiple mock ups and adjustments even when following a pattern. With my petite frame and large bust, I already know I won’t fit properly into a standard size. What I really wanted to find was more historical examples to follow.
Should I have probably at least bought the pattern if not the whole kit? Yes! Am I stubborn and going to try to do this the hard way? Also yes!
I was in luck. The Red Threaded website also has a blog. There I found a adjusted version of this 1860’s corset to make a replica of an extant 1864 corset that is in the Victoria and Albert Museum collection.
The Victoria and Albert Collection
After seeing the Red Threaded recreation, I went to the V & A website and spend a lot of time looking at the pictures of the original corset. It is a much finer example than what I am planning to make, but looking at the original really helps to get a feel for how everything should come together. I only wish they included pictures of the inside!
Bound and Determined
Continuing on my research deep dive I headed over to Google books. While not a perfect resource, I can sometimes find partial books available online for free, sometimes even full books.
I quickly found Bound and Determined: A Visual History of Corsets 1850-1960 by Kristina Seleshanko which had free 28 page preview. Even though I could only access a small portion of this book, I was hoping to find some sources for further research. I was in luck! In the first few pages was an image from an 1857 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine with instructions for corset making.
Practical Instructions in Stay-Making
This is what I had been looking for! On page 165 of Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine volume 55 was a diagram and instructions for making a basic corset. It was printed only two years after my target time frame. This is about as good as I could have hoped for!
The Final Plan
After all of this research I had a good idea of what I was aiming for.
The overall shape will be based on the Godey’s Magazine pattern. I haven’t totally settled on a boning layout, but it will be somewhere between the Godey’s pattern and the V & A extant example. The Red Threaded blog mentioned adding a drawstring to the top of the corset to help prevent gapping at the bust that I will also include.
Making the First Pattern
I took a few measurements of myself. For this style of corset, it seems like the waist measurement is the most important since the gores can be changed to adjust for hip and bust curves.
Using these measurements, I sketched out an approximation of the diagram from the Godey’s magazine that would theoretically fit my size, and cut out the pieces.
Starting Off on the Wrong Foot
At this point I’ve already made a couple of obvious mistakes that I won’t catch until later.
First, I didn’t read the Godey’s pattern close enough where it says to subtract 2 inches from the waist measurement.
Second, when attempting to scale up the shapes, I didn’t take into account bust placement. This bust placement will end up in my armpit.
Which gores are which?
After reading through the Godey’s pattern several times, I haven’t found where it definitively says which gores are bust/front hip/back hip. The pieces are only labeled A, B, and C. If the letters follow the construction order, then A is the bust gore, B is the front hip gore, and C is the back hip gore.
Based on images of other similar corsets, these shapes seem to make sense with that placement, so that’s what I’m going with.
Mock Up Materials
With my (very) rough first draft pattern ready, I needed to make up a mockup to see where I needed to make adjustments.
I had a thick purple cloth in my stash that I knew should work well for the first couple of mockups. I haven’t decided what fabric I want to use for the final corset, but whatever it is, it will be a lighter color than this so I don’t have to worry about it showing through any outfits.
This fabric was given to me, so I had no idea what the fiber content it was. Before I ironed it, I did a quick burn test to get an idea of what kind of fiber it was made of. To my surprise, it was a natural fiber fabric, probably cotton.
Cutting Out the Pieces (the Wrong Way)
Cutting up the pieces for the first mockup, I made another mistake that could have been avoided by following the Godey’s magazine instructions. I cut the the front pieces on grain, instead of bias, “in the direction of the little bones up the bosom.”
Combined with the other mistakes, this one is (probably) the least consequential at this stage. It will be easy enough to cut out my next attempt on the bias.
Sewing It Up
Starting with one half of the corset, I sewed in the bust gores and hip gores, then joined the front and back piece together. I did this by hand, not because it was the best option, but because my craft room was a mess and I couldn’t easily get to my sewing machine.
If anyone reading this is familiar with placing gores into corsets, you may have already noticed I sewed them in the wrong way. Don’t worry, I’ll notice eventually.
With half a corset, I held it up to my body in the mirror and immediately discovered how badly I had placed the bust in the front piece.
Another obvious problem was the gores were not deep enough.
I had already cut the slits for the bust on the other front piece, but I sewed up the outer slit and cut a new slit closer in. The curve at the top was off, but this did help with the bust placement.
I cut further into the second half before placing the gores to help them fit over my hips and bust better.
I finally noticed I had been putting in the gores wrong, and changed up that technique and got much neater placement with the hip and front gores.
The overall size of the corset was too big (from not adjusting the waist measurement at the begining). To help fix this, I brought in the front and back seams about half and inch. This also brought the bust closer to the right place.
Trying It On
I sewed the two halves of the corset mockup together at the center. The final corset with have a front closing busk, but I don’t have one yet because I don’t know what size to order, because I don’t have a good mockup yet.
I poked some holes down the sides of the back with my awl and roughly laced it up, just to get a better idea how everything was fitting.
This mockup is really two mockups in one. The right side is the first attempt, and the left side has the adjustments. It’s already a great improvement, but far from perfect.
This mockup doesn’t have any boning or other stiffening that the final corset will have so it isn’t laying flat. This was just to get a rought idea of where to go next. The closer I get to the final design, the more care I will put into my mockups.
What Still Needs Fixing
- Increase gore size/depth
- Even curves at top and bottom
- Decrease overall circumference
- Remove S curves from bust gores
Adjusting the depth of the gores and moving the bust placement seems to have helped the fit a lot. The back pieces are pretty close to what I think is right, but the front needs a lot of adjustment to the pattern.
I will need to make longer gores to fit into the deeper slits. I didn’t like working with the S curve in the bust gore, and the V & A and Red Threaded corsets don’t seem to have that extra curve, so I am going to tweak that shape for the next pattern.
My next step is to adjust the paper pattern and make another fabric mock up. Hopefully after that I’ll be close enough to tell what size busk and steel boning to order so I can order those and some grommets for the final corset.
Not a Bad Way To Start
For a first attempt at corsetry, I am pretty happy with what I’ve been able to accomplish so far. Even with all the mistakes I’ve already made, and all the mistakes I haven’t noticed yet, I am having a great time.
I still have a very long way to go until I have a complete corset, but I’ve already learned so much and I can’t wait to keep going and find out what else I’ve done wrong.
Be sure to check back soon for more progress on this project!
If you want to see more sewing, some of it historical, all of it at least slightly chaotic, click here.
Do you prefer to follow patterns, or make it up as you go? Let me know in comments below!