I get a lot of questions about corsets. Costumers ask what size they should make their corset. Consumers ask what size they should buy their corset. Those with corsets ask how tightly they should lace their corset.
Finally, people ask “Isn’t that horribly painful?”
The answer to that question is an emphatic “No“: not if your corset is well made, properly fitted, and properly laced.
To help with the last two, this is my rough guide to corset fit and lacing. It’s not based on anything more scientific than things I’ve been told, things I’ve noticed in sewing and making corsets, and things I’ve noticed in fitting lots of models in corsets. It’s going to vary depending on the corset style, and on your body. There is no one-size-fits-all in corsets, and no one-answer-fits-all, because there is an infinite variety of bodies.
These guidelines are intended to give a comfortable silhouette with a defined waist and supported bust: something that would be reasonably historically accurate for the period from 1860 to 1900. None of the guidelines here apply to tight-lacing, which, generally speaking, isn’t historically accurate (more on that in a later post).
For a woman of average build (<10″ difference between waist and hips, <8″ difference between waist and bust, neither athletic nor squishy) I recommend a corset that is 5″ smaller in the waist than the natural waist, and the same size as the natural bust and hips.
For a woman with a very low fat to muscle ration or a very large ribcage, and less bust, waist, and hip definition (this usually, but not always, means a very petite woman), the corset waist measurement should be less than 5″ smaller in the waist.
For a woman with a higher fat to muscle ration, and a curvier body with more bust, waist, and hip definition, I recommend a corset that is more than 5″ smaller in the waist, and bigger than the natural bust and hip size. A squishier body means that it is easier for a corset to safely compress and redistribute flesh from the waist up into the bust and hips (which is why you need a corset that is bigger than the natural bust and hips – they actually grow).
The length of the corset is also very important: it needs to have the right amount of space between your waist and bust, so that your bust is comfortably supported without being pushed up too high, and so that the corset doesn’t chafe under the arms. It also needs to have the right amount of space between your waist and hips, so that the corset doesn’t rub the top of your hip-bones, or poke into the tops of your thighs.
Proportions are also very important: you may have a very flat stomach, or a rounded stomach, hips that jut abruptly or swell in a shallow curve, a flat bottom or rounded bottom, a sway back or straight back, a bottom that has its roundness high or low. A corset that is adjusted for your body will keep these areas from being compressed uncomfortably, or from sitting loosely over them.
In general, the average 19th century woman had a much flabbier, rounded stomach than the average modern woman, because continual corset wearing means the stomach muscles are rarely used to support the torso and hold the stomach in. I find I usually have to take historical corset patterns in in the stomach area, and let them out over the bottom for the corset to sit properly on a modern body.
When you first put on a corset, it’s best to lace it a bit loosely, so that your body has time to adjust to being compressed, and so that the warmth of your body can begin to shape the corset to you. After an half an hour or so you can begin to tighten the laces. If you try to lace a corset to its full extent immediately after putting it on you may experience lightheadedness, difficulty breathing, general pain and pinching, and (most commonly), nausea. Lacing it more slowly is just much more comfortable, and much better for you. Tighten the laces with long, smooth, slow pulls, rather than short, abrupt jerks of the lacing cord.
I prefer a corset to fit so that it laces almost entirely closed at the absolute smallest you would ever want to lace it on its wearer. This just looks lovely and tidy, and keeps you from ever lacing the corset tighter than is good for you or the corset. Most of the time you’ll actually wear it at a looser lacing: with an inch or more of a gap between the two sides of the back. Some people prefer to have a gap in the lacing even with it laced to its fullest extent: that’s just a personal preference.
When a corset it fitted properly and laced to the right amount, it should sit snugly and smoothly against all parts of your body. There should be no chance that the corset could begin to slip around your body, or up or down on your body. If your corset pinches or rubs in one particular spot its not fitted properly, if you have trouble breathing in it it’s too small, and if it slips, moves around or doesn’t support your bust, its too big.
In saying all of this, while I do have the luxury of making corsets that fit me perfectly, and fit clients perfectly, I often put my corsets on models, and it just isn’t possible for me to have a custom corset for every model in every era they might wear. I do my best to have a range of corset sizes, to try a range of corsets on each model beforehand to make sure she gets the one that fits her best, and to schedule dressings so that we have time to lace the models in their corsets properly. It doesn’t always happen though. Sometimes I have to call in models at the absolute last minute, and some shows have quick changes. The best I can do is make sure that the corsets are well made and in shapes that fit the widest number of bodies.
Even so, my corsets don’t always fit the models perfectly: there are certainly examples of corsets that are a bit too long in the torso, wide in the bust, too small or too big among these photographs. I console myself by remembering that the average Victorian woman couldn’t afford a custom corset: she just bought a ready-made one, and period photos and wear patterns on extent photographs verify that they didn’t always fit properly.
So a little bit of gaping may not look great, but it is historical! Pinching and discomfort from ill-fitting corsets were probably historical too, but do try to avoid them, because hurting your body and risking your health isn’t worth it, even for historical accuracy.
I hope this helps, and if anyone has anything to add, or different guidelines, or any further questions, please do ask!