Twenty-first century corsetmakers have heard me bang on about this a thousand times, but I will say it again: I’m convinced that there is no such thing as a “modern body”.

This persistent phrase is a symbol of the popular belief that the majority of us who live in 2015 simply cannot achieve the figure of the Victorian or Edwardian woman, who supposedly underwent unimaginable torture – or years of waist training – to achieve THAT controversial figure.

Granted, not everyone who puts on a corset today is looking for a waist that’s tiny enough to inspire double-takes in the grocery store, but I do believe that, in general, the person who wants to wear a corset for whatever reason would like some degree of flattering boost in his/her waist-to-hip ratio, and is often settling for less impact than s/he’d ideally like to achieve… because, of course, we can’t expect much from our “modern bodies”.


Edwardian corsetry


Even after you get past the really honking corset myths that still seem to persist (rib removal, fainting couches, and so on), there is still a large contingent who believe that fleeting analysis of Edwardian imagery points to insurmountable differences between our ancestors’ figures and our own. We have not been wearing corsets our whole lives, true; we are not used to restrictive clothing in general, also true. But from the wealth of casual references to the limitations of “modern bodies”, anyone would think that the female human form has gone through some sort of extraordinary evolutionary leap during the last century, giving most of us hopelessly solid, near-rectangular torsos.

Especially my bony, athletic, US size ten swimmer’s torso.

I am on a mission to find out whether these limitations are, in fact, the whole truth… and when you look closely, it seems that our ancestors, so long pitied for their obvious slavery to painful fashion, were a great deal cleverer than we have taken them for.

Here I am in the corset I made in 2009 to go under the Oak Leaf dress. It’s a corset made in the accepted modern way, by fitting to my existing measurements and taking as much out at the waist as I could stand.


Oak Leaf dress corset, (c) Cathy Hay, 2009


Not much shape going on there. But here I am in the 2015 edition.


Corset toile and image (C) Sparklewren Bespoke Corsetry, 2015


This quick-and-dirty, behind the scenes photo shows a first mock-up of an antique Edwardian corset pattern, constructed for me by Sparklewren Bespoke Corsetry. Jenni has used every Edwardian trick we know so far:

  • Reducing the waist but leaving room in the bust and hips;
  • Starting with a comfortably achievable desired waist measurement, and forming an Edwardian shape around it, not adjusting a pattern to “fit” all of my existing proportions;
  • Using synthetic whalebone, not steel, and just one layer of fabric;
  • Padding the hips (we’ve actually shoved Edwardian bust forms in there, after discovering that they weren’t needed at the bust!)
  • Letting the bust sit in its natural position, not in the youthful, perky, pushed-up modern style, with a view to padding it later with a bust bodice.


Corset toile and image (C) Sparklewren Bespoke Corsetry, 2015


The results, even at this early trial stage, speak for themselves. My waist has been reduced by 5″, my hips have increased by 6″. My waist to hip ratio has increased from 12″ to 19″. Increasing the bust will also help with the overall effect when we add a bust bodice, but you can see the Edwardian silhouette beginning to emerge clearly.

Please be clear: these are not photos of someone who wears corsets regularly. Although I run the biggest educational corsetmaking website on the Web, I just run the business, let others be the experts, and attend the occasional costumed ball. As for the tyranny of fashion vs. the attraction of comfort, there is a reason I like menswear.

And yet, the drop-dead curves are now happening.

This is how our ancestors did it. They had the same bodies as we do; they just had a different approach to the hourglass figure. In 2009 I tore my hair out trying to force a corset pattern to fit the body I already have, taking out as many inches at the waist as I thought I could endure for an evening. The Victorians and Edwardians started with an achievable waist measurement (generally 1″-2″ less than their natural waist), bought or made a corset of that waist size in the proportions they were looking for, and fudged the rest.

In other words, if the Edwardians had made corsets as we do now, they wouldn’t have looked a great deal different from us. The extraordinary silhouette is a cleverly constructed illusion.


Corset toile and image (C) Sparklewren Bespoke Corsetry, 2015


Finally, of course, notice that the view from the side is not that impressive; it’s the front and back where you see the difference, and the reason for that is explained very well in this blog post. It’s all artifice and illusion. As is, of course, the posture. Edwardian corsets did not “throw” or “force” the figure into any particular posture; the forward-leaning stance was deliberately adopted. The model in the photo at the top of the page is leaning way the heck forward for the photo, just like that weird cross-legged thing that celebrities do on the red carpet because they believe it makes them look thinner, whilst actually appearing to advertise to the world that there are no bathrooms on the premises. Yes, the famous Edwardian S-bend was for the pictures. It’s illusion. Artifice.

Women are clever, clever beings, and they always have been. See? Our great-great-grandmothers are still fooling us now. But if we just adopt the same tricks that they did…