Updated: Apr 5
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When I think of couture, two things immediately come to mind: lavish hand embroidery, and the mystique of the corselette.
The corselette is often used with heavy gowns and evening wear. Its purpose is to act as a foundation to hold the weight of the dress and to keep the shape of the design. It alleviates the stress on a fragile bodice, which is often made from delicate fabrics that sometimes contain hundreds of hours of fine hand-embroidery.
Contrary to popular belief, the corselette isn’t used for the purpose of tight-lacing as a waist-cincher, unless it is constructed with that specific purpose in mind. Below, is a corselette with a tight-lacing feature.
More often, the corselette, when constructed from home sewing patterns, is less about shaping the body, but, instead, helps shape the line of the dress.
The corselette is constructed with the dress in mind, to alleviate pressure points on the garment, so the dress moves and behaves as it was designed and intended. Without this corselette underbodice, the dress is at risk of extra wrinkling, bagging, and sagging, due to the large weight and volume of the skirt or bodice fabric. Think of it as serving the purpose of helping the dress defy gravity, to provide beautiful structure to the garment.
Even though the Nina Ricci, Vogue pattern # 1388 dress design looks straightforward and plain, it does need an inner corselette.
I tried an experiment by putting on the dress without the corselette, and, while it fit perfectly fine, the bodice and sleeves kept sliding down the torso. It is interesting that we rarely hear about wardrobe malfunctions during the time corselettes were popular in celebrity dresses, like in the 1950's when this dress was designed. Corselettes may have saved many starlets from embarrassing moments while under the scrutiny of the public eye!
The natural pressure points of a dress are usually located at the shoulder, and at the waistline. So the dress needs bones, or permanent scaffolding, to help alleviate these pressure points, and to keep the form the designer intended. This Nina Ricci dress uses eight spiral steel bones to help shape the bodice line.
There are many ways to make a corselette, and there are a variety of materials one can choose. They are present in many different materials, including cotton, silk, linen, and even polyester or nylon. I personally prefer to work with a breathable cotton material, because it is what was traditionally used in the couture. In the end, however, it is up to the sewist to decide.
This Nina Ricci corselette is made from cotton bobbinet that was purchased by the bolt from Dharma Trading Company. There is a learning curve with this bobbinet fabric from this particular supplier. It hasn’t been my favorite to work with, because their cotton is quite thick, and the holes themselves seem to be clunky and “large“ compared to what I’ve seen after studying other haute couture corselettes. However, haute couture bobbinet from international suppliers is virtually impossible to source at this time, due to supply chain issues resulting from the pandemic.
There is a learning curve with Dharma Trading Company's bobbinet. One has to deal with the tendency of this fabric to stretch and distort. Accordingly, the cotton-net must be carefully pre-shrunk through a meticulous process. If you have the capability to do so, the net should be laundered using the hottest sanitize setting, and also dried using the hottest setting. Then, it must be steam-pressed. Press-shrinking with only a hot iron isn’t enough. You will see that it will shrink considerably in the wash. After cutting, steam press again. After assembling, measure and steam press again to retain its original shape. After completing this entire process, the pieces should be the same size and shape as when you initially cut them.
The unique feature about this Nina Ricci corselette is that it is cut on the bias, so extra caution and care was required when handling the pieces.
The cotton net from Dharma Trading Company is already quite stretchy on the cross grain, so I wasn’t sure what cutting on the bias was going to achieve, other than to allow it to mold closer to and further around the body. Although risky, since bias can cause extra bagging and sagging, I still went ahead and cut the bobbinet on the bias as instructed.
I debated about how snug this dress should sit against the body. After making the muslin and knowing there was a bias cut corselette underneath that could stretch around the body, it helped with the decision to cut the bodice with less ease then I‘d normally construct. The bodice was cinched in one additional inch. This decision to cinch more was made easier with knowledge of the bias-cut corselette!
An under lap extension was also created to lay under the hook and eyes to prevent them from rubbing and scratching up against the body.
Attaching the Dress to the Corselete: Reverse Construction Process
Although the corselette is the first thing we construct for the Nina Ricci dress, surprisingly, it is the last thing that’s inserted, and it must be carefully sewn-in by hand.
The bodice hemline is then folded over and attached to the corselette using the mossoul-stitch, or the herringbone stitch.
I found it interesting to mount the corselette onto the dress instead of mounting the dress onto the corselette! This is an unusual sequence of events, since, most of the time, dresses are built over the corselette. In the end, it all makes sense to reverse the construction process in this particular design, due to the sleeves and the belt loop designed for the dress. It is fun to discover something new and interesting in the construction of a couture pattern from 1957.
This is an unusual sequence of events since most of the time, dresses are built over the corselette.
When looking back at the corselette construction process: they are actually not that complicated to construct, but they are essential to bring the contour of classical sculptural beauty to vintage fashion designs.
I hope this post helps to bring some clarity around the mystery of corselettes, and gives you more confidence to undertake the challenges to successfully make a dress with a beautiful corselette.