Too Petite for Petite: Mounting a 19th Century Corset for Undressed


Textile Conservation
November 27, 2015

Costume mounting is the topsy-turvy task of making a mannequin fit a particular object, a job that can often make you feel more like plastic surgeon than a museum employee, as the following post explains…

First up on the Undressed costume mounting schedule is this charming cotton corset dating from 1825-35.

Cotton Corset from V&A Collection, 1825-35
Cotton Corset from V&A Collection, 1825-35, © Lilia Prier Tisdall

Don’t be deceived by its intricate stitching and pleasing patterns however, she has been a challenging initial mount!

First try-on of the corset on a petite dress stand
First try-on of the corset on a petite dress stand © Lilia Prier Tisdall

Despite trying her on one of our ‘petite’ dress stands specially designed for historical costume and boasting a waist measurement of 17 inches, she was still too small.

First try on of the corset shows just how small the across back measurement is
First try on of the corset shows just how small the across back measurement is © Lilia Prier Tisdall
The shoulders do not sit correctly on the mannequin
The shoulders do not sit correctly on the mannequin © Lilia Prier Tisdall

As we don’t have time to wait for our mannequins to lose weight the natural way through healthy exercise and a balanced diet, immediate and drastic surgery was required…

Drastic measures: the mannequin with its entire upper back removed
Drastic measures: the mannequin with its entire upper back removed © Lilia Prier Tisdall

A whole new meaning for the idea of backless fashion?

After stripping down the outer cover and removing the entire upper back we then re-built the mannequin using buckram (scoured linen strips applied using wheat-starch paste) and FOSSHAPE (a low melt synthetic polyester fiber that can be moulded using heat) to achieve the required across back measurement.

The butchery involved gives both a fascinating and worrying insight into how far corsets like this are able to alter the natural shape of the body. It’s a privilege to be able to work so closely with the objects and the bodies beneath them.

With the corset now actually fitting the mannequin the next step was to create her enviable curves. In costume mounting terms this means some serious sculpting using the inert foam plaztazote.

Tools of the costume mounter: tape measure, craft knife, plaztazote blocks, metal grater
Tools of the costume mounter: tape measure, craft knife, plaztazote blocks, metal grater © Lilia Prier Tisdall

The early 19th Century silhouette of this corset gives Kim Kardashian a run for her money in the curves department: the breasts should sit wide and pushed up above a very small waist, accentuating the voluptuous hips.

Marking out the position of the breasts using coloured pins
Marking out the position of the breasts with pins © Lilia Prier Tisdall
Securing the plaztazote breast using stretch jersey
Securing the plaztazote breast using stretch jersey © Lilia Prier Tisdall
Work in progress: the curves are beginning to take shape to give the distinctive 1825-35 silhouette
Work in progress: the curves are beginning to take shape to give the distinctive 1825-35 silhouette © Lilia Prier Tisdall
Plaztazote hips are first caught with a ladder stitch and will later be secured with stretch jersey
Plaztazote hips are first caught with a ladder stitch and will later be secured with stretch jersey © Lilia Prier Tisdall

After carving some basic shapes to fill out the figure to the dimensions of the corset, the lines are softened using layers of polyester wadding, adding a more natural softness to the figure and providing a padded support for the costume. With a bit more padding on the front and the back she will then be covered in black jersey and dressed ready for display. See the final version in the gallery next year!

The corset sits much better now with reshaped shoulders and carved plaztazote to form breasts and hips
Almost there! The corset sits much better now with reshaped shoulders and carved plaztazote to form breasts and hips © Lilia Prier Tisdall

 

 

7 comments so far, view or add yours

Comments

Thanks for this very interesting insight into the challenges of mount making! Also makes you grateful that we don’t have to squeeze into these terrifying corsets nowadays.

Fascinating to see all the work that goes into displaying these marvellous pieces. Can’t wait for more of these posts. Very excited about the show!

What an interesting and enjoyable post! I look forward to reading more!

Fascinating insight into an interesting occupation and I’m really looking forward to the exhibition.

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