Lilia Prier Tisdall, Textile Conservation Display Specialist
In her catalogue for the V&A exhibition ‘Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear’, Exhibition curator Edwina Ehrman writes how ‘one of underwear’s primary roles is to smooth, firm and mould the body in accordance with the fashionable ideal and to provide a substructure for the fashions of the day’.¹ Substitute ‘body’ for ‘mannequin’ and this might equally describe the role of the V&A’s dedicated team of costume mounters, particularly when it comes to the subject of how to display corsets.
The Undressed exhibition features over 25 corsets from eighteenth-century whalebone stays to twenty-first-century ‘waist trainers’. The majority of these are displayed on commercially available papier-mâché torsos known as dress forms. A key benefit of dress forms is that they are easily adaptable to the impressive array of fashionable silhouettes women have squeezed themselves into over the years. By ‘easily adaptable’ we mean they can be chopped up and stuck back together again, an exercise that can give a somewhat brutal insight into the effect these intimate garments can have on the body, illustrated within the exhibition by x-rays that reveal contorted ribs and squashed organs.
When faced with a flat corset it can be far from clear how it is supposed to be worn and the effect it will have on the body (Figure 1). The ease with which top, bottom, back and front can be confused by the later observer is a testament to the inventiveness of corset designers throughout the ages, who were constantly developing new methods of construction and experimenting with new materials. This is evidenced by the great number of patents applied for; one of these that features in the exhibition is ‘Brown’s Patent “Dermathistic” Corset’, which boasts of ‘bones, busks and side steels protected by leather’.
The obvious starting point when dressing the mannequin is the waist; the corset must fit at its smallest point. However, even this can be a bit of a moveable feast as the desired position of the waist varies according to the fashions of the day. The development in 2010 of the PETITE dress form by proportion>london Ltd, specially adapted for historical garments, has simplified the process somewhat and provides the foundation for the majority of corset mounts in the exhibition. The exaggeratedly tiny 17-inch (43cm) waist of the PETITE dress form means there is room to add layers of padding to provide a soft support while the elongated torso allows for a variety of silhouettes.
Once the correct circumference has been achieved, the actual shape of the waist itself must also be considered. Dita Von Teese’s Swarovski-encrusted corset designed by Mr Pearl (2011) was a perfect ‘fit’ for the 17-inch PETITE dress form; however, after consultation with Mr Pearl, it was clear that it provided too cylindrical a shape. Because the corset was so close to the measurements of the mannequin it did not given any impression of the corset moulding and sculpting the mannequin body beneath it – an important element of ‘tight-lacing’ culture. The solution was to cut out the waist and fill in with polyester wadding (Figure 2). This had the combined benefit of reducing the waist size and providing a soft core that would mould to the intended shape of the corset. As the luxury of direct contact with the designer is not available with the majority of corsets, contextual images are of paramount importance to achieve accurate historical silhouettes. Contemporary advertisements are of particular interest as they seek to promote the ideal body shape of the time.
One illuminating comparison of the extreme variations in corset styles women have faced is the respective mounting processes required for a cotton corset dated 1825-35 (T.57-1948) and an early twentieth-century S-bend corset (courtesy of The Hopkins Collection). The mounting of the 1825-35 corset first entailed the removal of the entire upper back of the mannequin before being reconfigured and reattached with buckram (linen strips adhered with conservation grade wheat starch paste) to accommodate the minute across-back measurement (28 cm!). The sloping shoulders fashionable at the time were created by taking a Fosshape mould from a standard dress form torso to which shaped and carved Plastazote breasts were attached, so achieving the wide separated bust shape deemed elegant in the early nineteenth century. Below the waist, the hips were extended widthways using carved Plastazote blocks (Figure 3).
By contrast, almost the complete opposite was required for the Edwardian S-bend corset; to create the distinct S-bend shape the entire front of the lower torso was cut away and covered over with Fosshape to give a tilting effect. At the back a low, wide derrière was emphasised with layers of Plastazote. At the bust the chest was filled in and built up with Plastazote to create a forward-leaning ‘mono-bosom’ (Figure 4).
Once the foundations for displaying a corset have been established the next thing to consider is, for want of a technical term, ‘squishyness’. The mounted corset needs to give the illusion that it is moulding the body beneath it into the silhouette it has been designed to produce. In reality, the materials that are used to build these forms are distinctly un-fleshy – papier-mâché, Fosshape, Plastazote, and buckram – which are primarily chosen for their strength and ability to hold their shape. But corsets also need softness, both to give an illusion of flesh, and also to avoid strain on the object. To give the appearance of tight lacing, but without actually asserting undue pressure on the garment, the corsets are generally laced with a gap of between one and two inches (2.5-5cm).
While these garments are made to be sturdy they are also vulnerable – boning can snap, busks can slip, lacing can wear away eyelet holes, stitches can pull, fabric can stretch. Undressed is a touring exhibition – before display at the V&A in March 2016 it had already been to three venues in Australia and it is set to continue to others in Russia, the USA and Brazil after exhibition at South Kensington. This sustained travelling – some corsets might stay on their mounts for up to four years – is only possible with the high technical level of bespoke mounting discussed here, combined with specialist packing and crating. As well as providing an opportunity to develop new techniques for displaying corsets, the costume mounting process for Undressed gives an intimate insight into dress history and body shapes, and the extraordinary lengths women have gone to achieve them.
I am grateful to Edwina Ehrman, Susanna Cordner, Albertina Cogram, Lara Flecker and Rachael Lee for all their help and guidance during the mounting of Undressed.
- Ehrman, Edwina. Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear (V&A Publishing, London, 2016), p.41.
‘Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear’ is sponsored by Agent Provocateur and Revlon. Runs until 12th March 2017.