This under bust corset (FRC 2013.05.001), dated 1900, is made of a rich pumpkin coloured woven jacquard cotton with a motif of staggered flower buds and stems (Note 1). The corset is lavishly trimmed with lace threaded with a similar yellow toned satin ribbon along the busk, and top and bottom edges. The centre front closes with metal slot and studs that are unmarked. The spoon busk measures 12 ¾ inches, with hand-stitching visible at the openings for surrounding each of the slots of the busk. The closed waist measures 23 inches, and there is notable discolouration along the panels along the waistline of the corset, as well as signs of wear including small stains and discolouration. Looking closely, there appears to have been four separate remnants of stitching resembling the shape of a dart, located respectively on each side of the front and back of the corset. There are 12 pairs of metal eyelets on the back to lace the corset; however the original laces are not present. The corset is lightly boned with 5 flexible bones placed directly beside each other, on each side of the corset, as well as one bone on either side of the eyelets at the back. One of the bones located on the back pokes out of the casing at revealing what appears to be ¼ inch flat white metal bone. The garment appears to have been sewn by machine; however the stitching is noticeably lacking fluidity and accuracy.
Examining the inside of the corset, the top and bottom edges are trimmed in cotton bias tape in a darker shade of pumpkin yellow. The five bones on each side of the corset are clearly visible within their white cotton casings. The busk has been enclosed leaving the raw edge of the fabric visible, and closed with large herringbone like stitch along the length of the busk. The seaming is quite visible and the seam allowance along the waistline, and centre front and back have been left raw, and have shredded over the years. Upon close inspection there are remnants of vibrant pink stitching concentrated along the waistline. Given the placement it could be surmised that the raw edges of seaming along the waist could have been enclosed by lining along the waistline at some point.
This corset is a bit of a conundrum. The vibrant colour and trimmings, as well as light boning and size would suggest that this is more of a fashion corset for a smaller women; however the use of the spoon busk is usually for the more practical purpose of containing a larger stomach. Furthermore given the construction of the corset with flexible boning only being used at the sides, this corset was probably intended more for looks rather than to greatly reduce one’s waist; as it would only lightly shape and support the figure. The weight and quality of fabric do not seem to be appropriate for the early 1900s, as it is a lightweight cotton jacquard fabric in a very vibrant yellow (Note 2). Nor does use of the spoon busk, or decoration of it, which does not seem to be typical of the period (Note 2). Additionally the decorative outside of the corset would infer that the garment was more of a fashion item, made for someone who could afford to have a more frivolously coloured item of clothing; in contradiction there is the odd lack of finishing on the inside of the garment, as well as in the accuracy of the stitching.
The vibrant pink stitching remnants may indicate that there once was a lining of that colour; however the remaining raw edges still seem very odd for a corset from the early 20th century. As for the indications of the four dart-like stitch remnants, this again is extremely odd as darts are not a normal feature in corsets. This would suggest that they would have been added later to accommodate a smaller waist, and then taken out later to expand it again.
Typically corsets from the early 1900s are longer lined, and have a more curvaceous silhouette with the S bend shape. This is not at all consistent with the style of this corset; though it could be argued that the surface embellishment is somewhat similar. While there were shorter under bust corsets, more similar to the shape of this corset, there are very distinct differences.
Under bust corsets from the turn of the century have far more boning, and are constructed in less vibrant coloured but lavish fabrics like silk, with more detail, and do not employ the use of a spoon busk, but a straight busk. They can however be trimmed with decoration, but the busk is not typically decorated. This is clearly illustrated in contrast between the corset in question, and this plain white cotton corset, ca. 1900 (C.I.41.103.4) from the Met, which is similarly cut, but far more heavily boned. It also closes with a straight busk, and has far less surface decoration in contrast to the highly decorated spoon busk of the pumpkin yellow corset.
There were also ribbon corsets at this time, like this cream ribbon corset from Ryerson (FRC 2014.07.228) which have only light boning at the sides, very similar to this corset in number and placement-all being concentrated beside one another at the sides. The fabric used in this ribbon corset is also far more expensive, being entirely silk,. Though the fabric is on the more decorative side, the fabric is still a plain weave, not patterned. Finally, the ribbon corset does not have similar trimmings, but instead a single ribbon decoration at the top of the busk, which is straight not a spoon shaped.
None of the other early 20th century corsets were constructed from comparable textiles – neither in composition, weave or colour. Nor do any of the corsets feature decorated busks, or even just spoon busks; nor do they have separate panels cut along the waistline. Given the inconsistencies when compared to various other corsets from the early 1900s, there is a good chance that this pumpkin cotton corset is a vintage theatre costume corset, taking inspiration from the style of early 1900s corsets.
This corset seems to be a hybrid of different corset styles which would coincide with it being a theatre costume corset, as costume designers do not always make period accurate costumes, but are looking more for a certain aesthetic. This would also account for the vibrant colour of the fabric, and stitching, as well as the amount of surface decoration. Additionally the peculiar lack of finishing on the inside would makes sense as well, as theatre costumes are often left unfinished on the inside as they are not visible to the audience, as well as for ease of making alterations. This could also explain the dart like shapes still visible, as it could have been altered for a production. Finally the amount of wear it seems to have could be explained by the use it would have gone through being a costume; but also suggested that it is a vintage item.
As there was no provenance attached to the artifact upon acquisition, there is no way to know with certainty the origins of this undergarment. However, this artifact offers an interesting peek into 20th century corsetry and the complex nature of dress artifacts.
1. For more information on fabrics, see: http://www.dressandtextilespecialists.org.uk/dats-toolkits
2. See various early twentieth century corsets, all in pale coloured, plain cotton or silk fabrics with surface embellishments and straight plain busks.
3. To learn a bit more about common corsetry misconceptions, this article offers additional information: http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/everything-you-know-about-corsets-is-false/
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This post was reviewed and edited by Curator and Dress Historian Ingrid Mida.