On “Imperfection”

There are two angles to “imperfection”.

Excerpt from “The Luxury Strategy”, with Sparklewren’s “Sugared Leopard” corset below.

The first is a type of luxurious, artistic “imperfection” that I find really entrancing and lovely. It’s the sort of “imperfection” that 99.9% of people will not notice and certainly not interpret as a “flaw”. It’s the hand-crafted quality of hand-made work, the scant millimetre inaccuracy from one side of a symmetric lace applique to the other… It’s the barely perceptible imperfection which subtly and silently tells you that this is not a soulless mechanical object.

A couture bridal lingerie corset by Sparklewren.
A couture bridal lingerie corset by Sparklewren.

This sort of imperfection is to be welcomed and cherished. Our entire notion of the word needs to shift to allow for this, as it is in the imperfections that we find the beauty.

I adored these three corsets (now in homes as far away as Australia and as near as Leicester), but they could each be deemed “imperfect” if they did not overlap with the wearer’s requirements and aesthetic preferences. If you have a client, please them. If you do not, please yourself. That’s all you need to do.

The second type of “imperfection” is a more obvious and practical one, and this is a point for the corsetmakers and other creative people reading… One’s work must be fit-for-purpose. It is terribly easy as a creative person to compare your work to everything else in the industry, and find it lacking. To judge yourself too harshly, in this quest for making good work.

The “Phoenix” corset, from 2013’s test run of the new design.

But ensuring your work is fit-for-purpose is quite straight forward. It’s simply a question of defining a purpose for your own work and sticking to it. I receive many emails from new corsetmakers, fashion students and so on, asking for advice and being very complimentary about Sparklewren. On the whole, what I find they actually need isn’t necessarily information on how to make corsets (those with the least confidence often tend to be the ones with the most talent, and who I am to say that they should adopt corsetmaking tecnique A, B or C? I don’t necessarily know their aims and aesthetics)… it’s a little bit of encouragement. Having experienced the same self-doubt myself, I know how crucial a few kind words can be, and I know that the problem hinges around this notion of “perfect quality”. New makers become afraid that customers expect “perfection”, that other designers are looking down on them, that their work is imperfect. The problem is that the definitions of perfect/imperfect are often too simplistic. For example, a “perfect” corset might be:

  • completely smooth
  • with no bulges of the body above/below (ie: perfect fit)
  • comfortable
  • with dramatic waist shaping
  • easy to lace into
  • fast to lace out of
  • versatile (ie: wearable with many outfits)
  • etc. etc.

Here are just a few of the problems with our imaginary “perfect” corset:

  • It is potentially a bit bland. A corset that is very versatile is generally very plain and whilst this is wonderful (I have some versatile and plain classics in my own repertoire), it surely can’t be the be-all-and-end-all of corsetry.
  • It has conflicting aims…
    • Lacing into a corset easily is made more simple by using a certain size of eyelet, set at a certain distance, with a certain type of lacing… Lacing out of a corset quickly is made more simple by using a different format.
    • A “dramatic” shape looks like one thing to most people, but wearing that shape is quite another matter, with some body’s “dramatic” cinch being very mild to look at. Comfort and shape is very personal, there is no one perfect silhouette for every body.
    • It will never be 100% smooth, nor should it. As my friend Gerry of Morua Designs said to me recently, we make garments not armor. A corset that is 100% smooth is a static thing, a sculpture. This is absolutely fine if that’s your interest, but it is in contradiction to the other criteria of our impossibly “perfect” corset (comfort and shape). We can get very close to making perfectly smooth corsets, but not to the level you might expect from seeing photoshopped images everywhere. There is always going to be a tiny ripple or such, especially when in motion, and I personally prefer to see a ripple or two, it shows you the function of the garment, you see the tension and relationship between the corset and body, and I personally favour corsets that look like corsets.
  • It will not fit perfectly for the entire duration of its useful life, no corset will. The body changes. The corset changes (subtly). Even if the wearer’s weight is remarkably stable, small daily/monthly changes will affect the fit. It is barely noticeable for most, certainly not a “flaw”, but if we are adhering to some strict notion of perfect it has to be considered! But you may think, “that’s being silly, we’re talking about a practical level of perfect, surely?” Yes. That’s the whole point. “Perfect” is about context, about contingency, it isn’t an absolute. There is no perfect corset. There are beautiful corsets.
The “Antique Bird” corset. A particular type of “imperfect perfection”.

So once again, in the list of things I hope you never see me do, I don’t have any wish to ever publicly criticise the work of other corsetmakers or even the faceless low-price brands. It isn’t my place to and it isn’t appropriate or productive. Each artist or brand will have their own concerns. A £60 ebay corset with a wholesale price of £5 might be perfect for its target market. A corset that makes use of techniques I personally dislike might be perfect for the person wearing or making it. We spend such a lot of time ensuring we are compassionate, kind and tolerant of differences between human beings, yet in this quirky little industry people often seem to interpret differences between independent brands as “imperfections” and compare-and-contrast us as though we are reducible to a set of criteria. Which I think is a shame, a restrictive thing for artists and craftspeople.

Any artist should pursue quality, of course, within their own understanding of what that means. And I am certainly an advocate of high couture-level quality. But I do often find myself wishing that the new makers I met had a touch more confidence in their work. If you make craft-based products (or full-blown artworks) you are creating something that can never be created again. It’s beautiful, that you have a particular strength in one area, a particular weakness in another, that you have an unique aesthetic, or are pitching to a particular market. Corsetmakers in particular, you don’t need to compete with every other practitioner within your field. You don’t need to judge one another, or yourself, so harshly. In making corsets, you are exploring an art/product that had largely died out… You’re making something, with your own two hands… You’re contributing a bit of splendour and love to the person you’re making for, or something of interest to the craft itself. That’s a beautiful way to spend your time. Forget about pitching for generic perfection, aim to be specific, particular, autonomous, and interesting instead.

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Minimal Corsetry – thoughts

Oh dear… Following on from my post about trends the other day, I have just thought of a way of perhaps getting the number of panels per side ever further down, for corsetry that is somehow simultaneously a sister and total stranger to the Birds Wing

It may not prove the most pleasing or practical option, but certainly worth exploring. And it’s based around a few antique patents I have seen. One in particular, which makes use of three panels per side plus darts. My feeling is that in attempting “minimal” corsetry, one would not want to incorporate darts. It seems less elegant, somehow. But I have just thought of a way around it. A pretty obvious way, now that I think about it! So perhaps I will give it a go.

Another challenge to tackle!

Then and Now – NSFW

Please note: some of these images are “not safe for work”.

Fashion (and corsetry in particular) is curiously circular, needing to find renewal and interest within a reasonably tight set of parameters. It is a question of maintaining a cohesive sense of self (or identity, or brand, or aesthetic, whichever you prefer) whilst also exploring ideas and kicking against the boundaries of your own knowledge and skill.

2010. The first “accidental” mini-collection by Sparklewren.

I certainly find that I have explored many avenues in corsetmaking, discovering things I love and techniques I hate in almost equal measure. I have especially found that when spurred into “accidentally” creating a little collection, I feel at my most creative and learn a lot. Likewise, when considering the representation of those pieces (through working with talented models, photographers, etc.), I find that I learn a great deal about my aesthetic. About the things that I am most drawn to. And in learning those things, I have come to believe that it is paramount for any creative person to pursue the aesthetics they love to as refined and singular a point as possible. One must be open to ideas, naturally, but I do think one also has to be responsible for their aesthetic, to claim it and explore it and stay true to it.

Ivory Flame by Sean Elliott Photography, 2010. The first Sparklewren “collection”.  A bespoke underbust in pale blue with flossing.

The challenge comes from the fact that corsetmakers (and bridal designers, etc.) are creating a product. For Sparklewren, there is perhaps becoming a more tangible split between the “art pieces” and the “products”, though they are all within the same universe… But the relationship between the two is nuanced. A product benefits from feedback, wide reach, standardisation. An art piece benefits from autonomy, singularity of vision, uniqueness. I am most drawn to the latter, and it feeds into the former in surprising ways. 

Ivory Flame by Sean Elliott Photography, 2010. A classic buttercream silk, fully-boned, bridal corset, with ivory lace.
Ivory Flame by Sean Elliott Photography, 2010. A classic buttercream silk, fully-boned, bridal corset, with ivory lace.

Anyhow, to get back on track… My first mini-collection (in 2010) featured three key ideas: underbust, overbust, corset-body. I realised today that my most recent mini-collection was likewise. Upon trawling through photographs from that first shoot, it became clear that certain concerns and interests have remained, even as the corsetry has developed greatly.

Ivory Flame by Sean Elliott Photography, 2010. In a pale silk corset-body with ivory lace.
Ivory Flame by Sean Elliott Photography, 2010. In a pale silk corset-body with ivory lace.

Unusual patterning remains a focus, though construction has been streamlined further and further. It would be interesting to return to some older patterning ideas with these more streamlined construction techniques in my repetoire.

Ivory Flame by Sean Elliott Photography, 2010. Wearing a gold and black underbust corset and collar with embellished lace.
Ivory Flame by Sean Elliott Photography, 2010. Wearing a gold and black underbust corset and collar with embellished lace.

Embellishment remains, naturally, though these days I prefer to have more control over proportion, texture and quality. It is very rare now for me to use a pre-embellished lace or motif. Instead, I like to layer laces and silks, add beads, crystals, feathers, etc. in an organic manner. The effect is much richer.

Ivory Flame by Sean Elliott Photography, 2010. A metallic ruby-red corset-body with cording and spoon busk.
Ivory Flame by Sean Elliott Photography, 2010. A metallic ruby-red corset-body with cording and spoon busk.

Likewise, I have found that the imagery I love best is still as it was in 2010 (and even before Sparklewren)… Hazy, blurry, grainy, indistinct, with bokeh and artifacts and reflections. “Imperfections”. How much more life they give an image! I am a big fan of “imperfection” (and I will write more about this later), as such is life. The things we love, truly adore… out experiences of them aren’t pin-sharp like a catalogue photograph. Our emotions are coloured by other senses, the images we see are focused on the thing we love (to the temporary loss of our peripheral vision)… We don’t take in the person or object we adore as a flat and complete image, our attention shifts and flutters around, we are pulled in to details. A collarbone, a jaw of the person you love, perhaps… or a texture, a shadow, of the art you are entranced by.

The 2014 mini-collection.
The 2014 mini-collection.

In creating the newest mini-collection, I enjoyed this same focused, single-minded attention to detail when creating the pieces. I played around with my own behind-the-scenes snaps to explore making images that were hazy and indistinct in the way that I love. And I fell in love with the final edits from InaGlo Photography (see below) for their evocative and textured way of pulling you downwards as though into water or a dream.

Tingyn by InaGlo Photography, 2014. The most recent “accidental” collection. Here showing an Antique Bird corset with lace.

Because these corsets are “art pieces”, it makes sense to me that the images be artistic too, not solely documentary or purely about driving sales of a product. I have clean-and-crisp detailed close-ups on my website’s homepage to show product quality, and numerous client images to show bespoke fit and shaping.

Tingyn by InaGlo Photography, 2014. In a Little Bird corset of mink coutil and off-white couture lace.
Tingyn by InaGlo Photography, 2014. In a Little Bird corset of mink coutil and off-white couture lace.

These images, these photoshoots with creative people, are about playing and collaborating to make something beautiful and unusual. I consider myself very fortunate that I get to work with such lovely people to that end and I adore the inky, characterful nature of such images. They aren’t storyboards, but there is a hint of narrative there, in the sense of dream-narratives which dissolve and make little coherent sense upon waking. Something intangible that seems terribly potent, but you can’t quite grasp it and then it’s gone.

Tingyn by InaGlo Photography, 2014. In a mink coutil Birds Wing corset-body, with layered laces, pearls, beads, quartz and tulle.
Tingyn by InaGlo Photography, 2014. In a mink coutil Birds Wing corset-body, with layered laces, pearls, beads, quartz and tulle.

When I work with bespoke clients, for couture corsetry or bridal, I hope to always bring this love and aesthetic with me. I hope for them to know that I care, deeply, that everything I make be beautiful and affecting. That it be gorgeously made and beautifully fit but also, more importantly, perfectly imperfectly unique. Since life is a curious brief and unknowable thing, I want to spend my time making things that will never ever exist again. Things that are gestural, painterly, and can never be truly replicated. It seems an interesting way to pass the time, falling in love with beauty again and again.

Trends in Corsetry

As contemporary corsetry becomes more and more popular, we are beginning to see little trends beyond the “classics” which trickle throughout the industry and pop up here and there in new forms, new colours, new styles. It’s very interesting! We especially noticed it at last year’s Oxford Conference of Corsetry, as there was a plethora of sheer corsets, all made with different materials, constructions and approaches. One of our facilitators (lovely corsetmaker Marianne of PopAntique) wrote a little blog about it at the time, and I felt I would add to the conversation by outlining a few more sub-trends that we have seen recently, and some that I think are just beginning to flourish.

Madame Bink by Sean Elliott (assisted by Elaine Slipper), 2011.
Madame Bink by Sean Elliott (assisted by Elaine Slipper), 2011.

Hip arches can be approached in a number of ways, whether dramatic outerwear projections or padded/structured foundation-wear forms to provide shape. They can be used to enhance an hourglass silhouette beneath tailored clothing (think Dior’s New Look) or made in unusual fabrics and textures for a more attention-grabbing effect. For my part, I don’t do them often at all, but when I have it was with a view to creating something that enhanced the silhouette an in unusual way. Obvious, but not obstructive.

Other manners of enhancement can be far more subtle, such as padding out one side of a client’s hip or bust to create greater symmetry. It really is a question of working with the client’s body and requirements, as ever.

Emma Summer by Catherine Day, 2012.
Emma Summer by Catherine Day, 2012.

Sheers, the topic of Marianne’s post, had a huge resurgence recently. There had long been a couple of bigger brands creating sheer corsets (and one genius making them for the haute couture, Mr Pearl), but on the whole the sheer corsetry available was rather basic. Early 2012, a few of us started pushing further, researching history’s offerings of “summer corsetry”, testing modern materials, exploring technique and design… My key offering was my signature Sweetheart Sheer Cincher (shown above), which has since been adopted by a few designers as a pretty shape to work with. Since then, we’ve seen a lot of innovation around sheer corsetry, proving once and for all that corsets do not need 9 layers of stiff fabric (truly, some places still teach this!), they simply need good fabrics, good construction and good cut.

Threnody in Velvet by Chris Murray at the Oxford Conference of Corsetry, Jesus College, 2013.
Threnody in Velvet by Chris Murray at the Oxford Conference of Corsetry, Jesus College, 2013.

Plunge corsets have been around a fair while, but they are another style that has recently been seen more widely. A plunge can be very striking whether small or full busted, and so long as they are properly supported through the cut and steel they work fine for all manner of shapes and sizes. A plunge generally goes best with a slightly flattened bust though. Rounding out the bust (ie: for a more cupped shape) can end up undermining the support of a plunging line, especially with fuller chests. The effect can be delicious though, echoing the “V” of a tapered waist and elongating the decolletage.

Samio Olowu by InaGlo Photography, 2012.
Samio Olowu by InaGlo Photography, 2012.

Texture has become more prevalent over the past couple of years too… There was perhaps an assumption by many designers that corsets must remain smooth and close to the body in every sense (perhaps something internalised from looking at antique corsetry, which was of course required to give a low profile beneath clothing), but now surface texture such as spikes, beads, pearls, and degradé fabrics are all making an appearance. I personally like to think of all embellishment in terms of proportion, and the same is true both visually and in a tactile sense… Imagine treasuring a beautiful couture corset for years. Sometimes wearing it, sometimes lightly stroking it in its box and simply appreciating its beauty… Surely the way to enhance that beauty is to carry beautiful proportion through to even how the surface texture changes beneath your fingertips?


There are other trends too, that are starting to become more and more visible. Here are a couple that I think we may see with greater frequency, as more people begin wearing, commissioning and creating couture corsets.

 

Leah Axl by InaGlo Photography, 2012.
Leah Axl by InaGlo Photography, 2012.

Corset-bodies are, essentially, a corset with crotch (ie: like a corseted swimming costume). They are predominantly show-pieces, being more restrictive and less practical than regular corsetry. I believe we will begin to see some designers incorporate the idea into their work in a practical sense (perhaps with stretch-fit panties or other details which give the full-tummy support of a corset-body with greater practicality for regular use as shapewear), along with more designers pursuing “art corsetry” and turning to the corset-body for their collection show-pieces.

Cassie Rae Wardle and Emily by InaGlo Photography, 2013.
Cassie Rae Wardle and Emily by InaGlo Photography, 2013.

Multi-panel corsetry, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, isn’t something I had really seen until unveiling my own efforts at reinterpreting the antique Birds Wing corset. There were some historical patents that incorporated many panels per side, but generally by way of gores, gussets or diagonals… Multiple vertical panels just weren’t seen. None-the-less, I now see many designers playing with more panels than the usual 5 or 6 (pitching generally for around 10 or 11), exploring construction and shaping, seeing what happens… I think we are only at the beginning of this and I hope that as I continue to innovate around my Birds Wing corsets, so too will others innovate to discover their own findings on multi-panel corsetry. As an aside, I also think that minimal corsetry may become a challenge adopted be a few makers… It certainly makes sense to me having done corsets with as many as 44 panels that the next challenge would be a streamlined, well-shaped, beautifully fitted corset making use of as few panels as possible… Since 4 is a common number, this would have to be 3 or less. I have seen antique patents and replicas that touch on this idea, though not quite in a way I like, so who knows… Perhaps it is doable, perhaps not. But minimal corsetry (not just in number of panels, but also in construction and design) seems to me to be something just around the corner…

A friend wearing Sparklewren, Chris Chambers Photography, 2013.
A friend wearing Sparklewren, Chris Chambers Photography, 2013.

Lingerie corsetry is common enough, but generally either as raunchy boudoir wear or stark and plain foundation wear. Having made a few lingerie corsets to a more couture specification (little fancies of silk and lace), I do believe this may be a flourishing facet of corsetry design. After all, when brides invest so much into their gowns and weddings, it makes sense to provide an underpinning to match. It is a more couture or antique approach, to create a gown tailored around a corset, and it ties into this whole enjoyment of a wedding trousseau that many contemporary brides are missing out on. The feeling I would hope to engender is one of preciousness and history. To create a trousseau so beautiful and personal that it would be kept in the family for generations and one day found carefully wrapped and boxed away in the attic. That wonder that we have when we see a beautifully hand-embroidered Edwardian bridal piece, the way we intuit that each stitch carried something magical, that is what much contemporary bridal wear (and especially the corsetry/lingerie) is missing. As conspicuous consumption of disposable goods becomes ever less popular, I do feel (and hope) that people will cease spending frequent small amounts of money with little thought in order to spend larger amounts of money with greater care. I remember seeing Vivienne Westwood discuss it once in an interview, this notion that her high-end fashion should be paired with hand-me-downs and charity shop garments, should be worn and used and treasured and kept. I quite agree.

 

 

On “Failure”

This corset was a failure.

Ivory Flame by InaGlo Photography, 2012.
Ivory Flame by InaGlo Photography, 2012.

Failure is neither bad nor good. You don’t need to adopt a self-help-y approach of, “all the successful people have failed again and again before achieving their goals, therefore all failure is definitely a path to success!” because that isn’t true… But failure isn’t automatically a bad thing either. Because in so many ways, it isn’t the failure or success that matters, it’s what you do next.

I truly believe that context is everything. I believe in contingent truth, truths that are specific to the situation/environment. Perhaps they are indeed absolute truths, but we just haven’t all the measured variables before us to be able to see that. At any rate, for us to operate in the world we rely on context to inform everything we comprehend and do. Context colours, and in many ways you create your own context by how you interpret/approach things like “failure”.

So, the context of this piece, is that it was my first attempt at the Birds Wing corset and it came out wrong. I had been so careful in monitoring one particular area of construction (the part that I had anticipated being a challenge with this style), that I failed to notice a different issue synonymous with making the Birds Wing. I then realised my error, having already made great progress on finishing and embellishment, and upon checking further did indeed find the piece to be “flawed”. A failure.

But there are a few things about this failure that matter.

1) The obvious point. I learned what not to do next time. The first Birds Wing was always going to be a sacrifice to the Corset Gods, the fashion layer was made of silk offcuts, the strength layer was super-basic coutil, the construction was unknown… But I got to practice/test that construction, and got to assess other aspects of how the style worked, regardless of its being flawed. I laced the corset onto numerous people, learning each time about how the Birds Wing differs from body to body, and I discovered a quick way to make the flaw imperceptible to all but myself (which again, taught me more about the Birds Wing, and how it differs from other corsets).

2) I would have resigned it to the Abandoned pile of corsets, had it not been for a friend who insisted it was too pretty for that! This reminded me of something that I had begun learning when I took on the pop-up boutique project in 2012… Customers do not notice the “flaws” that professional corsetieres notice. Once I had learned that lesson, I resolved that the onus was on me as corsetmaker to ensure I kept my quality as high as ever (and to aim for higher still), but to do so with less anxiety. When you make something with your own hands, heart and mind you are attached to it. You desperately want to please the client, and it doesn’t matter how many times you do you still worry that you won’t. I’ve never (touch wood) had an unhappy client, but I still feel a thrill of worry when handing over a corset. Learning that this worry was internal, a result of my own feelings rather than a reflection on the actual *real* quality of my work, was a step towards greater confidence. You don’t learn that without “failing” and discovering that the world thinks your failure a success.

3) I’ve always had a rather breezy approach to failure and never worried about it (except where client work is concerned, of course). Therefore, I’m always willing to fail. And being willing to fail lets me be willing to try.

4) Sometimes the most rewarding ideas happen when you aren’t expecting them. This (temporarily) abandoned corset sat in my boutique for a while, until one day I suddenly thought to drape it with silks. I used offcuts (of beautiful georgettes, satins, and silks with metallic silver running through them) and hit upon an aesthetic which I completely adore and have since expanded on in different ways. I may never have so “wrapped up” a perfect corset, may never have landed upon this design that I love.

5) One is less precious over the failures, which teaches you to be less precious overall. They are garments of use, after all. This corset cannot be sold, and so I have sent it off for a few shoots and even allowed it to be dunked underwater for a fashion editorial. I’m looking forward to seeing if there are any signs of rust as time goes on and thus learning yet more lessons. Though who knows, perhaps I will tear it apart or give it away as a gift before then…

In the meantime, it has functioned as a beautiful addition to the portfolio; is one of the designs that I get the most positive feedback from; has unlocked different ideas and taught me my first lessons about the Birds Wing; and remains on display in my showroom as an example of the artistic “happy accident”.

Failure, in your own projects as a craftsperson, is to be welcomed and transformed.

Multi-panel corsetry

Recently, a university student I had on work experience (Alycia, of Emiah Couture), decided to embark upon some multi-panel corsetry for a new collection, having been inspired by Pigeon and Mink (two pieces from the “In every cloud, in every tree” SS14 collection).

Alycia's first drapes, lovely 10 panel per side patterns.
Alycia’s first drapes, lovely 10 panel per side patterns.

Multi-panel corsetry is something we are starting to see more and more amongst independent corsetmakers. Being personally in love with the aesthetic, I can definitely see why! Having developed my own approach in a very intense way, it is nice to now see how others approach it, to see what does and doesn’t work for them. Sometimes, the community of enthusiasts and buyers (and even corsetieres) want to impose precise rules that every good corset should adhere to. As an aside, I think that basic rules are actually great for beginners, as you learn them in order to break them (if you so wish)… I even wrote an article for Foundations Revealed about this very thing (link in the sidebar). But for independent corsetieres, rules can be limiting.

I think a big part of this is that rules of construction don’t allow for individual physiology or preference. Corsetmaking can be a craft or art, like any other, and in other mediums we actively look for evidence of the maker’s hands… gestures in paint, details that betray their presence. It’s a question of manual handling and focus. My hands work best differently to others’ hands, and so on and so on. And we each focus on different aspects of corsetry, we have different priorities, strengths, weaknesses…

The Mink corset body (left) and a development from it, the Red Hearts corset-body (right).
The Mink corset body (left) and a development from it, the Red Hearts corset-body (right).

So the most wonderful thing about the trend for multi-panel corsetry, and teaching/taking interns in general, is that I get to see different approaches to my own. I personally think that any good teacher wishes to teach an ethos rather than a fact, an approach shared by my friend Julia (organiser of the Oxford Conference of Corsetry). I have no wish to create mini-Sparklewrens of my students. It’s dull. Repetition bores me into a fury.

Instead, I would hope to help them find their own interests. Likewise with other corsetieres, it seems a missed opportunity if someone takes an idea and attempts to replicate it note-for-note with no development. Replicate to learn, yes, but then fail at your replication (failure is wonderful) and find a different, personal way of succeeding. As an artist, I am happiest when I see a friend or peer whose work is *so good* or so different that I am incensed that they got there before me (well, as “incensed” as a polite English girl ever gets!) and spurred on to do better myself. The designers that jump on a trend just for the sake of it bore me slightly. The designers that jump on an idea and innovate, they inspire me.

Leah Axl in the “Pigeon” corset, by InaGlo Photography and Samantha Gardner MUA, 2013.

Along with Alycia (who has a brilliant natural understanding of form and is already innovating around the multi-panel idea with thoughts of angled seams and so on), I also gave a brief to a student called Poppy for her Final Major Project this year. The idea is to create a Sparklewren showpiece ensemble, something to fit within the brand and the “In every cloud, in every tree” collection, with reference to construction, colouring, patterning, etc. etc. One might assume this would result in a multi-panel corset? Nope, her eyes did go immediately to a beautiful antique corset housed at Snibston Discovery Museum, but not the Birds Wing, and her design is turning out completely her own. It’s wonderful to see, and has a reciprocal function in that I am now inspired to perhaps return to an idea or two from years ago that we had hit upon in discussing her project. Likewise, overseeing the FMP of my friend Rosie last year (of Rosie Red Corsetry & Couture) really fueled my desire to do more in the way of gowns than corsets alone, and her excellent selection of a taupe silk duchess ended up being so beautiful that I just had to work with the same fabric myself at a later point.

Leah Axl in “Seafoam” worn over the “Pigeon” corset, by InaGlo Photography and Samantha Gardner MUA, 2013.

We, the industry and the artform, we all benefit when we are encouraging, respectful, and generous. We all, naturally, have certain skills and knowledge that was hard won, skills that we need to protect in order to protect our businesses, and there is certainly an etiquette to things… For example, an email from a stranger or fellow designer with your name spelled wrong, no pleasantries, and no content other than, “tell me where you got X, tell me how you made Y” is never going to be received well. But those extreme and rude cases aside, I have never suffered for helping other corsetieres. Quite the opposite, I would say I have always benefited. Ideas are bounced around, you reach beyond your existing knowledge, everyone is inspired to do more.

It is simply a question of being respectful and creative with it. Every piece of encouragement I receive from corsetmaking friends I consider a gift, not a right, and every piece of knowledge I accrue (whether from studying an antique or contemporary piece) is a starting point, not a thing to be unthinkingly adopted wholesale. The end result is that your work becomes more and more your own, through these interactions with others. You develop your own principles and “truths”, whilst admiring those of others (even if you don’t agree with them). You perceive value even in the work you dislike, as it teaches you what you love. And often, you’re lucky enough to find numerous, limitless, examples of wonderful corsetmaking, each “perfectly imperfect” in their own right.

Contemporary study pieces from last year's inaugural Oxford Conference of Corsetry. Left to right: Royal Black Corsetry & Couture, Sparklewren, L'escarpolette.
Contemporary study pieces from last year’s inaugural Oxford Conference of Corsetry. Left to right: Royal Black Corsetry & Couture, Sparklewren, L’escarpolette.

Having rambled my way away from multi-panel corsetry, I must say I am greatly looking forward to this August’s Oxford Conference of Corsetry. We are now sold out on spaces having many returning guests from last year and a handful of lovely new people to meet as well. The sweetest part about last year, was that a few ladies were in tears by the time “goodbyes” were being said. No-one wanted to leave. Why would they? If you’ve found yourself surrounded by like-minds all weekend, with no censure, no unkindness, no Queen Bee hierarchy, and none of the needless bitchiness that dogs even the nicest community once proceedings go online, then of course you’re going to have a wonderful time. Many of our ladies have said that their experiences last year let them finally “feel like a corsetmaker”, and they’ve subsequently gone off to create new designs which are more and more distinctively their own.

Contemporary study pieces from last year's inaugural Oxford Conference of Corsetry, featuring pieces from all our facilitators/tutors: Clessidra Couture, CrikeyAphrodite!, Morua Designs, Pop Antique and Sparklewren. Things became even more interesting when the attendees got their corsets out also.
Contemporary study pieces from last year’s inaugural Oxford Conference of Corsetry, featuring pieces from all our facilitators/tutors: Clessidra Couture, CrikeyAphrodite!, Morua Designs, Pop Antique and Sparklewren. Things became even more interesting when the attendees got their corsets out also.

I believe the secret of it is this… If you give someone “permission” to do the thing they are afraid of doing (attempting a particular style, being inspired by something you’ve done, embarking on a big project), they will generally excel and surprise you with how well they do. What’s more, they will do it uniquely. So I would like to see more multi-panel corsetry, whether inspired by my work, the original Birds Wing, or otherwise. But I would hope for it to be made new again. For it to be innovative. Surprising. Not a Birds-Wing-lite, but something entirely different.

What is the “Birds Wing”?

The Bird’s Wing corset is an unique style from Sparklewren, seen no-where else in contemporary corsetry and as inspired by an antique of the same name…

Leah Axl by InaGlo Photography and Samantha Gardner MUA, 2013. From the “In every cloud, in every tree” collection.

The primary feature of the Birds Wing style, is a surfeit of panels and seams. Whilst most contemporary corsetry makes use of somewhere between 4 and 6 panels per side (occasionally 7), the Birds Wing as I have developed it generally has at least 14. I have also been working on less dramatic versions with 10 panels per side (such as the Goldcrest underbust style), but the particular magic of the Birds Wing really happens at the higher numbers.

Leah Axl by InaGlo Photography and Samantha Gardner MUA, 2013. From the “In every cloud, in every tree” collection.

Having very many panels is not the end of the story though. Indeed, multi-panel corsetry (excuse the term, *all* corsetry is multi-panel really) is something of a blossoming trend and it is a surprise it had not already been revisited by us modern makers. There is a good reason for that though… it is very hard to do well.

It isn’t simply a high number of panels that makes a Birds Wing. My approach to multi-panel corsetry has been to be very inspired by the antique which started the whole idea (a 1900s piece with spoon busk, longline hip, *very* mild shaping, and 21 panels per side…), by considering constructions which break or bend many of the usual corsetry rules. In doing so, I compared and contrasted 16 different fabric/seam combinations (each one works subtly differently), tested and sourced the most appropriate steels and busks, developed techniques, commissioned specially-made equipment, sewed a thousand seams in a very particular way, refined patterning at least 10 times over (creating entirely new patterns in the process), and assessed the results on dozens of lovely ladies (and a couple of willing men). This process is still ongoing, one is never finished refining their techniques, but it is through that process that I now have my preferred approaches and aesthetics. I do not yet know if my construction is actually the same as was used on the antique, but I hope to schedule a study date sometime this year to find out.

The Mink corset-body, with sunlight shining through it.
The Mink corset-body, with sunlight shining through it.

The most important point of a Birds Wing, is that it is about a lightness of touch. It may visually become the most complex piece imaginable, replete with layers of couture embellishment and textures, perhaps even entirely obscured beneath them… But the actual construction, the heart of the piece, must be as simple as it is possible to be.

Cassie Rae Wardle by InaGlo Photograpy, 2013.
Cassie Rae Wardle by InaGlo Photograpy, 2013.

This simplicity, however, is excessively difficult to master, requiring concentration, patience (or, in my case, impatience to become good at it), practice and more practice.

A gorgeous client in her trial-run Phoenix corset.
A gorgeous client in her trial-run Phoenix corset.

The Birds Wing has, of course, its triumphs and its limitations.

Despite its dramatic silhouette on the clients seen above and below, it is not (currently) possible to create a more “nipped” waist reduction than that shown. No matter how wonderful and flexible the Birds Wing is, it is still best suited to those who prefer either a gentle waist shape or a vaguely conical rib. For a very nipped shape or a sharp hipspring or ribspring (ie: a large circumferential difference within a very short vertical distance), I tend to favour a more classic 6 panel pattern and a more ordinary construction (though I still tend to do it in a less-than-ordinary way, opting for a fully-boned aesthetic which requires dozens of steels and many hours work).

The success of the Birds Wing, however, is in its peculiar lightness and particular construction. Each seam acts as a hinge, allowing the corset to flex to the body in a very subtle way. Ie: the body inside the corset controls the outward appearance of the corset to a greater degree than ever before. This can contribute to comfort, longevity of the corset (it is doing less “work” in forcing your body into a shape), and a flexible fit. If two individuals with the same measures try on the same corset, one may find that her hips push it into a broad shape whilst the other may find her hips push it backwards into an almost Edwardian aesthetic. The Birds Wing, being so made, allows for this. It is also great as a longterm, luxury addition to one’s wardrobe, as the lack of a definitive side seam means the corset can (if needed) be worn with a very large lacing gap at back and still retain beautiful curve that wraps around the body. That is to say, weight gain and loss is less of an issue with the Birds Wing. Where most couture items can be almost imperceptibly altered to fit as time goes on, corsetry with its precision and negative ease (waist reduction) does not really appreciate this. Making the flexible fit of the Birds Wing a wonderful thing.

Many ladies in their Phoenix corsets, demonstrating the subtlety of flex and fit which the Birds Wing style affords.
Many ladies in their Phoenix corsets, demonstrating the subtlety of flex and fit which the Birds Wing style affords.

Of course, the Birds Wing and its studies has given rise to other ideas too… Other antique-inspired pieces which make use of the same construction and, more recently, a very small variation which could prove very fiddly or very wonderful! Time will tell…

Test seams, at which we hit upon a potential variant for the Birds Wing.
Test seams, at which we hit upon a potential variant for the Birds Wing.

We happened upon this variant when I was stitching together off-cuts of coutil (one must practice these seams in the appropriate fabric, since fabric choice has such an impact on how they stitch and the end result), to teach a former intern how it’s done. If you look to the right of the image above, you will see a triangular shape beneath two seams. It looks almost like a gore, but is in fact a full-length vertical panel.

Mink, on the left. Red Hearts, on the right.
Mink, on the left. Red Hearts, on the right.

I then tweaked an existing Birds Wing corset-body pattern and created a design to test the idea (the Red Hearts corset, above). It needs tweaking further, but could prove an interesting and effective way of simplifying the construction further whilst still retaining that beautiful conical rib and rounded hip of the style. And I felt it reminded me of the flared primary feathers of a bird coming in to land. Seams that flare out over the hips are, I feel, very beautiful.

Tjärn

My beautiful client in her bespoke Tjärn corset. Elle sent me many inspiration images and we discussed ideas a lot, looking through drawings from Swedish fairytales, paintings of nymphs from John William Waterhouse, and photographs of antique corsets for detail inspirations. In the end, we focused the piece around the notion of “dark waters”, uncertainty, depth, danger… We found we were both drawn to the idea of Sirens, so that became a starting point, until the tjärns themselves took over. I wanted it to be at home within the imagery Elle had sent me as inspiration, so the corset was all about tone, texture and layering, with silk satin that has been scrubbed and painted before the embellishment of lace, tulle and beading was worked. I adore it, and Elle does too. 

 

 

We will next be collaborating on a shy and delicate sister piece to Tjärn, something more pale and muted. 

Daydreaming through the creation of Elle’s corset was also especially lovely, as I was reminded of Dock Tarn in the Lake District. It is only a tiny place and not so dark or mysterious or blocked in by forest as the tjärns of our inspiration… but it is a place I love and hope to visit again. 

Lace

This is my favourite lace design, this time in off-white (I’ve previously used it in pale pink, as seen on the Cloud and Sunshine gowns, and others). It is so beautiful it needs very little fuss to make a gorgeous bridal/lingerie capelet as shown… But it is also so intricate and so well made that it functions perfectly when carefully cut into motifs for hand appliqué. Delicious. 

The above shows a Little Bird corset (Birds Wing underbust) with closed front.