Making The Corselet Skirt: A Modern Take On Period Instructions

With Christmas over and done, it is time to get back to making the corselet skirt once more. In the challenge post I mentioned an interesting discussion we had on the HSF Facebook group. Mainly, it was about Edwardian skirts worn with belts. At some point I mentioned sewn-in corselet belts as an alternative style. This idea raised a few interested eyebrows, with some people hearing about this for the first time.

What surprised me when researching corselet skirts, was that they are mentioned here and there and have also been recreated by a few historical seamstresses, but do not really enjoy wide popularity. At first this puzzled me a bit. Then I realized that it was also not a mainstream fashion trend in the Edwardian era. It was considered a Reform fashion, mostly popular with younger women. This also explains why most period photographs show rather young wearers of the style, such as this young lady, in a photo from 1917:

Young woman in a corselet skirt (c.1917).

Similarly, when looking around for patterns online, I only found a few. Among others, I encountered this 1911 diagram from “The Ladies’ Tailor”. I want to share it with you, since it gives a good overview on how to draft the different gores of a corselet skirt to your size.

Corselet skirt pattern from “The Ladies’ Tailor” (March 1911). Click to see both pages. :)

But there is more to corselet skirts than the high-waisted cut. What is really interesting, is their inner life. The waist is reinforced with a sewn-in corselet belt. You can think of it as a cleverly hidden Swiss waist. If you do not know it is there, you will most likely overlook it at first glance. But actually, that is a pity. Which is why I will now show you, how I constructed mine, based on period instructions, but with a modern twist.

The Instructions

To assemble the corselet belt, I used the original instructions from Antonie Steimann’s “Ich Kann Schneidern” (“I Can Sew”; c.1909).  I first found a Dutch translation of them on Esther’s blog, although my Dutch is not really that good. ;) But, eventually, I got lucky. The fashion library in Vienna had several German-language copies of the same book. That made things a little easier. But, actually, the illustrations already explain themselves very well. Here they are:

The Materials

For the corselet belt, you will need two strips of the lining fabric, as wide as the corselet portion of your skirt pattern and long enough to reach all the way around the skirt. If the top of the skirt is curved, like in the picture, you can also sew together the corselet portions of the individual gores for shaped bands. Add a 1.5-2″ (3-4 cm) hem allowance to the top and bottom edges. For my version, I used one straight strip of fabric and a matching strip of medium-weight iron-on interfacing and only added a 4 cm hem allowance to at the bottom edge.

The boning originally called for whalebone. I used sew-through boning tape instead, about 1 cm (1/2″) shorter than the pattern’s corselet portion. Together with the interfacing, the tape provided enough stiffening for the purpose.

The Method

The original instructions state that a corselet skirt should be boned once the corselet portion, above the waist is wider than 3-4 cm (approx. 1.5″). Of that is the case, whalebone is to be inserted at the front, sides and back. After that, the raw edges of the corselet belt are folded under and sewn to the skirt lining.

As you can see in the images above, the whalebone is inserted into casings at the spots in question.The “Encyclopedia of Needlework” (c.1890) gives the following instructions for this boning method: “Before slipping the whale-bone into its case or fold of stuff, pierce holes in it, top and bottom, with a red hot stiletto. Through these holes, make your stitches, diverging like rays or crossing each other”, like so:

The period method of fixing whalebone from “Encyclopedia of Needlework”; c.1890).

What I did is a little different. My steps were the following:

Step One.

I sewed the corselet belt to the top edge of the skirt lining, with the interfaced side facing down. Then I folded it, as you can see in the picture.

Step Two.

I aligned the pieces of boning tape with the skirt seams.

Step Three.

I sewed down each piece of tape with a single row of small straight stitches, leaving the hem allowance un-boned.

Step Four.

I folded under and pressed the bottom hem allowance, making sure the edges of the boning tape did not poke into the fabric at the crease.

Step Five.

I sewed the bottom edge against the lining. Later, when joining the lining to the outer skirt, I covered the raw top edge with a portion of the shell fabric. This was also the way it was done in the original instructions. Alternatively, you can also sew both the top- and bottom hems directly against the corselet belt.

My finished belt looked like this: (Please excuse the awful image quality. A new camera is finally on the way… ;) )

The finished corselet belt from the inside.

And that was that. Hopefully, this quick semi-tutorial has helped solve the mystery of Edwardian corselet skirts for some of you. I am much looking forward to your feedback and your own corselet skirts, should you decide to make one.

Even though it might not look that way, a corselet skirt works for nearly any body shape. I have a rather short, stumpy torso myself, and it worked miracles on my waist shape and posture. Compared to that, you can so forget modern shape-wear. It is a much less elegant solution should you need to cover up some failed New Year’s resolutions, later this coming year. ;)

Wishing you all a happy, healthy and successful year 2015.

Much Love, Nessa

HSF #23: An Edwardian “Empire” Skirt

Oh dear, has it been a month already? With Christmas, uni and sewing keeping me busy, it has really flown by like nothing. Quite a lot of new things have happened in the meanwhile. For once, I have bought my first own vintage pattern books. Here they are:

The one on the right is an original pattern drafting manual from 1906 with instructions to pattern your own shirtwaists, skirts and house dresses for women and young children. The other is an 1983 reprint of an original linen pattern book from 1901. It is quite awesome and contains patterns for household linen, underthings, nightwear and swimwear for men, women and children, as well as the cutest baby clothes and a whole appendix of monogram embroidery patterns.

With those two books at hand, my love of turn-of-the-century fashions has, pretty much been set on fire. The plan to make an Edwardian skirt for modern evening wear has actually been around since the beginning of this year, but only in the books did I find the perfect pattern. The one I chose to make is a Reform corselet skirt with a small train. Once I opened the pattern book, I fell in love with it, since the heading on the page also described it as an “Empire skirt”. So it really fits in with the blog and adds a little touch of Regency flair to my first Edwardian fashion item. :)

Below you can see the original skirt pattern drawings, with model measures in centimeters. Even though I have used Inkscape to size up historical patterns before here, I have scaled it up the traditional way this time, using a big roll of pattern paper. It was a whole new experience for me, but turned out very well.

The pattern of the seven-gore “Empire” corselet skirt (c.1910).

While I was making it, we had an interesting discussion in the HSF’s Facebook group about actually combining a corselet and skirt in one piece, instead of adding a Swiss waist or cincher to a regular skirt. For some people, the notion of doing so was a novel idea, which actually fits in well with the challenge’s “Modern History” theme. A skirt like this was actually considered a part of Reform fashion at the time and was especially popular with younger women.

My first contact with corselet skirts happened while I was browsing Edwardian fashions on Pinterest. After that, I lucked into a copy of “I Can Sew”, a turn-of-the-century fashion compendium by Antonie Steimann, at the Vienna fashion library and got to reserach the extant construction of the sewn in corselet belt of these skirts. It is a separate piece of fabric, sewn into the high waistband of the skirt. It goes over the square portions at the top of the pattern.

The belt also holds the skirt’s boning. For my version, I placed a short strip of plastic boning against the seams of each gore and also reinforced the band with interfacing, for extra stability. You can find a very useful illustration of the extant construction method over here on Esther’s blog. My next post will also go a little more into depth about it and walk you through the construction steps. After talking about it in the group, some of you might find reading about them useful. :)

So much about the theory behind it all. Now it is time to present the finished skirt to you. Thanks to the moody taffeta fabric, finishing it took a while longer than expected. The worst part were the bottom hem and the closure at the back. After my first attempt of using snaps, like in the period instructions, all 18 of them fell right off again. After a day of sulking I replaced most of them with hook-and-bar and hook-and-eye closures, which took a few turns of sailing off as well before they decided to behave. Just now, when taking the photos, the very last snap at the bottom decided to jump into its death as well. I already see myself sewing it back on on Christmas Eve, like an hour before the skirt’s big moment.

For the record: Taffeta and snaps will be banned from the sewing room for a long, long while now… But, enough of the ranting. Time for some photos and a brief roundup:

Corselet skirt front (excuse the funky socks).

The train at the back.

The side view, with a peek at the Christmas-y cotton lining.

The Challenge: #23 – “Modern History”.

Fabric: 3 yds of brown poly taffeta for the shell and 3 yds of candy-cane striped cotton for the lining.

Pattern: “Miederrock oder Empirerock aus sieben Bahnen” from “Einfache Zuschneidemethode für Damen- und Kinderkleider”

Year: 1910.

Notions: 2 hook-and-bar closures; some sew-on snaps and smaller hook-and-eyes; 1/2″ of iron-on interfacing and 1/2 yd of sewable plastic boning.

How historically accurate is it? Pretty accurate, except for the poly fabric and plastic boning. Used the machine for it, but only on straight stitch.

Total cost: About € 25.

Hours to complete: About 40 hours.

First worn: Will be worn extensively over Christmas.

I am so glad I finally managed to get this post out for you. With all the work at the moment, I have really missed blogging for you. But, luckily, it will be Christmas break very soon. Until then, I should get cracking to finish making up the last of the Christmas presents. And then, you will have my full attention again. Soon, there will also be a new camera to take better pictures again as well. (Yay.)

Love, Nessa

Save