Welcome to the final installment of this corset mini-series! For those of you joining us for the first time, the corset in question is the Irene Adler corset by Angela Friedman, created especially for the Women of Mystery series. Several months went into its creation, so buckle up, because I’m going to lay it all out for you in (potentially excruciating) detail. Obviously every corsetiere is different, and every customer’s experience will be different, but here’s what the designing, ordering, fitting, and wearing experience was like for me. [PS- in case you missed the earlier posts in this series: Part 1 and Part 2]
ORDERING + COST
Any handmade corset, even a ready-to-wear one, usually comes with a hefty price tag, and with good reason. High-quality materials, specialized technical skills, and lots of hard work go into each handmade corset, so it makes sense that they’d cost more than a factory-made “fashion” corset, which is usually made with plastic boning and which isn’t expected to do nearly the same level of work in terms of shaping and support. Once you start adding customizations the price creeps higher, and then if you go fully bespoke (an individual pattern is created from scratch just for you, and you choose the fabric and embellishments), as I did, the price climbs again. Here are the components that went into the final price of my corset:
Base Price: this is equivalent to the cost of a designer’s RTW corset, and it includes the cost of all the basic components: the busk (the rigid closure at the center front), 2-3 layers of fabric including an outer “fashion” layer and an inner layer of strong English coutil, steel bones, a waist tape for stability, laces up the back, and (in my case at least) a modesty panel to lie under the laces. So, using Angela’s RTW collections as a starting point in, we’re already at around $500 for an overbust corset, even before we begin customizations and upgrades. This is probably already an underestimate, as Angela had to special-order extra-long bones and a longer busk for my taller, curvier frame.
Patterning Fee: this covers the time and expertise the corsetiere uses to create a brand-new pattern based on the client’s measurements and body shape.
Fittings/Mockup: this includes the cost of materials, the corsetiere’s labor, and time spent in the fitting room. Because my body’s shape and dimensions kept changing over the course of the design process, we had to schedule more fittings, which would again add to the final price.
Fabric Upgrades: Since I chose silk for my outer (“fashion”) layer of fabric, this drove the cost up higher than a cotton or coutil layer would have done.
Embellishments: I originally envisioned a heavily embellished corset: contrasting boning channels, crystals, swags of lace, possible shoulder or hip pieces, etc. etc. In order to stay on-budget, the design became much simpler, but that also meant it allowed the embellishment I did choose, a fine French lace applique, to really shine.
Add-ons: Obviously I wanted matching silk garters, y’all, come on, you know me at this point.
Shipping/Delivery Fees: Since she betrayed me and left New York and all.
Because we are buds and because the corset was destined for publication, Angela generously waived her patterning and fitting fees. Had those been included, my final invoice would have been a little over $1,000.00. Even without them, this corset is easily the most expensive piece of clothing I have ever purchased. It cost as much as computer money, or a small vacation. Angela kindly let me set up a payment plan, so I didn’t have to pay the full sum in one go, thank goodness.
As I mentioned in my interview with Angela about this project, she took my initial measurements in May, and the corset was finished in October. This period of time coincided with my training for a half-marathon, which is part of why it took so long: we didn’t want to finish the corset in June, only to risk my body being a completely different size or shape by November. As it happened, we had to do three separate fittings (sorry Angela) to make sure the final product would fit well when it came time to shoot the Irene Adler editorial.
Fitting 1: The mockup I tried on at this fitting was more like a preliminary sketch than a finished corset. Angela used a single layer of heavy muslin with no busk, and we weren’t worried about cosmetic things like unfinished edges. In this fitting we talked a little about shape and silhouette, but mostly this was about checking measurements, examining the torso length, and introducing me to what a custom-fitted corset would feel like (“surprisingly comfy” was my first response). Angela marked this mockup extensively with a sharpie to note adjustments we wanted to make to seam and waist tape placement, cup volume, and more.
During both the initial measurement session and the first fitting, Angela had me start making decisions about shape, style, and fabrics. As most of my college professors can tell you, design isn’t especially my strong suit, so we used Angela’s own lookbooks as a jumping-off point to talk about silhouettes and necklines, and she could then tell me more about how specific styles would adapt to my curvier figure. She also walked me through fabric and lace samples, and I narrowed my choices down to a gorgeous bright pink silk with three lace options to choose from as my embellishment.
Tangent: Why did I choose hot pink silk for my 1890s lady detective? I shall tell you! Irene Adler, in the original Conan Doyle story “A Scandal in Bohemia“, is an internationally acclaimed opera singer who retired at the peak of her career, having conquered as many world-famous stages as she had aristocratic gentlemen’s hearts. She’s a wealthy woman, so silk is a great choice for her, and she’s talented and passionate, hence the vibrant, sensual color. Also, the late 19th century saw the introduction of vivid artificial dyes, and industrialization allowed them to spread like wildfire through the fashion industry on a scale that was previously unimaginable. Colors like poison green (literally, yikes), electric and sapphire blues, and this scorching hot pink were the height of fashion (check out this lovely portrait by Sargent of Mrs. Hugh Hammersley from 1892 — that pink gown is much more vibrant in real life than it looks online).
Fitting 2: For this second fitting (a month after the first), the mockup was getting closer to being a finished corset. The extra-long busk Angela ordered for me had arrived, so we could really start to refine the fit of the bust, and we could also make sure that I could sit comfortably in the corset while fully laced up. It was also a better match for my new measurements, so we could begin to fine-tune things like hip spring, overall length, and “cup” shape. You can see sharpie marks along the seams indicating where Angela wanted to make some adjustments, and she’s pinned out some of the extra room in the bust. By this time we’d pretty much finalized fabric and lace choices, so Angela sketched out a few options for lace placement. I was also getting more and more used to the feel of the corset, so Angela suggested we try to narrow the waist down even further. She also shared some tips about lacing it to create a desired fit and shape, helped enormously by Clarence, her shiny black cat, who loooooves corset laces.
Fitting 3: There was lots of squealing at this fitting. For this final check, Angela basically made a corset that’s a dress rehearsal of the final product: the edges are finished, the outer layer of fabric is a lovely satin, the fit of the bust has been refined, and we marked the final lace placement and decided to bind the top and bottom edges in black. The fit is also super close to the final product– Angela just wanted to remove a little extra room from the top and bottom where the lacing gap was already down to 1-2″. For a brand-new corset you generally want a slightly wider lacing gap, as you’ll be able to lace the corset smaller as you “break it in”. At this fitting I mostly just admired myself and chatted with her about styling choices. Really the only unanswered question at this point was whether I wanted my silk garters to be black or pink.
Once Angela returned to her studio, she kept me updated on production. Below are some pictures of the final corset taking shape.
I have mixed feelings about the word “seasoning” in reference to corsets as opposed to cooking, but it’s the word we’re all using so let us carry on. Some people get very precious about the exact right way to “season” a corset, but it basically refers to the breaking-in process. In a nutshell, when you get a new corset it’s better for both you and the garment to spend some time getting to know each other before you put it on and try to lace yourself up as tight as humanly possible. Angela gives all of her corset customers a helpful guide to caring for, lacing, and getting used to your corset.
* * * * *
I shared these behind-the-scenes pictures and stories with some friends and loved ones while the corset was in-progress, and while most of them were just as excited about it as I was, they also wanted to know: what was I going to do with this corset? Was I going to, you know, wear it? Outside of photos? Gosh, this was really expensive, right? Wow. Why did I buy such an impractical thing?
The answer is: I don’t really know yet? I have almost never spent “big clothes money” on one-use items; usually if I buy a one-use item it’s the occasional mask or accessory for a Halloween costume, and then it’s in the $10-15 range. While I’m a stickler for quality, I’m also budget-conscious: I only buy things if I know I can wear them a lot, and that I can wear them with things I already own. A hot pink silk corset does not necessarily coordinate nicely with my plaid wool work skirt, for example.
The word luxury is pretty weighted, for me. On the one hand, I love occasionally covering luxury designers on the blog because, generally, the workmanship and design talent are so dazzling I want everyone to see them and share in my amazement. On the other hand, I’m sized out of most luxury brands, so I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about a feeling of exclusion, of not “deserving” to wear luxury. Sometimes there’s a sense that even if I had the money to spend, a luxury brand wouldn’t want me as a customer because of my size. Furthermore, while I’m proud to say that I can support myself and pay my own rent and bills, I’ve never lived a lifestyle that had room for regular luxury purchases. So I have a little bit of almost Puritanical guilt for spending so much on myself, first of all, rather than on another person or a shared experience, secondly I feel weird about buying such an expensive piece of clothing as a bigger person, when I’ve alway had in the back of my mind that I should wait to be skinnier before indulging in luxury (this is clearly not a healthy thought, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that it wasn’t subconsciously present), and finally there’s guilt for spending so much, not on a pair of boots, or a piece of furniture, or a computer, or some other item that would receive lots of daily use or wear, but on an item of clothing that is so specialized and unique that I may only wear it a few times in my life.
Now that a few months have passed since my corset was finished and I’ve had time to process the whole experience (and I have the beautiful final images from the shoot to look at), I’m starting to think of my corset not as “oh-god-this-was-really-expensive-and-I-can’t-even-wear-it-to-work-what-was-I-thinking”, but as something really special, like a collector’s item or an heirloom. After my apartment was broken into a few years ago and all of my family jewelry was stolen, I saved up to buy a vintage ring, certainly the most expensive piece of jewelry I’ve ever purchased. While it will never replace what was taken or erase my guilt over what happened (yes, I still feel guilty that someone Spiderman-climbed the side of my building and jumped onto my air conditioner and dove in through the top of the window, because obviously I should have anticipated that, right), the ring gives me a new way to remember the women in my family who are no longer with me. When I wear that ring, I remember the pieces they left me, and it’s like I’ve reforged that small link back to them.
I hope that this corset becomes, for me, a little like the ring. This corset is something really special that I did for myself, it will remind me of this year’s holiday project, which I absolutely adored planning and creating, and it’s a beautiful piece that stands on its own as an example of a friend and artisan’s skill and talent. It doesn’t have to be “practical” or useful. It will be a little treasure: a marker of this time in my life, a souvenir from this special project that meant so much to me, and an object of beauty that’s mine to keep forever.
Also, if anyone needs to invite me to a masquerade ball, I am READY.