My Custom Corset Journey: Part 2- Talking with Angela Friedman

[For Part 1 of Operation: I Got Myself a Corset, go here.]

Hi Angela! Let us talk to each other through the magic of the internet, since you have left me all alone in New York City and taken yourself off to North Carolina.

Lavinia overbust corset by Angela Friedman

Lavinia overbust corset by Angela Friedman

So, to get folks caught up: before you launched your successful luxury lingerie brand, you worked for New York City Ballet. I’m curious about how you moved from there to corsets, specifically (not just lingerie). Was there an element of your work with the ballet that led you naturally to corsets, or were corsets something that always interested you?

I worked at the New York City Ballet as the Head of the Ladies’ Department of the Costume Shop from 2009-2012. The position was sort of a cross between patternmaker, liaison between designer and stitchers, and supervisor of construction.  We built probably 200+ costumes per 9 month season, and altered another couple hundred to boot!  Prior to that job I had done a variety of freelance and shorter term stints at regional theater and opera companies (Milwaukee Repertory, American Players Theater, Glimmerglass Opera, etc).  There definitely was a relationship between that work and my current – there is a lot of crossover between fashion and costume designers for example, and construction techniques are similar between the two.  More than anything else, in my theater/opera/ballet work I learned to work quickly, efficiently, and on demanding deadlines.  I don’t think that I would have made it in fashion as far as I have without that rigorous training.

Angela Friedman in her studio. Photo: Kristen Blush

Angela Friedman in her studio. Photo: Kristen Blush

Related to the first question: what was your experience with corsetry prior to launching Angela Friedman? How did you develop your patterns? Did you work off any particular historical influences?

My love of corsetry is really what began my transition from costumes to fashion.  I had done many corsets for period productions, opera singers (surprisingly, they love them!), and of course tutu bodices which are largely the same construction.  Lingerie was actually an afterthought, simply because it coordinates so well with corsets and because it’s a specialty item that’s largely ignored by the industry. I wanted to change that!  There’s also something innately theatrical about lingerie… I think because it’s so private and personal, fabulous lingerie can make a woman feel like she’s the star, glimmering in beautiful silks and lace under the spotlight.

All of my influence comes from some sort of historical research (I challenge any designer who claims otherwise) – especially with corsets.  No one today makes them as well as they were made when most every woman in Western society wore one.  We just don’t have access to the same tightly woven cloth or the time to utilize the same couture techniques today.  I do a lot of research in art, dressmaking manuals and published patterns and patents, and of course antique fashion plates.

A custom overbust corset by Angela Friedman

A custom overbust corset by Angela Friedman

While your RTW corsets work beautifully for people who wear core sizes, I know you have a lot of experience creating custom corsets for curvier and fuller-busted clients (see Laura’s review for Thin & Curvy here and Ali Cudby’s piece for The Lingerie Journal here). I want to talk in detail about my particular pattern in a minute (meeeeeeeee), but first: are there any general “rules” you follow when adjusting a pattern for a curvy client? My understanding is that it’s pretty well-known that as humans get curvier or larger or some combination thereof, there is often a greater variation in body shape, which makes it hard to say “this is a standard size X”. Do you know right off the bat if you’ll have to add a certain number of panels or increase the length or width of a particular component or make some other adjustment?

The rules for creating corsets for fuller bust sizes or plus sizes are not cut-and-dry. That’s what makes it so challenging.  Once you hit above a US size 12 or 14, the differences between the bodies of different women (even with the same measurements) increases exponentially.  That’s why I prefer to do in person fittings whenever possible.  There is so much that the human eye can see better than measurements can tell.  Sure, I always add extra boning, split single panels into multiples when I will need more specific shaping or a wider breadth, and recommend additions like bust gussets or hip godets where it seems logical… but unfortunately there’s no boiling it down into a formula, especially when 1mm of change can throw off an entire garment

Sweet Nothings' custom Angela Friedman corset mockups

These are the first two mockups for my bespoke corset. The first one (rear) is the most basic– almost like a preliminary sketch (you’ll notice it doesn’t even have a busk (front closure)). Angela knew my size was in flux between the time she took my measurements and the time of the first fitting, so she kept things simple, knowing there would most likely be lots of adjustments. You can see that the second mockup (front) looks more like a finished corset– there’s a busk, waist tape, and lace-up back. On both mockups Angela marked pattern adjustments with pins and a sharpie once I had the piece on my body, and we began sketching out some ideas for trims and embellishments.

Let’s talk about meeeeeee. My people are long of limb and broad of shoulder, so when a client like me says “hello! I’m 5’10” and I wear full-bust bras, corset me, please”, are there any pattern adjustments you know you’ll have to make for sure? I think I remember you saying that you had to special-order an extra-long busk for me, and I know you pointed out how you curved the back up a bit to help keep the tissue on my back from pillowing over the edge of the corset. You also told me my pattern was one of the most complex you’ve ever done. How so? What made this particular corset so special/unusual, apart from the fact that you were creating it for the greatest and most beautiful person in the world?

Your corset has 18 panels, which I think is the most I’ve ever done, and yes I did have to order some extra long bones and busk for your frame.  These changes were partly because you’re very tall, but also because you’re already very curvy with a large difference between your bust and waist measurements.  All of the extra hourglassy shaping adds length as well, because the bones must curve in and out farther.  It’s actually more challenging to corset a curvy woman, because each panel must have more extreme shaping even to just match the curves – all the moreso to increase them.  We also had the added challenge that you were losing weight at the time, so the patterning was unpredictable and constantly being tweaked.  (Sorry, it’s true!)

I commissioned my corset to be part of a lingerie look inspired by a specific time period (late 19th century). While my corset is by no means historically accurate (correct me if I’m wrong, but an authentic corset from around 1890 would have had more of a straight-across neckline, little-to-no bust shaping, and a more generous hip spring, is that right?), I remember talking in the second fitting about how I wanted sort of a “neutral” shape– plenty of bust room and support, of course, but a final silhouette that could “translate” across a few different time periods. How much influence from history did you take into consideration when you were looking at the mockups and tweaking the pattern?

(Yes, your 1890 assumptions about corset designs are entirely correct! [I am a genius– editor])  When designing a historically inspired garment, I do always keep things like silhouette, proportion, and available colors and materials in mind.  Without those building blocks, you would end up with an entirely modern looking garment.  But when it comes to the modern woman who hasn’t spent her entire life in corsets, it’s just not possible to achieve some of those dramatic shapes without years of training.  Also, since we were creating a garment that needed to support the bust without the use of any other undergarments (like a chemise underneath), a higher bustline was necessary to keep things in place and… ahem, decent.  🙂  While some of these details may not be completely accurate, I think that women of the time would have been happy to wear something like this were it available.  That’s generally my dividing line. Would Queen Victoria have worn a polyester, plastic-boned corset?  Never.  Would she have worn one with a sweetheart neckline?  Sure, why not?!

Sweet Nothings custom corset final pattern by Angela Friedman

A portion of the final pattern Angela created for my corset

We chatted quite a bit during fittings about bust fit. Since I’m a bra fitter and, you know, fairly boob-savvy, we talked technically about the shape, fit, and feel of what we wanted to achieve. How do you talk about the “bra fit” part of your corsets with your full-bust clients, since it’s obviously different from talking about the fit of an underwire bra?

In terms of bra vs corset fit, without adding cups to a corset (like a bra), it’s really not possible to fit quite as closely as your typical bra would.  There are no underwires and I can’t bring the corset in to the root of a breast like a bra can (without creating an extremely unfortunate shelf look).  Additionally, the center front busk closure prevents the corset from tacking like a bra gore could on fuller busts- there’s just no space for the metal to go against the sternum.  For smaller bust clients with space between their breasts, it’s not a problem, but I always try to advise clients of this so that there are no unhappy surprises.

Sweet Nothings custom corset final mockup by Angela Friedman

This was the final mockup. It’s the closest to the final corset: the outer layer is a cotton satin, the edges are finished, the waist tape, busk, and lacing are all in place, and Angela only marked slight fit/pattern adjustments. We also marked the final placement for some applique. It’s weird to me to see it lying flat, because it’s an incredibly curvy garment once it’s on the body.

So we did measurements in May (with the help of Clarence, your cat, who loves measuring tapes as much as Gus and Ruby do), our first fitting was in early June, the second in mid-July, and the third and final fitting was September 21. Because I was training for my half-marathon, we knew my size was going to change, although I don’t think either of us realized how drastically (sorry about that). I assume you don’t normally offer your bespoke clients three separate fittings with three separate mock-ups? What would the normal process look like?

My standard mock up service includes one measurement fitting and one mock up fitting.  (We did a measurement and 3 mock up fittings).  For many clients, this is more than sufficient for me to get enough information to move forward.  If I feel that my initial mock up was not informative enough, I offer clients a free second mock up fitting for both of our ease of mind.  It does add a lot of time to the process, but it’s sometimes worth it.  (And sometimes the second mock up is perfect and I kick myself for wasting both of our time! But better safe than sorry!)  If however the client loses or gains weight and therefore needs more fittings, I do charge again for further adjustments.  It’s unfortunate, but since it’s something I can’t realistically account for, its necessary. (Obvi we’re friends and freebies, so there you go :))  Something else to consider though is that you and I were dealing with a relatively large amount of change – several inches and significant bust changes.  If a client loses 5 pounds or gains 10, for the most part you can sort of “make it work” by lacing the corset more loosely or tightly.  There is definitely room to maneuver in either direction without having to get a brand new corset made.

Angela is cool and super good at her job, and I can’t wait to share her work with you soon! Y’all ask her any other questions you may have in the comments; she has all the answers.

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