Last Updated March 8, 2016.
With the variety of corsets available, sorting out what to buy can be quite baffling. This article is a corset buying guide, including the pros and cons of different price points and features, ready-to-wear vs. custom, why steel boning is good, tips for finding the best possible fit, budget, and more.
I don’t personally have a bias for or against ready-to-wear vs. custom corsets. Every individual has different needs, and each kind of corset may be better suited to each person. I will refer to both fairly frequently throughout the article, and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each when appropriate. I do recommend ready-to-wear for first-time corset purchases, because it is a smaller investment, and will provide valuable experience regarding how YOU wear a corset, and what is comfortable for you.
A Logical Start
When a person decides they want to go get a corset, the first fun considerations usually revolve around shape and design. What do you want in a corset? What do you want it to look like? Do you want to wear it with a specific outfit, or for a specific occasion, or do you want to wear it frequently? Do you want one that has lots of embellishments, or do you want the option of wearing it under your clothing? What color do you want? Are you interested in waist training, want to give your figure a nice little bump, or do you want to avoid compression at all? How unique do you want your corset to be, and are you willing to modify or adorn it yourself to achieve that uniqueness?
All those questions are fun, and important, and some or all of them are probably what you are thinking about when you are perusing corset web sites and just window shopping for what you would love to own.
Buying For Your Body
When it comes time to actually plan your corset purchase, you must consider two more things. What is your natural shape, and what are your accurate measurements?
Those two questions can take precedence over many other questions and considerations, like design and budget, or ready-to-wear vs. custom, because in order to have a prayer of finding a corset that not only looks the way you want it to, but also fits and is comfortable, you need to take those two things into consideration. If you are looking at ready-to-wear sites, you may very well find that the perfect corset you picked out isn’t available in a size or shape that is compatible with your body. That’s completely normal, because we are each uniquely shaped, and when you are looking at a garment that is not only form-fitting, but form-altering and rigid, it needs to fit you perfectly in order to be completely comfortable. There are so many ready-to-wear designers out there that if you look hard enough, you’ll probably find something that is compatible with your natural shape, but not necessarily. In order to be successful in business, they need their corsets to fit on a significant portion of the corset-wearing public, so they will tend towards measurements that are more common than not.
So, when you are ready to decide on a corset purchase, it is important to take some basic measurements so you have a better idea of whether or not a ready-to-wear a corset will fit you when it arrives, or if you need to focus on custom tailored. You won’t need every measurement from my measurement chart (and if you work with a custom maker, they will have their own measurements they work from), but it is a good idea to measure your underbust, waist, and hip (at about the height where a corset would stop), and figure out the maximum front length you would be comfortable wearing. This is most apparent when sitting, so sit up straight and measure from the base of your sternum (or your underbust) to just above where your lower abdomen becomes your lap. Try not to lean forward when taking the measurement, as the curvature of your torso will make it appear shorter than it actually is. This is the maximum length of an underbust corset for you. If the front of your corset is too long, it will either shove up your breasts, or prevent you from sitting comfortably, or quickly get bent out of shape. Your maximum overbust front length is probably going be about three inches longer than that, but it depends upon your torso length and the exact style of the corset (plunge vs. high over the curve of the bust).
What’s in a waist measurement? Well, lots of things. Ready-to-wear sites will very often have their corset sizes listed by waist measurement, and have their measurement / sizing chart with all the other fit details listed on its own page. But you may or may not want to order the corset size of your natural waist measurement. To figure that out, you need to answer another question.
Do you want to avoid compression at all, want a light lacing corset, or a tight lacing corset?
If you want to avoid compression at all, you’ll want to focus your corset buying search on “fashion corsets” or “shapewear”. There is no standard industry term for corsets that aren’t quite corsets, but if a seller is being honest about it, they will usually use one of those two terms or another term that is distinct from “corset”. Some sellers and makers even sell both shapewear and steel boned corsets. Despite both being referred to as “corsets” and sometimes having a very superficial resemblance, they are actually extremely different garments. For example, Spanks, girdles, and fashion “corset tops” fall into the shapewear group. If a seller lists the boning as plastic, or doesn’t specify (this happens frequently with less reputable sellers), then it is shapewear. Buy to your waist measurement, and if the quality is good, it should slightly shape your figure, but will also move with you. They often involve other modern materials like elastics, and can look fantastic. They are also usually less expensive, but tend not to be very durable. They can be made custom, but there are very few corset specialists who know how to and will make this kind of garment, so I would recommend checking for custom lingerie makers. In the corset enthusiast world, these are typically not seen as corsets.
For the rest of this article, I will only be discussing real corsets, with waist reduction and steel boning.
Light lacing is the most common kind of corset wearing, especially for occasional use. It’s most often about a 10% reduction of your waist measurement, but the exact amount can vary from person to person depending upon your natural shape and the amount of natural squishiness in your torso. It’s important because it prevents the rigid corset from shifting and chaffing or slipping around while you wear it. That compression quite literally holds it in place. In the process, you should see a nice little exaggeration to your natural figure.
In order to have the strength and stability necessary for a light lacing corset to be comfortable and have any chance of durability, it needs a couple essential features: A strength layer (sturdy cotton or coutil), and steel boning (either spring steel or spiral steel). Heavy weight leather can eliminate the need for both cotton and boning, but these corsets are not common. It’s also a good idea for the corset to have waist tape, as this helps provide strength and durability in the location of greatest stress on the garment. Any seller should have the materials used listed on their site, and be willing to answer those questions if you contact their customer service. Beware of tricky wording like “Steel busk and bones”, which leads you to think it means “steel busk and steel bones”, but is actually not specific on the kind of boning.
The steel boning (and enough of it) is very important because it is what prevents the corset from buckling under the stress of the compression and ending up a wrinkled, painful mess at your waist. Plastic boning doesn’t usually work because it isn’t as strong and stable as the steel, and as it warms to your body temperature it becomes even softer. If the corset doesn’t have enough boning, even if the boning is steel it will still buckle from the stress. That buckling causes uneven pressure, and can make the corset dig into your body, which is uncomfortable at best. If the buckling is severe enough, or manages to happen in just the wrong place, it can cause pain and bruising, and generally make the experience one you’re likely to not repeat.
Most corsets will have either a steel busk or some sturdy boning in the center front, bones sandwiching the grommets in the back, and at least one bone per seam (another 8-10 bones). If you are larger in size, or taking more than about three inches off your waist measurement, you’ll probably need more boning (or sturdier boning) to help the corset keep its shape.
When you are looking at custom and bespoke corsets, you may find other alternative materials that can be used with great effectiveness, but as far as I know these alternative materials are never used by the RTW industry. They can include reed and cording, and I’ve even heard of one custom maker who uses plastic boning, though a vastly different variety from the featherweight boning or rigiline you can buy at the fabric store. Alternate strength materials include meshes, ribbon, linen, hemp, and all manner of coutil-family fabrics. Most makers use a single strength layer, but others use two, or offer the option.
Tight Lacing & Waist Training
If you are interested in tight lacing and have never owned a corset before, I would recommend buying a light lacing corset for your first corset. That way you can get a good feel for what type of corset is comfortable on your body, and whether or not you would actually be up for tight lacing. Tight lacing is the practice of lacing a corset to the smallest comfortable waist measurement. It is usually undertaken as part of intentional waist training, but is sometimes used for occasional corset-wearing, although most people would probably not be comfortable wearing a tight laced corset as a one-off or infrequent occurrence unless they were already very comfortable light lacing. If you buy a corset that is tight lacing, it is very important to season the corset before your event so that you will be comfortable wearing it.
Exact definitions of waist training vary, but in general it involves the wearing of a corset with deliberate frequency with the intent to alter the shape of the torso even when not wearing a corset. Some people do this as part of a 23/7 regimen (literally only taking the corset off to bathe), while other people wear corsets just during their waking hours on a daily or nearly daily basis. Corsets purchased specifically for waist training usually have fewer embellishments so there is more versatility in wearing them, but more importantly, they should always be made to the highest possible standard of quality and strength. If you are concerned about longevity in your corset, then a custom made corset of waist training quality is your absolute best choice, whether or not you actually intend to waist train, because it will be better made and last for more wearings.
If you wear a corset frequently, even a light lacing corset, you may find that it suddenly seems too big, like maybe it has stretched, because it laces closed or no longer is tight enough to stay put when worn. If all your clothes still fit the way they used to, this is probably because you have unintentionally waist trained, and your body has grown accustomed to the alteration of shape. It’s no need to panic. It just means you will probably want a corset with a little more waist reduction so it will stay put again.
Tight lacing is usually around a 20% reduction from the un-corsetted waist measurement. The additional pressure of the waist reduction, extended hours of wear, and frequency of wear mean that the corset will be enduring a lot more stress, and it will wear out more quickly than a corset worn only occasionally. Think about how long a lower quality bra wears, and a lower quality corset (even if matching the strength criteria for light lacing) will probably not last any longer. The highest quality corset will last a lot longer, but it too will wear out with regular use, especially if it’s put through the paces of an active lifestyle. In the late Victorian, when corsets were usually worn daily, advertisements usually promised corsets would last for one year. There are RTW makers who provide corset shapes that may work for tight lacing in the initial stages, but most people who waist train will eventually find they must buy from custom makers in order to achieve their desired silhouettes.
Another thing to keep in mind when looking at corsets, especially in the ready-to-wear market, is that a corset labeled as “tight lacing” is only actually tight lacing if the person wearing it sees a significant reduction of his or her natural waist measurement. In reality, that RTW “tight lacing” label is at best an indication that the corset is for a curvier figure, and hopefully made from sturdier materials. At worst, it is a buzzword being used out of turn to sell something for which it isn’t actually suited.
If you are interested in waist training, I highly recommend reading up on the practice and buying your corset from a maker who understands the process. It is a process that takes time, and requires lifestyle changes in order to be successful. There are too many quality makers of tight lacing corsets to list here, but these are some places where you can find quality information on tight lacing for free.
Contour Corsets: http://www.contourcorsets.com/tightlacing_tips.html
Pop Antique: Pop Antique – Waist Training & Tightlacing
Getting Little in the Middle: 10 WAIST TRAINING TIPS
Contour Corsets (links): http://www.contourcorsets.com/links.html
I also recommend the book “Corset Magic” by Ann Grogan, which is reviewed by Lucy on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mbGLRTfMTU4
For a video option, Lucy covers many of the topics of interest to tight lacers in her playlist “Physical Effects of Corseting”: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0F578952365CE673
Budget and Ready-to-Wear (RTW) vs. Custom vs. Bespoke
The first obvious difference between the three is price, so budget can play a huge part in deciding where to start, but keep in mind that in the world of corsetry you will usually get what you pay for. There are exceptions, of course, but in most cases the more you pay, the higher quality garment you will get. One reason for this is quite direct: the higher quality materials are expensive to purchase, even wholesale, and a higher quality corset will usually use more of them. The other reasons usually relate to the skill and experience of the designer, and the time and effort put into creating a more precise and flaw-free garment. Designers capable of consistently creating completely wrinkle-free corsets are often some of the most expensive around. Curvier silhouettes and more complicated designs will also tend to be more expensive because they require more skill to create. The least expensive ready-to-wear corsets are always mass manufactured, so their quality will vary depending upon the standards of the seller and the manufacturing facility.
In general, for the same quality garment from the same maker, a shorter corset will be less expensive. “Waspie” or other very short waist cincher corsets are usually the least expensive, sometimes hundreds of dollars less expensive than a comparable overbust from the same maker. Most sellers and makers also charge extra for larger sizes, if they offer them at all, but some charge the same prices irregardless of size. Fancy cover materials, extra embellishments, and pretty much anything extra usually adds to the price as well. When I mention prices, I am talking extremely general prices, usually referring to full length underbusts, or basic overbusts, in simpler designs and with few (if any) additions. If you want lots of bells and whistles, expect the price may go up very quickly, irregardless of where you are purchasing your corset.
If budget is a huge consideration for your corset purchase, I recommend visiting Lucy’s web site for her list of corset brands by price range. She also provides links to reviews of the makers. http://lucycorsetry.com/corset-brands-by-price-range/
The least expensive corsets on the market are, without a doubt, RTW. A quick search of the internet will immediately turn up multiple sites offering “genuine steel boned corsets” for less than $60. If you are budget strapped that’s pretty darned tempting, but be very careful or you may end up with a corset that goes straight into the trash. Many bargain-basement corsets are not as promised, and as a result can be completely un-wearable. Be sure to check for reviews before buying a corset for less than $100, because it may or may not be worth your money. Also, be very critical of their wording, the consistency of photos (watch for stolen couture photos used to sell inferior products), materials used, and whether or not their customer service answers your questions in a quick and straightforward manner. You may be able to get a wonderful corset in this price range, but care must be taken to avoid fraud and worthless items.
The lowest end custom corsets can be garnered starting at about $150 for an underbust, or sometimes even an overbust corset, especially if you are looking on places like Etsy. Most makers in the low price range are just starting out, so they may not be using quality materials or techniques or know how to accurately fit a corset, or you might get lucky and find someone who is on the ball and just trying to get more experience. When I first started, I offered corsets on Etsy for $150-$300, and some of them are still in my portfolio today. It’s a gamble, so decide if you are willing to take the risk before buying bargain custom corsets.
There are a large number of RTW companies in the $80-$500 range that offer quality corsets, and in some cases garner loyal customers who return to them again and again. RTW can be advantageous for a couple reasons, especially for the first-time corset buyer. The turn around is usually very fast, sometimes as little as a week or two. There are a few with turnaround times of several weeks who make their RTW corsets to order, giving you some of the flexibility normally found in ordering custom. If budget is a big factor for you, for the lowest possible price you can probably find something that fits you well enough to wear without discomfort and evaluate if you like wearing a corset enough to invest in a more expensive item. If you’re lucky and studious about checking sizing charts and contacting customer service, you may even find a company that has designs which fit you extremely well. Most of the time, though, it probably won’t be an exactly perfect fit, and may or may not be comfortable to wear for extended periods of time.
Custom corsets are made to order, not just with a choice of fabrics, but with a pattern that is tailored to your measurements. Most of the time a custom order will involve a mock-up (at least one) to verify the fit of the pattern before making the finished garment. Some makers will do this in person, while others are willing to do it by mail, so even if there is not a custom corset maker in your area you can still get a custom corset. Each corset maker will usually have a specialty, be that aesthetics, certain techniques or materials, body types, or something else entirely, so it’s worth looking around for someone who makes corsets that are perfectly suited for you. For example, when I was in business I specialized in atypical body types, those of us who didn’t really have the option of buying ready-to-wear because our measurements were too far from “standard” in one way or another. If you have particular issues that complicates your corset fit, like marked asymmetry in your body (all of us are a little asymmetrical, but usually not enough to worry about), it’s worth asking around for someone who can work with you. If you are buying a custom corset, you shouldn’t have to settle for a less than perfect fit.
A step up from custom is bespoke. If you are interested in bespoke, budget had better not be a concern for your corset purchasing, because when the sky is the limit, so is the price. Bespoke corsetry takes the custom idea a step further by using portfolio designs as inspiration starting points, and seeks to make a unique item every time. Where custom corset may offer the choice of whether or not to have shoulder straps with a particular design, bespoke allows you to potentially specify everything, from the lines of the edges of the corset to the shape to every detail of the embellishment.
There are a few more things to consider when buying a corset, which may or may not be important to you in particular.
Customer service can be very important, especially if something goes wrong with your order, and even the most reputable makers can have things go wrong from time to time. I have mentioned customer service several times because when you can’t try on the products before buying, it’s very important to be able to get detailed information about your potential purchase. If they’re not willing to get back to you in a timely manner before you buy something, they’re definitely not going to get back to you if something goes wrong.
Most sellers and makers will have some sort of a guarantee or return policy. Be sure to find out what the policy is, and make sure you are comfortable with it before buying your corset. A RTW corset should be returnable or refundable if it doesn’t fit. Beware of RTW companies that don’t clearly state their return/refund policy. Most of the time a custom corset is only returnable if there is a defect upon arrival, although some makers do have limited guarantees. Be sure to pay attention to the time frames and exact conditions, and realize that a custom made item is a lot of time, effort, and materials, and it’s not something the maker can turn around and sell to another customer, so they are not likely to go out of their way to make you happy if you end up with buyer’s regret.
Responsible sourcing is an issue that is becoming more important to more people, and it may be something you want to keep in mind, especially if you are looking to buy RTW. Your least expensive RTW corsets are pretty much universally going to be made in sweatshops, but there are also a number of RTW companies which make their corsets domestically (in their own shop, in the country where they operate). Among those who source from overseas, some visit the manufacturing facilities to make sure the workers are treated fairly, while others do not. Responsibly sourced fabrics, the use of glues, and leather use also matter to some people, but probably won’t be listed anywhere on a web site. If these things matter to you, contact customer service and ask. Companies who practice responsible sourcing are usually very proud of their efforts and will be more than happy to talk to you about it.
Lucy Corsetry has built a huge resource of videos on corsets and corset making, as well as corset reviews.
Her main site: http://lucycorsetry.com/
Her YouTube Channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/bishonenrancher
Corseting: General Information playlist: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLC6B380E5D1D41A14
Corsetier Map: http://lucycorsetry.com/corsetiere-map/
Corset Reviews playlist: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL93B1316AC63E0BA4
Thank you for reading, and feel free to leave any comments, questions, or thoughts down below.