With proper care, any well-made corset should last for years of regular wearing. For centuries in Europe and America, most women and some men wore corsets day in and day out for most of their lives. Before the advent of mass-production in the Victorian, all those corsets were made by hand, weeks of work even for a speedy and experienced seamstress. Even the inexpensive mass-produced Victorian corsets cost about a dollar, no small amount at the time. Just like with modern bras, no one would be happy about a corset that fell apart after only a few wearings, even if it was relatively inexpensive. If historic corsets lasted under the rigors of daily wear, there is no reason modern corsets can’t last just as well.
Keep your corset in a cool, dry place, such as an acid-free archival box, lined first with unbleached muslin, or a use an unbleached pure cotton pillowcase, or make a specially made Corset bag where the corset can lie flat inside. Excessive moisture can potentially cause mildew or rusting of the spring steel bones, so you want to avoid moisture. Ideally, your Victorian corset should be laid flat to prevent distortion in the fabric or bones.
When you remove your corset, lay it flat, lining side up, to air out. If the edging material is not prone to sun-damage, set it in the sun occasionally to help refresh the lining, but be careful because leaving out for long periods in the sun will cause fading. If you put your corset away while it is still damp from sweat, it may become musty, or even start to smell reminiscent of a gym sock.
A corset should be washed as little as possible, and NEVER in a washing machine. The spring steel boning can be damaged by a washing machine, and makes it difficult to deep-clean a corset. However, there are many things you can do to extend time between washings, while keeping your corset smelling fresh and clean.
If the corset smells slightly, there are several different products that can be used to help remove the odors. Which you use will depend in large part upon the materials your corset is made with, and particularly the cover material. Talcum powder, especially anti-bacterial powders, can work very effectively, but be careful of the dust residue grinding into the cover material and potentially causing discoloration. Rubbing alcohol or diluted vodka (1/2 water mixture) may be spritzed or dabbed onto the inside, helping to remove not only odors but sweat stains as well, but be careful of cover materials that may show moisture spots should any of the rubbing alcohol soak through to the cover. The product “Febreze”, especially the anti-bacterial kinds, is also an effective choice for removing odors, but should be used with caution as it can cause skin irritation for some people. In all cases, be sure to allow the corset to dry completely before putting it away.
Removing Spots and Stains
Any garment may from time to time encounter an accidental stain or spotting, a situation that can be problematic in a garment like a corset that is difficult to clean thoroughly. Any spot cleaning product should be used with care, and tested on a hidden or inconspicuous part of the cover to see if the product will damage the cover material.
One product I am particularly fond of is Borax. It is very effective on a huge variety of stains, is very gentle on fabrics, and can be used with cold water. Test it on a hidden part of the cover to see if it lifts any color from the cover material. There is very little chance of color lift, but it’s always good to check anyway. To lift the stain, place a small pile of Borax over the stain and lightly drip water onto it. The Borax will warm slightly as it lifts the stain, the Borax will harden slightly, and if it’s going to work the stain will pull up into the Borax. This may need to be repeated several times before the stain is completely removed, and then the area must be rinsed to remove Borax residue. The worst effect I have had from using Borax is a residual water stain to the affected area.
When odor removal and spot cleaning are not enough, some corsets may be washed by hand. Check with the maker of your corset to confirm that the materials are safe to hand-wash, and if there are any specific recommendations for detergents or soaps to use. Orvis quilt care is one of the best, gentle cleansers on the US market used with tepid water. (Always test a small, inconspicuous area before dunking.) Make sure to rinse well.
To hand-wash a corset, use cold water to fill your bath tub, or use a tub large enough to lay out the corset completely. Use a very light solution of a mild detergent to gently massage out the stains and dirt. Rinse the soap or detergent completely out of the corset and lay it out to dry. Rather than squeezing or wringing out excess water, pat it dry with a light colored, unbleached towel. If possible, set or hang it so air may circulate entirely around the corset. The easiest way I have found to do this is to hang the corset by the grommets. Try not to submerge the corset frequently, because every time you soak your corset there is a chance of rusting. Modern spring steel boning and busks are coated to prevent rusting, but this is not a complete guarantee.
If hand washing is not an option, every corset, even leather corsets, may be dry-cleaned. Be sure to speak with the dry-cleaner before leaving your corset to make sure they are equipped to handle a genuine spring steel boned corset. Just as with leather, not every dry cleaner will have the knowledge and experience to clean a corset.