The art of corsetry

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Audrey Ivory in a corset by Sandra Chirico. Photo by Marisa Parisella

Sandra Chirico has spent close to 20 years perfecting her craft of custom corsetry — a passion she discovered while studying fashion design and textile arts and further developed while working as a costume maker for circus, opera and dance performers. Today, she creates bespoke (custom-made) corsets for clients from all walks of life, from burlesque dancers to brides to vintage enthusiasts looking for the perfect foundation garments for their one-of-a-kind finds.

This weekend, the public will get a chance to see Chirico’s newest creations at Pretty Waisted, a fashion show and performance night at Mademoiselle featuring some of the city’s favourite burlesque stars both performing and modelling her custom corsets on the runway, including headliner Mimi Cherry, Lady Josephine, Sugar Vixen, Vanilla Bliss and Audrey Ivory.

Lisa Sproull: How long have you been making corsets and how did you get started in this field?

Sandra Chirico: I started getting into it about 18 years ago, in 1998. Prior to that, while in fashion school, I had learned to make corset-like items which were sort of, but not quite, the real deal. I became super-fascinated with the corset and started doing all kinds of historical and technical research on how they are made and decided to put my research into practice. I started my own company called Ritual Designs along with a partner and we ran that for several years.

LS: Have you always been making custom, bespoke corsets or did you work in the ready to wear industry first?

SC: After fashion school at the ripe age of 20 I found a fashion industry job, but after the first year I came to realize that it was not a creative job. My mind started wandering and I realized I really needed more satisfying work that better fulfilled my creative urges somehow. Corsetry was my escape.

LS: Who is the typical client for you? I can imagine lots of burlesque performers!

SC: Actually, I’ve had clients of all types. Many performers, yes, but people from all walks of life interested in a structured corset for special occasion, even bridal. Many clients who love vintage clothing and want to achieve a specific silhouette to better fit their vintage clothes — especially clothing from the 1950’s for example, where a very cinched waist was popular. I have even made corsets for circus performers who require the stability that only a corset provides!

LS: What is it that you love about corsets and the people who wear them, and why did you choose this specialization to focus your skills?

SC: I love the way a well made corset hugs the body and enhances the silhouette, the curves, shapes and structure. I love curves. Structured garments are my favourite type of clothing to make, so I guess it’s only natural that I have focused on the corsets. Plus I get to use tools to cut all that metal boning!

LS: What are some of the technical challenges that you face when making corsets? Say you need to make something look feather-light and lacy, but it also needs to be very strong?

SC: I have experimented with constructing a transparent corset which is a definite challenge as all the internal structure had to be rethought. Also, including structured bra cups requires fitting which can be nearly impossible if it’s a long- distance client but a good challenge.

LS: If someone wants to invest in a corset, what are some of the reasons they might consider having a bespoke corset made for them instead of buying one off the rack? What’s the price range for such a garment?

SC: The difference between a bespoke corset and off the rack ones is simple. A bespoke corset will gently hug your rib cage so that you can breathe. It will also lace up evenly, and stronger fabric and metal boning is used to better support the pressure while it’s in use. Off the rack corsets have much less variety in shape, using cheaper fabric and often using plastic instead of metal boning, which causes the corset to become misshapen after one wear. I also find they don’t give as nice of a waist curve as a custom corset can. Since a bespoke corset is made for you, you pick what style and colour and embellishment you would like. They should also last you many, many years, perhaps just replacing the lacing once and while. It’s important to mention what you want out of the corset — waist training, or perhaps it’s more for bust support or tummy flattening, or it can just be an adornment corset for the look. Bespoke price range can be anywhere from $350 for a cincher to $1,200 for more elaborate corsets using lace and silk. It all depends on the style and fabric choices so it can be flexible depending on what the customers needs are.

LS: Corsets as a garment category seem to be a bit loaded for different branches of feminism. They’re a garment that highlights the sexual power of women’s bodies and some see that as objectification while others see it as an assertion of agency and power. In historical contexts when corsets were expected to be worn as daily underwear, they were considered oppressive and restrictive by dress reformers. They’re not essential undergarments anymore, but many women continue to choose to wear them in various contexts. For you, where does the corset fit within today’s social contexts when it comes to feminism, sexual agency, ‘the gaze’ (male or otherwise), etc etc?

SC: I think women own their bodies and what they choose to do with them is their own prerogative. Corsets may have been seen as an oppressive clothing item but what we need to remember is that women choose to wear them. Men never imposed them on women directly. Just like all fashion fads they emerge and take on a life of their own. There are extreme elements of corset wearing like waist training and tight lacing but that did not represent the reality of common use, historically. The average woman in the Victorian and Edwardian eras did not lace down so tightly. They laced down to the point where they felt most comfortable. Corsets are like armour — they certainly have enough metal in them — but I also notice how confident it makes people feel when they wear them. Confidence is one of the best ways for women to own it.

LS: Let’s talk about the show on Saturday—what can we expect to see at the show? Will people be able to order their own versions of the corsets on the runway? Will there be more corset fashion shows in the future, ie do you produce seasonal ‘collections’ as sample pieces or ready-to-wear?

SC: You can expect a very corset centric runway fashion/burlesque show with loads of personality featuring several of the best burlesque performers in the city as your models for the night. All corsets shown on the runway can be ordered and custom made to fit. New ideas and innovations will be worked into future pieces I will produce and as new collections take shape I would love to plan more corset related events, perhaps annually, depending on the response we see with Pretty Waisted. I’d be also interested in provided corset wearing workshops in a more intimate setting where people can try them on, engage in some Q&A, Maybe give a presentation.

LS: How do you hope the audience will respond to Saturday’s event?

SC: I hope that the audience will feel free to get dressed up and have a great time and enjoy either wearing corsets and perhaps consider trying one on in the near future. ■

Sandra Chirico’s Pretty Waisted corset fashion show with burlesque performances takes place at Mademoiselle (5171 Parc) on Saturday, April 30, 8 p.m., $30/$25 in advance. See more of Chirico’s work on her website.

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