Recently, a university student I had on work experience (Alycia, of Emiah Couture), decided to embark upon some multi-panel corsetry for a new collection, having been inspired by Pigeon and Mink (two pieces from the “In every cloud, in every tree” SS14 collection).
Multi-panel corsetry is something we are starting to see more and more amongst independent corsetmakers. Being personally in love with the aesthetic, I can definitely see why! Having developed my own approach in a very intense way, it is nice to now see how others approach it, to see what does and doesn’t work for them. Sometimes, the community of enthusiasts and buyers (and even corsetieres) want to impose precise rules that every good corset should adhere to. As an aside, I think that basic rules are actually great for beginners, as you learn them in order to break them (if you so wish)… I even wrote an article for Foundations Revealed about this very thing (link in the sidebar). But for independent corsetieres, rules can be limiting.
I think a big part of this is that rules of construction don’t allow for individual physiology or preference. Corsetmaking can be a craft or art, like any other, and in other mediums we actively look for evidence of the maker’s hands… gestures in paint, details that betray their presence. It’s a question of manual handling and focus. My hands work best differently to others’ hands, and so on and so on. And we each focus on different aspects of corsetry, we have different priorities, strengths, weaknesses…
So the most wonderful thing about the trend for multi-panel corsetry, and teaching/taking interns in general, is that I get to see different approaches to my own. I personally think that any good teacher wishes to teach an ethos rather than a fact, an approach shared by my friend Julia (organiser of the Oxford Conference of Corsetry). I have no wish to create mini-Sparklewrens of my students. It’s dull. Repetition bores me into a fury.
Instead, I would hope to help them find their own interests. Likewise with other corsetieres, it seems a missed opportunity if someone takes an idea and attempts to replicate it note-for-note with no development. Replicate to learn, yes, but then fail at your replication (failure is wonderful) and find a different, personal way of succeeding. As an artist, I am happiest when I see a friend or peer whose work is *so good* or so different that I am incensed that they got there before me (well, as “incensed” as a polite English girl ever gets!) and spurred on to do better myself. The designers that jump on a trend just for the sake of it bore me slightly. The designers that jump on an idea and innovate, they inspire me.
Along with Alycia (who has a brilliant natural understanding of form and is already innovating around the multi-panel idea with thoughts of angled seams and so on), I also gave a brief to a student called Poppy for her Final Major Project this year. The idea is to create a Sparklewren showpiece ensemble, something to fit within the brand and the “In every cloud, in every tree” collection, with reference to construction, colouring, patterning, etc. etc. One might assume this would result in a multi-panel corset? Nope, her eyes did go immediately to a beautiful antique corset housed at Snibston Discovery Museum, but not the Birds Wing, and her design is turning out completely her own. It’s wonderful to see, and has a reciprocal function in that I am now inspired to perhaps return to an idea or two from years ago that we had hit upon in discussing her project. Likewise, overseeing the FMP of my friend Rosie last year (of Rosie Red Corsetry & Couture) really fueled my desire to do more in the way of gowns than corsets alone, and her excellent selection of a taupe silk duchess ended up being so beautiful that I just had to work with the same fabric myself at a later point.
We, the industry and the artform, we all benefit when we are encouraging, respectful, and generous. We all, naturally, have certain skills and knowledge that was hard won, skills that we need to protect in order to protect our businesses, and there is certainly an etiquette to things… For example, an email from a stranger or fellow designer with your name spelled wrong, no pleasantries, and no content other than, “tell me where you got X, tell me how you made Y” is never going to be received well. But those extreme and rude cases aside, I have never suffered for helping other corsetieres. Quite the opposite, I would say I have always benefited. Ideas are bounced around, you reach beyond your existing knowledge, everyone is inspired to do more.
It is simply a question of being respectful and creative with it. Every piece of encouragement I receive from corsetmaking friends I consider a gift, not a right, and every piece of knowledge I accrue (whether from studying an antique or contemporary piece) is a starting point, not a thing to be unthinkingly adopted wholesale. The end result is that your work becomes more and more your own, through these interactions with others. You develop your own principles and “truths”, whilst admiring those of others (even if you don’t agree with them). You perceive value even in the work you dislike, as it teaches you what you love. And often, you’re lucky enough to find numerous, limitless, examples of wonderful corsetmaking, each “perfectly imperfect” in their own right.
Having rambled my way away from multi-panel corsetry, I must say I am greatly looking forward to this August’s Oxford Conference of Corsetry. We are now sold out on spaces having many returning guests from last year and a handful of lovely new people to meet as well. The sweetest part about last year, was that a few ladies were in tears by the time “goodbyes” were being said. No-one wanted to leave. Why would they? If you’ve found yourself surrounded by like-minds all weekend, with no censure, no unkindness, no Queen Bee hierarchy, and none of the needless bitchiness that dogs even the nicest community once proceedings go online, then of course you’re going to have a wonderful time. Many of our ladies have said that their experiences last year let them finally “feel like a corsetmaker”, and they’ve subsequently gone off to create new designs which are more and more distinctively their own.
I believe the secret of it is this… If you give someone “permission” to do the thing they are afraid of doing (attempting a particular style, being inspired by something you’ve done, embarking on a big project), they will generally excel and surprise you with how well they do. What’s more, they will do it uniquely. So I would like to see more multi-panel corsetry, whether inspired by my work, the original Birds Wing, or otherwise. But I would hope for it to be made new again. For it to be innovative. Surprising. Not a Birds-Wing-lite, but something entirely different.