On “Imperfection”

There are two angles to “imperfection”.

Excerpt from “The Luxury Strategy”, with Sparklewren’s “Sugared Leopard” corset below.

The first is a type of luxurious, artistic “imperfection” that I find really entrancing and lovely. It’s the sort of “imperfection” that 99.9% of people will not notice and certainly not interpret as a “flaw”. It’s the hand-crafted quality of hand-made work, the scant millimetre inaccuracy from one side of a symmetric lace applique to the other… It’s the barely perceptible imperfection which subtly and silently tells you that this is not a soulless mechanical object.

A couture bridal lingerie corset by Sparklewren.
A couture bridal lingerie corset by Sparklewren.

This sort of imperfection is to be welcomed and cherished. Our entire notion of the word needs to shift to allow for this, as it is in the imperfections that we find the beauty.

I adored these three corsets (now in homes as far away as Australia and as near as Leicester), but they could each be deemed “imperfect” if they did not overlap with the wearer’s requirements and aesthetic preferences. If you have a client, please them. If you do not, please yourself. That’s all you need to do.

The second type of “imperfection” is a more obvious and practical one, and this is a point for the corsetmakers and other creative people reading… One’s work must be fit-for-purpose. It is terribly easy as a creative person to compare your work to everything else in the industry, and find it lacking. To judge yourself too harshly, in this quest for making good work.

The “Phoenix” corset, from 2013’s test run of the new design.

But ensuring your work is fit-for-purpose is quite straight forward. It’s simply a question of defining a purpose for your own work and sticking to it. I receive many emails from new corsetmakers, fashion students and so on, asking for advice and being very complimentary about Sparklewren. On the whole, what I find they actually need isn’t necessarily information on how to make corsets (those with the least confidence often tend to be the ones with the most talent, and who I am to say that they should adopt corsetmaking tecnique A, B or C? I don’t necessarily know their aims and aesthetics)… it’s a little bit of encouragement. Having experienced the same self-doubt myself, I know how crucial a few kind words can be, and I know that the problem hinges around this notion of “perfect quality”. New makers become afraid that customers expect “perfection”, that other designers are looking down on them, that their work is imperfect. The problem is that the definitions of perfect/imperfect are often too simplistic. For example, a “perfect” corset might be:

  • completely smooth
  • with no bulges of the body above/below (ie: perfect fit)
  • comfortable
  • with dramatic waist shaping
  • easy to lace into
  • fast to lace out of
  • versatile (ie: wearable with many outfits)
  • etc. etc.

Here are just a few of the problems with our imaginary “perfect” corset:

  • It is potentially a bit bland. A corset that is very versatile is generally very plain and whilst this is wonderful (I have some versatile and plain classics in my own repertoire), it surely can’t be the be-all-and-end-all of corsetry.
  • It has conflicting aims…
    • Lacing into a corset easily is made more simple by using a certain size of eyelet, set at a certain distance, with a certain type of lacing… Lacing out of a corset quickly is made more simple by using a different format.
    • A “dramatic” shape looks like one thing to most people, but wearing that shape is quite another matter, with some body’s “dramatic” cinch being very mild to look at. Comfort and shape is very personal, there is no one perfect silhouette for every body.
    • It will never be 100% smooth, nor should it. As my friend Gerry of Morua Designs said to me recently, we make garments not armor. A corset that is 100% smooth is a static thing, a sculpture. This is absolutely fine if that’s your interest, but it is in contradiction to the other criteria of our impossibly “perfect” corset (comfort and shape). We can get very close to making perfectly smooth corsets, but not to the level you might expect from seeing photoshopped images everywhere. There is always going to be a tiny ripple or such, especially when in motion, and I personally prefer to see a ripple or two, it shows you the function of the garment, you see the tension and relationship between the corset and body, and I personally favour corsets that look like corsets.
  • It will not fit perfectly for the entire duration of its useful life, no corset will. The body changes. The corset changes (subtly). Even if the wearer’s weight is remarkably stable, small daily/monthly changes will affect the fit. It is barely noticeable for most, certainly not a “flaw”, but if we are adhering to some strict notion of perfect it has to be considered! But you may think, “that’s being silly, we’re talking about a practical level of perfect, surely?” Yes. That’s the whole point. “Perfect” is about context, about contingency, it isn’t an absolute. There is no perfect corset. There are beautiful corsets.
The “Antique Bird” corset. A particular type of “imperfect perfection”.

So once again, in the list of things I hope you never see me do, I don’t have any wish to ever publicly criticise the work of other corsetmakers or even the faceless low-price brands. It isn’t my place to and it isn’t appropriate or productive. Each artist or brand will have their own concerns. A £60 ebay corset with a wholesale price of £5 might be perfect for its target market. A corset that makes use of techniques I personally dislike might be perfect for the person wearing or making it. We spend such a lot of time ensuring we are compassionate, kind and tolerant of differences between human beings, yet in this quirky little industry people often seem to interpret differences between independent brands as “imperfections” and compare-and-contrast us as though we are reducible to a set of criteria. Which I think is a shame, a restrictive thing for artists and craftspeople.

Any artist should pursue quality, of course, within their own understanding of what that means. And I am certainly an advocate of high couture-level quality. But I do often find myself wishing that the new makers I met had a touch more confidence in their work. If you make craft-based products (or full-blown artworks) you are creating something that can never be created again. It’s beautiful, that you have a particular strength in one area, a particular weakness in another, that you have an unique aesthetic, or are pitching to a particular market. Corsetmakers in particular, you don’t need to compete with every other practitioner within your field. You don’t need to judge one another, or yourself, so harshly. In making corsets, you are exploring an art/product that had largely died out… You’re making something, with your own two hands… You’re contributing a bit of splendour and love to the person you’re making for, or something of interest to the craft itself. That’s a beautiful way to spend your time. Forget about pitching for generic perfection, aim to be specific, particular, autonomous, and interesting instead.

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