Creative articles about sewing

Refashion: 1930’s Corset to Party Dress

On a recent weekend away in the Overberg, I came across a quant antique store in a tiny town called Stanford (Western Cape, South Africa.)

The antiques store is in the original “De Kleine Riviers Valey House”, which was the first farm house to be built at the foot of the Akkedis Mountains in 1785 and one of the oldest buildings in the Overberg. Sir Robert Stanford (knighted by Queen Victoria in 1850) bought this homestead in after retiring from the British Army and it is said that in 1855 he paid the town founder 50euros to name the town Stanford.

While looking around the store, I came across a vintage corset which the tag said was from the 1940’s. The lady who runs the store and lives in the house, informed me that she had bought it at an estate auction in Johannesburg (a city up country.) She was so thrilled that I had shown an interest and intrigued to hear how I was planning to rework it.

Research

I wanted to learn everything I could about the history of the corset and its brand Twilfit.
I discovered that the corset is actually from the 1930’s.

The silhouette of a 1930s corset is fitted, long in length with an emphasis on slim hips and a suggestion of a waist. The seams were angled and often incorporated elasticated inserts.
They had built in brassieres and side hook & eye fastenings.

There were hidden heavily boned inner girdles that included elasticated panels

With WW1 declared in 1939 metal and rubber were to be used in the war effort not for lingerie.

Therefore, steel boning and hook & eyes closures became limited, leading to lace up fastenings

Women were still encouraged to wear corsetry for abdominal support while working arduous jobs for long hours. However, there was an emphasis on function rather than looks, so the fabrics used in undergarments were not as luxurious. Women began to wear girdles and brassieres rather than an all in one corset, leading to a more defined waist.

Disassembly

One needs to admire the quality workmanship and appreciate how clothes were made to last.
This garment is about 80 years old and only the elastic has deteriorated and the metal suspenders have rusted but the actual garment is still in great condition!
The stain on the front seems to be from the rusty suspenders when the garment was stored.

Here you can see the reinforced seams, boning cases and get a better understanding of how the inner girdle works.

I unpicked the side seams so that I could replace the elastic panels and be able to tailor the fit of the corset. I did the same for the inner girdle. I also removed the upper cups so that I could replace them with better fitting ones.

I discovered flat coated steel boning was used in this corset. I believe the steel has a nylon coating which prevents the metal from rusting.
After some research, I found that steel boning replaced whalebone in the early 20th century which allowed corsets to be made cheaper and easier to obtain.

The label said to hand wash the garment in warm water. I felt that seeing as though the garment’s fabric is particularly sturdy I didn’t have to treat it like delicate vintage silk. However, I do encourage you to do your research if you are planning on washing vintage garments especially if they are very delicate.
I dissolved some of my usual washing powder in a bowl of warm tap water and left the pieces of the garment to soak for about 30 minutes, checking on it constantly. I then rinsed them in another bowl of warm, clean tap water.

I very gently squeezed the water out of each piece, careful not to twist and risk fibre damage, then laid them on a clothes horse to dry (not in direct sunlight but in a warm, breezy area outside)

Reassembly

Replacing the Elastic Inserts

Once my mannequin was adjusted to my measurements, I placed the corset on inside out and pinned along the side seams.

I placed the corset back onto the mannequin and pinned some paper where the elastic insert was at the side.
I traced around the fabric edge and made a pattern piece for a new insert.

Once I cut out 2 inserts using my pattern, I pinned and then sewed them into the corset, also sewing along side seams.
I used a blush pink Scuba fabric as I like how soft but firm it is while still having a stretch.

I made a pattern for new upper cups by combining the lower edge of original upper cups with a pattern for upper cups from a bra pattern that I like.

I cut the new upper cups from the same Scuba fabric as the side inserts. I sewed these to the outer under cups.
I topstitched the inner under cup in place, sandwiching the upper cup between the inner and outer under cups.

I then topstitched the original binding back in place, covering the centre seam.

I also stitched the original binding back in place along the side seams, making sure to secure the girdle side pieces.

I put the corset onto the mannequin and pinned the middle piece of the girdle in place.
I traced the edges onto paper to make a pattern piece for the new inserts.

I cut 2 inserts out of the Scuba using my pattern, then I pinned and sewed them into the girdle.
I attached the hook & eye tape and secured the original binding in place. The original boning was also then replaced.

Attaching the Skirt & Straps

I re-used a frilly chiffon skirt to lengthen the corset and make into a dress. I unpicked the waistband as I did not need it in my garment.

I cut some frills out of the scuba and attached it to the lining using the zigzag stitch. I added these scuba frills to help the chiffon frills stand out.

I then attached the skirt to the corset by topstitching along the bottom edge.

Using the 3 thread rolled hem stitch of the L460, I overlocked the edges of the chiffon frills which added some bounce to the fabric.

I pinned elastic along the edges of the cups to finish the edges and continued the elastic towards the back as straps.
I also trimmed the top edge of the back to a more flattering height.

Using a medium zigzag stitch, I secured the elastic to the edges of the cups

I attached the original binding to finish the edge of the back.
I removed the boning at the back all together as I prefer garments to mold to the shape of my back and the rigidness of this boning would prevent that.

Final Thoughts

I love how this garment has transformed into a wearable modern dress. I tried to remain true to the original aesthetic and construction.
I’m going to shorten the frills as I feel the overall length of the dress is a bit long.
I understand why women wore/wear corsets, however I personally could not wear one under my clothes everyday!
As outer garments they are fantastic but as an undergarment I would feel too warm and restricted.

I would love to hear your thoughts, please feel free to share them with me!
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-Hannah-Rose

Difficulty level: Advanced
Time to Complete: A week or more
Used Products:
BERNINA Virtuosa 160
BERNINA L 460
BERNINA L 460

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