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The Love of Corsets
November | December

Most people agree that there's just something really sexy about the wasped outline of a corseted body. It's one of those universally accepted icons of the ideal feminine form dating back to the Victorian era. With its tight lacing and reinforced shapers (known as "boning") underneath the fabrics, it was no surprise that corsets quickly became de rigueur in fetish wear for both women and men. Many who have been fortunate enough to wear a corset get addicted the instant they experience that incredible feeling of being tightly cinched in and seeing their waistline disappear. For the more advanced addicts such as myself, stepping up to a custom fitted corset can usually cinch further inches off my waist without the added penalty of bruised ribs, unlike typical off the rack corsets.

In the world of high end corset design, there are many that rank up there as one of the more respected lines. I first met Rachel, the owner and designer of a european corset shop, backstage at a fashion show. Within five minutes of our introduction, Rachel was in the dressing room ripping my clothes off, and on her knees lacing me into some sky high platform boots… no, it's not what you think! She was helping out another company that I was just one of the models for. But while one would think that it's this kind of unique interaction that developed our friendship, it was really her no nonsense approach when dealing with the models that left a lasting impression on me. I figured that it takes a truly talented person to successfully herd a group of cackling models as well as she did.

Over the years, we've remained friends, but it wasn't until recently that I actually wore one of her custom fitted corsets, this time in an her own fashion show. After the show, I kept the corset on because it was so comfortable, and its tailored detail soon became the topic of many conversations with other guests at the event.

Recently, I was able to pull my friend away from her sketch pad and sewing machine to answer some questions for Basic Instincts Erotic Measures.

Contessa: What was the worst job you had before you became a successful designer?

Rachel: I've been pretty fortunate. I was a cake decorator in college so it saved me from the dreaded retail or waiting tables. Then, after tons of college, I was able to break into the puppet and specialty costume field in Hollywood , so I think I've been very, very fortunate. Of course, I'm not leaving Los Angeles any time soon because I've just barely wet my feet in the Fetish, BDSM and Adult communities as a corsetmaker!

Contessa: How did you get started designing corsets? I mean, it's not exactly a traditional garment like say… a dress or skirt.

Rachel: I started out as a theatre person. I got my degrees in theatre costume design, and anyone from that world knows exactly what I'm talking about. All theatres have costume stock, some of it very old, and you get to have tons of fun with period costumes and corsets. So if it's not your parents' porn stash, it's usually theatre that exposes you to corsets, and that's the beginning of the end. Once I knew how to make them, I also saw a lot of other companies on the internet doing some very wonderful things with corsets. In 2001 I made the plunge, and with the help of a friend from a local magazine, I started advertising on the internetI could see that corsets were not only traditional fetishwear, but also making their way back into runway fashions and the mainstream. I actually figured they be done by 2005, but they've only gotten more and more popular.

Contessa: Do you draw inspiration from other designers or artists and if so, tell us a little about this.

Rachel: Most of the time I'm working hard to make my corsets not look like anyone else's! I will be honest and tell you that if I get a hold of Vogue or Bazaar, I'm usually tearing out pages for inspiration and reminders of little things to try on my corsets. Fashion is just so inspirational right now. Designers are having their pattern makers break a lot of the fit rules and create some exciting shapes that would have been considered "ugly" at any other time. Superficially, it looks like a lot of designers are just dumping their scrap basket out all over their line and you get some kitschy trimmings and accents that are so arts and craftsy, which used to be a big no-no in art and fashion. Remember the crocheted doll that Grandma had on the extra roll of toilet paper? Somehow that's not so funny now……… or maybe that's just me. Maybe if the doll is made of black yarn and is holding a whip!

Contessa: You've designed some of the most beautiful corsets I have ever seen. Has there been a particular piece that is your personal favorite?

My green Post-Modern Period corset. It's my own pattern that I created by mixing a few time periods. The frilly decorations over the bust are actually an old quilting technique, circles of fabric called "yo-yo's."
Contessa: Your corsets have long been known predominantly amongst many well known fetish models and performers and you've often said that you'd rather be around a long time than short term fame. How do you see yourself in 5 years?

Rachel: Selling more corsets! I want to find a way to do more wholesale and keep all the manufacturing here in Europe , but I have the fear that corsets just won't look the same if my hand isn't involved. I'm my own worst enemy when it comes to that. The things that people respond to are the things I work hard to do, like beautiful stitching; a certain size and proportion to seams and boning size that is pleasing to my eye, and obviously others; choices in trim and decoration that not only avoid the typical white lace trim around the top, but also push the envelope, like all the beading I do. Also, every corset company has their own "fit model" that they have graded all their patterns from. I believe people are really responding to the fit and shape of my corsets, which is different from some of the companies that have been around forever. It's really similar to shopping for jeans or bras -- you're going to find a brand that makes you happy. I think I'm making a lot of people happy.

Contessa: Your designs have cinched the bodies of countless well known artists and performers. Has there been a personality that you would love to design a corset or outfit for but haven't yet?

There's a countless list!I feel a bit more of a kinship to the tattooed and body mods community, and I think Fakir's life story has influenced so many people, including myself. Because he's pursued and practiced so many venues of body modification, he's also patterned and made corsets to change his own waist. It would be an honor to see him wearing my corset.

Contessa: You've also designed corsets for men and the transgender community. What are some of the differences between the corsets that you design for genetic women, men, and transgender folk?

Rachel: Well, as many TG (trans-gender) ladies know, their waist is a little bigger, and their hips are smaller, than genetic women. I know a lot of TG ladies and crossdressers add hip padding in order to wear clothing made for women. My corsets can take it a step further and actually nip in the waist to help them create a feminine hourglass. Whether a transgendered woman has gone through a full medical sex change or not, she knows that her ribcage is shaped differently from genetic women, and there's not much you can do about it. The best thing is to nip in the fleshy love handles and she finds skirts and pants just fit so much better. My TG Underbust is patterned to help with this illusion, and fits smoothly over the ribcage. I've taken the time to pattern it differently over the male (or formerly- male) ribcage. The main objective is to nip in that waist without having the corset fit badly over the hips and ribs, and I accomplish that.
For men who aren't crossdressing, I think tightlacing and a nipped in waist are less important. I think the subversive aspect of appropriating female dress and doing some gender bending is what rocker dudes and goth guys are after. A corset on them really works like some sort of cyber armor, or has a BDSM aspect. Even Prince has a corset on over a dress shirt on his latest album cover, and we all know where Prince is coming from!

Contessa: Are there any fabrics/materials that you prefer to work with over others?

Rachel: I'm sticking with fabrics, versus leather, latex or pvc. Frankly, I'm not interested in learning how to work with those other materials because there are so many great companies out there. I could concentrate on working in fabrics for the rest of my life and not exhaust the possibilities. Leather is a different animal, pun intended, and I commend the people who have learned how to work and manipulate it, as have the latex artists out there.

Contessa: I always envision designers toiling away late at night under a work lamp. Has your best work usually the result of bursts of creativity or constant drudging through set hours?

Rachel: Well, for one thing, I've learned my lesson with pulling all-nighters and procrastinating! I'm the farthest thing from the stereotype of the drama queen artist! I really think it's best to give a project time, even if it's just to percolate, plan and research before you even take pencil to paper or cut that first piece of fabric. But yes, there's a point where my corsets become straight-up manufacturing for me. I will be sitting at the sewing machine, just running the pieces of fabric through it. You gotta take the boring with the fabulous because in the end, it's all worth it.

You have a very commendable philosophy about your couture line vs foreign or sweat shop mass production. Has this affected your ability to expand as a designer?

Rachel: Yes, I think so. Even in the small world of Fetishwear and BDSM gear, I think the more successful corset companies are "manufacturing," meaning they have at least a few employees to make all the corsets. And this is great because it means they got that wholesale order at a retail store. That's the brass ring…….. or the other extreme is to deliver such a luscious high-end item that you can survive on the custom orders. I have a feeling I'm this second extreme. And then there's the truly mass-produced corsets, which are 100's of units at at time (that's retail talk) and have to be manufactured overseas where the labor is cheaper. Sorry, but I can't contribute to that, for a world of reasons. I have a lot in common with someone who makes a living at a sewing machine in the manufacturing-heavy countries, and I wish things weren't the way they were. I wish the demand for cheap goods wasn't so high that so many people work cheaply, and get mistreated. Having my corsets made in another country would not necessarily help people in that country. But having my corsets made by employees in America helps create jobs for Americans.

Contessa: We often hear about Whale Boning vs Steel Boning vs Plastic Boning. Can you explain the differences of each?

Rachel: Ok, here's your history lesson, and one I love giving.
Whale boning is a historical item and went out of use when Steel boning was invented. Whale boning is not actually made from the bones of the whale, but from the baleen of certain whales…….. baleen is the stuff hanging in the whale's mouth that resembles the pieces of palm tree that end up on Los Angeles streets on a windy day. I'm not kidding! Baleen grew in sheets in the whale's mouth and was split like reed or cane…. Think wicker bedroom furniture! Steel boning came into use with the industrial revolution. The making of spring steel was an innovation and was made into the flat ribbons of steel put into the seams of corsets. So by the mid 1800's, whale boning was out the door! Plastic Boning is a great example of Better Living Through Chemistry, but not for corset wearers. It's fine for the silly Valentine's bustier you got at the mall, or your prom dress, but (cue Faye Dunaway's Mommy Dearest) never, ever, ever for a Corset!

Contessa: Jean Paul Gaultier made a very big splash in the 80's with his fetish inspired line. Last year John Galliano showed his models looking like cyber warrior-Dommes (my own description!) in buckles, straps, and cinchers. Some purists scoff at this while others think it's wonderful. What are your thoughts on this?

Rachel: I love seeing fetish wear make an appearance in the mainstream! It leads to discussion and dialogue, and hopefully a more open interest in what is or isn't sexy…….. and it leads to more fetishwear customers! If people like what they are seeing on the runway, they will work hard to find those items, and seek out what makes them feel sexy, dominant, submissive or whatever their flavor is. I can't imagine how many fetish and BDSM newbies there are because they've seen fetish-inspired fashion in a magazine, the internet or television. Only a couple of decades ago, this was the stuff of plain brown packages and no Frederick 's in the mall!

Contessa: Since the Victorian era, corsetry has seen very small changes with the advent of new fabrics and materials. What revolutionary changes do you predict for corsetry in the near future?

Rachel: Wow, I actually think with the direction fashion is going, corsets look like the farthest thing from new innovations. For one thing, the 20th Century can be personified for all of its technological innovations in stretch fabrics and magic fabrics- been there, done that. I think currently, fashion is utilizing things like spandex, but hiding it in very classic designs. At the same time, I think corsets are going the way of the Steam Punk movement, and will work hard to create the illusion of being historically old and from an older time period. There is the occasional designer who will attempt to create shiny cyber-looking corsets, or someone like Issey Miyake who will make them from molded plastic, but I think corsets retain their novelty and excitement by being the "natural" element of a person's wardrobe, no matter how many metal buckles, raver dayglo, bells and whistles they have on them. Of course, by next week, I will be proven wrong and someone will invent Terminator 2 clothing that you pour on your body!

Contessa: What advice would you give somebody who's shopping for their first corset?

Rachel: Firstly, know that the median price for a good corset is $350 to $500, or more. It's an investment, but it's worth it…… frankly, I think it makes the corset wearer stand out from the designer handbag set! Secondly, take time to try on different brands of corsets, getting measured and fitted properly. I find that a lot of corset wearers are also involved in some sort of costume play or creation, and corsets are a quick study for them. Once someone wants a corset, it's like wanting a tattoo- you get your first, and you've joined the club. People should take the time to find out what a corset feels like and which brand is best for them- just like bra or jeans shopping. Sometimes the only way to do that is take the plunge and buy that first corset.

Contessa: Finally, what are some common misconceptions about corsetry that you'd like to correct?

Rachel: That they are uncomfortable. That's something the individual wearer will have to combat by choosing a well-fitting corset and deciding what the corset is intended for. Maybe discomfort is what they are after, and that's a personal decision. Not all modern corsetry is intended to permanently modify the waist and ribcage, like women did in the Victorian era. Modern tightlacers have a goal in mind, and by tightening slowly, over time, they still aren't experiencing a lot of discomfort.
Secondly, corsets are not only fetishwear or lingerie. Right now is the time of the abs, the core, and the midriff is the erogenous zone. I think corsets definitely have a place as streetwear and on top of wardrobe items, such as fitted dresses, slip dressed, with tailored trousers, and jeans.

It takes an iconoclastic person to pull it off, but they look hot when they do!
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