- Written by Joanne Arnett
The first page in my corset reference binder is a copy of United States patent number 786,685. Everything about this corset design is elegant: the lovely silhouette, the simplicity of cut with just three curvilinear pieces; even the designer’s name, Savoye, speaks of sophistication.
Each time I opened the binder I saw Savoye’s design, and each time I thought, “That is one beautiful design!” followed by, “Someday I’ll make it.” But Edwardian corsets are notorious for being complicated in cut, difficult to construct, and uncomfortable to wear, so I put it off.
Still, I read the patent countless times, and finally, (after how many years?) it sunk in that Savoye was addressing those exact issues - complex cut, difficulty of construction and discomfort in wearing - with his design. It was time to tackle the Savoye 1904.
Emile Savoye lived in Paris and held patents for corset design improvements in both the United States and France when he applied for a U.S. patent for a corset cut from just three pieces: a breast part, a belt part, and a hip part, the pieces joined by horizontal seams so that no seams “intersect vertically the waist.”
Savoye claimed that this method of cutting would also make it easier to fit the corset to different figures because the three pieces could be “easily lengthened more or less to suit the measurements taken round the body,” and also because there were only two seams to make adjustments to. Additionally, this new design would give an “agreeable appearance by means of seam lines alone.” He submitted the application for this new design on January 14, 1904 and over one year later was awarded patent number 786,685, on April 4, 1905.
I pinned the excess fabric away.
Sure, the fabric was now snug against my body, but it didn’t look right. I’d lost the pleasing proportions of Savoy’s design. It occurred to me that I was not working with the pattern as Savoye intended.
I shouldn’t be lopping off excess length and making huge darts. I needed to alter the fit by working with the two seams that wrapped around the body. Also, eyeballing the missing part of piece A got me this far, but I had to be more precise. Currently the bust was pressed flat and pushed up and I imagined if I cinched a corset built like the mock up I’d look as though I were wearing 18thcentury stays. Not exactly an Edwardian silhouette.
To fill in the blank part of piece A accurately, I studied the drawings from another Savoy patent. In 1905 he submitted an application for two more corset designs, both of which have a center front piece that reaches all the way around the body to the center back. While both of the corsets illustrated have a straight front, like the 1904 design, the center front cutting line of the pattern is not cut perfectly straight. It angles out slightly above the waistline.
Using the top edge as a guide I overlaid the 1904 and 1905 illustrations and filled in the lost part of the center front. Then I cut the pieces out, connected pieces A and B at the front, and lined them up along the center front line of the 1905 pattern to make certain I had the right angle for the center front. Yep. The grainline was established by drawing a grid on the pattern lining up the letter A on piece A and the word Fig. 3, which were on the same horizontal axis. I had the official pattern.
For the second mock up I changed the fit as Savoye suggested, by altering the contours of the horizontal seam lines. I knew the top edge had to drop down so I took in the seam between pieces A and B, referred to as line 4 on the patent. I removed 2" (5cm) from each piece at the center front, blending to nothing at the center back. This change would not only lower the top edge while maintaining the proportions, it should also make the top piece fit better by moving the larger expanse of fabric over the bust. I decided to change the length of the pieces “more or less” by moving the lacing strip over approximately the same amount as the excess fabric I had pinned away from pieces A and C during the first fitting.
Savoye gave no specifications regarding boning placement for this design, but on January 25, 1904, just 11 days after he filed the patent application for the three piece corset, he submitted another application relating to the “whaleboning of corsets.”
He states that bones were normally “arranged in an arbitrary manner…from top to bottom of the corset.” His improvement is to arrange the bones “in a rational and economic manner” using shorted bones placed only over the waist, leaving the upper and lower parts of the corset pliable. This arrangement means bones are less likely to break “especially when what are called “spring-steel” whalebones are used.” In order to maintain the form of the upper part of the corset “without rendering it stiff” he uses ribbons running around the bust section that can be tied in the front.
This is an interesting idea, but it’s easy to envision the bust collapsing when the fabric is not held taut by bones running vertically, and I don’t want horizontal ribbons competing with the curved seam lines of this corset.
In the application for the 1905 corset designs he refers to his patented method of bone placement but extends the length of every other bone above the waist to top edge “to bear up the said piece and keep it stretched.” This system of alternating shorter bones with longer ones is what I decided to use.
Regarding busk length, line 86 of the patent application explains, “the busks extend over the whole height of the front or only over the interior part of the front.” The illustration for the boning patent shows the busk in only the lower and middle parts of the corset, it does not extend into the upper bust part. The tension put on fabric when a corset is laced can cause the top half inch or so that isn’t supported by the busk to pull and gap at the center front. I do not want to see what happens when the busk stops two or three inches short of the top edge. Since Savoye gave me an option of busk lengths I chose to have the busk running the entire length of the center front.
This corset was relatively simple to construct. I fused cotton batiste to the silk with Wonder Under then cut the pieces. The piping was basted along the stitching line before the pieces were pinned together. With curved seams like this, it helps to remember that the edges of the seam allowances will not line up since one is convex and its edge has a longer distance to travel than the edge of the one that’s concave, but the stitching line will match up and that is what matters. The seams were all flat felled, which made them both neatly finished and strong.
Bone casings were sewn on the interior of the corset. Inserting the busk and the bones by the lacing took a bit more finessing than usual since neither was cut on a straight line, but neither were a terrible struggle. I finished the top edge with Cluny lace and a satin ribbon.
With no give, the fabric rode up and wrinkled over the hips. Not pretty. Garters would have helped tug the corset down and eliminate some of that, but they would not make the darts less square. Even with flaws there was still a lot to like about this corset. It created a nice taper from shoulder to waist and the seam lines were lovely. The shaping seen from the side and back was definitely S-bend.
As is so often the case, actually sitting down and making the corset taught me so much more than thinking about making the corset. Working with the strange pattern shapes forced me to work with a pattern in a new way. Once I stopped forcing my ideas on Savoye’s pattern and started listening to what he was telling me in the description, the design worked. It is amazing that those odd curved pieces could make such a strong silhouette.
I’ll make this corset again out of different fabric because if I can get anywhere near the shape of the mock-up I’ll have a knock out of a corset. All of Savoye’s designs are unique and the success of this pattern leads me to believe that the others will be equally rewarding to work with.
Country Life in America, Volume VII. November 1904 – April 1904. Pansy Corset ad. 1904 Page 84. Doubleday, Page & Company. New York.
I always wonder when I see interpretations of edwardian patents if the bust is being interpreted differently that what was originally intended. The illustrations always feature a corset that is very short in the bust, at the most supporting the breasts almost in their natural position, while covering only the bottom of the breast like a quarter cup bra.
All of the interpretations I have seen so far take the top of the corset to about the mid-bust.
The horizontal ribbons' ability to hold the corset in place seems a lot less questionable when you imagine them being tied taught around firm ribcage, rather than across breast tissue, and I often find myself questioning wether the low, waist reaching bust gores are actually to allow room for a bust, or to allow room for the expansion of the ribcage that can result from lacing.
Looking at the historical examples of corsets, wether a corset pattern is interpreted to be the quarterbust or the midbust seems to vary with the clients preference, regardless of the pattern designers intentions.
Also, I love that green fabric and the corset looks stunning!
Hello Crookedfingers! I think Savoye's method of running the boning only to the bottom of the bust instead of to the top of the corset would allow for easy alteration of that top bust edge depending on the buyer's wishes which corresponds to what you're saying about client preferences. Also, great point about the lacing making more sense around the rib cage rather that around the bust. That didn't occur to me. It's always so good to get other's input. It helps!
Thanks Sparklewren! Savoye's seamlines are so pretty, now if I can just get the hips to lie smoothly. I made this corset twice but didn't write about the first one with even more issues. I sewed one based on my first mock-up and the finished hips looked horrible, which prompted me to go back to the drawing board and re-pattern. Third time is a charm, right?
A great read and so nice on the eyes! I was waiting for this particular pattern to be made on FR. I am currently making an underbust with similar pattern shaping and this article came online just in time. I love the fabric choice and the lace detail on the top.
I'm so glad to hear this can be of help! I mentioned the next time I make this pattern I'll add garters, I believe they will help flatten the tummy area right out. Also, I'd run the boning all the way to the bottom edge of the corset, since the is cut high enough the leg can bend there really is no reason stop the boning earlier as shown on Savoye's other patents. That should keep the hip panels from riding up and give a much smoother line.
My understanding is that the sketches included in patent applications really weren't intended to be actual patterns, just a layout of the concept. Thus there was no expectation that it should fit together exactly as drawn on the page. That so many do (or, do with a little fiddling) is luck and the artist's experience with the pattern, not design.