This April, some corsetmaking friends and I popped over to Bath Fashion Museum. The reason? Mr Pearl.
I had visited the Isabella Blow exhibition at Somerset House earlier this year, entirely because one of my favourite ever examples of contemporary corsetry was on show. The lilac moire overbust with peaked collar from McQueen in 1996, as created by Mr Pearl. I spent a good 90 minutes or so studying this piece. Luckily it was a very quiet day and so no-one seemed to mind my endless sketching. Photographs were not allowed, naturally, but I have since been told one is not meant to sketch either!
At one point, a guided tour was in the same room as me, and when it finished I overheard the guide saying to someone that the corset was property of the house of McQueen. I joined in to say that that was quite interesting to hear and it was a beautiful piece. I was too shy to ask if they knew whether opportunities for private study of archive pieces was possible (foolish shy girl!) The ladies started to tell me about how the corset was made by this incredible character called Mr Pearl. Yes, I know! Preaching to the choir, my friends.
I came away with pages and pages of notes (in a little black book which lives purely to contain scribblings on great examples of antique and couture corsetry), feeling inspired, excited and energised. This lilac corset was exceptionally beautiful and a small amount of close study seemed to reveal the construction without too much difficulty. Certain tiny details were as lovely as you would expect (beautiful glistening beading, crystals and sequins in black gave a gorgeous level of texture that you just don't see in photographs) and I greatly admired things like the narrow binding and small eyelets (both obsessions of mine).
Elated at studying this corset, I progressed through the exhibition. And lo, there was a second Mr Pearl corset! This time from 1997.
This one was behind glass and lit in a beautiful, though slightly unclear, way. One could make out basic patterning, etc., but otherwise you couldn't study it in the same way as the lilac piece (which had been high up on a mannequin with no glass or obstructions to view). I glanced at the info to the left of the window and am very glad I did! This is something I never do, as a rule. I don't much care to spend my time in a gallery or museum reading descriptions of the thing when I could be experiencing the thing directly... But this bit of info stated that the corset was on loan from Bath Fashion Museum. And I knew through Foundations Revealed that Bath allow study visits. A chance to study a Mr Pearl in real-life? To handle it and see the insides? That would be a joy...
I mentioned as much to Cathy (founder of FR) and she put me in touch with lovely Elaine at Bath. A study trip was scheduled, six more ladies were enlisted, and we all trundled off to Bath for a couple of hours with their antique corsetry and the 1997 Mr Pearl.
It was hard being patient when we were there with the corsets on tables in front of us! We needed to be given paperwork, etc., and listen to the house rules, but I think we were all itching to get started.
There were many beautiful and quirky antiques (I have written about my favourites elsewhere, and shared private notes on my new subscription-based blog), but the Mr Pearl (being from the world of couture) was perhaps the most intriguing.
The first thing I would like to do is open with thoughts from one of the ladies who came on the study day with us. Hannah Light (Neon Duchess) makes very distinctive and recognisable work, and lives and breathes a corsetmaking ethos that I very much admire: strive for better, be passionate about your work, put forward an individual aesthetic.
'I am going to open with a contradiction. Be overawed by those you admire. Don't be overawed by those you admire. Be overawed by the ability of another's work to inspire you to be a better corsetiere and to strive for continuous improvement. Be amazed and newly energised by their success. To be the go-to corsetiere for Paris couture houses, to dress the world's most famous burlesque artist and to have made the most instantly recognisable corsets in modern corsetry are dazzling achievements. Don't let the dazzling success of another corsetiere reduce your own confidence or inhibit your creativity. Don't be fooled into thinking they have access to some mystical powers that you can never touch. Don't underestimate your own potential. There is not a magical secret that Mr Pearl knows that we do not. The greatness of his work is the culmination of lots of factors, many of which we can all work on. A dedication to great fit, drafting beautiful and interesting patterns, practice and more practice. There is undeniably an element of luck in meeting the right people at the right time to achieve wider success but I believe that you make your own luck. Be inspired to be better.'
The wonder of a corset by Mr Pearl is that you know it is one of his. Whichever designer he is collaborating with, you can still see his “signature” in the lines and proportions of the corsetry. It is like a painter's brush-stroke... personal, authentic, something that can be mimicked but never quite replicated by others. This simple black 1997 corset, being so clean and classic, put all the focus on proportion. With a 19” waist, 33” bust (9” up), 36.5” hip (7” down), and 15¼” centre-front, this corset was elongated, elegant, and dramatic. I suppose this is greatly helped by working around the extraordinary proportions of catwalk models, but even when you see a Mr Pearl pop up for a private client, for himself, or for a pop-star, the proportions and lines are always gorgeous.
I firmly believe that proportion underlines everything of beauty (and have discussed as much in previous articles for FR) and it is the small subtleties that elevate a thing to “beyond ordinary”. Sometimes corsetry brands focus on fit before proportion and this can be a shame, in my opinion. A thing can fit without being beautiful, and can likewise be slightly “imperfect” in fit but more beautiful for it. But of course, all that depends upon the purpose of the corsetry, the intended wearer, individual preference of the designer, etc., etc. But whichever way you look at it, designers create more interesting work when they follow their own interests rather than sticking blindly to the rules. Learn the rules, so that you may bend and break them.
With no wish to “unweave the rainbow” I would now like to share some of the particular details that I noticed about this corset.
The corset was like amour. It appeared as though two layers of silk duchess (an outer layer and inner layer as lining) had been fused together during construction, giving a very firm shell. I may be wrong of course (our protective Bath-issued cotton gloves made certain aspects of study harder), but this seemed to be the case. And whether correct or not, the possibility of such a construction certainly opens up more ideas to try out, which is no bad thing! Anyway, I thought this a very lovely detail given we were also looking at silk corsets from a hundred years previous (i.e. pieces with no cotton strength layer)... Indeed, I was so inspired my assistant Holly and I instantly squeezed in the creation of a single-layer silk-cotton duchess corset upon getting back into the studio! I look forward to seeing how that pans out.
The steels at each seam were big spirals whilst the centre-front was seamed, had two wide-ish flat steels and then another wider flat steel behind them (almost like a underbusk). No slouching in this corset! The steels had been manually bent to give an elegant curve down the centre-front, cupping at the lower abdomen and slightly dishing outwards over the sternum. As hefty flat steels can want to press firmly against the breast-bone this seems a clever notion, and to me is far more elegant than an unnaturally flat front. A small detail, but something which elevates Mr Pearl's work.
Despite the “largeness” of the steels and the sturdiness of the shell, the corset had tiny eyelets (evenly spread 2cm apart) and beautifully narrow 4mm hand-worked binding.
The patterning featured gores and I believe it is Mr Pearl's use of gores which contribute greatly to his aesthetic. They allow for a roundness through the hip, wrapping the curves beautifully instead of flattening out the front hip and placing too much of the curve on the side seam (which is what much contemporary corsetry does). Other aspects of the patterning appeared purely aesthetic, giving delicious style lines to an otherwise very plain piece.
There was perhaps one ripple here and there, and I personally love this as it is the nature of satin... it ripples. In corsetry, I love to see the corset working, I love to see the action that the garment has on the body and vice versa, I love to see that slight tension, to spot steels that were placed strategically, adjustments that were made during construction, evidence (even wear-and-tear) showing that the piece has been worn...
I also adored that this corset appeared to be made much as any of us would approach corsetmaking. Certain parts by machine, certain parts by hand, patterning and material choices coming from an individual point of view and dependent upon the design. As ever, it is this scope for innovative expression that I very much admire about corsetry (or indeed, any art/craft) and many of the new makers emerging are really embracing this which is wonderful.
Clare Sager (at Magpie&Fox) was another of our study day ladies to benefit from seeing this special corset:
'I was incredibly excited to see a Mr Pearl in real life and it was no disappointment! The first thing that struck me was how firm and 3 dimensional the corset was - it was very sculptural, particularly the gentle curve of the pre-bent front steels. It was fascinating analysing the construction and patterning, speaking to each other about the little details we noticed.
'I think my favourite parts were the little imperfections, which in no way detracted from the effect or beauty, but were a great comfort to show us that even Mr Pearl is only human!
'I'd definitely recommend arranging to study historical and designer corsets in a museum, if you can, as you can learn so much from viewing and handling them in person.'
I think the greatest joy of studying the Mr Pearl corset was in seeing how inspired everyone was to go off and explore new ideas. It is very much about valuing your own contributions whilst also revering those of stars like Mr Pearl. By way of example, I have an artist friend who feels crushed when he sees someone in his field do work that he considers above his own - whereas I tend to respond by thinking, “That's wonderful, how did they do that?!” and feel inspired to try harder. He ends up feeling paralysed with anxiety, whilst I simply focus on making more work.
As a maker (and I hope, also, as an occasional teacher), my aim is to do the most interesting work I can and to encourage others to do the most interesting work they can. We shouldn't be aiming to repeat one another's successes and aesthetics, but we should be aiming to do our best with inspiration and respectful reference to the work of those we admire. That is how an artform or craft develops, through small interactions and inspirations pushing us all to strive for more. Indeed, that is one of my favourite aspects of Mr Pearl's work... Having now studied these two pieces from 1996 and 1997 (and having since taken a long look at another favourite piece, made for Gaultier a few years later), it is lovely to see that each one was different in construction and materials. The Gaultier piece, for example, featured very clean and pared down construction. There is exploration there and evidence of what seems to be a very design-led approach (i.e. the designer needs X, what is the best way to create that for them?), and this is an approach which actively encourages one to bend rules, explore materials, challenge and redefine what corsetry can be.
Let's round up this article with a few words from my friend Rosie Dennington (at Rosie Red Corsetry & Couture)...
'Visiting the black Mr Pearl corset was an eye opening experience. I found it really fascinating to see another's construction and patterning, and that of someone still alive and so highly regarded. It cemented even further my belief that it's your own personal journey and end product that counts. There is no wrong or right way. I saw visiting this corset as a platform for learning and for my own future experiments... I loved seeing another's approach and was able to notice stark differences and some similarities as well. It was brilliant.'
In my opinion, the best ways to learn corsetry are: