Q&A about corset making

Frequently asked questions from customers about products and services.

 RSS Feed

Category: research

  1. Couture dress foundations - which boning to use?

    Posted on

    dress foundations should be boned with metal

    I said this in 2014, and I'll say it again - read more to understand the context of why I said it and why I stand by the statement that plastic boning corrupts over time and simply does not stand up to the job.

    photo copyright : Julia Bremble, please do not use without permission

    I've talked about steel boning at length all over this website, and will soon write a blog post on plastic boning for your interest and information.  As ever, I present no pre-conceived conclusions and encourage experimentation at every step of your sewing journeys which is why it's no secret that I do not agree with the statement "plastic boning is better than steel". It isn't better and it isn't worse, it's different.  I stock various types of plastic boning and lots of different types of steel boning because each type is useful and apart from anything else, it isn't in my interests to persuade you one way or another.  In my quest to be a good shopkeeper and educator,  I personally test everything on my shelves and I do extensive research not only because I want to pass the information on so that customers can make an informed choice, but because this is my passion too. My overriding aim is and always has been that YOU choose what is best for your practice, and you make your choices after research, experimentation, experience.  It's your call, I can only give you information, inspiration and my own opinion based upon what I have found to work best for me.  

    Dior dress foundation with steel boning

    Dior dress foundation photographed by veteran corset maker Alison Campbell
    of Crikey Aphrodite who was commissioned by a collector of vintage couture
    to examine and reproduce an authentic Dior style dress foundation.
    It was during this project that we sourced cotton bobbinet for Sew Curvy which
    exactly matched the material in this original Dior garment. 

    Photo copyright: Alison Campbell - please do not use without permission

    So lets talk about dress foundations.  

    When I wrote this article,  dated March 2014 it was a long time before the current popularity of the plastic material known as 'synthetic whalebone' and I was referring to the more commonly available Rigilene, the plastic boning of choice for many a dressmaker over many a decade, a product which at that time sold in much more quantity than synthetic whalebone (or 'whale' as we call it at Sew Curvy HQ).  It still sells by the heap and because not all of my customers are corset makers, attracts queries on an almost daily basis, the most common of which is 'what's best for boning this wedding/prom dress i'm making, rigeline or spiral steel?.  I always reply that, in my opinion, steel is best but sometimes I will recommend the synthetic whalebone as a suitable alternative to steel - it depends on the purpose and desired outcome.  

    Screen Shot 2017-11-14 at 12.00.40
    an order for sample boning received yesterday - someone's experimenting!

    Rigilene has its uses but is no good for serious dress foundations because it wont stand up to the job.  Lets look at why that is and why infact,  steel boning is the boning of choice for couturiers.

    Here is a Dior dress foundation photographed by me during the V&A Ballgowns exhibition a few years ago.

    Dior dress foundation ballgowns v and a
    Foundation of a gown from the V&A Ballgowns Exhibition a number of years ago -  you can clearly see that it is lightly boned with narrow spiral steel because the grey of the steel is showing through the pale foundation fabric which is made from a few layers of tightly woven cotton bobbinet.

    Here is another example of a dress foundation boned with spiral steel, and I am particularly interested in this one because it has toile panniers which I have been fascinated about ever since hearing about them from my showgirl friend and vintage couture conniseur, Immodesty Blaize who found them in the vintage wedding dress she wore to her civil wedding ceremony  in France.  This dress foundation also uses steel boning, again clearly visible by the grey colour under the net bodice, and there is a very good reason for this. 

    Screen Shot 2017-11-14 at 09.13.30 Dior cocktail dress
    This dress foundation has multi layered tulle petticoats and toile panniers to support and give structure to the heavy satin dress which will go over the top of it. source

    As you can see from this particular example, this dress foundation is doing alot of work - As a whole it is transforming the body by smoothing the torso with the corsolette and creating the illusion of larger hips with the petticoats and panniers.  The bodice is not only smoothing the wearers body, it is also supporting those petticoats and panniers and the whole thing will then support the heavy satin dress that goes over the top of it.  Dress foundations therefore serve two purposes. 

    1. They smooth and shape the torso ensuring a smooth foundation for the wearer.
    2. They support the garment itself, improving shape, structure and comfort.  The garment, as well as the body of the wearer is supported. 

    Boning is used because without it, the foundation would collapse and would not support the weight of either the petticoats or the over garment.  Steel boning is usually used but in some cases, sturdy plastic boning such as synthetic whalebone could  also be used.  Rigline boning cannot stand up to the job because it is far too thin and flexible.

    The boning of choice for couture houses from the golden age, right up to the present day (and I supply many of them with steel boning, never plastic), is steel.  Why?  Steel boning is more widely available than decent plastic boning and it is much more flexible for curvy areas such as over the bust.  Also, steel does not degrade in the same way that plastic does over time, and what I mean by this is that spiral steel retains it's original properties for a very long time, plastic does not.  So although we all know that once plastic is made, it can never be 'unmade', the properties which made it useful when new, will degrade over a relatively short period of time.  Therefore, apart from the other environmental considerations, plastic boning will not produce an heirloom garment. 

    light and fluffy dress foundation

    This dior foundation is light and 'fluffy' and boned with 5mm spiral steel.
    You could probably use synthetic whalebone 6 x 1.5mm but would it last 100 years on a body?

    â’¸ Alison Campbell

    What about the argument that plastic is lighter, and that metal can rust?  Both of those statements are of course true, however, in a couture foundation, 5mm spiral steel boning is commonly used in combination with fine cotton bobbinet which is strong yet very light.  In other words, a dress foundation, although it performs light corsetting duties, is not heavy but it does need to be strong and durable.  The steel will never rust if the garment is looked after properly and also because it is galvanised to protect against rusting and because of it's structure (two flattened springs squashed together) it's properties will not change over time.  It is possible to use plastic whalebone for the same purpose and with the same effect but the integrity of the material over time is not so guaranteed and of course where steel could rust if not looked after, plastic can warp if not looked after.  The pros and cons are almost equal so again, we come back to choice when it comes to your own work.

    detail dress foundation

    no boning caps - don't faint!

    â’¸ Alison Campbell

    Having personally examined a number of couture dress foundations, and having had clients with collections of vintage couture, and friends who have not only studied fashion but have also studied couture garments for particular reasons and having customers from famous couture houses and production companies who order steel boning by the roll,  I can quite categorically state without a shadow of a doubt, that spiral steel boning is more common in couture dress foundations than plastic boning because more often than not, it is the best thing for that particular job.  

    So I am standing by my statement with the following caveat perfectly captured by Robert Dyer in his seminal book "Wasited Efforts' which includes a whole chapter on couture dress foundations that he has studied from the House of Dior who routinely use 5mm spiral steel boning and cotton bobbinet:

    "Interestingly, as scholars research and analyze the techniques of master coutiriers, it is often forgotten that the couturier is a master because they abide by no rules but are so confident with the art of sewing and cutting, that decisions are made depending on need not formula.  Sewing after all is simply a series of seams, some straight, some curved.  The crucial part is that the stitcher must become profient at doing them"

    And so it is with this exquisite dress by Yves St Laurant for Dior which was created in 1958.

    dior floaty dress with foundation
    source

    The materials listed are silk, metallic thread, glass and plastic.  We can assume that this 'plastic' refers either to the bead and sequin embellishment or the boning used for the bodice that supports a very etheareal and airy, sheer dress which is supposed to look like it is swinging off the body.

    "Creating the trapeze silhouette for Dior, Saint Laurent has a rigid understructure veiled under a fly-away cage. A boned corset anchors the dress but allows the delusion of a free swinging cone"  

    Without examining the finer details of this garment in person, we can only imagine that if the creator preferred to use plastic boning here, he did so because it was important for the final effect;  I would say that in order to preserve the light qualities of the garment, boning channels designed to hide grey metal boning would have been deemed to 'heavy' whereas plastic boning, being white, would give a more effortlessly etheareal result. 

    "Thus, in both surface decoration and in structure, Saint Laurent gained the effect of ethereal, bouyant freedom while retaining the structure of the couture. From the earliest works at the house of Dior through the designer's accomplishments in his own house, Saint Laurent has practiced and perfected this modernist wielding of couture construction and proficiency to seem wholly unfettered"

    So here we have a shining example of where, contrary to traditional streams of thought,  the designer may have felt that plastic boning was best for this garment and used it instead of metal boning.  The effect is sublime and as ever proves the point that we should use the things that work best for us and for the project in hand.

    In summary

    • Not all plastic boning is created equal 
    • Rigilene boning is too thin and flimsy to support a functional dress foundation and it will not stand up to the job
    • It's a scientifically proven fact that plastic will degrade over time, faster than steel.
    • Some sturdier types of plastic boning can take the place of steel in a dress foundation and do the same job with the same effect.
    • The best type of plastic boning for dress foundations at the current time, is 1mm-1.5mm thick synthetic whalebone.  The thinner types also will not stand up to the job.
    • Metal boning is undisputedly the go-to choice for couture houses to use in their dress foundations.

    As ever, context is important.  Where plastic can be used, use it if you want to.  Where metal is more suitable, use it if you want to.  

    There are no rules.

    The next article will be all about the pros and cons of plastic boning.

    Links for further info:

    A whole page of 'pins' concerning dress foundations old and new

    A Threads article where Susan Kalje uses steel boning as support in garments in surprising ways (probably some of which I would use plastic boning for)

    A blog post where a home sewer makes her own wedding dress with a really good technique on how to make really lovely sheer bone casings

    Anatomy of a modern gown with a bobbinet dress foundation by Morua Corsetry and Couture

    A few blog posts on How to make a dress foundation in several projects by me - including a post where I use rigilene boning in partnership with steel boning to make a moulded bust curve - a technique which I still use in some of my corsetry projects today.  This link also includes more details on the John Cavanah dress which is pictured at the top of this blog post and dates back to a road trip to the Symington archive that I made with friends around 5 years ago.