Nothing destroys a Regency look faster than droopy boobage—it’s better suited to activities with pot and daisy-weaving involved. The Regency bodice demands softness on top rather than on the bottom, and the opposite will be noticed, because the pretty ribbon you chose for your Regency “waist” will be obscured. Why wear a nice gown and fail to make sure “the girls” sit like queens?
Corsets and Stays:
This is one of the most important parts of your costume: to get the proper shape under the bodice of those high-waisted, low-cut gowns. You should wear your corset—or whatever alternative you choose—when trying on potential gowns, so this foundation garment is a procurement priority.
The Regency stays or corsets have a very specific goal: elevate. The idea is to get “the girls” so high you’d pass the pencil test with a whole box of HB’s. That’s where the “waistband” and ribbon of your empire gown will fit. The bottom of the breast is slightly flattened, as the softness is transferred to the top.
Many younger women will identify with women’s shapes in Austenesque artwork and movies because they already wear a push-up bra, and recognize the shape the Regency short stays (that fit like a longline bra) or Regency corset (fits to the waist or lower for more support) create. Michele Reed, the publisher of Meryton Press, swears a well-fitted Regency corset is quite comfortable, and if you were leaning in the direction of authenticity, that’s encouraging. If you’re a Nervous Nellie about exposing the tops of “the girls,” have a quick look at the BBC/A&E production of Pride and Prejudice from 1995—it’s a lovely look on anyone!
Regency short stays are fine if your bra size is under C cup. At $65 to $170 custom-made, the more costly of these use additional personal measurements for a better fit, use better fabric, have breast gussets and extra boning, and are lined for comfort. The bra-like wrap stays, as seen in the Kyoto museum, can be custom-made for you—at $275! Ouch! I’d rather invest in my gown.
Lower-priced short stays on vendor sites such as Etsy appear well-made, if a simple design, making them a good bargain if your breasts don’t need much support. We’ll discuss the chemise later in the blog, but it can be worn underneath for comfort. A similar alternative is the bodiced petticoat, new and custom-made for $90. This is like simple stays, chemise, and petticoats in one garment.
According to Regency undergarment seamstresses, a corset is a better choice if you wear a D cup or larger. A bonus is that a longer line will aid those who are concerned about the appearance of their midriff under the gown’s flat-fronted skirt.
Transitional or long stays, or a Regency corset, will set you back $50 to $375; $75-$330 for plus-sized. Reasons for price variations include the length of the corset—though some transitional corsets are dearer than some longer ones, due to complexity of design—and the comments for stays above. Some cheaper corsets and long stays have boning instead of the important wooden busk, and the differences in boning are far more obvious over the longer length.
If you’re larger, you should count on spending more, because the cheap ones will collapse. Gussets are necessary on a larger breast, and the complex boning of a dearer corset can help a great deal with a slimmer look.
With intermediate sewing skills, you can make your own. Patterns are common at about $20-$30, and kits of the hard-to-find materials are $70, but this is not a beginner sewing project. Some patterns include the important wooden busk (about $7 on its own) that sits along the centre front to separate “the girls;” others have patterns for other Regency undergarments. Vendors for baleen, plastic, or steel boning are available, though heavy cable ties (zip ties) are a good alternative, and you can get them at a hardware or dollar store. Online resources show how to fit a Regency corset. For those wearing a C-cup and lower, the Kyoto museum brassiere-like stays look easier to make.
The Budget Alternatives:
If you balk at the price for proper Regency support, and were tempted to buy a modern busked/boned corset from a lingerie store instead, DON’T. Most are the wrong shape for Regency: too cinched in the waist and wide in the hips and breasts, not enough lift in the breasts, and too much breast coverage!
Consider wearing a bra instead—but only if it provides the right look and fit. The bra must provide super-high lift without cleavage; your breasts must still be separated. To accommodate the wide, low ball gown necklines, the shoulder straps should be wide-spaced across the chest, near the shoulders, and the cups must be low-cut to show a bit of roundness on top. A near-horizontal cup top is necessary if you plan to match a squared off neckline of the P&P era.
The balconette (balconet, balcony) bra and many push-up styles of bra have the right shape, plus you’ll have a pretty bra to wear with other things, too! It’s sometimes called a t-shirt bra or demi-bra, but beware, sometimes these don’t have the wide-set straps or lower-cut horizontal tops—they’re just a seamless push-up bra.
I bought a pair of well-fitting balconette bras at an average lingerie store on sale for $55 for both. I wear 32-34F, so this is a good buy compared to a bra in a high-quality brand. The ones in the small photos vary from $17 to $48, the large photo is $64.
How to make sure your bra shape is right for Regency:
If you’ve never been fitted for a bra, get fitted first!* It’s usually free at lingerie and better department stores.
Once you know your size, you could consider trying on a bra one cup or band size smaller to see if you get more lift. You don’t want cleavage or four breasts (where the bra top edge cuts into the breast), just lots of lift. If you don’t like it, go back to your regular size—it didn’t work for me. Once you’ve made your purchase, tighten the straps as much as you can without discomfort.
If you wear a very large cup and/or have bottom-weighted,** menopausal breasts like me, you may still have a bit of softness on the bottom. Midriff shapewear, such as a spandex open bust camisole or waist cincher, can be worn slightly over the base of the breast to flatten, it as well as your midriff. I found a $5.50 straight-sided boned waist shaper from the WiN (Women in Need) charity vintage and thrift store.
Some longline bras or bustiers can work, too, if the garment has a lot of lift and breast separation, ideally with boning. You have to be ready to cut off the top half of the cup and finish the cut edge, so the ones in the backs of your drawers are preferable to buying new.***
Make sure the waist is natural and not too cinched, the cup lifts very high and covers just over half your breast, and the straps are set wide. You can remove the straps and safety pin them wider if necessary.
I’ve taken a 90’s bustier from before I lost weight, turned the too-large soft cups inside (almost in half) then moved the removable straps. This gave extra lift and opened up the top of the bra portion. I’ll need a light-coloured slip or camisole to cover to hide the black under light dresses, and that’s covered in a later post.
If, after all this, you like your old bra and don’t like shapewear, I understand. Tighten the straps on your old bra; it will help. To manage any bottom softness, when you try on or modify dresses, ensure that the empire “waistline” of your gown is at the lowest point of your breast, rather than under it. You don’t want the ribbon to be hidden or folded.
Next post: Polyester knits, fitted gores, and spaghetti straps: the problems I had finding a gown, and how to work around them.
* Many bra sizing charts suggest exhaling deeply and adding 4” to the under bust measurement to get band size. I find that results in too loose a band, so that’s why I recommend this site over others. Bare Necessities Sizing Help.
** From the Blog “Bras I Hate and Love,” Clarifying Breast Shape: Full-on-top vs. Full-on-bottom.
*** For finishing edges or hemming where you have to adjust the product you buy or salvage at home, you can machine sew, hand sew, or use hemming tapes. Hemming tapes come in an iron-on type and a type that’s like double-sided tape, and should not be used where the seam has to carry too much weight. Either turn back the edges slightly wider than the iron-on tape, or use pre-folded bias tape or a 3/4″ or wider ribbon ironed into a fold. Place the fold over the edge and attach to both sides. This latter method is best for thicker fabric.
Update: A Most Peculiar Mademoiselle‘s blog has a photo series of “Mademoiselle” in a Regency short dress with and without her corset. She’s what I’d call a normal-sized gal, and it’s quite convincing!