Confidence through a corset for the shapely new me

Corset maker Belinda Chorley pictured with Model & Journalist Rebecca Pearson

Corset maker Belinda Chorley pictured with Model & Journalist Rebecca Pearson - Credit: Nigel Sutton

Feminist, corset sceptic and model Rebecca Pearson visits Belinda Chorley’s Crouch End business Beyond Burlesque to find out how being laced into stays can be empowering

I arrive at Belinda Chorley’s studio feeling ambivalent. While corsets create a dramatic and luxurious shape, I’m also certain that these rigid, tightly laced garments are outdated by a century or two.

Now mainly confined to burlesque performers and bosom-heaving period dramas, surely such restrictive clothing can only ever be restrictive to the life of the wearer?

After all, they were worn by Victorian women to give a dramatic, waspish waist – but often made them faint in the process. Corsets certainly don’t seem to be made with comfort or running for the bus in mind.

However, as Chorley ushers me warmly into her studio in the heart of Crouch End, I can’t help but be wowed immediately by a striking, floor-length couture wedding dress draped on a mannequin, its corset cleverly concealed beneath pleated silk.

I am reminded that for more than two decades, this woman has been trusted to make corsets for Vivienne Westwood’s famous Gold Label, which dresses stars such as Christina Hendricks and Helena Bonham Carter.

Improved posture

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Chorley worked for Westwood for 20 years after graduating from Bristol in fashion and textiles, then decided to strike out on her own.

Other celebrities who have worn BB originated or Westwood corsets include Nigella Lawson, Tracy Emin, Gillian Anderson and Dita Von Teese.

She smilingly dismisses my concerns about the reputation corsets have of making ladies into fainting weaklings. “Actually, I come from a family of very strong feminists, and my aunt was really angry when I told her I was going into making corsets – she said I was sending women back a few centuries. But she’s had to come round now – she sees how empowered they make the wearer.”

I put this to the test, donning one of Belinda’s Dangerous Liaisons-inspired 18th century corsets. My posture immediately improves – I stand taller; spine straighter, shoulders back and yes – I can breathe to my lungs’ full capacity, very comfortably. As well as comfort, I can’t help but feel confident in the flamboyant two-tone blue silk top – my waist is defined and my bust looks fuller.

I think I could even run for the C11 in this!

Belinda has more than 20 years of experience in the field of making corsets, so she is able to mix up the techniques involved. A more traditional steel boning will be used in one corset along with ridgeline – a plastic with more give. Combined with stretch fabrics that link the boning, the wearer will not risk a concertina effect on their kidneys suffered by our Victorian ancestors, nor will they be requiring any smelling salts. “Only one person has ever fainted in my corsets” Belinda assures me. “A male drag queen who kept wanting it tighter, despite my warnings!”

The 21st century customer generally wants their silhouette to have a full bust, narrowed waist and flattened stomach, but tastes have changed throughout the centuries, so when Belinda is commissioned by films to make a historically accurate corset, she is well prepared.

The corset she made for Keira Knightley for the film Anna Karenina, for example, had a busk at the front – a gentle spoon shape, which gives a very slightly, gently rounded abdomen. It also gave her the challenge of creating a fuller bust for the famously lithe actress – all in a day’s work for this corsetiere!

Traditional silhouettes

Though she still creates the occasional corset for Westwood, Belinda now predominantly makes couture, bespoke wedding dresses for her own label Beyond Burlesque, for a clientele she describes as “rock ’n’ roll brides”.

“My client has a strong image; she knows her own mind and how she wants to look on her wedding day.”

The dresses play on traditional silhouettes by updating fabrics used to manufacture them – leather corsets and sequined skirts replace the more traditional lace. A standout dress is a 1950s corset with a full, hooped knee-length skirt. It’s made with silk that has been hand-steamed into a honeycomb pattern – not a design I’ve ever seen before. The dress has character – it’s fun and unique, but not too wacky or alienating. The bride can rest assured that the corsets give a flattering shape, conceal where they need to, and, as they are cleverly designed, there’s room to enjoy the wedding cake!

Eating cake and running for the bus – in Belinda’s designs, the 21st century corset-wearer can leave the smelling salts at home!