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Opera Costume/Corset/The Need to Breathe

RobertBishop | Posted in General Discussion on

I had such great response to my previous question about shoulder/back ease for an organist/harpsicordist that I thought I’d pose another problem…

I’ve been commissioned by the same group (I guess they got over the “startling” price I charged for the suit!) to make an 18th century gown.  Does anyone have any suggestions for constructing a corset that will still allow the singer to breathe?




  1. user-51823 | | #1

    no experience here, but i would guess that inserting some vertical panels of strong wide elastic (still on the horizontal tho) would do. can you look at similar costumes firsthand, from an opera company or theatrical rental? possibly find a good one on the net and ask them to send photos of the inside of a similar bodice especially for singers.

  2. wlric | | #2

    Dear Robert, Two options come to mind. The one that is used for professional tutus has the center front panels and the center back panels cut on the straight grain. The side front and side back panels are cut on the bias. This allows the needed "give" for breathing. I have used a lycra panel in the side back for a couple of corsets. I found the same color and weight in the lycra as the rest of the corset. There are lots of websites that discuss corset construction, and Threads has addressed corsetry in several issues. Best of luck to you.

    1. user-51823 | | #3

      there is one important difference in the tutu and the opera gown; a tutu bodice generally does not carry much weight, whereas an opera gown does. i know you do good professional costumes, but isn't bias in a dancer's bodice is primarily to accomodate the incredible angles the torso bends?
      most opera dresses i have seen have miles of fabric in the skirt and are terribly heavy. this makes me think that something snugger and stronger than self bias fabric would be needed. no expert here, just thinking...Edited 12/11/2006 12:28 pm ET by msm-s

      Edited 12/11/2006 12:43 pm ET by msm-s

  3. Ralphetta | | #4

    First, one of my favorite articles in Threads was a detailed article about how Mrs. Clinton's inaugural ball gown was built by a costume-company to insure comfort as well as durability.  It is #51.  The gown had a heavily boned bodice and I think there would be some info you could adapt for a separate corset.  It's a great article.

    Secondly, in reply to a recent note to you,  the weight of the skirt is not supported by the bodice.  That would mean the performer would carry the weight  from their shoulders.  As an actor, I can tell you that is awful.  A hidden band is inserted on the inside waist of the bodice and the skirt is sewn to it. (I don't know the tech name for it.)  the band then fastens at the back before the dress is zipped up.  All the weight is supported by the hips and leaves the upper body unencumbered.  When performers lose weight, which often happens during rigorous performances, this band can be tightened without having to rip the whole costume apart.

    1. user-51823 | | #5

      excellent point about skirt being separate, same as with a tutu.
      i think i was picturing an empire waist; could that be adopted as a separate piece too? a long-torso'ed tall waist with boning and some elastic panels to fit up under breast? i have seen some costumes that look pretty rough close up but fine from the audience, where non-matching elastic had vertical strips of the fashion fabric basted over to disguise.

      1. Ralphetta | | #6

        I realized later that I didn't explain it well.  Separate is best, but you do this trick with a one-piece garment.  The sturdy band is attached on the inside of the garment almost clear around the waist, could be princess style even.  It'sleft  separate from the garment at the very back 2-3 inches,  and then THAT band is what is fastened as snug as possible.  It looks snug from the front, but the garment may have a little excess fabric at the very back. The bodice has verticle ease in it because the band holds the weight to the waist.

        1. user-51823 | | #7

          you explained it fine! i've seen some close up and can easily picture what you're talking about. i was just commenting that weight-bearing does work best at the small of the waist before the hips flare out, a natural support. i can see how that would take the pressure off the spine with a heavy costume. but if there's a fitted waist anyway, wouldn't that help disburse the weight off the back anyway? it seems the worst design for the back would be a heavy cape-like garment that had no support elsewhere.
          i was just wondering if your technique could be employed at an empire waist. it seems to me that the weight-bearing would have to be distributed snugly upward, with boning to keep it from slipping down... or would raising the waist negate the benefit to the aching back? it does seem like anything would be better than hanging from shoulders.
          i'm just thinking here. am tempted to sit down and make samples, but no time for that :-)
          this sure is an informative conversation. really makes me want to make something extravagant!

          1. RobertBishop | | #9

            Thanks for your interest and comments! I've constructed a wedding dress using a waistline stay to support the weight of the skirt - the heavily boned bodice didn't do much to carry the skirt. I'm not sure a "waistband" under the breasts, as in an Empire dress, would serve the same function. If I were doing an Empire style dress in heavy fabric I would construct an under-garment with light boning from hips to under the breasts, with waistline stay over the hips, and then "hang" the skirt from the top of the undergarment. I have a fantastic book that goes into exhausting detail about boned and corseted dresses - BRIDAL COUTURE by Susan Khalje. The premise of the book is that the boned undergarment (sometimes built into the dress) should "stand" on its own, with the dress built on that foundation. It certainly worked with the dress I made. The bride loved the feeling of "overall" support, and since the heavy skirt was supported by the waistline stay, she found it very easy to wear. I'm intrigued by the idea of cutting the side front and back panels of the corset on the bias, with boning in the vertical seams, and leaving a little ease in the "fashion" fabric, which would be applied over it. Depending on the fabric it might be able to be cut on the bias as well. If that didn't work, then panels of elastic might. I don't happen to have the issue of THREADS with the Hillary Clinton dress article - the local library has a complete set, so I'll stop in and take a look at it.Thanks for all your suggestions - it is fun to hear what others have to say!Robert

          2. wlric | | #10

            After posting my initial response to you, I thought to myself that I should have mentioned the Susan Khalje book! It is really good isn't it? Another book that I like is Costumes by Karinska written by Toni Bentley. There are photos of her operatic costumes in chapter 4. Some of them clearly show that the face fabric is cut on the bias at side front. Some seem to have a bit of ease, others seem really tight. Maybe it's the singer's preference?
            Are you working with a pattern?

          3. user-51823 | | #14

            i'm assuming this is why you are looking for the paisley brocade in another thread? this is going to be gorgeous. you do beautiful work, so keep us posted

          4. RobertBishop | | #15

            The brocade will be for a formal vest for the same client I made the 18th century suit for.  I should ask here as well - anyone know where I might find this fabric - I saw it on a liturgical supply website - they won't sell the fabric, only completed vestments.  It is described as "Paisley Brocade - Woven in England of polyester, viscose, and gold metallic threads."  Pic attached.




          5. Teaf5 | | #19

            For a good view of lovely empire waist dresses and their underpinnings, check out the new version of Pride and Prejudice and the "Getting ready for Netherfield Ball" scenes. Of course, those dresses were of lightweight fabrics, but the concepts are very similar.As for the breathing room, have you considered using elastic rather than cording to lace up the corset? Or making the non-laced side of stretch fabric?Let us know how it turns out; the orchestra jacket thread was fascinating, even though I doubt I'll ever need to make one!

          6. singerangl | | #24

            Hi I sing, you need to use something light weight, it is impotant that the Singer can breath, nacy ganz has great slips , etc, to hold you in with out the heavy weight of a corset, [email protected]

          7. diday | | #20

            Since they specify it's a fine choice for vest fronts, cassock or robe trims, and other accessory items, how about ordering such an item from them in a size large enough to give you the fabric you need for the garment you want to make.

          8. user-51823 | | #21

            not a bad idea, though it will surely add to the cost. if i have my terms right, albs generally don't come in the fancy brocades, but possibly a chasuble? a large amice might be enough to squeeze just a bodice from if you make the skirt out of a coordinating solid . use a brocade stole for enough matching fabric to add trim to skirt, sleeves, etc and possibly add other gold and rose trims/decor to create cmplementary motifs on the bare parts of the skirt.
            how long does an order take to be made up? you can ask them to send a small sample so you can start shopping for a burgundy solid, and you can be making the muslin while you wait.

  4. Ralphetta | | #8

    In reading and commenting myself, I think maybe we've made things harder than necessary.  This is an item veiwed from a distance, therefore things don't have to be as tight as they might on camera, etc.  Also, by its very nature, a working corset, (one that actually laces,) allows flexiblilty as to how tight/loose it is worn.  It seems to me it might be more useful to focus on a flattering/slenderizing style/color/fabric.  If it has flattering lines, 1-2 inches of breathing room won't be  distracting. Maybe?

  5. user-51823 | | #11

    btw, what kind of style do you have in mind? and what is the singer's figure like? i was mainly thinking that an empire waist could be flattering as well as pretty easy. i'm afraid i'm pretty burned out by rush jobs for flakey clients lately.

    1. RobertBishop | | #12

      The gown will be circa 1780 - picture Marie Antoinette, but not quite. Empire gowns were later 18th and early 19th century. It may (or may not) match the 18th century gentleman's costume I made last winter - the subject of much discussion in this forum (Again, thanks!) The singer has a great figure for this project - tall and slender - or will be after she has her baby in about three months! So I have time to plan. The gown will be used on stage at a beautifully restored theater in town, but also at smaller recitals, so I don't have the option of "it won't show from the stage." I will probably start with a standard costume pattern from Simplicity or Butterick etc, but by the time I'm done with the muslin there won't be much of the original pattern left.

      1. Ralphetta | | #13

        That's a wonderful period to research.  I'm sure you'll have a greatl time planning the gown.

  6. thehat | | #16

    take the body shapping that you build the girddle out of and make side pannels you will still have the corset and room to breath

    1. User avater
      Thimblefingers | | #17

      I designed and sewed my daughter a strapless empire waist gown of three layers of crinkled (in the microwave) polyester gauzey fabric.  I created a "to-the-waist" corset under the dress with a band that did up snugly at the waist.  The dress was attached to the corset at the top only and the corset carried the weight of the dress at the waistline.  It worked beautifully and the dress did not slide down at all and she found it extremely comfortable.  I tried an empire once, with the snugging under the bust but it was not effective as under the bust is a larger circumference than the waist and the dress was constantly slipping down.  Also, you would not want ease under the bust and a tight band at that point on the body could be difficult to breath in.  A "to-the-waist" corset could allow some ease through the ribcage but still be snug at the top and waist. 

      I used to work for a theatre and all of our costumes (design permitting) were made with front and back side panels cut on the bias as this does give some "stretch" to the fabric and makes movement easier while maintaining a snug fit.  I have since used this with all my bridal and formal wear and it looks and fits beautifully.

  7. Kilroywashere | | #18

    "Good" singers breathe below the ribcage - a corset that is fitted to an inch or two above the natural waist will have the corset look, but will not constrain a properly trained singer from supporting her breath, since she should be expanding her abdomen, not her ribcage. 

    If you want to get a much more "authentic" looking pattern than you can get from the big 4 - look here:


  8. user-51823 | | #22

    just occured to me that you really like the fabric sample you showed, but it doesn't have to be exactly that, right?
    i have seen lots of pretty upholstery fabrics this year (had my couch redone this summer and i've been browsing upholstery stores for 2 yrs.) have you tried upscale local upholstery places? or web upholstery sites? lighter weight stuf for curtains and drapes.
    also, along diday's line of thought, look at ready-made bagged curtains and drapes and buy enough panels for the dress. rich upholsteries are "in" right now and i've even seen some very pretty stuff at Lowe's hardware in their window-treatment section. try target, department stores, lowe's, etc etc and don't forget to look at the fancy shower curtains (not liners!)

  9. K1W1 | | #23

    Hi Robert,

    I'm sure there are better qualified costumers to give you advice. My 2c would be not to go with the Big4 costume patterns, personally I'd use this pattern as it's been well rated by GBACG members (Greater Bay Area Costume Guild).  NAYY.http://www.patternsoftime.com/proddetail.asp?prod=PI420 

    If you've not already seen it, I'd borrow from a library Jean Hunnisett's Period Costume for Stage & Screen: Patterns for Women's Dress 1500-1800 as her perspective isn't for re-enactors but for actors/singers.  She has useful info on how to make it appear (good enough for close ups in film) like a period garment without having all the layers.  eg heavily boning the bodice would do away with the need for a corset which you can't ensure stage actors will use every time. And without the boning on at least one layer, the garment won't look right.  That era's corsets didnt' rely on tight lacing the way victorian ones do, so from what I understand there isn't the same compression on the diaphragm (can't remember how to spell it right now) which is very useful for singers.

    best wishesWendy

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