The history of the strapless bodice and tips for sewing with boning

Claire-Louise talks about the history of the strapless bodice and how to create dramatic structure in your garments, scroll to the end for our top tips for sewing with boning.

The made to measure challenge for the Sewing Bee finale Bee is always some kind of evening gown or special occasion dress which showcases the contestants’ ability to handle fancy fabric and more advanced construction techniques. For series 5 they were tasked with creating strapless evening gowns! Now in series 6 they’re making boned basques in week 5!!

These dresses are totally reliant on there being some hidden structure inside to support the entire gown, which would otherwise slide down the body! I’ve always been fascinated by corsetry and how the body’s silhouette can be distorted with clever panelling and strips of steel. The most extreme shape is surely the pannier dresses of the 18th century which often required women to turn sidewise through doors! At that time, formal dress was so closely associated with Versailles and the French court that the style was universally described as the robe à la française. There was a fitted overdress which is open at the front and has a decorative bodice insert called a stomacher covering the corset, plus the underskirt and the petticoat. The most noticeable part is the particularly wide and flat silhouette accomplished by oversized panniers. Constructed of supple bent wands of willow or whalebone and covered in linen, panniers took on broader or narrower silhouettes. The most remarkable held out the skirts like sandwich boards, barely wider than the body in side view but as expansive as possible in front or rear view.

Court dress, ca. 1750. Embroidered silk with metallic thread, featuring large hip panniersCourt dress, ca. 1750. Embroidered silk with metallic thread, featuring large hip panniers

Long before the invention of the bra, women and men wore undergarments that supported the body. Early incarnations of these were called a “pair of bodies”, and consisted of layers of linen stitched together and laced front and back as a pair. The 20th century invented modern light boning such as plastic Rigiline and tough spiral steel, but essentially the method of underpinning structured garments has changed little since the 16th century when the “whale-boned body” was born.


Following the medieval era, when women’s wear followed the soft flowing lines of the female form, 16th century fashion evolved into bodices and skirts. The invention of the Spanish farthingale meant skirts needed an anchor, so bodices became more structured to support the weight of these skirts and petticoats. The Italians are credited with the development of the busk- the first type of artificial support added into stays. By separating the upper and lower parts of a dress, bodices could be worn much tighter and skirts could become much fuller and more extravagant. The development of heavy luxury silk fabrics around this time is likely to have contributed to this radical change in fashion.

Heavily decorated 18th century wooden busk. Gift of Mrs. Edward S. Harkness to the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The early “pair of bodies” now developed into stays which were often linen fabric thickened with starchy paste, with a busk made from wood or bone inserted into a hand stitched channel at the front. The busks were wider at the top, and narrowed to a point at the waist. The waistline of these stays were much more closely fitted to the body creating a smaller waist. Busks were often tied in at the neckline, and these ties were often given as tokens to knights jousting under a lady’s patronage. Some busks were extremely ornate and heavily decorated, these were prized possessions often given as love tokens. They might be elaborately trimmed with inlays of rare wood or mother-of-pearl. It might seem odd that such elaborate effort and craftsmanship was expanded on decorating an object that was rarely seen!

Modern corsets like Simplicity 1183 use plastic or steel boning
Modern corsets like Simplicity 1183 use plastic or steel boning

The stay became more and more heavily stiffened, often with baleen/whalebone, although wood was also used and eventually the front panel became heavily decorated and on show. The front part was known as a stomacher, and the stay now developed into a corset which formed the outer part of the garment and made from luxury fashion fabrics. The term corset is now used interchangeably as an under and an outer garment.

The history of the corset is fascinating, and over the years I’ve collected many books on this subject. The most extreme incarnation has to be the Edwardians, as the S-shaped corset pulled the body into that distinctive silhouette. The bustle was also a huge contraption that forced a distinct silhouette. Cage crinolines would simply keep the skirt away from the body and hold its cylindrical shape. A separate bustle would need to be worn to push the skirts up and out over the back of the wearer’s skirt.

There was much talk at the turn of the 20th century about the effects on health when wearing corsets, and the invention and use of elastane into corsetry moved fashion in a newer softer direction. Many believe that the flapper shape of the 20’s was as a result of throwing off the corset when in fact, shape forming undergarments were still worn to create that “boyish” shape albeit slightly softer versions.

Vintage pattern specialist has a number of corset styles to try
Vintage pattern specialist has a number of corset styles to try

Post-war saw the rise of the fashion industry again, throwing off the shackles of wartime austerity, spearheaded by Dior who invented the New Look. Mid-20th century couture fashion is a fascinating era, which informs much of the modern fashion industry including the strapless dress. Dior and other designers at the time used the art of the Corsetier to create diaphanous gowns that appeared to skim the body, yet inside a light corset structure held the body very firmly in place.

I’ve been lucky enough to look inside a few vintage Dior and Balenciaga pieces, and loved the secret hidden structure. In particular was a pink 60s sarong dress by Balenciaga that appeared to be a piece of fabric gently knotted around the body. However, upon looking inside there was a fully-fashioned lightweight corset ensuring this sarong would stay put! Similarly a Dior dress made of layers or gossamer tulle had eight boning channels sewn into a fine mesh corset, ensuring the lightness of the garment wasn’t compromised by the structure. Another of Dior’s innovations that I use as a Costumier is a waist stay. This is a rigid Petersham or Grosgrain ribbon band that’s anchored at points around the waistline and fastens tightly with a hook and bar. This holds the dress in place, so the zip doesn’t take the strain at the waistline ensuring no zip breakages or wardrobe malfunctions!

boning in dressmaking
This Dior dress combines delicate layers of tulle with a firm boned support system inside the bodice

Throughout the 20th century designers used corsetry to spectacular effect, who can forget Jean Paul Gaultier’s corset for Madonna, or the corsets Vivien Westwood did in early 90s. Are you feeling inspired to create a gorgeous strapless gown?

Tips for Sewing with Boning

• There are several types of boning available in different thicknesses and coverings. It’s up to you to decide what will suit your project. If you’re short on time use Rigiline boning that you sew straight through.
• Install boning to the lining if using a fabric that may show the boning imprint from the front of the garment.
• Create boning channels from silk organza or organdie for sheer projects as this will create a really light boned effect.
• Use coutil as for corsets that will be worn as undergarments, it’s a strong woven cloth that moulds to the body and is comfortable to wear. You can get a version that fuses to another fabric or is decorative in it’s own right.
• Use busks with fastenings to allow quick release from corsets. The lacing can be loosened, rather than un-laced and then it’s quicker to be re-laced in at the next wear.
• Always melt the ends of nylon boning on a low flame as the fibres will work through the fabric and into the wearer. Please take safety precautions when trying this! You can also buy plastic bone caps too.
• ALWAYS use a boning cap when using steel boning, the cut edge unless filed down with a grinder will cut through the fabric and the wearer.
• Hand baste boned channels across the seam allowances of your corset for first fit. This allows you to assess fit when boned, but gives you easy access to adjust seamlines if required.
• You can add boning to a dress with straps if you have a very heavy skirt and feel your bodice could benefit from the extra support.

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Categories: Dressmaking, Great British Sewing Bee Series 5, Great British Sewing Bee Series 6