Corsets, cupcakes and bubbly at Hycroft Mansion
"There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion." - Francis Bacon
Proportion, when it comes to corsets, refers to the curves of a woman’s body.
In the Victorian Era, the common goal for women’s waists wearing a corset was around 18 inches, with another rule of thumb often used being a 1:2 waist to hip ratio. However, the Guinness World Record belongs to now 75 year old Cathie Jung with her incredibly tiny 15 inch waist with a corset on. To put that in to perspective an average person can produce a 16" circle by touching the tips of their two thumbs and middle fingers together.
In the Victorian Era, the corset was often a symbol of class, with the upper class boasting a large collection of extravagant corsets and the lower class lucky to have one, even if simple and purely for support. Nowadays, well manufactured ones are a rare commodity and not something you come across on a regular day. Unless, you happen to find yourself at a Parisian Antique Corset Exhibition, like I did last Sunday afternoon.
There couldn`t have been a better place to hold an event to showcase a selection of Melanie Talkington`s corsets. The mansion itself is like stepping back in time, with its iron gate entrance, its elegant dining and living rooms and its large veranda surrounded by lush gardens.
With four hours to peruse the corsets, jewellery, soaps and mansion there was plenty of time to have a sparkling wine or tea outside in the sunshine. There was also a mime to entertain the young and old with his juggling and his balloon-making as well as a photo booth by Madame McRae's boudoir. Cookies shaped like corsets, decadent cupcakes and savory quiche were for sale in the foyer as well as hand-made artisan chocolates from CocoaNymph.
“It will slim your waist I swear,” exclaimed the emcee of the day, Pierre (Mackenzie Gray) in a French accent. After all, the theme of the day was the exaggeration of a “womanly figure” and the hourglass shape a corset can offer. He even used the slimming line in reference to the jewellery, joking that “not only will it slim your waistline, it will slim your wallet.”
Women wandered the mansion in Melanie's corsets, and cancan ladies flashed the crowd; needless to say it was like a disco dance with the flashes from cameras creating a pseudo strobe light. With her efforts to bring an Antique Corset Museum to Vancouver and the support of everyone there that day she hopes to see them being less of a rarity and more frequently seen. The museum is scheduled to open this fall so hopefully her desire will become a reality.
“Every time I travel to Europe, it’s always a goal for me to do some treasure hunting and find some corsets to add to my collection.”
When she finds the corsets, she doesn’t try the originals on; she purchases them and makes reproductions first. She does this to preserve them, because they are very fragile and the eyelets can pop out or the fabric can tear.
"I've seen many exquisite and beautifully made corsets ruined by people trying them on." She lamented.
Once in Paris, when she was in her late 20's she made one of the first French antique corsets she ever bought, one of the favorites in her collection. She found it at a little antique shop and upon spotting it she said she “died and went to heaven”, falling quickly in love with its color and embroidery. She spent four hours there (boring her grandma who was with her) and left with six corsets. She claimed she spent the most money in that one shop that she’d ever spent in one visit in her entire life.
Mid-way through the day, Melanie guided us through a mini museum of corsets that were presented in the downstairs of the mansion. Her collection contained many export corsets, as well as a lot of French corsets. They varied in design and year made, but the one thing that was consistent was their ability to cinch a woman’s waist, increase her bust and accentuate her hips.
"I tried to keep the exhibition as colorful as I could, to show off how French fashion would’ve been. I looked in French magazines and they really liked to have a lot of color in their lingerie."
And colorful it was, with blue, green and even red corsets; her goal is to have a silk corset in every color. Her greatest acquisition was the scarlet red corset circa 1890. Until she came across this particular one she had never seen a red one but had always heard of them. She was so set on getting it that she even out-bid the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the scarlet red silk corset now in her possession. They were so upset that she won it that they even offered to buy it off of her after she got it if she wasn’t happy with it. Apparently they don`t know Melanie very well as she is clearly passionate about corsets and seems to go to all lengths to build an extensive and extravagant collection. However she is not the only one in Vancouver to have one as she mentioned that The Vancouver Museum has one as well.
In her collection were corsets ranging from those for children, used primarily for posture and to prepare them for when they were women, to maternity corsets that had buckles to adjust with growth.
"A lot of people thought it was weird that Victorian women wore corsets when they were pregnant but if you were pregnant today and couldn’t wear bra and panties how would you feel? And that’s the same reason why Victorian women wore corsets when they were pregnant because it supported their bust, and their waist, and was the foundation for their dress. So to not be able to wear a corset just because you were pregnant would mean you’d feel naked and you couldn’t go out in public and be respectable if you weren’t wearing underwear. That’s also why as their pregnancy progressed women didn’t go out of their house and they stayed at home so they could feel comfortable and hidden until the baby arrived."
Another she showed us was a bridal corset/evening corset that contained 90 whalebones. She got it from New York form a corsetière named Persephone. Since this corset had removable whalebones she had one out for everyone to look at; it looks and feels like a human’s nail.
In Melanie`s museum there was also a Bru doll donning a corset. Bru is a famous doll maker from the 1880s who made porcelain mannequin dolls to be displayed in shop’s windows. She politely asked us to not stand too close as they are very fragile and expensive dolls. She also said with a chuckle, “A lot of people think they’re creepy, but that’s just a matter of opinion.”
The corset displayed on the doll was purchased on a trip to Paris in February when she met with the curator of the Museum of Decorative Arts ( Musee des Arts Decoratifs) which is attached to the Louvre. They are currently working on an underwear exhibition that will be opening in June 2013. They have an embarrassing amount of antique corsets from the 1800s, so much that they were lacking corsets from the 1900s. Melanie’s friend Francois, an antique and textile collector in Paris, was asked for assistance. She quickly recommended Melanie and now they will be borrowing 40 pieces from her antique corset collection and sending her to Paris to install the exhibition. “It’s a dream come true to have my pieces on display in Paris. I’m very honored.” Melanie said humbly with a grin ear to ear.
What impressed me the most was the enthusiasm that guests showed through attire. Both men and women were dressed to the nines, with most women wearing corsets and men in Victorian attire. They do however make corsets for men, but there was only man wearing one, Mr. Derek who modeled for us. Just as his showed, they were customarily used to slim the figure.
Even more impressive was the fact that Mrs. Evelyne Decorps, the Consul General of France was attending Melanie's event that day.
The corset is an article of clothing so controversial that there is such thing as the “Corset Controversy”, a collection of arguments against and testaments for the undergarment.
Regardless of where you stand in the matter, the corset is an intriguing undergarment, and a museum dedicated to it would most likely draw a large crowd for its intricacy, its history and its transition in use in the 21st century.
To see more of Melanie’s designs check out her website at Lace Embrace Atelier.