|Photos by Larry Hirshowitz|
“PUT ON A CORSET, AND IT MAKES YOU feel dainty, fancy and dressed up,” says Miss Sue Nice, a comely redhead who enjoys lacing up. “Corsets make you stand tall and regal. It's the ultimate in being a lady.” Like the majority of women who came of age after the 1960s, Miss Nice was never required to wear a corset (or, for that matter, a girdle, brassiere, garters and hose), so occasionally donning such a restrictive garment tapped into her fascination with extremes. In fact, she was so intrigued by corsets that she started to make her own, although becoming a corset designer never figured in to her long-range plans.
Miss Sue Nice (center) wears
a hand-beaded cotton corset,
writer Iris Berry (right) is in
a cotton velvet corset with
black satin trim,
model Eden Wells, who can
lace down to 17 inches,
wears an underbust satin
Corsets have been around for thousands of years. Waist cinchers of one type or another are depicted in art from ancient Egypt, Assyria, the Roman Empire and Greece. In 14th-century Italy, Catherine de Medici had servants tie her waist to a mere 13 inches, and the whole court followed suit. Bullets reportedly ricocheted off the corsets worn by the Romanov grand duchesses — because of jewels hidden in the lining — when they faced a Bolshevik firing squad. American pop culture has either fetishized corsets (think '50s glamour ghoul Vampira sporting a corset that gave her the eye-popping measurements of 38-17-36) or romanticized them: Who could forget Scarlet O'Hara in Gone With the Wind, clutching a bedpost while imploring Mammy to lace her up “tighter, tighter!” And then there were those strait-laced Victorians — no coincidence the fainting couch was a household necessity.
The Velvet Hammer’s Kitten
DeVille (left) is wearing a
silk brocade mermaid high-
back corset, and filmmaker
Augusta is in a
brocade and satin-rayon
“When I was small, I loved seeing really over-the-top, voluptuous, overcoiffed, overdone women,” says Miss Nice, who grew up in Sacramento and wanted to be a costumer. After a half-semester of pattern drafting at a community college, she got a job at a costume shop, which led to doing wardrobe for summer-stock theater, even though she had no sewing skills. “I learned as I went along. We did almost kamikaze-style sewing, working constantly.”
Miss Nice's life changed in 1996 when a friend gave her a basic pattern for a corset. She became somewhat obsessed, spending hours researching corset-making techniques and on trial-and-error experiments with patterns, materials, sewing methods, alterations and boning. “It's that fascination I have with all-things girlie,” she says. “It's the hourglass, curvy waist that I wanted to grow into.” But, she warns, don't cinch up too tight too fast: It takes about four to six months of training to be able to wear a 6-inch reduction for any length of time. Otherwise, you risk ruining your corset and even breaking ribs.
Writer Lydia Lunch wears a
A few years ago, Miss Nice (her moniker is a childhood nickname) moved to Los Angeles to work in film, doing wardrobe, but her corsets quickly became so in demand that she wound up making them full time. Corset construction has now become a science for her. Every corset is made by hand out of luxe brocades, satins and silks, boned in sprung steel and carefully lined, some accented by faux flowers or covered in rhinestones. She designs corsets for innerwear, outerwear and the stage. Each piece takes anywhere from a day to a week to complete, with usually one fitting involved, and, depending on how elaborate the design, ranges from $175 to $500.
Custom creations have been commissioned by literary provocateuse Lydia Lunch, actress Ann Magnuson, fetish model Eden Wells, and the cast of the Velvet Hammer Burlesque, but these days more and more regular gals are adding her corsets to their wardrobes to spice things up. A browse on the Internet attests to the corset's renewed popularity: A search for “corsetry” on Google yields more than 16,000 hits.
“Corsets give you an attitude — a sexy feeling,” sums up Miss Nice. “Corsets are hot!”
For more information, log on to www.nicecorsets.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.