Here's How I Made an 18th Century Corset Swim-Dress
Updated: Nov 2
A Corset Swim-Dress?
I haven’t owned a “real” swimsuit in years. Why? I don’t feel especially comfortable in modern, half-naked swim suits. I have been wanting some kind of swim dress for years, but I wanted it to fit my style and have built in bust support, and the overall figure shaping that comes from corsetry. The only swim dresses currently on the market don’t appeal to my sense of style, so I took a few years mulling over how I could create my own corset swim-dress.
Recently, I came up with a rough design concept for a swim dress. I wanted it to be made from modern swim material, with an 18th century boned bodice, an 18th century inspired knee length swim skirt, and legging-shorts underneath. The bodice needed some sort of closure method: either a zipper, or lacing, or both.
The first step was finding materials. I bought dark and light green swim material from an online fabric store called Black Rabbit, as well as enough swimsuit lining material to make a mock-up as well as line the finished dress. I also used synthetic whalebone for the bodice, as well as metal eyelets and lacing cord from Farthingales Corset-Making Supply and woven white fabric tape from Burnley and Trowbridge.
How Did I Make the Pattern?
When it comes to making patterns, there are two main options: drafting from measurements, or draping on a dress-form. I chose the latter option, since
1) I had recently completed my own “custom DIY dress form”, and
2) I am not experienced in drafting patterns for knit fabric, and accommodating the stretch factor.
I found a helpful free tutorial on how to drape a knit pattern, and I started by putting a pair of 18th century stays on my dress form. This would give the dress form the overall shape I wanted it to have. This was my first time draping a pattern, but it was quicker and easier than I had expected. I started by pinning the selvedge of fabric along the centre front of the dress form, and stretching the cross-grain of the fabric horizontally across the bust-line. Then, I pulled the fabric diagonally across the form, pinning around the armhole and waist, and finally drawing on the armhole, waistline, and neckline. I made the sleeves by using my standard sleeve block and removing width to accommodate the stretch of the fabric.
Other Pattern Options
If you want to make something similar to this using commercial patterns, I have a couple of ideas for you. You could use a pattern for a tight fitting knit t-shirt, alter the neckline, sleeves, and add a v-shaped waist. Or you could use a pattern for a one-piece swim suit, cut it off at the waist, alter the neckline, and add sleeves. Then you will want to make a boned-mock-up to perfect the fit.
Making the Mock-Up
After draping my pattern, I made a mock-up with the nude swimsuit lining material. I used two layers to sandwich the boning, and used a zipper at centre-front. I added the boning layout by eye with chalk, consulting stays patterns to get an idea for the layout and spacing. I experimented with criss-crossed and horizontal boning channels like in 18th century corsets, but later decided it added unnecessary complication, and vertical boning was sufficient. I used my more modern sewing machine, a walking foot, and a stretch stitch to complete this project.
How Did the Mock-Up Fit?
My mock-up fit well, but didn’t give nearly enough bust support. I took out some excess, tried on, and it fit better. This would turn out to be a mistake, but more on that later. I used a zipper for the front of the mock up but opted to use hook and eye tape for the final version to be easier to do up the tight bodice. Bad idea. I also decided to have lacing at the back. That was a good idea!
Cutting Out Final Swim Dress Pieces
I traced off the pattern pieces and cut them out. I opted to use the darker colour for the top, to camouflage the boning better. I cut two layers of lining material to enclose the boning, and two layers of dark green, one for the outside of the bodice, and one for the inside. The skirt was my complete swath of light green fabric, split into two massive rectangles. These required no pattern and would later be pleated up.
Making the Boned Bodice Lining
First, I basted around the edges of each bodice panel to attach the two layers of lining material. Then, I marked the boning channels with a ruler and chalk. I stitched them using a stretch stitch and a walking foot.
Before sewing the bodice seams, I basted the outer layer to the lining, and added sleeves. The sleeves were also lined. After the sleeves were on, I added the boning into each channel, and stitched the bodice completely together. I added boning and eyelets to the centre back, and hook and eye tape at centre front. One note about eyelets: I reinforced the area with a folded strip of fabric tape sandwiched between the layers of swim fabric. This is essential when adding eyelets to stretchy fabric! At this point I tried on the swim bodice, and there were tons of issues!
This project felt like a total flop. The bodice was too tight, especially at the waist. This happened because I took out too much in the mock-up phase. The hook and eye closure at the centre-front also gaped which showed about half an inch of skin!
After getting over my disappointment, I attempted to fix the dress. I first opened the side seams and added triangular godets to give more room and comfort at the waist, then covered those seams with some narrow white woven tape as an accent.
Then I painstakingly removed the hook and eye tape at centre front, closed the centre front seam, and covered that seam with the same white fabric tape. Finally, I added a modesty panel at the centre-back lacing gap so my skin doesn't show through.
Finishing the Swim Dress
I bound the edges of the bodice with white woven tape, and it was time to make the skirt. I created the skirt out of two large rectangles of swim fabric, which I pleated up in the 18th century style. I have a more in-depth tutorial on this here. I stitched the pleats in place along a strip of 1 inch woven fabric tape, long enough to create ties at the sides of the skirt.
The Beach Experiment
I wore this swim dress to the beach the day after finishing it! It looked way nicer than I had expected, and was as warm as a wetsuit! If you are wondering what I wore underneath the skirt, I opted to buy a pair of short-leggings rather than making my own, which I am glad I did.
There was an issue with some of the strip of boning in the bodice extending up too high and poking into my armpit, so I had to perform surgery on the bodice and shorten some of those pieces. If I could make this again, I would definitely add a zipper to the centre-front to make getting it on easier, and for ease of breastfeeding my son. But I am very proud of this swim dress!
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