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Corsetry & Courtesans

Image of a costume design for a courtesan

Courtesan Costume Design by Amy Broatch

Martin Paling interviews designer Amy Broatch

- Tell us about the Courtesan character in your design
My character inspiration came from Katie Hickman’s “Courtesans”. This book draws a portrait of five courtesans from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the choices they made for independence, freedom and sexual liberation which forced them into the margins of society. I thought the book had an excitingly huge scope for character interpretation through costume. I loved the rich visual descriptions the author painted of these women, ancient and yet strikingly modern. Part of the allure of the courtesan, I think, is that she has always been an ambiguous figure. She is not a mere prostitute, although she is clearly a “professional” woman who accepts money in return for sexual favours. Neither is she a mistress belonging to one man. A courtesan always chose her patrons, very often for her own pleasure, as well as theirs. Her gifts of company and conversation, as well as erotic pleasure, were bestowed upon a favoured few who paid fabulous, sometimes ruinous, sums for them. Perhaps one of the definitions of a courtesan should be “a woman who dared to break the rules”. The rules of sexual morality gave way first, but in their wake fell other, perhaps more far reaching barriers of class, society and female propriety. Courtesans were shunned by “respectable” society, and yet they fascinated society, men and women alike.

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“Their extravagance knew no bounds”

I gave myself a series of suggestive words as prompts to help with my character development: empowered, seductive, pleasurable, provocative, titillating, overt, excessive, extremes of beauty, sexual, powerful and erotic. Research into the lives of courtesans was fascinating. I looked at various artists such as Toulouse-Letrec and Manet who represented real, well-known courtesans of the time. I came across many rich descriptions of courtesans, one to include “Queens of Fashions”. I took this as one of my starting points for costume development and researched the most extreme, extravagant excesses of beauty in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Courtesans were purchased by the rich for their style; she was a status symbol. One courtesan complained of a man she insisted upon falling in love with me, merely to prove himself a fashionable man. Courtesans did not follow the fashion; they were the fashion. The way a courtesan dressed was greatly admired, envied and often emulated. Courtesans were extremely skilled at dressing the part, and they elevated the creation of the alluring “semi-deshabille” (dress for the boudoir or bedroom), almost turning it into an art form.

“Courtesans and actresses were the first to wear conspicuously erotic underwear; they brazenly flaunted their luxurious underwear with all its frills, bows, pearls and silky corsets”

image of fabric and trimming samples

Fabric and Trimming samples

- Looking at your design, apart from being very beautifully made and visually rich it oozes sexuality and passion. Would a courtesan have dressed like this all the time or does it serve a particular service?
Yes, the costume is designed for entertaining in, perhaps in the boudoir. I decided on an eclectic blend of beauty excesses from the two centuries.

- How extreme did the manipulative qualities of Corsets become and what shape were you trying to achieve?
Corsets reached their most extreme, severe shape in the Victorian era with the beauty quest for the tiny  wasp waist, taken to extreme levels with the fetish for tight-lacing. This was practiced for many reasons, which including as a device to heighten sexuality by suppressing breathing which many women found erotically “breathtaking”, and likened it to the effects of orgasm. Tight-lacers were regarded as subversive of the social order, much like courtesans. It seems fitting that a courtesan would wear one of these tightly laced corsets.

In reality, the ultra small waists would have taken years of figure training, however I still wanted to create an hourglass silhouette. The Victorian pattern I chose for my corset was a complex sixteen piece pattern. It particularly appealed to me for its shape, which really glorified, idealised and intensified the female form. Its draws attention to the sexual qualities of the female torso – the large hip panels and curved seams all give the illusion of an even smaller waist and a curvaceous shape, with the idea of the front busk opening acting as an easy access to the courtesan’s charms! Silhouette trial sketches Underwear increasingly became a focus of sexual interest in the nineteenth century. I explored frilly drawers, stockings and various nineteenth century underwear and combined these historical references with references to high couture decoration to create a very short skirt with a mass of frills and ruffles, with a bustle-like explosion of rich decoration from the back.

Sexual Appeal

Images of the costume fittings

The costume fittings

- What seems apparent to me is that your design still has a tremendous amount of sexual appeal despite the fact it’s from an era way before our time. Why do you think this is?
I chose to add a dimension of asymmetry to my costume, giving it a modern edgy feel by taking inspiration in particular from John Galliano’s “showgirl” collection and “the Face” fashion shoot. This asymmetry was mainly used on the ruffle shoulder strap of the corset, from its dripping pearls, frills and lace, which I thought were highly sexy and drew attention to the angular shapes of the shoulders, neck and chest. I further played on this asymmetry by adding random bows to the skirt and stockings, all drawing attention to the sexual areas of the body.

- Amber’s hair (the model) is amazing. It must have taken you a long time to achieve the look you wanted. Where did your inspiration come from and could you tell us how it’s done?
I researched the highly fashionable eighteenth century enormously enlarged, powdered, curled, ornamented, artificial coiffures and headpieces, which reached the height of extremity and elaboration in 1780. Eighteenth century make-up consisted of pale skin – a mark of gentility which meant that a lady did not have to work outside. Beauty patches in the shape of hearts, moons or stars were used to emphasise the whiteness and beauty of the skin. I also found references in the book that courtesans wore them to entice men by shrewdly placing them to draw attention to seductive areas such as the breasts and the shoulders. To create the hair and make up I called upon my two very kind friends from Toni and Guy and Mac Make-up, without whom I could not have created such a successful photo shoot. The hair was very inventively given its height by placing oasis garden foam under the hair and then adding copious amount of hair extensions, white hair spray and a covering of talcum powder.

Costume Research

- What kind of research is involved in the project?
I organised primary research visits to museums and also set up individual viewing sessions for students in the costume museum in Nottingham, for different time periods of corsets which related to their own personal project, thus matching student need with what was in the museum. I really encourage primary research, as viewing costumes is vital in learning more about fabrics, shapes, silhouettes and textures in this way much more than just looking in a book. Also sketching from real costumes, as opposed to just taking photographs is encouraged as drawing skills are vital in this industry. It is essential to be able to communicate your ideas to a director.

“The toilettes for the boudoir, the romantic negligees and tantalising undergarments, the tangles of silk and muslin, the sheer luxury of lingerie and other accessories would give you goose pimples.”

- Let’s talk about colour. The Victorian era is known for having strong ideas about colours, and despite some of the rather cliched ideas we have about that time, it was a very flamboyant and extravagant time. So why did you chose a very pale colour scheme?

Image of the costume in a photo shoot

The Photo Shoot

A palette of white and cream materials was primarily used in an ironic way; Victorians associated white with aristocracy, purity, virtue and virginity. I wanted the costume to affect innocence whilst at the same time pushing the boundaries of subtle eroticism. I used silk for the corset as, “Silk was the trademark of courtesans who rented out at a high price.” The rest of the materials included lace, bows and pearls in their plenty to create an excessive feel of ultra feminine and opulent wealth.

- Tell us a little more about the rest of the costume. How and why you chose did you choose the skirt, stockings and the rest of the garments?
The contrast between the hard restrictive nature of the corset and the soft bursting mass of the feminine frilled skirt worked well in reflecting the nature of a courtesan’s character. Although this was a costume I had in mind that a courtesan would wear whilst entertaining in the boudoir, I didn’t want the whole body to be obviously flaunted; courtesans were far classier and cleverer than that. The mixture between the body being hidden and revealed – the exposed areas of flesh such as the flash of leg between the top of the thick stocking and the skirt, works because it encourages the viewer to imagine what is underneath, which can be far more enticing.The structure of the costume instantly changed her stance, making her stand taller, more provocatively and with an air of supreme confidence. She commented herself how sexy she felt when wearing the costume.

She commented herself how sexy she felt when wearing the costume.

It was certainly the most intricate garment I had made at that point in my career! I chose the pattern for its beautiful shape, which really glorified the curves of the female torso. The whole four weeks were spent constructing the 16 piece Corset, which had to be cut, pinned, tacked and sewn four times over with all its layers. Very time consuming work. The vast amount of time spent on the corset meant that the skirt had to be far less technical. I had to be inventive and create an impressive looking skirt to do my corset justice. Hand decoration with ribbons, bows and pearls was a quick and effective in giving my costume the finishing “excessive looking” touches it needed. I tried to make the best use of my time and design a costume that was feasible to make in four weeks. I was perhaps a little too over-ambitious, now when I work professionally I always use that project as a reference point.

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