August 8, 2003

Corsets are a Cinch: Seattle desginers' tight fitting business expands

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Seattle Post-Intelligencer (Seattle, WA); 8/7/2003; Phinney, Susan
Byline: SUSAN PHINNEY P-I reporter

Corsets have been shaping up segments of the fashion industry for years - and not always under cover, as entertainers such as Madonna can attest.

Now designers are creating dresses with built-in stays, or shaping bodices with corsetlike seams to achieve a close fit and emphasize the waist.

And the growing interest has given a local company a boost.

Period Corsets, a Seattle company founded by Susan Davis and Rebecca Kaufman, got a mention in the August issue of Elle, along with a report on all the corset-inspired looks designers have shown for fall 2003.

Keith Wagner, Northwest fashion manager for Nordstrom, said he's been seeing corset looks for the past couple of seasons. Gucci used them. So did Roberto Cavalli. They've also been seen in Yves Saint-Laurent collections.

"This year it's part of our femininity trend. It's a return to emphasis on the waist. It's not necessarily as literal as a corset, but the corset details - lace-up blouses, hook-and-eye closures, ribbon details, lace. Along with that trend you're seeing high-waisted pants that give that effect - obi sashes, cummerbunds, wider belts, dresses with boning on top. I definitely think you'll see a lot of that in evening wear," Wagner said.

Period Corsets' basic cotton creations in black, white or peach are $175 to $275. They do special corsets for a bridal shop in Santa Fe, N.M., and their corsets have embraced cast members from "All My Children."

Although corsets - the laced-up garments reinforced with bone, metal or plastic stays depending on the era - faded from everyday fashion early in the 20th century, they remain in demand for theater and opera.

With plays by Ibsen and Chekhov in perpetual production and operas ever in need of period costumes and their necessary corsets, theater costume designs were an important part of Davis and Kaufman's business.

But maintaining a costume business in Seattle is tough when customers are in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and other major cities. So when they finished the costumes for Teatro Zinzanni, they decided to focus on corsets.

"We knew we couldn't expand the costume business in this location. We'd maxed out," Davis said. "But there was a market for corsets, petticoats and bloomers."

Both women are experienced costumers. Davis got involved in theater while a student at Vassar. She worked in the costume shop, went on to backstage work in summer stock and opera festivals. She worked in Santa Fe, Houston and New York before moving to Seattle in 1989 to work for Seattle Opera.

Kaufman has a similar background. She got into costuming through the Chicago Art Institute, worked for the Hartford Stage Company and took an intensive one-year course in costume construction at Yale where she worked in wardrobing for their shows.

"Yale School of Drama is the basis of a great networking system that helps people throughout their careers," Davis explained.

Davis and Kaufman met while working at Seattle Opera and began planning their business. They took classes through the Small Business Administration, saved money and gathered equipment. They both learned how to type, and mastered computer programs before opening for business in 1996.

They keep corsets in stock so they can be sent overnight to any part of the country, a business that has boomed since the launch last year of their Web site (

Corset styles from the 1860s (Ibsen) and 1890s (Chekhov) are in demand. They also have a V-shaped 1770 "ice cream cone" corset, and an hourglass shape circa 1905. All are easy to alter and adjust so they can fit different bodies.

Davis returned to Seattle Opera last year as manager of the costume shop. She's also chief patternmaker and financial expert for their business. Kaufman, mother of two, handles sales, marketing and procurement.

"I love the thrill of the hunt, finding the best fabrics," Kaufman said. She's also very good at making and keeping business connections.

Hilary Specht, a drama graduate from Colorado College, handles the day-to-day business, setting up production lines, handling calls and e-mails, and monitoring stage and film projects that might need corsets.

"As we grow, we'll be more and more convenient to people," Kaufman said. Theater people move around and take their suppliers and contacts with them, she said.

About 10 percent of Period Corsets' business is from "typical" women, perhaps looking to nip in their waistlines a couple of inches, or enhance their decolletage.

Christine Shea, the writer who explored corset-inspired fashions for Elle, ordered a black cotton model from Period Corsets.

"Once I had struggled with the laces and strapped it on, it felt empowering to stand up straight, to shave a couple of inches off my waist. It sent the exact Don't mess with me, you nut job' message I was looking for."

COPYRIGHT 2003 Seattle Post-Intelligencer. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of the Dialog Corporation by Gale Group.

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