Steel vs. Plastic Boned Corsets

Boning channels on a Fiendish Imp corset.
Boning channels in a Fiendish Imp corset

Bones are pretty important. Without them, people would be all flippy-floppy, and the same is true for corsets. We normally don’t get much of a choice when it comes to human skeletons, but where corsets are concerned there are options to consider.

I’ve seen people use all kinds of things, from zip-ties to reeds, lengths of rope and even chopped up milk jugs. I can’t speak to the efficacy of any of those ideas, and I’m more than a little skeptical about some of the innovations I’ve seen floating around on Pinterest, but people are clearly struggling to find the right answer. Back in the day they used baleen, of course, which is basically whale teeth. Whale teeth, I say! Good luck finding that stuff in the 21st century.

Editor’s Note: “Good luck” in this case means “Please don’t kill whales, you shit.”

At Fiendish Imp we’ve made a choice to use German plastic boning–sometimes also called synthetic whalebone–in all of our corsets. It’s a decision we couldn’t be happier with, but in the community of corsetiers it could be seen as something of a controversial move. Steel is far and away the boning material of choice, and there are good reasons for that, but we believe German plastic has its place and has been woefully underused by artisans.

What are German Plastic Bones?

The first thing to point out about German plastic boning is that it is absolutely not the same product as the cheap plastic bones or stays you may commonly find at your local fabric store—typically under names like Rigilene or Featherlite. Those might be fine enough for a pretty snazzy prom dress, but they wouldn’t hold up in a corset for very long at all. The good stuff is much harder to come by (we get ours from Farthingales), and there seems to be a great deal of confusion about the name.

When we refer to German plastic boning here at Fiendish Imp, we’re talking about a strong and flexible mix of clear polystyrene with reeds of white polyester running through it. Unlike Rigilene and similar lightweight products, these bones are designed for corsetmakers for use in making, you know, corsets. They are made to replicate the feel and function of baleen, and they do a fine job of it.

The confusion seems to come from the way in which these and similar products are referred to within the community. Most often, people refer to “synthetic whalebone” made by a German company, Wilh. Wissner, interchangeably with the term “German plastic.” Likewise, people refer to the German plastic we use as synthetic whalebone, even though they are made by an entirely separate company which also happens to be based in Germany. You might be able to get your head around that, but when you factor in that Wissner also makes a second product called “German plastic” the waters can get very muddied.

Suffice to say, ours is the stuff pictured above, we’ve tested and used it extensively, and it’s the best material we’re aware of for making the types of corsets we want to make.

Benefits of Plastic Boning

Before I go on to extol the virtues of German plastic–and boy, I’m about to–let me say firmly that, in my estimation, neither plastic nor steel is objectively superior to the other. They each have their strengths and weaknesses depending on how you plan to use them, and everything I have to say comes from the perspective of using them in lightweight, comfortable, fashionable corsets.

Comfort was our first consideration, and the plastic stuff can be a game-changer here. The rigidity of steel means it can pinch, or even leave you with bruises around your ribs and hip bones if the fit isn’t absolutely perfect. German plastic shapes you much more gently, conforming to your body organically in the areas where your bones and such really don’t want to conform to it. In short, it sucks in your fleshy bits but shows a bit more respect to your stiffer parts.

Better still, as you wear your corset the heat of your body will slowly mold the plastic stays, essentially memorizing the figure you lace them into. Your garment becomes only more comfortable, and more well-fitted, with time.

German plastic bones are also noticeably lighter, which is important for our line of corsets because we really want them to be worn regularly. You might be willing to strap yourself into a heavy piece of body armor for a special event, but if you want to wear your corset as a standard part of your wardrobe you’ll appreciate the weight reduction.

Benefits of Steel Boning

Steel often works in the opposite way compared to plastic bones. It really doesn’t want to be the one changing its shape to suit you, which means you’re the one being permanently altered. And that’s a good thing when it’s what you’re specifically after, so steel bones are easily the better choice for waist training and other non-surgical, body-altering applications.

They’re also the better option when you’re looking for an extreme waist cinch–and that is, after all, what a great many people want from a corset. Steel-boned corsets can cram your body into all kinds of shapes, but you need to be careful with them for that reason. There is a real art and science behind wearing advanced corsets, and if you’re looking to get into that we’d recommend Pop Antique.

An Issue of Authenticity

Oh, but corsets are for fancy people, so what’s the point wearing one made with plastic? Anything made with the P-word must surely be inferior, and they certainly didn’t have plastic bones in their corsets in the Victorian age!

Well, true. But hey, they only started experimenting with steel boning because baleen was becoming expensive and difficult to come by, so unless you’re planning a whale hunt you are almost definitely not going to use entirely period-approved materials in your corsets. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the industry at large moved to steel boning, and they did so because it was much cheaper, not because it was better.

People refer to German plastic as synthetic whalebone because it is designed to recreate the feel and the function of the baleen used in that bygone era, while steel is most certainly not. There is a new, vibrant and wonderful tradition around steel boned corsets, but it’s exactly that–new! At least relatively. And there’s nothing wrong with that… except when it’s being used as a rather misleading and confused argument against even newer things.

More to the point, why should you care? We get hung up on the idea that the old way was the best way–mostly because it’s often true–but when it comes to the bendy hard things in the seams of your clothing you could probably stand to pick your battles more carefully. If the very first corset was designed just last Tuesday I’d still want to wear it, and Fiendish Imp is definitely not trying to be traditional in our approach.

Why Fiendish Imp Chooses German Plastic

We want to make corsets that people can wear any day of the week, with a wide variety of outfits and without regard for the rules. That spirit leads us to thinking about corsets not as a delicate piece of lingerie to be brought out of the closet once every year or two for a costume party, but as a functional and beautiful article of clothing that can be part of your everyday wardrobe. We are proud of the quality of our corsets, including the bones, and we think you should give it a try.

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