Curved front vs. a straight front dress – thoughts

Sometimes I completely forget about things I’m not supposed to forget. This blog post is an example of that. I had this post 95% done sometime in 2014 and then promptly forgot all about it. I’m finally finishing it. I apologize to the person who inspired the post and I hope she still gets to see it, all this time later.

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I got a query from a reader, Lady D of A Stitch in Time and Space, which I felt merited far more than a comment reply. The questions were:

  • Is there a reason to choose a curved front over straight front?
  • Does body shape make a difference?
  • Is one easier than the other?
  • Does it depend what closures or neckline you want to do?

Each one of these tempts me to fill reams of electronic paper with my thoughts, so I’ll do my best to answer them succinctly, based on my own experience and tailoring preferences.

Is there a reason to choose a curved front over straight front?

Perhaps. The two cuts will shape the body differently because they both have different tailoring and rely on the concept of negative ease (tight fabric pressing and molding the body). The curved front provides a more rounded bust silhouette and it tends to sit lower than the straight front dress, which provides more of a shelf/corset effect and tends to push the bosom high. So, if you’re going for a particular shape to the bosom, keep these differences in mind when picking which style to make. If you care more about which will be easier to get a flattering, proper fit from, I’d argue that adding curve to the sides and the front seams provides a lot more leeway for imperfect fit which will still result in a good bust shape than a pattern which only adds curve to the side seams. For the straight front, you really have to get it just right, or it’s very easy to make the bust look terrible. I’ve seen way too many straight front dresses with an unfortunate effect that squishes the bust on the lower outside quadrant in a diagonal that gives the lower curve an unnatural “V” shape. When done well, it’s magnificent. But far fewer people actually do it well than think they do. It takes either a serious affinity for tailoring or a LOT of practice to make it look right, in my opinion. If any of you got it in one, congratulations — you have a serious affinity for tailoring.

Does body shape make a difference?

It can, if you wish to be that discerning about it. Every rib cage and bust is different, and it’s possible that a curved front works better for one while a straight front works better for another. I believe that for large-busted women, a curved front is more forgiving. For a very small bust, it’s hard to make the case for a curved front, as the fabric does not need to swell out much at all to accommodate a modest cup size. But, even so, there are small-busted women who prefer a curve and there are large-busted women who swear by the straight front. This is the kind of thing each woman needs to decide for herself, in my opinion, possibly through trial and error.

Is one easier than the other?

Easier to fit? I’d say the curved front is easier to fit for a good look. Sewing-wise, the straight front is a bit easier, because your eyelets do not need to be distributed over curves. Also, if you lose weight, a straight front is a lot easier to take in without needing to redo eyelets. If you gain weight, it’s a tie, because proper expansion of the dress needs to occur along the side seams, armholes, and sleeves. The center front is the one thing that can get away with not being changed until there is a pretty large amount of weight gain.

Does it depend what closures or neckline you want to do?

If you’re fitting for serious bust support, you pretty much have to use lacing instead of buttons for your closure. If you’re making a fancier top layer, buttons have a better chance of laying down without the edge ruffling when that edge is straight. That said, we do have 14th century examples of extant garments (albeit men’s) with serious curve in their center-front openings where buttons are used to good effect. (Two of my favorites, if you are wondering: the coat armour attributed to Charles VI of France and the pourpoint attributed to Charles de Blois.) Neither of these tailoring styles rule out any particular closure type. I will point out, however, that if you are planning to side-lace, the curved-front design is risky, because when you sew your two curved panels together, it’s very easy to create a baggy pocket which does not get properly filled by the bust. People can easily misjudge how tight the bodice needs to be when doing this, and so I recommend using straight front tailoring for dresses which will side lace. Also, it will allow you to cut the front in one piece, creating a smooth expanse across the bosom. Here’s an example of me wearing a dress which side-laces and was cut in one piece across the front. The fit was nicely done by Charlotte Wurtzel Johnson. I used this dress as the base layer under my black dress with gold accents for my 1480s English Lady impression.

Straight front side laced square neck

This dress has a straight front, cut in one piece, it side laces, and the neck is a softened square.

Side view of a straight front dress

The side view shows the shape of the bust using this fitting style. A very experienced and talented fitter, Charlotte, draped me, so it looks pretty good.

The neckline does affect the fit of the bust, and to repeat what I’ve said above, the harder fit is the straight front. So, the wider and deeper the neckline, the more challenging it can be to get the bust to fit well. I recommend you attempt a neckline that is as wide as you can manage it without doing away with the shoulder seam altogether. I also recommend covering the whole bust — not dipping too low into the cleavage that tends to occur with a tightly-fitted dress like this. The dress above has a square neckline with slight rounding at the corners.

Check out this past post about necklines for a survey of necklines on fitted dresses in the art of the time.

Anatomy of my bodice pattern for 14th century bust support

I’m going to break down the tailoring details of how I typically attain 14thc century bust support, and more specifically, the kind that looks right for the last two decades of that century in Western Europe. Please note, though I talk about a specific method in this post, I happen to also like other methods with different tailoring techniques and placement of the lacing. I also can’t wait to see the work that develops from the Austrian bra-like finds. There has long been an undercurrent of rumor that visible historical costumers like me are dogmatic in our approach to such things, but I find that silly. By the very nature of what I am seeking to learn, there is no corner on the market of knowledge because so much is still yet unknown. All I have ever done is conduct experiments based on viable theories. And what fun it has been!

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Henri de Mondeville, before his death in 1320, wrote in his work Cirurgia (translated into English):

“Some women, unable or unwilling to resort to a surgeon, or not wanting to reveal their indecency, make in their chemises two sacks proportioned to their breasts, but shallow, and they put them on every morning, and compress them as much as they can with a suitable bandage. Others, like the women of Montpellier, compress them with tight tunics and laces…” (bolding mine)

I first became aware of this gem from Will McLean’s blog, A Commonplace Book.

I suppose that makes me very much a “woman of Montpellier”, because I prefer to wear dresses requiring lacing and a tight fit in order to wrangle my bosom. Although, one really must ask, what did a surgeon have to offer the amply-endowed 14th century woman? I am both intrigued and afraid to know!

As with any journey from Point A to Point B, there is more than one way to solve this whole bust support issue in European 14th century clothing, with more than one result in comfort, aesthetics, and silhouette. I am partial to a front-lacing dress with curves built into the center front edges and the side seams. Of course, as discussed in a previous blog post, I still fudge the silhouette with generous shoulder seams, but I am of the opinion that changing that aspect of my pattern will not affect the rest of it enough to invalidate the version I’m sharing in this post.

This comfortably traditional pattern of mine for bust support has evolved through the years. It’s a silhouette that works well for the 1380s into the early 15th century, judging from the artistic portrayals across multiple geographic locations and media usage. I could stand to adjust the shoulder seams and neckline shape as already mentioned, but otherwise, I’m quite happy with it. To see how different this pattern is from my earlier efforts, take a quick look at the final pattern shape I came up with for the curved front seam method in my old photo essay on this topic. Keep that page open, and then compare to the photo of my more recent pattern below. Virtually unrelated!

There are a number of signature features to this bodice pattern’s tailoring. By analyzing them individually, we can better understand a form of patterning that will be effective for the challenge of wrangling the female bust.

Here’s a photo of the most recent custom bodice pattern which I use for my own late 14th century-style fitted dresses:

Tasha's traditional bodice pattern

Tasha’s traditional bodice pattern

Keep in mind that the principle at work behind this tailoring method is “negative ease”, which means that it’s skin-tight. This is not a pattern intended to skim the upper body. This is what my body silhouette would look like if it were flattened out and quartered. (YUCK!) Now I will highlight specific shapes and explain their purpose.

Under-bust points on the front piece

Under-bust points on the front piece

On both the center-front edge and the side seam there is a sharply defined point where the bust curve ends and the lines below the bust begin. When laced close, this creates a band of strength just below the bust which prevents the bust from creeping downward. It also creates a sharply defined pocket within which the bust can rest.

Bust curves on front piece

Bust curves on front piece

Note also that both the side seam and the center-front edge have a defined curve in the bust area. This helps distribute the bust evenly across the entire chest and helps reduce the tendency for the bust to collect in the middle. I find the curve on the side seam especially useful and important, even for women of a smaller size. The less important curve is the one in the front, as long as the side’s curve provides room for the bust.

Under-bust flare on front piec

Under-bust flare on front piec

Notice that the lines extending out from under the bust points are mostly straight for about three inches of length before they flare generously. This is the aforementioned band of strength which stabilizes the bust and gives you confidence that everything is going to stay where it should for long periods of time. The subsequent flare allows the dress to skim over the tummy while maintaining the appearance of a defined waist. Much of the later 14th century and early 15th century figural imagery portrays women with higher waists than we modern folks are used to. If it is too close-fitting across the belly, every little variation in your curves will show, and that’s not always desirable (or comfortable!) either.

Armholes on front and back pieces

Armholes on front and back pieces

The armhole is deeper in the front than in the back. They are both cut with a strong curve and end right up in the armpit, though you can see that the back piece’s armhole is somewhat shallower than the front piece’s. This improves range of motion of the arm in its natural position (slightly towards the front of the body). It also places the armhole seam at the fulcrum of your shoulder joint’s movement, which keeps it from binding your mobility. My initial photo essays on the draping method for this style showed the armholes much larger than I would now deem ideal for this style of dress.

The curve of the center-back seam

The curve of the center-back seam

The center back seam closely follows the curve of the body all the way to the top of the rear end. This accentuates the S-curve at the bottom of the spine — a feminine feature much appreciated aesthetically. You may have also noticed that the back piece is much thinner than the front piece. This is because there is typically more of you on the front of your body than the back, if we are using the side seam as the splitting point.

Tasha, August 2012

Tasha, August 2012

Here I am, wearing a linen dress I made from the pattern above. Pretty comfortable and definitely supportive.

Other people have different signature bodice patterns that they are equally happy with, and I encourage you to experiment until you find the right one(s) for you.