Basic Styles and What They Were Made Of
For the middle and upper classes, a corset is an important part of Renaissance faire attire. Without a corset, even the most elegant gown can look wrinkled and frumpy. The right underpinnings really make the look, so don't think about wearing a high class gown without a good corset. However, corsets have been around for centuries, and their shape and construction have changed over that time. There's more to a corset than just boning and lacing! Here's how to find a Renaissance corset that will be flattering and correct for your period and costume.
There are many types of corsets on the market, from period correct sixteenth century corsets, similar Baroque corsets, curvy Victorian styles that look great but are all wrong for the period, and modern lingerie corsets. There's a world of difference between a Frederick's of Hollywood corset and one that's right for wear at the faire. The first thing to look at is the shape, and to think about what you need to wear your corset with.
While the Renaissance covers the period including the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, corsets were only used from the 1520s on. That's when the inverted cone shape became popular for women's bodices. Look for a Renaissance corset that provides a smooth, conical line, rather than a curvy shape, like you'd see in a modern corset or a 19th century reproduction.
Extant examples are both back lacing and front lacing, so either is appropriate. Back lacing corsets provide a smoother front long, but can be harder to put on by yourself, so don't choose one if you don't have assistance. Front lacing corsets should be worn under garments that will hide the ridges from the laces.
All corsets should be boned to create the right shape. In period, the method used to stiffen a corset could range from reed and whalebone to rope, twisted fabric, and even a primitive form of cardboard! Modern corsets in the Renaissance style may use reed or cording, but are also likely to use plastics or steel. Be sure that there's enough boning in your Renaissance corset to allow it to hold its shape through the course of a long hot day, and even through dancing and exercise.
You might be surprised to learn that you can exercise in a corset, but a well fitted one won't restrict you too much. Make sure that you can bend from the waist and breathe comfortably in your corset. It shouldn't impede your movement too much or be uncomfortable - waist reducing and body deforming corsets didn't become popular until centuries later. Many women actually find a Renaissance corset to be more comfortable than a modern brassiere.
To find a great Renaissance corset for your costume, check retailers you trust. You can buy one at faire (a great idea, since you can try the corset on there), find one through an online retailer (be sure to check the sizing!), or make your own. It's also possible to commission a custom corset to be made for you by an experienced corset maker. This is expensive, but you'll know that your corset will fit well and last a long time.