"I've got a Bad Back, you know"

 

The steels of a Modart back-support corset pulled out of their casings (right). These steels were the intimate partners of countless women (and men) who suffered from 'bad backs'.

How often have we heard this complaint ? I suffer from one and so do many of my friends. By no means confined to women, it is, however, women that suffer most. One cannot bear children and carry around pounds and pounds of mammary tissue without putting a dreadful strain on one's vertebrae.

Spirella, Spencer and a host of surgical appliance shops in the Charing Cross Road had the answer to this problem, however, it was Spencer that probably provided more relief to the aching back than any other make. Their bespoke service ensured that the corrective corset would fit properly. There is nothing more painful, or potentially damaging than a poorly fitted garment. Should the client resent the fact that she needed to be strapped and laced into her rigid tube (as several husbands described their wives' armour), then at least there would be a choice of the most feminine materials available. The pictures that head our Spencer page show how a surgical corset can become an object of beauty. As my husband said "Amour doesn't necessarily have to turn to armour".

Sarah Ann Jenyns of Australia provided similar support to many antipodean women. The 3690/9 'long abdominal' (right) featured four spinal steels, and with a good fit as shown in the pictures provided excellent support and relief.

 

The corsets below are excellent, and terrifyingly sturdy contraptions. At least even back steels have some flexibility in the Modart example, but if immobilisation was required, then a steel frame was the alternative. The corsets below were the daily wear for ladies who sought relief from the pain of trapped nerves and weak discs. As with any corset of course, one has to tread a careful line between temporary support, and a permanent necessity. Pity the poor elderly woman of last decades, brought up to wear corsets, utterly dependent on them yet in despair at finding a corsetiere.

 

 

If the spinal support required more length or rigidity, then shoulder straps had to be employed to prevent the back steels parting company with the spine. It wasn't just the elderly or overweight that wore these devices as shown by the slim Spencer model from 1938 below.

All these women know what a bad back is all about. One of the poor ladies (and this is no model) even has her neck supported by a celluloid addition to the top of the corset.

  

 

 

 

Norwegian corset 1953

 

Formidable garments all, however, they performed their task and many women who would have been rendered otherwise helpless, were able to carry out their 'household duties' (as Spirella quoted in the chauvinistic language of the 1930's).

Often, as seen above, the corsets are fabricated from corset-grade satin. This tough material is sufficiently 'slippery' to allow free passage of ones' outer garments over the corset. Although the shoulders-back posture necessitated by these corsets was a 'give-away' to the corsetiere's eagle eye, there was no need for the lady's support to evidence itself in any other way, such as creaking or snagging.

I knew a lady who wore such a device for several years and found it comfortable, although restrictive. The major complaint was the shoulder-straps, that, due to the intrusion of the bosom, have to be routed painfully underneath the armpits. Copious padding eventually solved this one problem. We have related elsewhere, the perils of over-tightening these straps since, once past a critical tension, the wearer's arms start to loose their mobility and, for example, eating becomes impossible for one's mouth is out of reach!

  

This current product from Turkey is anchored in place, top, sides and even bottom. If shoulder straps chafe, Goodness knows what the lower straps will do!

The bane of the shoulder straps really can't be avoided, although, as I said above, it can be alleviated. Many manufacturers crossed the straps behind the back, and in others, the straps would meet at a buckle, centre-back, and then be drawn back to the same side from which they started. This was bulkier and more expensive, but it did maintain the position of the straps and keep them from riding up into the armpits.

I well remember one of my Mother's bridge friends. She tended to stoop slightly revealing the tell-tale ridge of her corset top through her blouse. One day she turned up with no stoop at all. The transformation was so pronounced that her friends were moved to comment. She described how she had to wear a longer corset, however, she was obviously uncomfortable and commented "Mind you, I didn't expect to strapped up like this!" with quite some feeling.

The model on the right allows for a 'quick conversion of one's corset into a dorso-

lumbar support'.  www.backbraces.com/pages-products/backsupports5.html

Of all the varieties of corset ever made, the back-support is still sold in reasonable numbers to women who, quite simply, do have a bad back. Not as common in previous decades, since the concept of corset-wearing is two generations old, nevertheless, I know of several elderly ladies whose day-to-day comfort (and posture) depends upon a corset such as those depicted below and still available from several outlets.

 

I've dealt with the German back elsewhere, however, at least the elderly hausfrau still has access to a fashionable and well-fitted back support.

 

 

 

Most probably CAMP sold more of these back supports than any other company. Their sheer experience over eight decades, the familiarity of the name and the range of choices was immense.

The models on the left from 1932, and on the right from 1941 show how the same generic garment to be tailored to all shapes and sizes.

 

The danger of the strapless back support (and many were made with detachable straps), was that on bending forward, the corset would separate from the spine. Obviously this reduces the efficacy of the device, and advertises to whoever is watching, that you are wearing a corset. Not all women like such intimate details to be common knowledge. The corset on the right is so long in the back, and so short in the front that the distinctive scalloped top of the corset will be seen through all but the thickest tweeds.

Many women (and men) wore shorter, firm supports for horse-riding. Camp made an excellent corset with side fan-lacing that pulled two rigid steels into the small of the back. Although not widely advertised (what teenage girl wishes her friends to know that wears a corset), these garments were discretely worn around gymkhanas world-wide.

As a footnote, my husband did a bit of mental arithmetic while he compiled this page.

"If a typical back-support corset were front-fastened by buckles instead of laces, that would be about eight buckles." I agreed. Spencer often used buckles. "If she had an underbelt, that could be another five on each side." Again, quite true. "With the shoulder straps, that's another two. Lumbar belt, another two, and six suspenders." He paused, "That's 22 buckles in all!" I shuddered. I do have a back back and I'm very grateful that I can get away with nothing more than a Spencer corset.