Fan-lacing Corsets

Various authorities refer to both “fan-lacing” and “cluster-lacing” corsets. I have used both terms interchangeably.

 

I: Samuel Higby Camp and his Amazing Corsets

 

The Development of the Fan-lacing Corset

The 'Classic' Camp Corset

Fashionable Camp Corsetry

The Camp Girdle

Camp Brassieres

Camp Catalogues through the Decades

Misconceptions

Memories

 

Pulley Power is still the quickest and most effective way to lace a corset. Against the powerful engineering principles, not even the most protuberant of abdomens stood a chance!

 

II: The Scientific Support and the Rivals

The Scientific Support

The Jenyns Corset

Other Fan-lacers

 

Acknowledgements: Throughout the text in this article, I had intended to use illustrations from our own archives. However, I soon realised that these archives had completely missed some of the most beautiful and elegant corsets procured by the vendors that sell via Ebay auctions. These garments were quite an education to me and this page would be a far poorer place to visit without them. I would like to thank Cherry-Tomatoe, Lyn Locke, and Trishypoo for their generous permission to use these photographs. I have tried to credit the photographs accordingly using their  initials. Their web and auction sites are a wealth of information for a researcher who believed that such garments existed only in her memory and the few remaining catalogues of that period.

 

 

I: S.H.Camp and his Amazing Corsets

 

The Development of the Fan-lacing Corset

Lacing a corset was traditionally the job of the lady's maid. Romantically we may imagine the young woman being eased out of her stays by her ardent lover, but in the cold light of dawn, it was the maid or the Mother who would tighten the laces. The laces were virtually always in the back of the corset since that preserved the tight, clean lines at the front of the dress. With maids to help, there was no reason to mount the lacing anywhere else.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, it was realised that not every corset-wearing woman had a maid. In reality, the vast majority didn't, especially after the social upheaval of the First World War, and so front-lacing became more popular. The reason is obvious to anybody who has ever tried it: lacing your own corset at the back is possible, but neither easy nor quick. With a new population of working woman who had to handle their wardrobe without assistance, the front-laced corset was a simple practicality. Simultaneously, various improved methods of tightening the rear-lacings were devised, even in Victorian times.

 

Victorian pre-cursor (left) to S.H. Camp's brilliant invention (right - TP)  and the many generic copies

It was left to Samuel Higby Camp of Jackson, Michigan in 1908 to invent an alternative approach to this problem. At first sight it seems bulky and complex, yet is still in use today, nearly 100 years later. Camp drew out the back-mounted lacings into several fans that could be tightened from the front by means of straps and buckles. It is by far the easiest way to lace a pair of corsets and caught on immediately. The concept was patented in the US on 7th June 1921, and in 1941 S.H. Camp himself was still Managing Director of the company that he founded.

Camp's system and the subsequent patent are very clever in that the apex of the fan-lacing passes through a metal former so that the lacing still consists of one length and that the angle of pull on the straps is effective over a wide range. This invokes the 'pulley' principle to good effect and renders the garment extremely easy to adjust. However, the patent was easily circumvented by several imitators, who simply stitched the apex of the fan onto the strap. This system is not quite as effective; however, these corsets were also remarkably popular and achieved many decades of success, notably in Australia under the Jenyns label.

 

 

The source of much controversy. The genuine Camp system on the left, where a 'pulley system' is employed, contrasts with the Jenyns straight pull on the right. The Jenyns lacks the elegant engineering solution pioneered by Camp. However, it is less bulky and I have heard from one lady who has worn both styles that she had no real preference for one or the other. One could almost say that, like the marsupials of the New World, the fan-laced corset evolved differently from its Old World cousin whilst achieving the same objective. I suspect this last piece of philosophy shows that I know more about corsetry than biology!

A real comparison between the brands as modelled from the Ivy Leaf Collection and displayed in the Calendar of 2010.

Both Camp and Jenyns soldier on into the 21st century, leaving behind others of the same ilk such as Gale's 'famous scientific support' as marketed by Sears, and such ephemeral supports as 'Dr. Wilbur's Abdominal Corset' as sold by Pontin's of Oxford Street, London. With no disrespect to either Pontin's or Dr. Wilbur, an example of the latter's corset split whilst being worn. This is only one of two corsets that I have heard of failing during wearing. The unfortunate wearer of a brand new Dr. Wilbur's corset bent over during a game of bridge to retrieve a fallen pencil and caused much amusement to her friends as the material of her corsets ripped apart quite audibly. Both cases of failure (the other was one of my beloved Spirellas) were due to swathes of defective-quality materials being delivered to the factory.

As I mentioned earlier, fan-lacing was developed as the solution to self-lacing, and this factor is what kept the fan-lacers in the shops for so many decades. Isobel mentions this in her recollections. "With regard to fan-laced corsets, we found these to be particularly popular with our older lady customers, especially those whom found it difficult to lace a back lacing garment." For those of you that have worn, or tried to wear, a back-lacing corset, let me tell you that the fan-lacing principle makes the whole task so much easier. 

 

The 'Classic' Camp Corset

The classic Camp corset has some patented and unique features. We have already mentioned the fan-lacing pulley system; however, it is worth noting that the top fan-lacing on the back-laced models has a “former” with three holes, while the bottom former has five holes to accommodate the extra length of lacing. The top fan was designed to control the waist, and the bottom fan the hips. It thus becomes obvious from the picture comparing the Camp and Jenyns lacing systems (see above) that the Camp former is from the bottom lacing. Another classic feature is the “swing” (or “trolley”) suspender mounted on the side. This was hung from a piece of elastic whose two ends were mounted fore and aft, to allow the suspender to travel along the elastic as the wearer walked and sat. Again, this is engineering brilliance. (However, did any woman feel much benefit over the conventional suspender?—one wonders.)

 

The classic Camp corset (CT). Note the twin fan-lacers with three-hole upper former and five-hole lower one on model  944; swing suspenders, relatively thin suspenders at the front (all adjustable of course), and the reinforcement around the hips where the major fan-lacing would put its maximum strain on the garment. The strain must have been considerable since most corsetieres who dealt with Camp will remember repairing the reinforcement from time to time. The picture on the right is the generic Camp model  9143  from a 1970 brochure. The triple lacer (model 241) is one of the most powerful corsets ever made. It will flatten the most protuberant of abdomens. It reminds me a a passage from Tom Sharpe's book 'Porterhouse Blue' - "Lady Mary adjusted the straps of her surgical corset with a vigour that reminded Sir Godber of a race meeting"!

The classic Camp has not changed in principle since its invention nearly 100 years ago, and the final most popular form has remained the same since the Second World War. The most popular model was the 143, and variations on this were being sold in Europe until a year ago. The Camps were never really made-to-measure; they were available in a huge range of sizes, and it was the corsetiere's task to select the combination of measurements that would suit her client. In the section on Camp Catalogues through the Decades it becomes obvious that the products haven't really changed at all. The latest Camp or BaskoCamp or Basko catalogues from Europe now deal exclusively with surgical supports and the engineering mastery of S.H. Camp has been replaced by the practical, ever popular and totally unfeminine Velcro. I'm afraid the fashionable intent of the Camp corset has completely vanished.

If anybody ever doubted the fashionable side of  Camp corsetry, look at the sheen on the 9143 model above. That would have been a satin brocade material. Now regard some of the images below. I've seen many British Camp brochures and the materials have varied from the plainest of coutil to quite fancy brocades, however, it was CT's incredible finds at latterly unfashionable 'corset shops' that opened a whole new world to me. The world of ......... >>>

 

Fashionable Camp Corsetry

I have alluded above to the blending of fashion and support that became the Camp post-War hallmark. The easy lacing method invented by S.H. himself had developed into a corsetry icon. I had no idea, however, that the fashionable aspect had gone to the lengths that the corsets below display. Truly, these are some of the most beautiful, yet eminently functional, corsets that I have ever seen.   

The garment below on the left, although in a fabulous material, reveals one of the shortcomings of the Camp lacing system. Look at the well-defined waist that such a powerful garment could produce on the most recalcitrant of figures. But with it, those wretched buckles stand out. In practice, and it really is a shame when you regard these lovely creations, there is actually not much less than a tweed skirt that would hide the engineering of these remarkable garments.

A satin CAMP corset from the late-1950's

   

Satin is always a bonus in a good corset (left - IL collection) and despite the heavy backk boning, there is no need to wear a plain garment (middle and right CT).

 

        

Another superb example (CT)  of a classy and feminine material overcoming the serious intent of the garment. Note on the right that CAMP did produce some corsets with conventional lacing (VGP) but this was not the norm and these garments are now rarities.

 

This classic triple lacer was one of the most powerful corsets available to 1960's woman. S.H.Camp's pulleys would pull the most recalcitrant of abdomens as flat as a board. There are so many of these corsets around the auctions today that there can be little doubt as to their popularity.

 

A lovely attempt to beautify a surgical corset by the addition of rather attractive lace

 

The corset appears to be vintage but this is unlikely since the suspenders are very 1960's in design. It's a charming attempt either by Camp or by the client to soften the otherwise functional design of the garment.

 

 

The Side Lacer

 

The fan-lacing principle, and the mechanical advantages involved, were adapted, not just for back-lacing, but side-lacing. When a back support garment needs two or four heavy, rigid steels to be placed securely against the wearer's spine, the side-lacing corset comes into its own.

This example, which was typical of many Camps sold from the 1950's onwards, has no adjustment in the lower third of the garment, relying solely on a good fit and elastic. It is the top part where triple lacers ram four rigid steels into the wearer's back, effectively immobilising the spine. Unlike the beautiful fashion Camps above, this was one of the conventional models, constructed from hard-wearing coutil, but that was what the majority could afford.

 

 

The Buckler

 

I think all Camp wearers will agree, that their claim to fame was the fan-laced corset. Most of these garments are generically called Camps, even those manufactured by others (Hoover is the same). They did make conventionally laced corsets and some sturdy buckled devices (right) that were sold with limited success, however, as an elderly lady once told me "I wear Camps because they are so easy to adjust, if I wanted a conventional corset, I'd buy a Gossard, or a Spirella if I could afford it."

Nevertheless, Camp ensured that whatever one of their products you selected, that troublesome spine would have have been secured, and any protuberance of the tummy completely flattened. The poor sufferer of the poorly back, at least would attain a stunning figure. I pity those today who are proscribed hideously sweaty, and expensive neoprene wrap-arounds for their ailments. A corset should be a corset, not an apology!

 

The Lightweight

 

A concept, alien to north Europeans but all too familiar to the Miami matron, is the heat of Summer. British women by and large wore the same foundations summer or winter, however, in tropical climes, the heavy brocades and satins were completely unbearable before the advent of air-conditioning.

 

This lead to the rather strangle looking surgical corset (right) complete with all the bones and steels necessary for it to achieve its function, the whole contraption held together by a virtually transparent fabric.

 

Spencer used an aertex style of fabric to achieve the same end. Much research (and presumably some embarrassing failures) went into designing a fabric that was light enough to breathe in summer, yet strong enough to withstand the powerful forces generated by Samuel Camp's engineering.

 

 

 

 

 

The Camp Girdle

The Camp girdle (below left) started life as a lighter type of corset, but in the 1950's, they caught on to what a girdle really meant.

The Camp patented ‘Adjustaband’ control was used on their girdles from the late 1950’s until the 1990’s, where these girdles still were seen in the European Basko Camp catalogues of the day. Sadly, they are no longer sold.

                                     

A genuine CAMP advertisement from the late 1970's (middle) uses the age-old ploy of demonstrating a foundation garment on a figure decades younger the clientele for which it was marketed. Strangely, the advertisement on the right (which is not a CAMP product) shows that in the 1990's, the system is still around, and in this case aimed at a far younger audience.

The Camp orthopaedic panty-girdles were some of the strongest panty-girdles ever made, and combined rigid back boning with the 'Adjustaband Control'. Model 98 (below), an open bottom girdle, even had four of these fasteners. Note how these garments were popular in Europe long after they had vanished from the USA and Britain. Oddly enough, a Dutch corsetiere who has run the Coja business in Rijswijk for over 40 years claimed that the rare customers who bought these girdles were largely English!

Like the Camp corset, the Camp girdle employed unique features. Whether these were protected by a patent I have no idea. However, the few companies that copied them found that the Camp 'Adjustaband Control' was not particularly effective and, without the brand name, these products had a limited life. Amazingly, these girdles, under the title Cadenza, that were first marketed after the war were still being sold by Camp in the late 1990's.

  

The Camp Cadenza 98 from the brochure of 1970 and two beautiful examples auctioned recently (CT). The examples on the right are probably unsold stock items from the 1980's (note the metal suspenders but the plastic zip). The reinforced back boning of the model on the right was a Camp specialty of combining serious support with fashionable intent.

The Camp girdle combined elastic panels with attractive materials and the 'Adjustaband Control'. Again, like the corset, the hooks of the bands stand proud and talking to women who have worn the girdles, the variable positioning of the bands is merely like the rows of eyes on a brassiere. It serves to accommodate the slackness of the elastic with age. However elegant the girdle on the right (above) appears, I doubt if it could ever be as functional  as a real corset. Look at the expanse of thin elastic between the rigid back panel and the front. 

 

Panty-girdles

 

Camp even produced panty-girdles in the 'Adjustaband Control' style which were on sale in the USA, Australia and Holland until the mid-1990's although I suspect that after the mid-1980's, the shops were passing on 'dead stock'. The American model 91245 (right) rates as one of the strongest panty-girdles ever made despite my criticisms above. If the size said 30", it was a warning to those with a 34" waist not even to think about trying it on. Heavily boned front and back it is a very effective garment, although the expanse of medium-strength elastic on the sides sets a limit to its powers, despite the 'Adjustaband control'. The girdle was briefly marketed by Camp in the USA as the 'Slim Jim', a name that keeps cropping up in the world of girdles. 

This particular example for a scant 28" waist measures 20" from the top to the bottom of the leg.

 

The examples from Britain and Europe (below) are no less formidable. The British 9171 on the left has dropped the charming satin panels and uses CAMP's last British material, a star patterned brocade. Suspenders are not even as option. The Dutch models 401 and 402 (below middle & right) use patterned elastic and virtually bullet-proof, boned front and rear satin panels. The middle girdle is even panelled beneath the crotch piece, a touch I've never encountered on any other garment.

 

The heroically strong 'Slim-Jim' 91245, oddly enough purchased from Jenyns in Brisbane (1993)

 

 

 

Camp always labelled their products with height above waist and length below waist.

 

UK 9171                                                                               Holland  401                                                                              Holland 405

Like all inventions, it was copied by others, notably Grotena of Holland and Germany and Mireille of France. The latter garment is so elastic that it falls into the category of ‘laced girdle’ rather than corset. Like the laced rubber corsets, the lacing has the interesting effect of stretching the garment rather than reducing the wearer !

A Mireille laced girdle (1978), a Grotena pantie-girdle (1992) and one of the last Camp girdles available from the Basko catalogue of 1996.

I might be critical of the potential support of these garments, but in no way do I criticise their elegance, and to give two final examples:-

This is probably one of the most beautiful girdles that Camp ever made (CT).

The inimitable Lyn Locke wears an American Camp pantie-girdle.

 

Brassieres

Camp also made brassieres using the same fan-lacing mechanism; however, I have never found any of the brassieres built with the same style and elegance as some of the girdles and corsets.

 

Both these brassieres are hook front and adjusted with the fan-lacing. Note the metal “former” so typical of Camp. Such garments would be able to control any size of matronly bosom, and more practically could cope with the figure fluctuations that plague the older woman.

In 'misconceptions' (see below), various incorrect uses of the corset as a brassiere have been demonstrated.

 

Camp Catalogues through the Decades

Misconceptions

   

I suppose that in today's world, where corsets are virtually unknown, misconceptions will occur as to how these garments were worn. One of the most common errors is for the uninitiated to believe that the Camp corset was worn back to front and upside down, so that the curvature for the derriere becomes the container for the bosom.

I have seen this so often in auction photographs. Having twin one-inch-wide duralumin spinal steels to protect the bosom may be extremely virtuous, but also I fear rather uncomfortable. This excellent, but incorrect use of the corset (above) does illustrate another disadvantage of the fan-lacing system. What do you do with all that spare webbing once the laces have been pulled tight? Yet again an argument for a heavy tweed skirt to disguise the engineering. As for the example in the middle, the ingenious photographer has managed to use the back swing suspenders as shoulder straps. Just what they though the suspender clips were for defies imagination. Having had my small rant, I do know of a couple of women who suffered badly from swelling of the arms. They wore surgical 'arm stockings' to contain the oedema. The older of the two women managed to secure these stockings with suspenders attached to the shoulder straps of her corset.

Another misconception is the frequent appearance on the auctions of Camp corsets with press buttons and stud fastenings but no suspenders. Often these are accompanied by a comment such as "poor Granny, having to wear this." In fact, Granny never wore these, but Granddad might have, for these are Camp's male corsets.

Even Spencers come in for their fair share of misunderstandings. The spinal steels have been used here to push up the bosom; it might even be quite effective!!

   

Proceed to Part II