As I drove from Mrs Norris’s home, I almost had to pinch myself to confirm that what I had experienced in the previous two hours had really happened. I reflected on it for most of the journey and wondered if was written in the stars. The “dark years” of my Odyssey were over. Those years had begun in the Callaghan government’s cold “winter of discontent” in 1978-79, which was followed by the harsh economic years of early Thatcherism. During that period, the cost of a G78 casual corset went from Ł25 to Ł30 and then Ł35, fully-fashioned stockings rose from less than a pound to over two pounds and Gardner’s finally foundered at the end of 1980.
Known for so long as “The Iron Maiden”, it was not lost on me that Mrs Thatcher’s appellation was also the name of the type of metal corset, which had been Gardner’s letterhead logo. It was often regarded as an instrument of torture in medieval times and many thought that if not metaphorically torturing them she was at least tight lacing her public into an economic corset! Yet, on the very day that her mettle and steely resolve was proven by the ultimate success of the forces in the Falklands I got the good news of Mrs Norris resuming work on her own account and of her accepting me as a client. About the day the fleet was being exultantly welcomed back at Plymouth, I had met Mrs Norris for my very first appointment at her home.
After much anguish, suddenly the future looked much brighter. In the first 15 years of my Odyssey I had met set-back after set-back, brought on largely by the relentlessness of the grim reaper in harvesting the last generation of women who had entrusted their figures, deportment and style to real busked corsets. Women for whom the attendant elegance of the straight seams of fully-fashioned stockings properly reined in place by strong, trusty suspenders, of whom, Mrs Norris herself was a worthy representative.
But first I must go back to that memorable day in December 1982. Not only had Mrs Norris taken me as personal client, she had given me the greatest confidence she could offer by allowing me to appear in her presence in just corsets and stockings. I’d had a long anxious time regarding the future and though my corsetičre was now operating independently it seemed that aspects of her future were a little too depended on others and on the availability of essential components which were only used in corsets and relied on long production runs to achieve the economy of scale that allowed them to be sold at low prices. For that reason I continued to feel I should identify new sources and this was one reason that I followed up on my contact with the Berks Corsetier.
2 MEETING THE BERKS CORSETIER
What I now write about has proven to be the hardest part of my Odyssey to adapt from my diary of the time, even in today’s more liberated times. It would be easy to say that today I have no need to been so inhibited and should be able to readily put my thoughts on paper. However that is because I am a member of a dying generation imprinted when women almost universally wore skirts, displayed the seams of stockings and used suspenders hung from corsets, belts or girdles. These are items of attire that only a few members of the generations which became teenagers after the 1960s will ever have seem, and in today’s liberated moral climate the majority will certainly never understand why men wearing such things could ever be the cause of inhibition. .
As a prelude to meeting the Berks Corsetier, over the previous eight months I had entered into a copious correspondence and had a good idea of who he was. After several postponements, it was unfortunate that the only suitable day I could meet him was one and the same as that on which I had arranged to visit Mrs Norris. If I had known what had transpired with Mrs Norris, and which I have related at the end of Part 4 of my Odyssey, and was to transpire with him that day, I would not have made such an arrangement. In the event what should have been simply a red-letter day became a double red-letter day.
I left Mrs Norris in the early afternoon and stopped at the first phone box en route to confirm that I was on my way and to day what time I expected to arrive. For much of the journey, driving in as tightly laced a condition as I’d ever been, I reflected on what I had just experienced. I had been actually been seen by someone else while wearing just a corset and stockings, and I had been helped to lace the corset on. As I neared my destination, my thoughts turned to what I might expect at my next stop with a novitiate in the art corsetry. . In anticipation, for several days I had mulled over in my mind ideas of how I would like our meeting to evolve. My main hope was that it should be a decorous, and platonic occasion, as had been the experience I had just had with my accomplished corsetičre. I reflected on how I and got myself into such a situation.
From the moment I bought my first suspender belt and stockings in 1967 I had thought and read widely about my “condition”. I had done something that was generally considered to be “taboo”. I had read as many books on the subject as a could, which in the more-accepting climate had meant that being “gay” was no longer criminal but I shill worried about the wretch who ran foul of the law because he was denounced by someone who contrived to detect on a bus that he was wearing women’s nylons. Such was the climate when back in early 1967 I had first ventured to buy my first suspender belt and black nylons. Things had got “better” and “safer and if nothing else my experience, worries and subsequent reading had made me more tolerant from being decidedly in the “anti-gay” camp.
As recently as a few years earlier, I would have said that any man who met with another man to talk about, let alone wear any item of, women’s clothing, as I was now about to do, would class me as a gay man. In those times, any sign of anything other than strong masculinity was viewed with suspicion. I now had great empathy for those people for I knew, that like them, I would be equally open to ridicule, if no longer liable to prosecution, if my secret was ever exposed. Although I knew I was not gay, I knew that I would be unable to convince the still bigoted public at large - probably not even my mother, let alone my father - and certainly not other family members, nor colleagues at work.
Acceptance on the part of my corsetičre, Mrs Norris and the mix of understanding comments and casual asides she had made during my Gardner visits, had helped me immeasurably in coming to realise that I was not alone. But here, on the next logical step of my Odyssey, I was still breaking new ground and was filled with anxiety. For every advance, for every Rocky Horror Show, for every groundbreaking magazine like Oz there was Mrs Whitehouse and a clamp down on “sleaze” in Soho and there had been the derisive “Lumberjack’s Song”, lustily sung by Michael Palin and his “mounties”. Mainstream opinion was rooted in former times. I was caught straddling the two cultures of probity and permissiveness.
I find it ironic that compelled to act on my “imprinting” by black nylons in the 1950s, along the way I get a “taste” for taut suspendering and that, in my search for suspendering perfection, I end up finding the only way to achieve it is to wear corsets. I am truly the dinosaur. I cannot but wonder at the way in which young women, who must never have worn fully-fashioned nylons, nor suspender belts let alone corsets, in their day-to-day life, now don them, with varying degrees of rigour as regards fit and size, and proceed to pose in them for images placed on websites that old fogies such as myself, pore over and lament what had been “lost” since the advent of the permissive 1960s.
3 IN DEEPEST BERKSHIRE
I travelled by way of Aylesbury and High Wycombe and, thanks to his excellent travel instructions, I reached the Berks Corsetier’s home in the Royal County of Berkshire, an hour or so west of London just as it was getting dark. Parked in the driveway was the brown car he had mentioned. The number on the door confirmed that I was at the right house, for this was no time to make a mistake. I drew up in front of the car and as I stiffly stepped out of mine.
Though the day was now turning into the December twilight, my paranoia meant that I imagined all the neighbourhood could see how dis-accommodated I was in my effort to get out of the low car. They would instantly conclude what I was wearing and the nature of my business. My stiffness was in part that which is usually attendant following a fairly long stretch of driving, but today it was largely due to the unaccustomed degree of the tightness and height of the corsets into which Mrs Norris had so expertly laced me less than 2 hours earlier.
I straightened myself to a standing position and appreciated the unforgettable feeling as one’s stockings slide over one’s knees while being pulled by strong suspenders. The bagginess that forms in the knees when the wearer sits down low and long was being reined smooth. I sensed the corset slide a little higher on my form in response to the resistance of the rigid shoulder straps. This was all so new to me. I had never spent so long in a car in such long corsets nor been so tightly laced before. It was a measure of how far I had come. It was also a testament as to how expertly the corsets had been cut, for despite their undoubted tightness, I had almost forgotten I was wearing them till I moved to get out of the car.
I bent - as much as anyone’s double-boned and back-steeled corsets would allow them to - and reached back into the back of the car for my “Pilot” style document case. In it were several other corsets of different lengths, a deep suspender belt, plus stockings of different lengths as well as the white support tights and cache sex I wore at all my fitting appointments with Mrs Norris. I dismissed the idea that all the curtains were moving and bag in hand walked up the path and nervously I knocked the door.
Fortunately I had to wait only a moment before the door opened, else I might well have turned away there and then, such was my sudden doubt of what I was doing. However my contact had sounded very pleasant on the phone and in correspondence and that reassured me. When the door opened, to see a normal looking man in sweater, shirt and trousers proved to be a great relief. There were no surprises he was in his mid-50s about 10 years older than me.
Now was not the time to lose courage and ignore the compulsion to pursue the corseted life had inspired my efforts After a diffident exchange of pleasantries - thanking for good directions, etc. - on both our parts, I followed mine host into the house. He showed me to a low sofa. The obvious difficulty I had in sitting meant, if nothing else that “the ice” was well and truly “broken” since it was evident to him, who knew my secret and as I casually as I could admitted that the corsets I was wearing were indeed very long and very tight. In contrast my host sat down with ease and I could not tell if he was already corseted. If he was, based on the evidence of the photos I judged that he would be wearing classic Spirella style corsets - the long skirted versions of which allowed the wearer’s hips and bottom to “slide around” within the corset skirt as they moved to sit down. At least that’s how the theory goes but it still depends on the attendant strain of the hem of the skirt being accommodated by suspenders with elastic strong enough and, by stockings knitted with yarn of sufficient weight.
4 TALKING CORSETS WITH A CORSETIER
I am reporting this account of our first meeting at length, not because I want to shock, and I hope I do not. Moreover I trust that readers will understand what a debt men like myself and I know Berks Corsetier, now sadly deceased, would have agreed, owe to Ivy Leaf for giving us the space to record our thoughts. As the one who penned “Why there is another side” much of what I wrote there is the result of meetings over the years with Berks Corsetier, but none was no important to us both as that first anxious meeting of December 1982.
I also realise that I may be stretching the tolerance and attention of some readers simply by in recalling the events in the detail I have done. However, I am sure that the likes of Simon, will understand what a time of liberation it was for my host and myself. For all of us who have responded to the driving force of inner compulsion then experienced doubts, anxieties, fed in part by it the need to keep them secret.
Once seated, and still slightly breathless from my seriously constrained effort to sit so low down, I could do no other than open the conversation by recounting why I had arrived so tightly-laced and what had occurred at my appointment afternoon with Mrs Norris. I did so, not with any intent to brag, not to make my host, and soon to be new friend envious, but simply to confirm how serious I was about being well corseted for as much of the time as I could be. As a fellow ‘traveller”, I basically knew I need have no so concerns and assuming this, which was confirmed when he complimented me on my “achievement” and of my being accorded full customer’s privileges by Mrs. Norris.
It turned out that he had met Mrs. Norris when he had patronised Gardner’s occasionally some years earlier, when he had bought several corsets from Gardner’s. In his case it was hard to get what he called “medium lacing” styles as Mrs Norris clearly practised and so obviously specialised in classical tight lacing corsets, that she was not as experienced in making what he really wanted to wear.
We quickly established that neither of us was gay but realised that, because we liked to wear corsets with suspenders and stockings under our male clothes when we felt we could, we would be labelled as gay if found out, whatever would be our individual protestations to the contrary might be. In consequence it meant continual vigilance to ensure that “the secret” was never accidentally revealed. We lamented that what should matter was how we felt as individuals but that was not enough for the world at large, even in 1982.
As for the fact that we had got in touch through the contact section of a transvestite specialist magazine we agreed that, while each of us was grateful for its existence the magazine we knew towards whom it catered Each of us had noted that many of the correspondents indulged in activities which each of us eschewed, and knew that, while many of its intended readers wore corsets the magazine was not what serious corset wearers really wanted.
He was also disappointed that articles he had submitted under two pseudonyms had never been published. However over the following two years I saw in some back issues of a stable mate of the magazine articles by him and which he, not being a subscriber never knew about until I drew them to his attention and gave him photocopies.
He quickly said how envious he was of my self-confidence in wearing corsets to drive the car and to wear them to work. He did not since his work was in a secure establishment making it impossible. He simply came home and put the corsets and stockings on for the evening. He was reluctant even to wear them outdoors except to walk and was afraid to drive, as the danger of exposure after an accident would almost certainly cause him to lose his job - such were mores even in the early 1980s. Nevertheless we were able laughed ironically when he recalled the fear he felt when accounts in the lurid press - however apocryphal they might have been - of doctors or nurses cutting away the clothes of accident victims in the emergency ward, only to reveal that the man was wearing stockings and suspenders, etc. He understood that my motivation was such that I was prepared to take that risk.
We quickly discussed what other items of female apparel we had tried wearing. It was clear to each if us that we had no desire go out in public or to pass as women. For one thing we were both too tall and agreed that we had no desire to draw unwarranted attention to ourselves by looking like so many of the readers of the contact magazine .I did however confide in him that in had experimented with various other items of female apparel and he said that say that I had probably noticed in some of his published photos that he did wear a wig and falsies in the bra and did I mind? He admitted that he liked to do so, in part out of desire, but also to add a note of realism to the way the garments he had made looked when worn. He added that, as we spoke, he was wearing, in the way I imagine Simon did, a corselette flattened to his chest. I replied saying that, given that I was sitting there wearing some of the same items of women’s apparel who was I to object?
Having established how much we agreed or differed in our respective corset preferences our conversation turned to our other likes and dislikes and our individual motivations. Thus it seemed quite natural for me to suggest that, rather than conversing in the abstract, we should be doing so while wearing just our corsets. He instantly agreed to this and I followed his suggestion to go upstairs for us to change out of our outdoor attire.
I picked up my briefcase and my host went up ahead. I was hardly prepared for what was there. Two of the three bedrooms had become the salon of the “The Berks Corsetier”. There was a sewing room in one bedroom and the other had become a dressing room equipped with a single bed into which he led me leaving me to change while he retired to his bedroom. A large cream blanket lay over what appeared to be a pile of clothes covered the bed. A green cover on the bed proper appeared below the blanket edge.
I quickly took off my shirt, T-shirt and trousers and in the sole mirror in the room I caught sight of how dishevelled were my corsets and stockings after close to two hours of driving. As was to become my custom with Mrs Norris, I put into practice my resolution to wear cache sex and tights, “underall” as I was anxious to keep our meeting totally platonic. As rapidly as I was able I undid and took off my corsets and stockings, and re-dressed from scratch. This was all taking time and it then occurred to me that the Berks Corsetier himself be faster than me and might assist me with refitting my corsets.
So I opened the door to call to him and saw that his door was already open. He had been far quicker than I had been and was already in his sewing room. I called to see if he would help me with my lacing in and with my suspendering. He came along, looking for all the world as if he was one of the models about to participate in one of Spirella presentations to its agents. As in his photo he was wearing a deep long line bra, filled out with falsies, and a blonde wig. I was amazed at what I saw and was surprised I didn't feel shy at the sight. Indeed, in the context it seemed quite a natural progression in our evening and I felt that at last I had found a true confidante for my compulsions. This was the first time I had seen anyone outside my family so attired.
He was wearing the corsets with the double busk I had seen in his black and white photos. I quickly forgave the lurid granny pink figured pink brocade or broche and was amazed at its complexity and the veritable forest of suspenders clipped to the shortest chocolate brown stockings imaginable. The bra was quite unlike any other I had seen - except in his photos - and he looked so convincing that I am not surprised that when I had seen the first photos of what turned out to be him, back in 1977, I had been unable to tell whether it was a man or a woman wearing the attire and told him so. He thanked me for my kind words and admitted that he did cherish the fantasy of being a lady corsetičre with lady clients.
His first reaction, as I moved to wrap on my corset and hook my busk, was to comment on the lines of boning marks and creases on my skin, which showed just how tightly I had been laced. I said that I usually wore a T shirt under the corset but that, because Mrs N had laced me like that, I felt that I should experience what she regarded as correct lacing for as long as I could tolerate it. I had driven for nearly two hours like that and had come to appreciate how tightly I had been laced.
After I had secured my busk, he saw me dealing with the hooks and eyes above it and said, “Let me look at those hooks and eyes”. He examined them and said, “That’s what I wish I could do”. He pointed out that each hook was actually secured to the corset with eyelets which passed right though all the layers of material and not sewn on. He said that all good corsets had them and all professional corsetičres' machining rooms had a mini-eyeletting machine. I had noticed over the early years of my Odyssey pre-sewn hooks quickly pulled the eyelets out of line and even out of their bindings on my old Kesman elastic waspie and the Contessa front lacer, and now I knew why.
He laced me in quite efficiently - in as far as it went. However I suddenly realised he was about to form a knot that we were poles apart in what we expected from wearing corsets. I could sense, and was able to see in the mirror, that my corset was still more than two inches open. With his stated preference for medium lacing he had no doubt forgotten my problem in sitting on the sofa had been on account of tightness to which I was laced and clearly thought that once he hit resistance to pulling in that my corsets would be tight enough. I tactfully asked him if he could close me down to about an inch.
Before resuming my lacing, and without asking, he started to pull one of my stockings up my thigh, commenting as he did so that he wasn’t used to straightening seams and that he hadn’t seen cuban heels on stockings for many years. I replied that, as far as I knew they, were no longer made in England, only in the USA and that I only wore them on special occasions to safeguard my dwindling reserve: otherwise I wore styles that were still being made, and the only ones available had point heels. I then explained exactly where I wanted my back pairs of suspenders to be clipped onto my tops and, as he did so, I dealt with the ones at my front and side. He remarked that he liked the ladder stop patterns and I told him they were Albert’s “Walking Sheer” 30 denier stockings, much worn by pin up models in the USA.
At no point did he comment on how many suspenders I used, he didn’t judge because he “understood” - I had seen evidence of the fact in his photographs - and now in real life. Words cannot fully covey what inner solace I derived from being able to talk about such things intelligently with someone who really understood my own motivations and without any sense of shame.
When all were clipped on he resumed lacing me down. He worked and reworked the lacings and he laughed when I told him he needed a buttonhook to assist him in his effort to keep the pullers taut while he took up all the slack he could produce. He was constantly reluctant to pull as hard as I had come to learn from Mrs Norris was necessary. Eventually he closed me down to the level Mrs Norris had provided earlier that day and I now felt comfortably corseted again, At this point I requested he pass me the pullers he had formed and I lay them across my triceps, “spread my wings” a few times and pulled the waist really tight. On reflection I would be forced to class him as a corsetier manqué, for he lacked Mrs Norris’s skill at lacing in such matters.
Once I was “finished”, our eyes finally met and we smiled at each other after what had been a new experience for each of us. We just stood and contemplated what the other was wearing. I saw him in pink corsets faced in sumptuous brocade with six, maybe seven pairs of matching wide suspenders clipped to very short brown stockings. I have no better reminder of him showing me around the salon than another of photos I saw back in 1982 and which first prompted me to contact him.
He was seeing me all in black - black satin-faced corsets, black nylons and black suspenders. We were both male corset wearers who differed only on when we wore our corsets, on the degree of tightness we desired, in the colours we liked. As for the type of stockings – I wanted mine pulled taut, day in day out, for the innate satisfaction they then provided me together with that provided by the accompanying suspender elastics. His were pulled taut while doing their “duty” of provide the level of resistance that could pull hard on the skirts of his impossibly long, and near-impractical corsets.
On reflection later, I realised that, at even though this was my first such meeting at no moment did I felt shy or ashamed. I was with another person - albeit one of the same sex - who truly understood and fundamentally shared my interests. There was no need to explain to one another what motivated me. We had travelled down very similar roads since our teens. Each of us realised that we were responding to deeply seated almost inexplicable motivations in our respective psyches, which were consequences of the way the fashions of the day, the taboos of the era had contributed to the way each of us had been imprinted early in life.
6 CONTRASTS IN THE “OTHER SIDE OF CORSETRY
Our conversation continued and after helping me he said he was amazed and that he had tried wearing tight lacing corsets but preferred what he termed “medium lacing” much more in the classical Spirella tradition. He said that he was glad it wasn’t important to him since he had been told by his doctor that he had a hiatus hernia, which meant he would never be able to tight lace again, even if he so desired. I said that if I laced to the point where it was just uncomfortable, over the course of the day I adjusted well to it. I said that without wishing to be clever that tight lacing was an acquired taste and that for me, as much as anything, the compelling force was a deep need to feel stockings and corsets on my body. I said it was a sort of tactile addiction to the pressure of the corset and to the pulling force of the suspenders making my stockings taut. I said that in the end, it was a matter over which I now had little choice I valued and needed the presence of these feelings all day every day. They made me feel more contented. If I wasn’t wearing them I felt anxious and irritable and that condition could only be relieved by my putting on the stockings and corset and suspendering my stockings again. Hence I had to wear them, and that meant even at work. He said he thought he could understand but again the nature of his work precluded him ever acting out in such a way at least another seven years until he was eligible to retire!
Having heard me out, it was his turn to philosophise - if one can invoke such a grand term – about the reasons for his motivation. He said that from his teens on he had gained more and more satisfaction from going through the motions of fitting and removing a corset and would repeat it several times in quite a short period of time. As time went on and his corset wardrobe grew, he would select several corsets to try rather than fit and refit the same one. While doing so he said he derived great comfort simply from being able to see a number of unworn corsets draped over the furniture available at his whim and which would trigger an anticipation and desire to change and fit them instead. Simply put his addiction was the ritual of, doing up hooks and eyes, hooking busks, lacing in and the more suspenders to be clipped on the better. The more complex the design he had produced by mixing several features into one corset the greater was the reward. This is graphically shown in the accompanying photographs above.
Typically he would devote the entire evening several times a week “feeding” his addiction” The fact that a person such as myself or his new girl friend was there clad only in corsets to watch him, added greatly to the experience. I am sure even in today’s permissive climate most members of the public would judge such activity to be at best “kinky” and some would rail against “ debauchery” For my part I can only vouch for the chasteness of it all. It may be unusual behaviour but what and who is normal and who can deny that men can appreciate wearing woman’s attire?
Over the years to come, I was to reflect on what had happened and through introductions by Mrs Norris I met individuals and married couples for whom the common feature was having a partner to share in the experience of corset fitting and suspendering. I had always known of the concept of the “kept woman” and that depending on the wealth of individuals the commitment would range from a wealthy man, often married, who lived in the country and whose pied ŕ terre in London was occupied by a woman who was wore corsets out of choice and while she fitted him in his corsets when he visited. Among their expeditions he would make, while in town would be visits to specialist corsetičres, such as Iris Norris and others, who had known such couples and who would visit other like-minded couples for corset fitting soirees.
My new friend had learned through his experience with the woman who responded to his advertisement that she catered for men of less means and she had a good understanding of individuals preferences and realised the fundamental power of her being corseted at their meetings at which the other party would dress up as a woman or be laced into corsets and pass a few hours on an otherwise platonic basis. A few years later I came to realise that the practice was much wider spread than I’d ever imagined and all but presiding over it was the notorious Cynthia Payne whose activities were the subject of the film “Personal Services”, in which a scene, where Julie Walters struggles to fit herself into complex corsets, featured prominently.
7 A CONDUCTED TOUR OF THE SALON
He was eager to gave me a full conducted tour of his ‘salon”. So, like two corseted matrons, we moved into the sewing/store room, where all his supplies to make corsets. They were methodically stored in shoeboxes on shelves, with labels such as “suspender clips, wide - pink”, “Busks 14 inch”, eyelets, buckles etc and maybe twenty narrow boxes of spiral flat steels of different lengths. When I later looked at the photos in the magazine they simply showed much of what I had seen that day.
On a table were rolls of pink and white broche and satin corset facings and pink and white twill lining. The coils of ribbon and elastic were again all in pink and white. I searched in vain for black, but saw none; confirmation if needed of his penchant was for granny pink or tea rose corsets. He admitted that he had been carried away with sewing corsets and had made more than 60 of them in every permutation of lacing method and location, every hem length and designs with and without under-belts,
He had no more drawers in which to store all his own corsets and had resorted to keeping many of them on the bed. He kept them covered to preclude the inadvertent sight of them by causal visitors to the house. He admitted that when family - a sister and brother in law - came to stay overnight he was forced into a Herculean task of moving out all these corsets and supplies into his bedroom! Even then he said once he had been very embarrassed when he saw a wide pink suspender lying on an arm chair into which his brother-in law was going to sit and hoped he had retrieved it before it was noticed. Such were the worries that men had with secrets such as ours.
What a day this was proving to be. All on the same day, first my corsetičre had seen me so attired and helped to lace and suspender me and now, a second person shared by secret with no risk of ridiculing me- quite the opposite in fact. The upstairs was barely heated and in just corsets and stockings I felt cold and suggested we went back downstairs.
8 A MEETING OF LIKE MINDS
As I followed him down I became fully aware of how amazingly complex the corsets he was wearing. Not only did they have lacings up the back there were lacings up each side too. My prejudices against the granny pink dissipated as I studied the very long corset skirt, which reached to mid thigh from the hem of which a veritable fence of suspenders stretched down to his stocking tops which began at mid knee and which, even with the extraordinary pull being exerted on them. As had been the fashion in corsets in the 1920s and 30s, they only reached to just a little above the tops of their appreciative wearer’s knees. All of them moved and stretched as, one step at a time, he negotiated the stairs. At the bottom he waited for me and I all but blushed, as he looked me up and down. I wondered what must he have thought of me - all in black. Was I the person I claimed to be, or was I tawdry emulator, sans chapeau, of Sophia Loren in the Millionairess? Today as I write this I wondered if a passing glance at the pair of us might have given the impression of Sophia in the salon of her pink clad corsetičre!
Remembering my problem with the sofa he brought an upright chair from the dining room and arranged for me to sit on it while he sat in a high armchair. By now we were both sitting in the sitting room with the heads and voices of men and the under-attire of women wearing just their corsets and stockings.
Reflecting back on that first meeting all of 25 years ago I remain struck by how much we had in common despite the fact that, on a superficial level, dressed in our respective choices of corsetry and stockings, we looked so different. There was I, boldly dressed in a glossy black satin-faced high top, laced to the limit, just as I had requested him do. My new acquaintance looked for all the world like a Spirella corsetičre might look if she had just disrobed to put a diffident client at ease to show that she practised what she preached in her long and enveloping 305 or Alison in a pink version of the black Spenall she was required to wear on salon duty. On his own assertion, he always laced just enough for light control, containment and comfort. While the shade of our stockings differed, from the number of suspenders we each used, and from the evident tension in our stocking tops neither of could hide our mutual appreciation of really taut suspendering.
As I took in his image again I almost had to pinch myself to believe that this was really me, and an overriding thought that came into my mind. I returned to my worry about the content of the magazine though which we had first met. I felt it tended to give accounts of groups of men, almost certainly of “gay persuasion” who met for what was much more than the appreciation of the apparel they were wearing. He agreed with my concern that anyone who saw us sitting in his sitting room, dressed as we were in women’s underwear would instantly conclude that we were a “couple of old queens” and that any of our protestations to the contrary would be dismissed by everyone except the few, like Simon’s Mary and now “my” Iris Norris.
I still recall the sudden realisation that my anxiety of meeting him seemed to dissipate more and more as we sat and spoke. Ever since I realised that my compulsion was such that wearing mother’s stockings without suspenders was not enough and that I needed to possess my own, I had become inhibited abut the very utterance of the words “stockings” and “suspenders”. If I heard others use the words, even in the course of general conversation amongst family or friends, I would feel embarrassed and even feel myself blush. When it came to actually going into a store or the hosiery or lingerie counter to buy the items for the first time, like Simon entering Mary’s shop I had hesitated. Having survived the experience, you would think subsequent times would be better, but every time I had to summon up all my reserves of courage. If I had to wait for other customers to be served I then had to resist the urge not to turn around and leave. Uttering the words, “Do you have black stockings with seams in size 10˝,” especially in the earshot of others, was purgatory for me.
Even in more specialist stores where it was obvious what was my intent, I still had the same problem. It was even the case with someone as natural and informative in her responses as Mrs Norris, while still at Gardner’s. Nothing changed after she worked from home and knew me and knew very well what I wore under my male clothes and why I was there. So it proved this day with the Berks Corsetier, Happily, I quickly I found I was using the words with less and less inhibition though at all times, in view of our mutually held views on so many correspondents of the magazine we each were careful to be decorous.
9 HIS JOURNEY
He told me little of himself. He had first become fascinated by his mother’s and grandmother’s corsets. It had all begun at the age of five when he tried on a 1930s style deep boned suspender belt he had seen his mother wear. Before he was in his teens he had worn his mothers corsets but it was as a teenager and they began to fit him properly that he had been hooked by the feeling. He admitted to a strong penchant for pink followed by white. I told him how repulsed I had been as a youth by pink and the story of how grateful I was to learn more by wearing the Wilbro BLBU4, which as diligent readers of Part 4 of my Odyssey will recall on that very day I had abandoned forever.
He said that surreptitiously over the years he had used first pocket money to buy corsets by mail order from the likes of Ambrose Wilson and others. Like me, and unlike Simon, he had never had the courage to walk into a corsetičres and buy one. The more he tried wearing them the more he sought a good fit, at which I interjected to agree with him, was anatomically impossible with a man’s hip spring.
Initially he found it had been enough to make alterations sewing by hand but as his ambitions grew this proved it proved more difficult to do and he invested in an old hand-operated sewing machine so that he could alter the mail order corsets more easily. He laboriously unpicked whole sections of older corsets and reused the panels, spiral steels etc., to make them to fit his own form.
He was surprised how quickly his machining skill developed and his thoughts turned from alterations to making his own corsets, but how? The turning point came some seven or so years earlier when by chance he watched a television programme on sewing given by Ann Ladbury. She had made it look so easy that he resolved to buy her book and teach himself sewing and invested in an electric machine, and set up a sewing room.
There again was a challenge - where and how to buy the materials so specific to corset making. He laboriously tracked down sellers of corset grade fabric with the idea of making corsets from scratch. Even before I met him, during our initial correspondence, he had kindly sent me the list he had produced of the suppliers of the essential material and components required to make corsets. Over the years he identified other producers and even when I only used Iris to make my corsets, he was most understanding about selling me bones and busks for her to use and in due course I initiated an “exchange’ programme between them. He noted that there must have been a precipitous decline in corset making years just two before we met. The fact of W&J Symington closing down meant that suddenly many items proved hard to get and suppliers simply stopped stocking or making them. Not surprisingly items used in girdles such as 12 inch wide woven elastic for side panels had not been affected at that time, though he said that some of them were proving harder to find.
He had made himself every imaginable style of corset based on Spirella and other designs. Within a year or so he had indulged his fantasies to the limit and quickly his upstairs of his house he set up a sewing room, a storage room and last but not least his bedroom. For him more than for me I think our meeting was more important. He had been searching for years to find like-minded souls and was anxious to invest more.
Although the idea had been farthest from my plan of what I would do when we met, the fact of being able to talk so frankly and sincerely with a man - heterosexual like myself about his and my secret relaxed me and a form of telepathy led to agreeing that he should show me other items in his wardrobe and also produced several corselettes with padded bras.
Though I was at pains to reiterate that my own interest extended no further than the items he saw me wearing, though I did of course tell him of my experiments with other items of ladies clothing. Knowing today of Simon, I feel he might have had more in common with Berks than I did, but regrettably his death has intervened.
He now produced a series of albums of black and white and colour photos he had taken. One album was in the form of a portfolio of his creations that he could show clients, complete with typewritten information about each one. The other album comprised photos of himself posing in corsets he had made, many of which I’d seen in the magazine while other photos were of two women for whom he had made white or pink corsets and suspenders to wear with his preferred brown stockings.
He had spent close to 10 years since the rise of “contact’ magazines trying to make contact with individuals like himself or women interested in being laced into corsets. Like this he had gained just two male clients. Of the two women who were not offering there “charms”, one was young enough never to have worn stockings or suspenders let alone a girdle or corset while the other was a married woman who had gratefully abandoned the wearing of those items a decade earlier but was being pressed by her husband who had no interest in wearing corsets himself but was keen for her to start wearing real corsets She who had been a photographic model and posed very professionally always in the presence of her spouse. My friend had agreed with both women to make them corsets for no cost on condition that he could measure them for corsets and that he could carry out fittings, as needed which they would then pose in for photo modelling sessions.
It transpired that the young woman aspired to be a photographic model and needed experience and expected payment. What she lacked in posing talent was soon made up by her willingness to pose in corsets and they had become more than just business friends and had consented to meet with them both wearing corsets and stockings.
As the conversation proceeded we continued to establish how much we had in common. We had studied at the same college - albeit 10 years apart - and he confirmed that he was indeed related to someone at the same place when I was there, who shared his surname. All this served to reassure me that while we each shared a secret, neither of us was the worthy of the ridicule to which the world at large would hold us. How times have now changed.
He said he enjoyed the complexity of corsets, and we both wondered if the imprinting of boy’s minds of things mechanical helped to create their early fascination with corsets. He said he positively enjoyed fitting corsets and the more complicated the better, that the very business of putting them on was a significant part of his fascination with them and that was why he decided to make his own so that he could indulge his desire to experience first hand the lacing in, hooking of busk or hooks and eyes of corsets or under-belts. He did of course readily admit that even if he could wear them to work he didn’t think he would have had the commitment to lace on something so complicated and handle it for bodily necessities!
I said the first time I had thought that fan lacing was appealing was in an photograph taken by Bob Carlos Clark for the illustrated version of “The Delta of Venus” by Anaias Nin, (c1980-1). At this he invited me to come back up and to see his collection of “fan lacers” as he called them. Not without difficulty I got up and was glad to note that he too was finding his long corsets a problem too.
We had digressed from discussion of his corset-making prowess but I was now warm again. However he was clearly anxious to show me what he had produced and somewhat reluctantly I agreed to go back to the cold upstairs.
10 NEW FASHIONS IN CORSETS
In his fitting room he then pulled back the large blanket on a bed to reveal a plethora of corselettes and corsets in granny pink or white on which were carefully laid flat one upon the others to form a slab of corsetry about a foot deep. Quite as remarkable were the dozens of suspenders dangling along the edge of the slab. I was not to see such an image again until I saw the amazing photo of Ivy Leaf’s own inventory at the start of the 2007 diary page on this site.
As if this was not enough, with pride he opened each drawer of a three-drawer chest in which were rolled even longer corsets. I was to learn that with few exceptions he had made them all himself.
He took hold of a pair of corsets, which I instantly noticed had fan lacing, which he was going to model for me. In just moments - on account of his looser degree of lacing he liked - the pair he was wearing were as undone and he as he held the two busk edges to opened it out to reveal a deep under-belt onto which half his suspenders were attached. The under-belt too was well boned and had its own busk, not hooks and eyes. Equally amazing were the complex arrangements by which he had designed - for adjustable trolleyed suspenders to be sewn with one end on the lower hem of the under-belt and the other end on the hem of the outer corset skirt. When I look today at examples of corsets with such arrangements in Ivy Leaf’s Tribute, words fail me in my admiration for the corsetičres who sympathetically encouraged their clients to wear those wonderful corsets and who then laced them sometimes for decades, out of choice. What has the world lost with their passing and the change of fashion?
He used the fan lacing corsets to explain about the differences between the Camp and the Jenyns fan lacing designs. Having worn both styles he found the laces on the Camp models he’d purchased didn’t last as long as those on a Jenyns style he had made himself. He thought it was due to the fact that the Camp method the laces, which pass through the holes in the steel plate at the end of the lappet straps, caused more damage to the lace by abrasion than did the lacing eyelets. He had tried putting lacing eyelets inside the holes without success. He preferred pulling in on a Jenyns arrangement. He also explained that with only three holes in the lace “manifold” plate on the Camp design and the fact that it was only possible to thread two laces per hole, the number of lacing eyelets one pair of strap could control was usually no more than ten pairs. Hence the need for at least two and sometimes three lappets to control a longer corset. With the Jenyns style the number of pairs of laces in the cluster manifolds was not limited as shown in the accompanying image with 16 pairs controlled. On the corset he fitted in my presence he pointed out that he had made the lappet “manifold” to control 12 laces over the hips and he closed the lappets with ease.
11 A NOVITIATE AT SUSPENDERING
I was captivated to watch him fit it so quickly and I was able to observe at first hand the way the Jenyns principle lacings moved, though he did elicit my help in closing the small, laced gores at the sides near the hem, which he had designed to improve the “hem hug” when closed. It then seemed only natural to offer to help to do up his back suspenders and what a revelation it was. For more than 15 years I had got fully experienced and quick at positioning and in doing up my own suspenders, but now I found my dexterity seriously challenged doing it for someone else. Everything was in reverse. I was also very surprised at how hard I had to pull – down - on the elastic and -up- on the stretch stockings simultaneously, even to get the suspender button in place behind the edge of his stocking tops. In the end I had clipped them on, while he clipped on the rest. I sensed him start shortening his front suspender elastics and this prompted me to do the same for the pair for which I’d been responsible.
It was at this moment that he noted how we differed. I used the corset and its suspenders to pull my stockings up. He needed them to pull his very long corsets and under-belts down. In order to achieve the gap necessary to create an effective length of adjustable suspender elastic, he was then compelled to wear extremely short stockings. Moreover, they had to be knitted in heavy Lycra or elastic to ensure the stretch was limited so that he could achieve as he put it “good anchorage” - words I had previously only heard my mother use in the same context! Only in this way did he get the good hard pull down from his stockings and suspenders to pull his long skirted corsets down and reduce the ruckling. He added another must in his shopping for stockings - they had to be "Bitter Chocolate", never black, never pale, never sheer - and it turned out it was closest to the shade his mother liked to wear and with which clearly he was indelibly imprinted.
He also noted that by buying circular knit “tubular” stretch stockings he got the necessary “shortness” and there was no discomfort in the feet and toes on account of their being incorrectly sized in the foot. The high denier of the yarn provided the all-important resistance. It cause me to marvel out loud to him how much reliance we, and millions of women, had placed on the stitching and clips of the humble, but usually trusty suspender. In reply he said how unfortunate it was that a slipped suspender was blamed by the wearer for their discomfiture, which we agreed should have been more correctly apportioned to their wearer’s neglect. Words cannot convey how much I valued and appreciated every discourse of this nature I was to have with him over the years of our acquaintance.
I was to reflect later that his preference for seamless stretch stockings was not as demanding on correct positioning of the suspenders as were the non-stretch fully-fashioned styles I had always worn. Nevertheless I felt an added bond between us in that for both of us it had been the first day that either of us had experienced the efforts of another person helping us with our suspendering. Afterwards he thanked me saying no one had ever helped to suspender him before, and I replied that earlier that day with Mrs Norris had been the first time I had that experience too, and was I getting too much of a good thing in one day. Writing of this so many years, later I am again moved to think of the widows of a fading generation who not only grieve after their husband’s but also lose their help with their back suspenders!
We both again marvelled at the dedication to corsetry that the matrons of what - even in 1982 was becoming yesteryear - had taken as being necessary to present the image they wanted to the world. I commented on how much I used to admire older visiting matron friends of my grandmothers and members of my own family who clearly were seriously constrained when they sat down or stood up from sitting. Yet now here was I seeing in real life someone wearing nothing more than those ladies had on, only concealed under their dresses.
12 THE SALON SHOW GOES ON
Over the space of the next 20 minutes or so he treated me to the most amazing routine in which he self laced, and unlaced about 6 corsets of different kinds. There were fan lacers, ones with three laces, others with under-belts, reverse trolleyed suspenders, twin suspenders the like of which I was not to see again for close to 29 years when I saw Kathy Jung besport them on one of her wonderful corsets and he produced the one with the doubled back suspenders that I’d been so impressed by in the photos in the contact magazine.
With the precedent established, with each change in the role of a corsetičre’s assistant he called on me to unclip back suspenders and again to clip them on the next corset. I would like to say I got adept at the job but it remained hard to do things “in reverse”. At the end of it I had all but overcome which had started as a slight aversion for touching pink suspenders and the rougher tops of stockings knitted from stretch material, which are so different from the smoothness I was used to on the welts of my plain knit stockings.
Eventually he produced a catalogue in which he included every one of the models in the original catalogue he had made and welcomed any referrals, if I knew of suitable women. He was most emphatic that his aim really was to “make corsets for ladies” He said that, with respect and not without irony, he did want to get too many male clients like ourselves!
I examined a number of corsets and, while I was impressed with the quality of the stitching when he handed me a rolled up one I noted that each of them seemed to lack the ‘weight” I had come to expect from a rolled corset handed to me by Mrs Norris. I was reminded of how light my first corset, the black satin Contessa always felt, when I was rearranging my drawers of corsets. I concluded that unlike those made by Mrs. Norris the ones he made lacked lining and the all-important interlining, which gives a corset its “body”. Later when I would watch the expert herself machining I would see how much more difficult it was to sew perhaps six or eight folded layers of material at the panel seams and asked me how anyone could make corsets using a domestic grade machine. Indeed corsets are not delicate objects they are made to shape and control which demands industrial strength equipment and materials if they were to prove equal to the demands of clients of the likes of Mrs Norris and Madame Medeq.
He even showed me a special "double corset" he had made, which was essentially two extra long skirted corsets, complete with under-belts and suspenders. He had contrived to sew them together so that a man and woman could be laced into them by the one partner who could thus bring the other into very close, platonic contact and laced himself into “his half” to show me. He said his new lady friend had willingly agreed to join him and the hardest part of the process was deciding the “best moments” to clip “her set” of suspenders on to her stockings. This prompted me to say that were I ever to have the good fortune to have a lacing and suspendering session with a similarly attired woman to myself my dream would be to clip my front suspenders to her stocking tops and vice versa. My readers may be happy to know that a decade later I realised that dream! This may sound very outré to some of my readers and I do not feel I need apologise for mentioning it, and I do seek their forgiveness if they are offended, I offer the thoughts only to tell people who are interested or concerned what a relief I found it to be able to discuss with another person - it so happened that at first it was a man – but subsequently I have discussed such matters with understanding corseted women. As men who had repressed our thoughts and desires for decades, and suddenly were able to discuss such matters frankly.
Having laced one another in and helped one another with stocking suspendering, I suddenly saw our refection in the mirror and an inner calm came over me. At last I was truly myself in the company of a like-minded person. It was unfortunate that it had to be a man and that he liked pink corsets. While I would only wear black corsets worn with black seamed stockings I respected his penchant for pink or white and for seamless chocolate brown stockings. Beggars can’t be choosers in the company they keep.
For me it was an important experience and ever since I have been much more understanding of what the last few years have shown to be a large number of innocent activities which for fear of public ridicule individuals have repressed sometimes to the point of damage to their mental health. It is also sad that few people in the world outside the readers of this web site will have an inkling of what I mean.
13 TWO VIEWS ON SUSPENDERS
In Part 4 of this Odyssey I referred to the way I had and discovered simple rings were not as effective as split rings in making the connection between the loops on the suspenders and the corset hem. I had told my new friend of this but, as I was doing so, I was rudely made aware of the fact that I had not fitted split rings on the set of suspenders I was wearing, when beneath me I felt a back suspender give way. My instinct on the stairs had been right, the strain was too much.
My instant reaction was to say “Damn one of my back suspenders has slipped off” My host laughed ironically and immediately thought the stocking top had slipped off its clip button but, when I stood up, through my thighs I saw the recalcitrant suspender hanging down, still attached to my stocking top. I explained what I had done and since I had some spare split rings I went upstairs to my document case to find one to replace the offending ring. As we set about changing it we had a discourse on the was suspenders can fail and agreed how ironic it was that such problems so much the cause of male mirth at women’s plight in such maters was visited on any men who sought to emulate them.
In doing so I said how I had been made aware of the problem in by my first serious girl friend who used to get so annoyed if the back suspender of her girdle slipped off her stocking top or worse, ripped off the hem, in my company and how I was required to avert my gaze as she rummaged amongst the mass of frilly petticoats that were so much the fashion in the late 1950s, to restore her equilibrium. Little was I to know that for 15 years I had encountered and felt quite as annoyed as she had back in the 1950s.
At this he said that in retrospect he now felt sympathy for the ladies of his immediate family some of whom would openly interject, at least in the presence of children about what had happened and either put things right” there and then or retire from the room for a moment or two and to smile on their return.
I explained that initially I had experimented by using ordinary mild steel rings, not spring steel split key rings. Under tension the mild steel had opened enough for the elastic to escape through the gap, rather like happened with the bra hook type rings on the suspenders on the Kesman lacy waspie, in 1970 and on the Merry Widow wet look corselette of the early 1970s. At this he launched into a near diatribe on the ineffectiveness of corset clips and suspender hooks of all kinds when used on all except corset with a rubber ridge moulded into the edge of its skirt and he rummaged in his chest of drawers and produced an example.
I said how wonderful it was to be able to talk frankly about such matters to which he said, not being gay, how appreciative he was that I had elected to wear a cache sex. Our meeting had worried him as it had me and to him it had been signal confirmation of the platonic atmosphere in which we would be meeting.
We had got on so well that I felt the moment was right to exchange “confessions”. I asked him if he ever crossed his front suspenders and he didn’t understand what I meant. I explained that I had first seen it in 1960 in photos of several pin up models done and that one of the first things I had done when I bought my first suspender belt and stockings was to do just that. I then proceed to demonstrate by clipping my right front suspender to my left stocking top and vice versa as he watched. I showed what a remarkable effect on the tactile sensations in both the stockings and suspender straps when one walked or moved one’s knees apart. He started to the same but we both laughed as we realised that his stocking tops were so close to his knees that such an action would effectively hobble him. I also pointed out it was completely impossible to do when one wore trousers outside the privacy of one’s home. I realise today that one might get away with it if one opted for the incongruous hip teenage penchant for the “low slung” look - but with my apparel choices who am I to judge what others choose to do? Before ending this subject, I wonder if there are amongst the lady readers who have read my rambling screed to this point, and can tell Ivy Leaf if they ever crossed their suspenders back in the 1950s or 60s and how they felt about it? If nothing else any one who had indulged in such an experience will tell you that the compilations involved are grist to the “Inside or Out” discussion found elsewhere on this web site.
14 A CHROME PLATED EUREKA
Back downstairs again he offered me a cup of tea and as he got up it suddenly it all seemed perfectly natural to watch this corseted man - suspenders swaying and chrome fittings on his busk and suspender fittings glinting - as he walked to his kitchen to put the kettle on!
We quickly agreed that an interest in corsets automatically implied a liking for suspenders and stockings as well. I pointed out that it was the very complex attention he had given to the busks, lacings and suspenders on his corsets that had made me realise that we were of like minds. I said that I had no interest in wearing a corset without stockings and that I liked to use lots of suspenders and favoured chrome clips. I said that I’d been fascinated with the glint of chrome when my girl friend’s first wore a suspender belt instead of the enamelled suspender clips I’d seen previously on her usual girdles.
At this point he interjected and as if to say “Eureka” but actually said words to the effect “That’s it! I always liked to see the chrome fittings, busk clasps, suspender clips and length adjusters glinting on my mother’s corsets”. He suddenly realised, for the first time apparently, that chrome plate was important to him too. He wondered out loud if there was such a thing as a chrome plate fetish! We even wondered if part of underwear fetishism arose because of a childhood fascination with glint, sparkle or shininess and reflecting power of chrome plate used on items like busk hooks, and the suspender fittings like clips and adjusters - even Camp or Jenyns buckles - which would have moved or danced around as mother, grandmother or auntie was fitting her corsets and stockings? We agreed that it was most ironic that there was such a thing as an allergy to chrome metal, which had caused many makers to enamel the fittings of women’s undergarments. Certainly, in the case of the two of us having that discussion, there was no doubt that such sights had been an essential element of our imprinting.
I said that I also valued seeing the brass reinforcing washers that were mandatory on real tight lacing corsets and Mrs Norris had always provided them for me as a matter of course. He had not seen them on a corset before and I showed him the detail on my G78 casual. He noted that it would add to the intricacy of setting eyelets by hand as he was forced to do and would need a machine of the type Mrs Norris herself was still seeking in 1983. Like her he was in need of eyeleteer for both the back lacing eyelets and for setting the corset grade hook and eyes.
15 SHOPPING EXPERIENCES COMPARED
We both agreed on how much we had been influenced by advertisements for corsets that used to appear in mainstream press of the 1950s, such as Marshall and Snellgrove, on the front page of the Observer. Others were, the full, half and quarter page advertisements of firms like Alston, Ambrose Wilson, Beasley and Roussel, which appeared in general interest as well as women’s magazines, until the early 70s. He noted that the latter two firms also offered men’s “supports” but that he had always wanted to wear women’s corsets, which of course had suspenders. I interjected with a memory from my youth saying that whilst at school my friends had always laughed at the advertisements and how we’d seen an advert for the “Manly” man’s support and how we’d told one friend that we would club together to buy him one and have it sent to his home by mail order. In contrast to our antics, my new friend, 10 years older, said that at that time he was already saving his money to buy his own corsets and even a bra from those mail order firms. By the 1970s his collection had grown to include wigs and shoes.
We both had patronised my first outfitter when her shoe store was still in the Queensway area in the late 60s and early 70s. We had both found her to be an excellent businesswoman, who conveyed real understanding to diffident men. I revealed how, when I bought my first “real” corset, the red satin waspie, she had suggested I also buy a pair of high heels so that my derriere stuck out when wearing it! She had misjudged me to be a budding transvestite, but my curiosity caused me to assent to her suggestion and she produced a pair of crocodile texture dark brown patent leather court shoes with 4-inch heels. How at that point she had, matter of factly asked me if I was wearing stockings and, how upon hearing my negative reply had provided me with a pair of stretch knee high nylons to facilitate my fitting them. How my finances had forced me to decline but how, only weeks later I was back, wearing my own seamed black nylons this time, to buy them. How after trying on the brown court shoes again she suggested I also try a pair of silver sling back with 5-inch heels no less. ‘Seduced” by the extraordinary sensation of their extra height and the fact that through their sling back straps I could see more of the cuban heels of my stockings, I bought them. I also related how she confirmed what a good businesswoman she was in that she actually admired, or claimed to admire, my black point heeled Aristoc 222 stockings, and asked me where I had bought them
I noted how, after the move to Islington during the 1974 miner’s strike and the death of her husband, she had taken on a very engaging assistant, who had sold me the first of many deep boned suspender belts, made as I was to find out later by Gardner’s and my first pair of Directoire Knickers, (DKs). How, in response to the more permissive times, demand had grown and in 1978, the same young woman had opened her own store off Balls Pond Road in Hackney, from whom I had bought another pair of DKs – this time with furbelows at the knees no less as well as the first issues of the magazine, in which later I was to see his photographs, and which eventually led to our meeting that day. At this point my new friend interjected to ask if I knew she had moved to Clerkenwell, and said that he was a client and knew her quite well and had begun making off the shelf corsets for the shop to sell.
While there were clearly quite a number of men like us, and thanks to Ivy Leaf’s web site I now know Simon was “out there”, in 1982 “our world” was still very, very small and secretive, but still full of co-incidences and surprises. As the course of the conversation turned I said how in the early days of my corseting I had sought other items of female apparel and bought in the lingerie counter of department stores “for my wife”, such as a matching set comprising camisole French knickers and waist slip in lace-trimmed “Antron” satin. At first I fitted them all, over my corsets and stockings with my high heels but, as the regularity of my ability to corset myself all day increased, so did my desire to partially “dress up” decrease, and it never revived. Corsets, suspenders and stockings were, and are, enough for me.
Perhaps things would have been different, if like Simon I could have had the encouragement of a wonderful lady like Mary his corsetičre, but then perhaps not. The one negative aspect of wearing the extra apparel however attractive it might appear to some, its drawback for me was that wearing it hid from view the all important glinting of the chrome plate of my busk hooks not to mention that of the clips and length adjusters of my suspenders.
I can hear some readers question the fact that most of the time when I was dressed I could not see these things anyway. What has to be understood is that in part my motivation to wear what I did was a desire to simply see those details of apparel that so fascinated me when I saw them worn in photographs. Who was wearing them was of only limited importance and of course I would see them on myself every day before I dressed for work. The knowledge they were “there” on my person was its own reassurance which could be verified whenever I wished by discreetly touching one of the posts of my busk, any one of my suspender clips or adjusters or the steel smoothed tautness of my corset’s panels. I did not need to “see” them; knowledge of the fact was enough.
That of course also held true if I was in the presence of a woman like Mrs Norris who I knew to be so attired. Rarely was said, knowing that she knew what I was wearing and she was wearing was sufficient in itself. If I did not I now, there were telltale indicators. The sight of seams, and the attendant fashioning marks, meant fully fashioned stockings were being worn. Implicitly this meant, that even, if the confirmatory button “bumps” could not be seen through the skirt, the wearer used suspenders and at least a suspender belt, or wore a girdle or corselette. Only her figure, the way she sat down or the intermittent creak of her busk, could confirm that she was properly corseted.
As for my new friend, for several years he had bought corsets regularly by mail order but was constantly displeased by the fact that men are so anatomically different in the hips from the stock size woman, He felt compelled to tell me how ironic was his interest in that while most of his friends liked to see bared women’s breasts, he admired, and sought to emulate on himself, a well endowed bosom uplifted within the modesty of a well-boned, long-line bra.
I said how forbidding I had found the black glass Spirella sign in the front widow of the agent in our village and as children we wondered what took place in what looked like a house rather than a shop. He said that one of his grandmothers had carried on such a business, and wondered if visits there had helped to imprint him. It would have been nice to be able to tell Ivy Leaf’s readers that she’d been a Spirella, but I never asked but he did wonder what she would think of a grandson endeavouring to carry on the family tradition!
That said, he did produce a Spirella corsetičre’s "Fitting and Measuring" manual from the 1950s, bound in a blue cloth cover. He had obtained it through a book finding service - this was in pre-internet times - run by a woman who had contracted with hhim to search for any books and magazines on the subject of corsets. He showed me several bound volumes of “Corsetry and Underwear” magazine from the 1930s and 40s. He said the sketches he saw in the manual and those magazines had inspired many of the amazing corsetry “creations” he modelled for me.
I told him how I had browsed a few issues of the magazine in the late 1970s while waiting in Gardner’s fitting room. I said how ironic it was that, as part of what had been my recent “headless chicken” search, (see Part 3 of the Odyssey), for a new corsetičre I had written to the publisher to start a subscription. The reply from “Circle Publications” was that the magazine had ceased publication in 1981, which again confirmed what I was learning about the sad state of the corsetry business at that time.
My new friend too had been an occasional client of Gardners. He remembered Mrs. Norris but had never became a regular client, because he didn’t tight lace! However he was most interested that she had set up to work at home and wondered out loud whether, though her old trade connections, she had access to components and materials he could not get. Some weeks later I put them in touch and, while she was initially dismissive of his sewing machine and how he could make corsets with it, they later became good business associates and continued to exchange hard to find components, like spoon and long busks and very long flat and spiral steels. In time, as I got to know each of them much better, I also arranged that she should teach him how to machine the fluted hip style of corset so necessary to know, if he was to have clients with large hip springs.
16 TIME FLIES
I looked at my watch and noted I’d been there close to two hours and that I had to leave as I planned to continue on to my parents for a long weekend. He responded by saying that before I left that he must measure me and make me a corset at no charge as he was very anxious to practice his skill on as wide a range of figures as he could. He also expected that I would to return for a fitting and another mutual lacing session. I thought for a moment or two and quelled any anxieties I still felt about such activity and accepted his offer.
It may seem strange to be thinking of a second corsetičre, just when mine was working again. However I was concerned that having only just gained full acceptance as a client from Mrs Norris that she might get the idea that I indulged in some of the activities, I had read or seen in which corsets were worn, and so find me unacceptable. Moreover she might think my requests to be unusual, giving two ways in which I might be left in the lurch. At least with Berks Corsetier I would have a backstop
I asked him to make a corset with details that at that time I felt inhibited in discussing with Mrs Norris. I told him my dream was an extreme high top, especially at the back, and get the lacing eyelets spaced as close as it was possible to do, with perhaps 50 pairs of lacing eyelets, reinforced with brass washers, which he said he like to try to do.
In fact I now know he would have agreed to anything just to get the practice so, with difficulty I got up and two corseted figures in respectively pink fan laced corsets and the black satin corsets returned upstairs for me to be measured. Having seen how loose were his corsets, I emphasised that I wanted the ones he made for me to be capable of being laced as tight as the one I was wearing. He would put five pairs of suspenders loops all round the hem, though he said he didn’t have wide black elastic and I said that was fine as Mrs Norris could make me all the detachable suspenders I ever needed.
I said I’d also like a modern style un-boned suspender belt which I’d pay for, but it had to tailored with a down “Vee” for each one of its ten suspenders and faced in heavy, regency black satin or gold spot. It had to be high waisted with very long suspender elastics and of course chromed fittings. This was before the era when a belt with six suspenders was the limit one could by. Interestingly by 1984, up to 24 pairs of suspenders were offered in a style, I was surprised to find an Internet retailer had started selling as I edited this part in 2008.
With another drive in prospect, I had to take off my “modesty under attire” – the cache sex and tights - and did so privately, re-lacing and susppendering myself this time. I bade adieu to my new friend, who this time stood in just his corsets, discreetly behind the draught curtain, which I recalled he had thoughtfully drawn across the lobby behind the glass panelled front door after I’d entered the house.
17 A PERSPECTIVE ON OUR MEETING
I had come a long way since the mid-50s when I first pored over photos of models in black lingerie and black stockings posed and “working” en dishabille in the kitchen and imagining what it felt like to be wearing those clothes. Unable to find such a woman who’d wear them, I had done it for myself. As I matured I developed a preference for woman in corsets, rather than suspender belts, and that drove me to buy my own corsets. I had done that and liked it and “graduated” to corsets. I had been seen dressed like that by my corsetičre and, on the very same day I had been alone in the company of another person who shared my interest, but ironically it was a man.
My new acquaintance clearly had a lot of corsets, but many were products of his imagination and only suitable for short-term wear. I respected his reason for not wearing them to work, and it was on this level - the level of our respective compulsions - that we differed most seriously. I had now reached the point where I wanted not just to wear a corset and stockings, but I sought full high top corset containment all day every day. I was still finding my “corset self”.
However I too understood from the problems of mobility and hot days that I had to compromise. I already had been forced to make choices between reality and fantasy. I too would have liked deeper skirted corsets, but they interfere with mobility and wearing them under a pair of trousers imposes its own limit as to where the hem of its skirt must end. Likewise, the makers of classic fully-fashioned plain knit stockings had never made them with men in mind. The leg lengths of 27 or 28 inches, necessary to ensure they could be pulled taut and pull down the corset skirt came with the 8˝ or 9-inch foot sizes. To avoid cramping my toes, if I wore them all day, I would have to wear them with their heels right under the soles of my size 10˝ size feet and then, not only would they be uncomfortable, they would soon be ruined because my heels would be in the sheer part of the stocking leg.
I was not know it at the time, but almost everything I discussed with the Berks Corsetier I would eventually discuss with Mrs Norris, within a few years of having become a trusted customer. Nevertheless a great weight had come off my mind. I could wear what I did without fear of losing a supplier.
Today, as I read the accounts of groups of ladies in corsets in a Spirella or Spencer corsetičre’s salon or lounge parading in and talking only about corsets, I think back to that day when, for the first time in my life I had found myself in a similar situation but as a member of the “Other side of Corsetry”, who was a client of the Berks Corsetier dressed as a corsetičre.
18 NEW FRIENDS - NEW ANXIETIES?
As I drove home, my thoughts kept returning to my appointment with Mrs Norris. She had accepted me in corsets and stockings, but how willingly had she done so? Would she reflect on what she saw and refuse to see me again? What would she think is she knew of my meeting with the Berks Corsetier?
The matter tormented me. I didn’t want to lose her services and I could not think of a way in which I might “test the water” and find out my concern was right or wrong. We had usually corresponded by letter before arranging a consultation or fitting. I could do that though it would then be easy for her to dismiss me with a one-line reply. As for phoning I had only done so to confirm an appointment the day. Phoning to make the arrangement would be a change in how we dealt; yet the only way to judge whether I was in “good standing was to gauge her affability over the phone and would have the advantage of not giving her time to think on the matter and decline to see me. Then, how long should I leave it before contacting her or more accurately how soon after seeing her could I phone? Then again, what would be my reason for phoning when I could write? In any case at them moment I had all the corsets I needed and they were costing more, so I did not have a natural reason to meet her again.
Over the succeeding weeks, all sorts of angles to my dilemma presented themselves and the weeks became months. It was clear that to paraphrasing the old adage, “faint heart never won fair corsetičre’, I would phone within days. My decisiveness became its own reward for, as luck would have it, a natural reason to phone presented itself. On the afternoon of the very day of my decision, I was made rudely aware of a stabbing in my side. A discreet touch of the finger in the offending area identified that a steel had poked out on the inside of the corset I was wearing. A discreet retirement to the office toilet revealed that it had poked though its strapping and I fixed things, or so I thought. It refused to stay in place for more than an hour or so. Every movement seemed to result in its digging in again and I tried to keep discreetly stiff and upright for the rest of the workday!
Upon examination at home later I found that an improperly crimped brass end had cut into and abraded the strapping and several more were on the verge of doing so too. Apart from that, the rest of the corset was in good condition and I felt that it could be repaired quickly by the likes of Mrs Norris. Here was my excuse - a very good reason in fact - to ask for an appointment to have some “running repairs” done, while I waited.
How did the phone call work out, 25 years ago? Well dear reader wait for Part 6 of my Odyssey.
Frangard 2, March 2008.
Frangard added a little more information in 2009:-
the corsets in the photos were made by BC. At one time or another I had the
doubtful privilege of seeing him model them all. I doubt if we shall see the
likes of him again. As is evident in the background of many of the images one
can see corsets everywhere. Its just as you see it in the pictures, All three
rooms the upstairs of his house were devoted to corsets. They were everywhere,
Always in pink or white , hanging by shoulder straps off coat trees, off hooks
behind doors, always with a plethora of classical width suspenders trailing and
audibly jiggling as doors were opened!
Looking back on our meetings, corsets truly were his passion and he developed the skill to produce all you see. It is sad he was never felt able to wear even a male cut one to work. At first I was a little repulsed by the sight of him in bra, wig and falsies but somehow, given his style of corsets it seemed right. It was the image he sought to re-create but always in private, ideally with understanding, like-attired (in his creations) friends of either gender. He was certainly at his most relaxed when acting the role of a matronly corsetiere. He all but worshipped Spirella; he was proud of having a copy of their Fitters Handbook. He clearly wished that born differently he could have been one of their corsetieres.