A. GARDNER AND SON (CORSETS) LTD, 1899-1981
in 2006, it is hard to believe that close to twenty five years have passed since the
old established firm of A Gardner & Son (Corsets) Ltd closed its door
forever, after no less than 82 years in business. The very name will strike a
chord of nostalgia in the hearts of almost every person who tight-laced in the
post war era. Even if it is only the memory of the label 'Frangard', sewn into an old and
loved corset, many post war tight-lacers, some unwittingly, will at some time or
another have entrusted the training and subsequent maintenance of their hard won
figure to Frangard corsets. Sadly, as will be explained later, many all over the
world might have done so without ever knowing actually knowing they were wearing
a Gardnerís corset.
Kunzle, in his book 'Fashion and Fetishism', 1982 (reprinted
2004), twice acknowledges Gardnerís. In the preface, among others, he names 'Arthur
Gardner' and in the final chapter he writes of Gardner's
service to corset enthusiasts.
this service was still available in the late 1970s when Kunzle did his research
for the book, by the time of the bookís original publication in 1982,
Gardnerís doors had been closed for more
year. One can only speculate on what might have happened if the revival of
interest in corsets, that dates from the mid-1980s, had happened earlier.
the time Gardnerís closed, the client base was indeed reduced but there was
still more than enough business to keep going. However time is no respecter of
age and, after close to 40 years in Gardnerís service, their last corsetiere,
Iris Norris, had reached the age of retirement. Iris and the firm had tried and
failed to find anyone willing to train and acquire the skills to make corsets.
It is a skill that usually began with a long apprenticeship as a machinist to
master the complex sewing that is required.
Yet amazingly, it was only in the last twenty or so years of its existence that Gardnerís became something of a mecca for individuals who appreciated wearing a tightly laced corset or the elegance of the well corseted figure. At Gardnerís these individuals knew they could rely on the fact that their special demands would be conjured into the magical combination of fabric and metal to gird and cinch their figures. There they could be sure to find a sincere understanding of their very individual needs.
1962, Gardnerís was still run by Arthur Gardner, the son of Alice Gardner, who
set up the business. Yes, the initial 'A' stood for 'Alice'
and not Arthur as many life-long clients had thought. He was the 'Son'
in the firm's title and it was his son Frank, who Kunzle actually met in the
1970s. As noted, they had always been more of a basic custom made corsetieres,
whose machinists where used to ministering to the requirements of heavier,
middle-aged women in need of the firm control of stays with under-belts. However
their machinists, many of whom like Mrs Norris did tight-lace themselves, had
no problem adapting to the special demands of the former Overett and Stafford
clients. As the client-corsetiere relationship flourished, so did an atmosphere
of mutual respect.
Ė ALICE GARDNER
began at the close to Queen Victoria's long reign in 1899, when young Alice
Gardner was widowed with two young children. With no social security to fall
back on, Alice had to 'shift', so to speak and make ends meet. She
decided to put to good use the skills she had learned as a corset machinist in
the years before her marriage. Thus she established a business at her modest
flat catering at first to the corsetry needs of friends, acquaintances and
neighbours. Later, as business improved, she rented a shop on
Thornhill Road in Islington, which runs between Offord Road and Richmond Road
and is parallel to Pentonville and Liverpool Roads.
of all classes wore corsets in those days. Indeed when Alice set up it was still
what is still remembered as 'the golden age' of corsetry. The wasp
waist was de rigueur and only a strongly boned corset could produce the
kind of silhouette that was guaranteed to please a husband or lure a beau. The
Gibson Girl, the Grecian Bend and the Kangaroo Corset and the straight front
were still in the Edwardian future.
soon as he was old enough, young Arthur Gardner joined his mother and her small
staff in the business, Initially he was a humble goffer, or ironer, but
as he absorbed the ways of the machine room he slowly worked his way up to the
prized position of 'cutter'. Within a few years, Alice's business had
outgrown the Thornhill Road shop 
and she decided to find larger premises. She knew what she needed, machining
rooms, an office cum consulting room, a fitting room and a cutting room. She
found what she wanted, an early Victorian Villa large enough to house her
family and the business. It was 28, Barnsbury Square, just off Thornhill Road
where the business remained till it closed.
28, BARNSBURY SQUARE
Square was one of the early squares built, probably in the 1820s during the
rapid expansion to the north of the city of London in what were pre-Victorian
times. Before the railways there had only been villages and fields, although
some of the village high streets had been lined with Georgian ribbon
development. The development of Barnsbury to the west of fashionable Islington
was begun in the early 19th century and completed by 1835. Between the coming of
the railways in the 1840s and the First World War, the whole of the rest of the
section was covered with houses.
between Liverpool Road and Caledonian Road, north of Richmond Avenue, Barnsbury
was laid out by Thomas Cubitt before his more famous speculations in Bloomsbury
and Belgravia, and is a
rather loose composition of suburban
open-cornered squares, crescents and streets either side of Thornhill Road.
Barnsbury Square with its two partial crescents leading off to the
northwest and southwest corners, Belitha Villas and Richmond Avenue, are its
best parts. Before the coming of the lines of the Great Northern Railway, which
terminated at Kings Cross n 1868, Barnsbury
and the surrounding area, was a
desirable and fashionable address. For those interested in the area, it can be
found on pages 58-59 of 'A guide to the architecture of London'
by Edward Jones and Christopher Woodward, 2nd ed., 1997.
the time Alice was house hunting, in the pre-World War 1 era, the wealthier classes of
London had moved on again to the fresher air of what were then the outer genteel
suburbs such as Highgate, Hampstead and Brondesbury. Barnsbury and Islington
were no longer such a desirable addresses. If however your business was the
making and selling of corsets to the ladies of the neighbourhood, you stayed put
where you were needed. And so that is what Alice, later Arthur and finally
grandson Frank, did.
time the wheel of fortune turned. By the 1960s, Islington was becoming a
desirable and fashionable address once more, as the area became one the early examples of the
gentrification of the inner suburbs. In more recent years 'yuppies'
have invaded the area. Cleaning of the brickwork has revealed much of the
handsome yellow London Bricks that had been concealed for decades beneath the
accumulated layers of grimy soot deposited in the days before the Clean Air Act.
knew at once how her new house would be organised. Making corsets would come
first and the family would live as and where they could. But first she secured a
brass plate below the bell push which discreetly said 'A Gardner and
Son'. She reasoned that those who needed confirmation of the fact that they
had reached the right address would get it.
twenty-eight is the first house you meet if you approach from Thornhill Road and
is located half-way
along the north side of the
square, facing south. It is a two story detached house on two floors with a full
height basement. Four steps led up from the pavement to the front door, which
gave access to the lobby, the inner glass panelled door and a lofty hall. To the
right, stairs led up to the family flat. The office, where representatives
of the suppliers of fabrics and bindings would be received, was in the front
drawing room, overlooking the square and adjacent to the hall. The office also
served as the consultation and fitting room for individual clients. In one part
of the room was a desk and chairs. Here Alice would sit with the clients and
the other part was a table, some padded chairs and the essential long narrow
mirrors on wooden
Here clients could conveniently disrobe and present their figure problems for
Alice's trained eye to assess and advise how best to put things right. There was
a screen behind which the client could retire if they wished and which could be
pulled across the bay window. There were also heavy curtains, which could be
discreetly drawn to ensure a degree of relaxing privacy for measurement or
the mellow gas light and later electric light of the room, Alice would deftly measure a
client or wrap newly created corsets around their form as she laced away
unwanted inches or rolls and bulges of fat in the cause of a nice line. Her
experienced eye and touch sensed the goodness of fit.
back room, which had been the dining room, became the cutting room, the main
feature of which was a long, wide, polished, mid-brown table of massive wood. As
such it was characterised by its central cutting slot that had the essential width to
render it stable and allow the cutting motion to be executed as truly as the
cutter desired. On it the rolls of fabric were unrolled, cut into bolts laid one
over another ready for action by the cutter.
from Haute Couture, the business of corset making is one of the most specialized
and precise branches of the garment trade, demanding of both seamstress and
cutter. It depended as much on the skill of the cutter because he, it was
usually a man, was trusted to make the cuts that maximised the use of material
and minimized the pieces of rejected cloth. The cutter's art was his or her
ability to balance factors such as the needs of the corsets and conformity with
the walls of the cutting room, the shelves were filled with large rolls of corset
fabrics. They were mainly the utility twills and cambric, in shades of pink and
white. There were smaller rolls of black, grey and drab as well as smaller rolls
in a variety of broches and satins.
the corner was a heavy machine of cast iron equipped with dies suited to punch out the holes and a feeder
to supply the eyelets and reinforcing rings, which would be crimped in the holes
automatically to reinforce them.
second smaller machine could secure to the tape the individual riveted hooks
and eyes that real corsets demand. Hung from a bracket on the walls were large
spools wound with hundreds of yards of pink white and black Russian braid used
for the stay lacing. In a drawer was the small crimper used to secure the end
tags. In other drawers were the wooden patterns for the different styles, which
in later years were supplanted by aluminium patterns.
he had served his apprenticeship, under Alice's watchful eye, young Arthur
became 'the cutter'. Every day he would cut the fabric to length, and
lay ten to twelve bolts one on top of the other on the cutting table. He would
take the appropriate metal pattern sheets from the labelled drawers and using
the patterns mark the cut lines with a chalk on the face of the top piece of
cloth. After carefully whetting his cutting knife on a steel, he would cut each
of the corset panels out - remember - ten or twelve at a time. He took the cut
panels down to the machine room, using the adjacent back stairs that led down to
once in 40 years did his knife slip and when it did it almost cut his thumb off.
A severe wound it needing instant expert dressing, which was done in the nearby
Royal Free Hospital on Liverpool Road. Initially there was some concern as to
whether the digit could be saved and fortunately it was though that slip was
enough to instil more caution in the future!
corridor approached the basement, or more accurately, the half basement from the
stairs. A door off this corridor led to a small storeroom, which in later years,
when operations reduced and moved downstairs, became the fitting room. The other
door led into the machining room. This extended from the bay window in front to
the rear window, which looked onto a large garden.
industrial duty sewing machines were set up around the sides of a large raised
worktable, which occupied most of the space. There was ample room to deliver the
cut panels to one side of each machinist, and for the work, in this case the
corsets, to be supported flat all round, whichever section of the corset was
under the shoe and needle. Initially all the machines were treadle operated, but
they were motorized at the earliest opportunity after the war.
ALICE GARDNERíS LATER YEARS
many years Alice helped with the machining but, as if widowhood was not enough,
another personal catastrophe struck. She developed a whitlow on her hand, which
turned severely septic. In the days before antibiotics it did not resolve and
gangrene set in. There was no choice the surgeon said and she lost her hand and
lower forearm to the surgeon's knife. Her positive personality saw her though
this trying time and she emerged with her energy unabated, but of course her
machining days were over.
cockney born and bred, Alice's enthusiasm for the business never left her. She
eventually died in the early 1960s, nearly 90 years old, still active, when
Arthur was thinking of retirement.
THE INTER-WAR YEARS
the inter-war years, tight-lacers had been catered for in London by the likes of
Mme. Vermeuil of Baker Street, Mme. Lorrette of Islington, not far from
Gardnerís, on Upper Street. In Fulham there were, on North End Road, Kedges,
while the renowned Lawrence Lenton ably assisted by his wife operated in
Crookham Road. Finally, there was Mr. Overett, originally a cutter with Mme.
Lorrette, in Knightsbridge. Her clients had helped him to set up his business
when Mme. retired in the mid-1930s. Overett, like Lenton, advertised in Sporting
and Dramatic News.
Outside London there was Mrs E. Kayne, first in Portsmouth and later in Brighton.
the inter-war years Gardnerís business was slow. The 'walk-in'
clients in the neighbourhood were barely enough to keep staff employed. Not only
was money scarce, it was the flapper era younger women never took up corsets or
gave them up tight-lacing had gone out of fashion, girdles were only a few years
away. So, with a view to maintaining a work load in the depression a bigger
catchment area was needed.
and Arthur used the firm's reputation to solicit business further a field in the
east end and in south London. Alice would travel several days a week either
measuring clients, delivering finished corsets, collecting repairs, weekly
payments or IOUs. Money was hard to come by, corsets were still a relatively
expensive and essential item of clothing, but for women who were used to caring
about their appearance or needed them they were made affordable if bought on
credit or in the vernacular of the time 'on tick'
This method of credit, of course served the Gardner's objectives well. It kept
them in contact with clients and got them extra referrals. Alice was always
ready to give advice, supply a replacement as corsets moved beyond repair. A key
feature of the business was their readiness to repair corsets - even those they
had not made, or reuse - recycle to use today's jargon B
the old parts, such as busks and bones which were still serviceable in new
corsets. This repair service was gratefully taken up by clients of all classes
and continued until the business closed down. It placed Gardnerís in marked
contrast to some of the other well-known specialist names that would not deign
to do even a small repair, it being 'beneath' them.
WARTIME - AND A NEW MACHINIST
in the war a new machinist, Iris Norris, then in her twenties, joined the firm.
Her husband was away in the war and with a young child to look after, she
returned to work to supplement the family income. Times didn't get easier and in
the end she stayed for 38 years, retiring in early
Just before World War Two started, Arthur's son Frank, who was to coin the trademark 'Frangard' in the 1960s, was being prepared to enter the business. He was the only male in his class when he trained just before the war at Bloomsbury Technical School for Women and took the courses, passed the exams and received his certificates in corset making and corset design. However, unlike his forebears, he never practised his skills in the machine room. Instead he took up the work of collection and delivery, taking with him on his rounds one of the machinists to do any necessary measuring and fitting as well as to judge if a repair was still possible. At this time he also became an insurance agent and always combined this side of the business on his rounds.
war saw many changes for tight-lacers. Lawrence Lenton was no more having
reputedly been killed by a bomb in 1941. Marie Stafford, a protťgťe of Lenton,
established a well-renowned, if peripatetic salon. Known generally as Madame
Marie, she took over some of his clients who faithfully followed her, first to Luton,
north of London, then to Catford in S.E London and finally to premises near the
clock tower in Sunbury Cross, Middlesex, west of London. She maintained her
salon in the flat above her husbandís newsagent business. As for Overett, the
business, now reportedly run by a Mr. Elliot, moved to Hanover Square, near
Oxford Circus. Despite being close to major rail targets all around,
Barnsbury Square and Gardnerís survived the blitz and continued with business
Frangard provided the following addition in November 2008:-
way of explanation, during my search of my files for Odyssey Part 6, I came
across an original draft of Chapter 11 of David Kunzleís unedited draft from
which the final test of the first edition of his book, published in 1981-2, was
prepared. The Chapter was not published and when Frangard1 back in the late
1980s, offered me the whole 500 page ring binder I declined but asked if I
could have Chapter 11 which was material I hadnít seen.
POST WAR AND A CHANGE OF DIRECTION
Iris Norris' time at Gardnerís, the nature of the business changed. In the era
of the 'New Look' a surprising number of fashion conscious women
returned to back-lacing corsets or 'waspies', but this fad was
generally short lived. By the late 1950s business was again in decline. It was
compensated in part by the closure of other similar small businesses, which had
referred grateful clients, usually older women in need of heavier corsets with under-belts,
clients came as other firms closed. In the late 1950s, Madame Marie's husband
closed his newsagents and so she was also forced to shut. Many of her clients moved, some to Gardnerís
to Overett, but in 1962, he, or was it Mr Elliot, suddenly died casting many
tight-lacers adrift. Many of these clients had little choice but to move to one of
other of the few tight-lacing salons still in London. Gardnerís special appeal
was that it catered to the demands of the tight-lacer while offering lower
prices. The only concern of new clients was whether they could provide the fit
and quality to which they were accustomed. For these clients were people for
whom tight-lacing corsets had become an essential element in their lives. Above
all else a tight-lacer extols the 'fit' of well-made corsets. They
were often hard to please but fulsome in praise of a corsetiere who could
achieve a 'good fit'.
as now, they were essentially private, educated people. For many years the moral
climate would have regarded them as 'fetishists', a word that could
easily damn and condemn those who had found for what was for them an entirely
innocent pleasure. They appreciated what is, even at the extreme only a modest
departure from what at times were the norms of fashion. Tight-lacing had after
all been accepted as the height of fashion up to World War I, and had continued on
a reduced scale in the inter-war years and had come close to revival with the 'New Look'
in the 1940s.
by their zeal to find perfection, tight-lacing enthusiasts used the grapevine to
find what they wanted. Many were known to one another. They included people who
knew more about corsetry than many a corsetiere and who insisted on dealing with
people who understood, and more importantly could make corsets equal to their
Gardner's had always catered for a number of ladies who maintained very small
waists through tight-lacing, they were hardly ready for this veritable invasion
of enthusiasts. A new feature was
the significant increase in male clients, though Gardnerís had always had male
clients who tight-laced as well as others who needed corsets for medical
conditions. Many of the new clients had actually
started with Lawrence Lenton, had gratefully moved to Mme Stafford, and then to
Overett. Above all else they needed
stability and they found it at Gardnerís, who knew and understood the needs of
corset wearers. It mattered not if you were a wasp waist or were tending to
obesity. It mattered not if you were male or female. At Gardnerís you were
accepted or what you were; a corset wearer, first and last.
soon discovered that Gardnerís were professionals, though by now Alice Gardner
was very old, and took no active part in the business. It was left to Arthur to
continue with the cutting, deal with the many new male clients, who like him,
had always enjoyed wearing corsets. Lady clients found in Iris Norris a
seamstress, machinist, corsetiere and impeccably discreet confidante, equal to
their needs. Although for Gardnerís many of them represented a new class of
client, all felt both welcome and at home.
names of the new arrivals read like a veritable 'who's who' of
tight-lacing enthusiasts. Many are acknowledged or referred to by David Kunzle.
Predominantly British there were more than a few overseas clients including a
number of women and men, often husbands and wives drawn from the USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa,
France, Scandinavia and Germany. Many managed an occasional visit but they
usually dealt by mail order. New clients were often put in touch though the
correspondence that the tight-lacers maintained on an international basis, even
in those pre-internet days.
the next twenty or so years, even Will and Ethel Granger patronised Gardnerís,
as did half the names acknowledged in David Kunzle's book though, for the record
it should be noted that David actually met Frank Gardner not Arthur Gardner, who
had died before David did his research.
continued with their round of visits, once a week. Frank Gardner reserved a day
from his insurance rounds, and went with one of his lady machinists to the
clients mainly in the working class suburbs of London.
the mid-60s there was only full-time one machinist left. Her duties had expanded
to dealing with most individual callers at No 28. They would be taken along the
ground floor, down the stairs to the basement and shown into the modest fitting
room. The Gardner family continued to live in the rest of the house. The change
involved the removal of the machining table, to allow room to set up the cutting
table, and drawers to hold the stocks which included a wider range of broches,
satins and lace trim that some of the more affluent clients favoured, as well as
the busks -spiral, straight and wedge - spirals and steels of every length, width
and weight for boning, suspender fittings, elastics and lacings. The eyeletting
and punching machines were set up on another table close to the garden window,
to take advantage of the natural light.
smaller, the fitting room was appropriately furnished and painted in pale cream.
There was a small side table on which corsets could be spread out for lacings to
be opened out and a chair on which to sit and place any clothes removed. There
were full length mirrors behind the door, on the opposite wall and a half length
one above the table. There was no window, but there was excellent strong
lighting. All was arranged so that a client could self lace effectively or could
assess the progress as a new or altered corset were being laced on by the
corsetiere. Typically the door would be shut and the lacer would stand back to
the door and minister to the clientís lacings and help with back suspenders as
the table were copies of the UK trade journal 'Corsetry and Underwear'
which went out of publication not long before Gardnerís closed its doors,
which a client might read whilst the corsetiere returned to the machining room
to effect any slight alterations that were found desirable during the fitting
were always copies of Gardner's latest catalogues at hand and the current price
list pinned to the wall, adjacent to the half length mirror. The ladies
information was printed on pink paper while the gentlemanís was on blue paper.
a photo session in 1972, a whole plate original photograph of Iris Norris, was
given pride of place on the wall. Iris had posed for the photos session in black
dress or in a black skirt and white sweater. In all studies a narrow black
patent belt accentuated her waist, which had been reduced and measured at
nineteen inches for the session. If needed, her waist gave full testimony to the
figure forming efficacy of her favourite corsets, the 17 inch long Gardner 'Godet' style, known as their L 267 pattern and to Copere clients as
the 'Jean'. The photograph also graced the cover of the first Fanny
Copere book, 'The Corset Question'.
the wall beside the door, were posted the rules regarding employeeís pay,
agreed to under the auspices of the corset Wages Council. In 1977, it was still
only 90 pence (US$2) per hour. Adjacent were the two diplomas that Frank Gardner
had earned at college, one for corset making and the second for corset design.
the coming of new clientele, the range of fabrics traditionally stocked and
available was expanded to include the most expensive broches imported from
France and Belgium as well as satins and that much favoured by men and
surprisingly many lady clients 'gold spot' in matt black with shiny
amber spots. The fabric is well illustrated in the photos of the 'Margarita' style in Fanny Copere's catalogue (see Section 10). The
new clients cared not only for function, but were ready to pay for the
aesthetics of their garments. They also valued the observations and advice of
someone like Mrs Norris who clearly reduced her waist as assiduously as they
did, someone who had personally experienced and understood the difficulty of
coping with the dreaded yet periodic challenge of overcoming skin breakdown
whilst continuing to tight-lace.
corsetry still formed the bulk of the bespoke (custom made) business but
Gardnerís found their skills expanded to the making of corsets of every style.
Corsets suitable only to wear at corset soirees such as classical mannequin
corsets (see Wilbro's catalogue style PCMM 5), worn by those seeking to train a
delicately minced gait in the high heeled shoes or boots they probably bought at
Regent Shoes before it became Ravel. They also made many more male cut high top
corsets, and shoulder straps were a frequent provision of military type 'high top' corsets for the older male client.
suspender belts continued to be made bespoke, but other new sales were made in
selling bulk production of standard styles for firms of outfitters in UK, USA
and Germany who sold corsets to clients who were discovering the pleasures of
corset wearing in the more liberated atmosphere of the late 60s and 70s, when
dressing for pleasure by both sexes was becoming more acceptable.
firms placed regular bulk and bespoke orders. One of the earliest was P. Cutler
of Westbourne Grove run by Pauline Cutler who died in the late 1980s, and whose
firm became Cover Girl, when it moved back from Paddington to Upper Street in
Islington, not far from Gardnerís, in 1973.
1972-3, Gardnerís took out a classified advert in a UK men's magazine, 'Men
Only', which ran for several issues. With the help of a husband and wife
who were both clients, new catalogues and price lists were prepared. The
enthusiastic pair assembled all the artwork. The wife was laced into three
styles of corset specially made for her by Gardnerís; a waspie, the Godet and
a side lacer. She posed, sans stockings, for the camera. The resulting photos
were used to illustrated the ladies catalogue, which was printed on pink paper
and offered the three basic styles plus a narrower waspie. No mean artist, the
husband depicted the four male styles, a casual, a high top and an Edwardian
fluted style. This was produced on blue paper. These catalogues continued in
print until the firm closed in 1981.
Fanny Copere's corsets
were usually copies, or re-
sold versions of the Gardner's
corsets shown here.
Styles 'La Taille', 'Godet', 'Hook-side, lace-side' (couldn't they think of a name?), and the 'Modern Waspie Mini'.
word about the patterns used. All corsets were based on patterns, which had at
least five panels in each half corset. For fluted (Godet), high top and training
styles, six panel patterns were used, not including the flutes or 'petals' in the models with a hip spring of greater than about 12
inches. All corset comprised a facing fabric and a twill lining. All were
interlined to give the corsets the 'weight' and strength that
tight-lacers appreciate, and which readily distinguishes the real bespoke corset
from imitations. Bones were inserted between the facing and lining using a
specially designed pushing tool which reduce the number of raised seams which
can lead to skin abrasion even if a camisole or vest is worn. For those who
insisted on diagonal boning, strapped across panel seams or if the client
insisted on inside strapping, then Gardner's practice was to use not to use bone
casing but to use a strapping fabric, plush faced if possible again to reduce
the amount of seam contact with the skin, a luxury rarely found on corsets
today. Lace frills at top or bottom or both, were optional extras.
were always made to customerís choice, sewn on or detachable and, with the
move to narrower straps, ĺ inch
became standard and the 11/8 inch width they
usually used, and which appear on most of the styles photographed for the Fanny
Copere catalogue, was classed as 'wide'. Until 1978,
Gardnerís provided suspenders with stocking clips, or as their corsetiere
called them 'ends', which had the traditional hard rubber buttons with
a central reinforcing shaft rivetted to a backing plates and a cloth hanger.
When this design went out of production in 1979, Gardnerís were forced to
provided first thick button and then the thinner nobless rubber 'all in
one' designs. A consequence of this change was that clients quickly
complained that their stockings tops were slipping off their suspenders at the
most inconvenient moment. Mrs Norris initially blamed the phenomenon on the
sheen in the modern nylon used to knit non-stretch stockings, but in the end she
found a solution. She eventually counselled clients to bulk up their buttons with tissue paper,
resourceful husbands glued small discs of rubber cut to size using an eyeletting
punch. They then painstakingly glued the discs onto each and everyone of their
grateful spouse's suspender clips! 'Progress' is no respecter of
preference. The security of their suspender clips was paramount and quite
outweighed the questionable inelegance of a visible 'bump' being discernable through a close fitting skirt.
orders came from overseas retail firms like Finecraft of Hollywood. Even in
the late 1980s, the corsets worn in most of the corset illustrations had been
made by Gardnerís. In perusing photos from the 1960s, still in their 1980s
catalogues, Iris would casually say, "Thatís one of ours, and that".
1977, Gardnerís ran an advertisement in 'Tit Bits'. The old
established periodical, which coincidentally had encouraged tight-lacing in the
early years of the century, had come full circle and was once more acting,
albeit indirectly on behalf of a corsetiere, to contact potential tight-lacers.
I think it can fairly be said that whilst the Gardner and Copere girls were, let's say, classic 'English roses' that one might take home to met Mother, their American sisters were certainly not! - Ivy
agency was established in the early 1970s by A. Compton under the name of 'Fanny Copere' and
operated from Castle Street, Richmond, Surrey, UK.
A range of eight corsets was offered including six designs based on Gardner's
patterns, and two based on those of Vollers of Portsmouth, Hants, a business
which coincidentally had also been founded in 1899.
Three models were used to present the range and all wore 'cat suits'. The cover featured a the youngest posing in Gardnerís waspie style, five other styles were modelled by a blonde woman while the Godet, known as 'Jean', was modelled by an older brunette woman. None wore stockings so the suspenders hung loose.
Isabella and Jean models
also began publishing books on tight-lacing with the photo of Iris Norris on the
fitting room wall appearing on the cover, with the caption 'A wasp-waist
of the Nineteen-Seventies. Bust 38 inches, hips 40 inches, waist laced in to 19
There were three other photos of Iris in the book.
company, which used Gardnerís for special orders, was the large firm of J.D.
Williams of Manchester, which by the 1970s had changed its name to Wilbro. In
its range it offered three ranges of made to Measure: 1) Period Corsetry made to
measure - 9 styles; 2) Made to Measure for Ladies - 5 styles and 3) Made to
measure for Gentlemen - 7 styles. Miss Margaret Beck, their resident corsetiere,
passed all their bespoke orders to Gardnerís, a fact which can be confirmed by
comparison of its made-to-measure range with those in Gardner's own
is a cross reference between the names under which the three organisations sold
the same Gardner's styles
Modern Waspie Mini, L79
The Cinch, L73
Le Petit Taille, L271
Old style, L257 (underbust)
Old style, L257 (overbust)
the domestic side of Iris Norris's life, over the years she had seen a son and
daughter marry and grandchildren appear. But now Iris and John were in today's
term 'empty nesters'. A
redevelopment of the part of Islington where they lived saw them take up the
offer of assistance to relocate to a new town, Milton Keynes, some 50 miles from
Euston on the Birmingham line. The choice was easy since Iris's brother and
sister-in-law had settled earlier. However, in keeping with their roots, in the
early 70s, they chose to move, not into a new house, but to one of Edwardian age
within the new city in nearby Old Bletchley, Bucks.
would not have been of note except that in deciding to buy a home for the first
time, albeit with the children off their hands, Iris and John were faced with
paying the mortgage and that meant them both continuing to work full time. It
wasn't easy for it meant rising at 5 am, driving two miles to catch an early
train four days a week to Euston, and even then their respective journeys weren't
over. Iris took the 14 bus along Euston Road, left at King's Cross station, up
Caledonian road as far as the stop by the library at the corner of Lofting
Street. From there she'd walk east up the steep hill cutting left into the
former mews of Barnsbury Terrace and across the west side of the square to No
28. She had a key and would let herself in. Then she'd work 10 hour days and
faced the return trip. Recall that she always wore tight-laced corsets and did
this journey, wasp-waisted with straight-seamed stockings, a proud and elegant
example to the modern generation, for close to a decade.
The legendary corsetiere Iris Norris wears her normal Godet corset style corset
Note the waist and the satin skirt.
Mrs. Norris knew just how to dress to please a man in the nicest possible way.
the last few years, Mrs Norris' duties had extended beyond simply machining to
taking all calling appointments at which she would give clients advice, expertly
measure them or give trial or final fitting for newly made, partially complete or
complete corsets. She dealt with most of the mail order side of the business
which required careful record keeping, secure and discreet packing of parcelled
corsets and trips to the Post Office. She met with sales representatives to
ensure that a sufficient stock of material and bindings was maintained in house
at a time when suppliers and manufacturers were closing and such things were not
easy to find. In many respects she was Gardnerís in all but name, yet was
still an hourly paid employee and time ticked by.
story would be incomplete without a few words on some of the clients of the
final twenty years. Ethel Granger who had the smallest waist in the world at 13
inches patronised Gardnerís for a while though as many knew, while everyone
liked the modest and long suffering Ethel, they found that William was usually
overbearing, especially in his insistence on assuming the fitting duties
customary entrusted to the corsetiere in the fitting room.
the ladies side apart from Ethel Granger there were many women, like Iris
herself, who had cultivated and maintained a 20-inch hip spring for many years.
Several wore corsets cut to a 17 inch waist. All of them needed, of necessity,
the fluted hip style, either the high cut Godet, L 267, which Iris always wore,
or the Petite Taille, L 271. These were always provided with lacing eyelets that
were reinforced with brass washers for tight-lacing. The connoisseur of corset
design will also notice that on Iris Norris's corsets the eyelet pitch is
reduced from 3/4 inch to close to half an inch for the three pairs of eyelets on
either side of the waist line which was defined of course by the mandatory tape
reinforcement. All this in an effort to reduce eyelets tearing out under the
strain of the tight-lacers pull on the stay-lace!
the other side of the business, Iris recalled that Gardnerís made
corsets with a 16 inch waist for a gentleman client of Wilbro in Manchester. Of
their own clients, Basil Costin, acknowledged by Kunzle, was one of several
small-waisted male clients on their books who favoured corsets sewn up with a 19
or 20 inch waist. Several were ex-army officers, who still wore high top corsets
every day. Others were men whose initially accompanied their wives to
appointments and who with the encouragement of both spouse and corsetiere opted
to take up the practice of corseting too.
conscious of privacy, Iris would amusedly recount how, unless requested
otherwise gentleman's corsets ordered by mail were made up with a set of four
suspenders sewn on. The reason; just in case the parcel was opened by the hired
help who would then naturally assume that the item was for 'the lady of the
the 1970s Gardnerís continued to deal with regular suppliers of materials like
Devine and Thurstonís, both located in the Old Street district of London, not
far from Islington and just north of the City of London financial district.
the late 1970s, the revolution in under-fashions was making inroads into the
viability of suppliers. Demand was slackening at a prodigious rate. Devine
relocated to Southend-on-Sea in Essex, 20 miles east of London on the north bank
of the lower Thames estuary. Alternative sources of supply were not interested
in the small, though steady level of orders that Gardnerís would place.
Norris would often voice to clients how discouraged she felt at these
developments. She found that her ability to make corsets to the quality her
clients wanted and her self respect and professionalism demanded, was severely
compromised. Ever inventive she cannibalised old corsets wherever she could,
especially in the search for spoon-busks favoured by herself and lady clients
with large hip springs. In any case she was no longer young and, though still
vigorous and full of energy, she found the lure of retirement in the country and
the end to three hour a day commuting, to be too great. She retired as soon as
she was of the age to take her pension.
82 years and with no successor, Gardnerís was forced to close and an era
ended. Yet closure did not occur without distress, as former clients searched
for alternative salons but seemingly to no avail given their budgets.
REBIRTH: A HAPPY ENDING
this is not the end of the Gardner story. As so often happens, miracles do
happen. In response to the near clamorous demands of the clients, who by now
were often friends as well, Mrs Norris to most, but Iris to some, decided not
retire from corset making. She continued for close to 20 more years,
but that's another story.
 Frank Gardner coined the name in the 1960s.
The MEDICI CORSET
The story of Gardner's would be incomplete without reference to the logo that appeared on their letterhead. It was a depiction of the famous Medici metal corset cover. The story and related facts are the cause of a good mystery.
A reproduction of it had appeared in photographs advertised in Sporting and Dramatic News and sold by Madame E. Kayne of Brighton in the late 1930s. There was always controversy as to whether the model in the photo was actually wearing it or had contrived to stand behind it in a trompe díoeil. But now, relying on the actually transcribed words of a gentleman customer of Gardner's for close to 30 years, some light is shed on the matter:
A picture of the replica Medici Corset
ďI suppose you knew that Gardner's had the 13" Medici metal corset cover. He (Frank gardner) showed it to me once and said that shortly after the war it appeared in the mail without any note or letter. I tried to buy it from him, but he always refused to sell. I just wanted to admire it. ď
It was to remain in Gardner's and was indeed shown to interested, privileged clients such as the writer quoted above. However, sometime around the time Gardnerís closed the metal corset cover disappeared. Mrs. Norris believed she knew who it was but had failed to recover it. A newsletter issued in the 80s and 90s made appeals for its return. There is no doubt that it is out there somewhere and now, thanks to the world wide web, it is to be hoped that, whoever is its arguably illicit, and certainly temporary, guardian might contact Ivy Leaf and tell her of its whereabouts. If nothing else it would put the soul of Iris Norris to rest on a matter that troubled her greatly in her later years
Maybe if it is returned readers can advise where, and in which museum, it might be placed.
The picture referred to above, is almost certainly faked. There were no women at that time that could wear a 13" waist and the disturbed curtains point to two women here - Ivy. The picture comes from the 'Corset Question'.
Did Axfords spin off from Gardners? I can't remember; certainly their corsets were very similar being reproduction Victorian in satin. I have included two pictures from Axford's brochure of the 1980s. This is probably one of their best selling corsets, the model D.27.
In November 2016 for the 2017 calendar, Cathie Jung posed in an Axfords D.27 with a 21-inch waist. It was, of course, far too big for her, however, she shows off the corset to far better effect than the model in the centre. In fact, to my eye, the unworn corsets on the left and Cathie on the right show the corset at its best because of the waisted shape.