Spirella, Health and

the Older Woman

At four o'clock that afternoon, the lazy ship's routine was cut by the whistle blowing 'abandon ship drill' and the passengers came sheepishly up the ladders in their life jackets ... The exception was old Mrs. Lomax who misheard her stewardess's assurances and came screaming on deck, bald, toothless and in her corsets.

This passage comes from Richard Gordon's classic book The Captain's Table (1954).

The author was a doctor and knew well the sort of woman that typically wore corsets. For sure, in the halcyon days of the 1950's, probably the zenith of the girdle, there were elegant women wearing elegant corsets, however, as Ambrose Wilson's chief corsetiere commented "let's not romance about corsetry". Men, in general, confuse underwear and romance, women never do, other than to use the power of these garments, not just to influence their figures, but their husbands as well. A doctor romances probably the least, since years of seeing all varieties of women in their 'smalls' must surely have eradicated all traces of romance.

The title picture was taken only three years after Richard Gordon's book was published and the sight would be familiar to many corsetieres, doctors, and long-suffering husbands. I am not for a second suggesting that this lady is actually bald and toothless, however, a fact of life in the 1950's was that the majority of adults needed dentures from their 30's. Varicose veins also were extremely common and untreated surgically, thus an immovable anchor was required to hold the powerful elastic stockings of the day. That anchor would need to be a corset or a firm girdle at the very least. For many women, the corset might have held in the burgeoning abdomen, but its primary function was to support the stockings. Nevertheless, the effect of the foundations on the women in question is rather pronounced, and her matronly bosom has been raised by at least six inches!

Dramatic postural improvement is seen in many of Spirella's photographs. The elderly lady on the right exhibits the usual Spirella improvements, not least of which is a remarkable elevation of her bosom, however, I doubt that without the application of a serious dorso-lumbar support, would such a military 'shoulders-back' posture be achieved!

The abdominal supports below show something rather closer to the truth. The older lady (1930) appears unconcerned by the photographer. However, she would not have worn a black vest and knickers under her corsets. This was simply worm for the modelling session to ensure that the details of the garments could be properly seen. The desperately saggy younger lady (1937) demonstrates in the Spirella modelling garment, the huge improvement that proper foundations could achieve. Would that some of the 'couch potatoes' of the present day understand the need for adequate corsetry. Forget the modern fad for natural attention to one's figure and adequate exercise. This lady needs all the support she can get.

Far from criticising the corsetiere as was the case in the Victorian days of tight-lacing, doctors were often quoted as praising their efforts. In a passage from the Spirella magazine of November 1931 comes the following testimonial:-

 

SPIRELLA and HEALTH -- Miss A. from Northwich, writes:- "The doctor saw my Sacro-iliac Belt on me yesterday, and he is very pleased with it. He pulled it in tighter than I had done, and I felt all the better for it. He also said that the belt will do more for me than he can do, and was surprised at the price."

 

The statement above is rather revealing of outmoded (although by no means incorrect) practices. Firstly, the doctor approves of the corset and even pulls it tighter! Secondly, he commented on the low price. The cost of corsets, and even girdles, that are supplied by quite some reputable manufacturers have gone through the roof in recent years. This is nothing to do with lack of demand, but simply that these garments are now classed as medical supports, and thus qualify under medical insurance. Consequently, since we all now pay (that is the purpose of insurance), rather than the individual, the garments can be sold for two or three times what they used to cost.

 

It grieves me that a simple Spencer girdle costs £150, and that the best back supports from Germany over £300. With pricing like this, the elegant form of the charming older women who flanks this story will become a creature of the past.

 

"It's no fun growing old" 

My mother use to lament this fact. No youngster would even understand what she was talking about, but as we approach and pass Middle Age, these words start to possess an awfully familiar ring.

The following letters illustrate the trials and tribulations of growing old.

The older woman is prey to many ailments, not the least embarrassing of which is sporadic size changes due to water retention. Alstons, famous manufacturer of rubber corsetry, which was surprisingly popular in Europe in the 1960’s (and in Latin America today), marketed a corset with two front panels: a thin one, and a wider one to accommodate weight fluctuations or simply the desires of comfort. One of my Mother-in-law’s bridge friends was prone to these fluctuations. My husband recounts meeting this lady on numerous occasions as a child. Large by any standards, her clothes were always a close fit. On one visit, obviously during a water retention episode, he recalls that her blue silk (rayon ?) suit was so tight that it appeared to have been sprayed onto her body. Every hook and eye of her brassiere and the bones of her corsets were embossed on the shiny material. A brooch had been fastened across the top of the jacket to stop it parting, and discreetly hidden safety pins backed up the straining buttons. In such a condition she wheezed constantly and her arms jutted stiffly from her body almost rigid in the confines of the taut silk. Even the heavy perfume that she wore failed to disguise a vague almost pungent odour which my husband remembers to this day. Indeed, growing old gracefully, is not easy.

Osteoporosis is another scourge of the elderly. My corsetiere tells me of several clients, whose first act of the day is to don their corsets, and their last act before retiring to take them off again. An old family friend was such a person. This lady was outstanding in her appearance. Although in her 70’s, she possessed a slim and elegant figure. Her clothes were her extravagance, old-fashioned, yet tasteful and expensive confections of patterned chiffons and silks. Her hair was like a spun silver web and her stocking seams ruler straight down to her court shoes. Only the complete rigidity of her torso indicated that she was corseted from shoulders to thigh. She made no secret of the fact, and would jokingly say to younger women how Spencer had looked after her figure tapping her unyielding stomach. Her corsets, as one might suppose, were, within the constraints of their functionality, as beautifully, yet conservatively cut as her clothes. The corsetiere’s dream-come-true is the lace overlaid corset, which is extremely expensive, being in effect, two corsets. This lady had two corsets in white overlaid pink satin, and two more in black overlaid purple. The sturdy buckles, straps and bones, almost enhanced the appearance of her stays rather than detracting from it. Presumably these creations were thrown away after she died, as has been the fate of so many ‘collector’s items’. So many elderly women put a ludicrous value on effectively worthless heirlooms, photographs and nick-nacks picked up from so-called antique shops. If only they knew that they might be wearing their most valuable assets!  

Corset laces pose a problem for the older lady. Knots and tangles can be frustratingly hard to sort out.

 

 

Getting Dressed

 

(Before we begin this section, please let me inform you that the garments below are not my regular wear, simply items that an elderly lady might have worn in the 1950's - 1960's).

 

After 30 very happy years with my husband, there is one thing that really irritates me (and most other women). Picture the scene; we are going to a formal dinner. We need to leave the house by 7.30. I start preparing the myriad of feminine details that a lady requires, not just hours before the event, but days before in discussion with friends and appointments at the hairdresser. My husband will turn up, 20 minutes before we need to leave. Leap in and out of the shower in a time that it would take me to decide on which shampoo to use, and put on underpants, socks and dinner suit within five minutes. "OK Darling; let's go".  Of course, he will then pick up the keys of his tiny sports car, rather than some transport that will accommodate a mature women, complete with expensive dress, expensive, and not necessarily flexible underwear, and a tall hair-do; at HIS request I might add!! 

 

"I'm sorry, my Dear. How thoughtless of me" he says as he reluctantly relinquishes the keys of the tiny car for our other car that will at least allow a lady to enter and exit gracefully.

 

To get from                                              THIS                                                          to                                           THIS   is neither quick nor easy!

The underwear shown in the picture, which incidentally weighs in at an amazing 1200 gr., (over 2 1/2 pounds) and that's without a slip (petticoat), has a total of 18 hooks-and-eyes, three sets of lacing, a zip, eight buckles and (thankfully) only four suspenders. In reality, six suspenders would have been required and, indeed, were even recommended in the instructions on how to don the support stockings. These 'Elbeo' masterpieces are described as regular, however, they are stronger than most modern shapers.

An Older Woman's Underwear has been the butt of numerous jokes and 'seaside' postcards. But many of the jokes and scenes are based on fact as the anecdotes below reveal.

 

I forget who once wrote “…bereavement, complicated by disposal of the mysterious underpinnings of the elderly woman;” but the idea is quite correct. Going through Granny's 'smalls' elicits emotions ranging from incomprehension through revulsion to hilarity. "I can't believe that she used to wear these things" is the cry of the ignorant younger generation. Sadly, some beautiful confections of lace and satin are consigned to the dustbin and our tenuous grasp of history is diminished.

 

In Ian MacRobert's memoirs, he recounts his aging wife "strapping and lacing herself into the rigid satin tube that was her underwear". No flight of fancy this, if you consider the devices not uncommonly worn in the 1950's.

 

"Mrs. Dredge pushed open the door ...... gasping with all the vigour of a leviathan that had surged up from several hundred fathoms. She was large-boned, like one of the better varieties of Shire horse, and on this stalwart framework there hung great, soft, voluptuous rolls of avoirdupois. A buttress-work of stays, linen and rubber was required to keep this bulk under control, so Mrs. Dredge’s body creaked and groaned alarmingly with each breath she took."  Gerald Durrell's Rosie is my Relative

 

In Major Hubberd's unpublished notes that would have lead to 'Memoirs of an Indian Army Officer' he recalls his mother's preparations for a formal function. ""Tighter, tighter; now measure me. More, more; measure me again. I need 24 inches" she would encourage her Indian maid. The maid, who I might add was no weakling, confided to me more than once that English women must surely be insane to subject their bodies to such cruelty."

 

"Lady Mary adjusted the straps of her surgical corset with a vigour that reminded Sir Godber of a race meeting!"  Tom Sharpe's   Porterhouse Blue

 

It is unlikely that this view of an elderly lady (above right - Spirella 1959) would be seen by anyone other than her doctor or corsetiere. Husbands usually are privy only to the 'final product' and not the engineering involved.

 

Lady Mary adjusts the straps of her surgical corset

 

The comments above regarding Lady Mary prompted us to recreate the scene using some of our models who posed for the calendars of 2010, 2012 and 2013. Late one Autumn afternoon, I gave instructions to our Camp and Jenyns glad volunteers to act the part of Lady Mary. "Grab those straps and pull" I exhorted them. Sadly, none could keep a straight face and the pictures were largely consigned to the electronic dustbin, but there was one that, I believe, captures that moment when an elderly lady, preparing for the rigours of the day would pull the straps of her corset tight, even tighter to achieve that flatness of stomach that would allow her sensible tweed skirt to hang well. (One needed sensible tweed to disguise the engineering involved!)

 

In our quests for recollections of one's granny, mother or female relative's under-pinnings, it is often men that give the best responses. Usually, the advice is preceded by a defensive male bluster along the lines of "Strange hobby you fellows have," or "Not really interested in that sort of thing, you know!" The description that then follows is precise in detail as though the gentleman had made a life's study of  female underwear. One that comes to mind was from a retired bank manager who was able to describe the corsets that his mother wore so precisely that we could not just identify the brand, Camp, but the model number! Oddly, his recollections of his own wife's smalls were far more vague "Some sort of elastic undies I suppose" he huffed.

 

Gerald Durrell wrote about his childhood in Greece. During a house fire one night, his mother ran out of the house in her nightie with a pair of corsets incongruously fastened on top. Like many women used to corsets, even a short time without them would have been uncomfortable.

 

The British Ambassador to Austria before the war recounts sitting for a formal dinner beside an aged Countess. That she was apparently deaf did not help the small talk, but, in a world of heroically corseted diplomatic women, this women was utterly rigid and her high-necked silk dress acted like a collar to prevent any sideways movement at all. Minute pieces of vegetable, delicately speared on her fork and carefully transported towards her thin disapproving mouth, seemed to be the only food that could pass through the vermillion slot in her enamelled face. It was a long evening.

 

I married late and consequently my husband never saw me in my underwear – I mean who would want to see a toothless old woman forcing reluctant cellulite into a girdle? I always dressed in the bathroom and by the time my husband stirred, all my real bits and false bits were at least where they should be and decently covered as well!

 

During the resurgence of rubber corsetry after the war, it was not so uncommon for a women to wear a rubber brassiere and corset. Even the stockings could have a high rubber content. As one long-suffering husband was heard to say "The old dear used to pong a bit in the hotter weather!"

 

 

Indeed,  an older woman's foundations are not simply corset, brassiere and stockings, they are a combination of all three, with the associated tensions and forces connected, and hopefully complementary. Once out of balance, the older woman will end up fighting her foundations. She may even discard them which, of course, is complete folly after a lifetime's habit. It leads us to a question that my husband and I have often discussed, and even ventured to express in these pages: Did stiff, old ladies walk like that because they wore stiff, old corsets? Certainly, the joints stiffen with age, but a woman's locomotion is very dependent upon her underpinnings. Ask any young secretary from the late 1950's clad in tight skirt, heels and panty-girdle of tourniquet strength!

 

The excerpts above recount experiences completely alien to the youth of today. Ideally, brassiere, corset and stockings are well-fitted and act in concert to support the wearer, the tensional forces being distributed over the wear's torso and legs with the concentration of forces occurring exactly where it is needed. Occasionally, particularly in the elderly, weight fluctuations can alter the distribution of these tensions since the cost of new garments is prohibitive. A corsetiere once noted that a client's stockings were stretching the straps of her brassiere, so loose had her corset become. Properly fitted, foundations are the perfect support. My husband commented that they formed an exo-skeleton, not a word I had ever associated with corsetry, but actually not inappropriate.

 

How often at weddings, and even more so at funerals, do the elderly appear in ill-fitting clothes, fashionable possibly two decades before. I particularly remember one old biddy, an acquaintance of my mother, whose wrinkled face and flaccid neck questing curiously from the collar of her jacket, looked uncommonly like a turtle. Her head was quite animated, yet any movement in her torso was hidden by her suit and skirt that must have been two sizes too large for her.

 

In my regular contacts with the elderly, I have noticed how badly out of shape so many old women have become. Typically, they are hunched, their (remaining) bosom hidden in the stooped concavity of their chests, with their stomachs protruding like footballs. What happened to the ram-rod straight harridan of yesterday? Was she simply a figment of our imagination? No: These women come from a generation that were not used to corsets; they were born too late, but they never benefited from the ‘fitness craze’ of the last three decades. They are ‘in betweens’. I refer to these shapeless women as the 'lost generation' or 'human question marks' on account of their posture. Far from forcing their daughters into uncompromising foundation garments, the opposite was true. Born between about 1920 and 1940, the daughters persuaded their Mothers to ‘burn their bras’ without offering an acceptable alternative. The results of this postural disaster crowd the Old Peoples’ Homes of today. Our Grandmothers knew the benefits of a corset, our daughters appreciate the benefits of exercise, but a woman cannot retain her shape without either.  

The spinal brace (Camp's dorso-lumbar support - right) ensured an almost military posture on the incumbent. Shoulders back, tummy in was the only was to stand when well strapped into this device. I remember seeing one old dear who had been over-tightened into one such corset. She strutted into dinner at an Eastbourne hotel, each step a jerky battle of muscle and elastic. She sat rigid and erect with her less formidably corsetted friends. When the soup came, she could not raise her hands as far as her mouth and in embarrassment left the table. Some while later she returned, less erect with mobility restored. Sadly, her teeth were no match for the meat that some thoughtless friend had ordered. One assumes she went to bed hungry!

Military posture guaranteed, but don't overtighten this device; it can actually pull the shoulder blades into contact with each other. Pull your shoulders back and try to raise your hands to your mouth!

I would like to end this section with another photograph of the charming lady who features at the beginning. She taught us all a lesson and perhaps there is still plenty of fun to had when one grows old!

Indeed, there is a knack to .....

 

"Growing Old Gracefully" 

"I was expecting someone about sixty with tinted hair, an enamelled face, tight corsets, like a sort of toughened up Queen Victoria" quoted the girl in John Wyndam's book, 'The Trouble with Lichen' (1960).

Growing old gracefully, comes easily to some, but not to others. Vanity pays a heavy price in later years, and the aging actress may be one of the hardest hit in this respect.

Before cosmetic surgery to enhance one’s beauty became commonplace, various alternative approaches were used to achieve the same end. Indeed, in the world of the theatre, the heroically corseted diva (to quote Alistair McLean) was the rule rather than the exception. Mae West (left) and Margaret Dumont (right), amongst many others, both relied heavily on their corsets for most of their careers. 

I have chosen these two ladies to illustrate a point here, since their approach to corsetry was so dramatically different. To Mae, born in 1893, and Margaret in 1889, corsets were an everyday item. However, Mae, who tended to plumpness, used them to control her waist and present a figure that never changed. As age caught up with Mae West so reality retreated and her corsets, wigs and teeth, once the cream on the cake became the essence of the cake (see below.) In the picture here, her corsets are struggling to contain her Teutonic waistline and the other appurtenances of beauty are as false as they appear.

 

Margaret Dumont, on the other hand, wore the corsets appropriate to her age and peer group. She was genuinely 'classy', and suffered the outrageous antics of the Marx Brothers with every emotion from stoicism to hysterics. She was ungraciously called 'Old Ironsides' by way of reference to her corsets. The attitude of the Marx Brothers towards Margaret illustrates a not-untypical irreverence for the elderly, combined with a genuine respect. Harpo, in particular, used to hide her wig, and on more than one occasion, the furious actress would chase Harpo, towel around her head, as fast as her corsets would allow. Once Margaret was reduced to tears, the Brothers would re-group and apologise profusely. The stunts would resume soon afterwards. It's a fascinating glimpse into the world of youthful exuberance, elderly restraint and the Mother-figure.

 

 

The corseted actress reappeared in the 1970's, courtesy of the amply proportioned Janet Webb, who graced the Morecambe and Wise Show between 1969 and 1972. Her appearance is a take-off of the old stage saying, "It's never over 'till the fat lady sings". Calling such a beautiful woman as the late Miss. Webb fat is, of course, very insulting, but required under the conditions of poetic license. She was, however, tightly corseted for some of the scenes, however latterly, with her health failing, she wears a bra and little other support (right) since in one shot, her navel can clearly be seen.

 

 

So we have three instances here. 1) Corsetry used to persuade an audience, and latterly the actress herself, that nothing had changed over the years. 2) Corsetry used simply as a matter of fact by a character actress, and 3) the concept of theatrical corsetry camped up in that quintessentially English style of humour. But let us leave you with Miss Webb at her very (corsetted best!)

 

 

 

The elderly, and particularly, the elderly in the public eye, have resorted to all manner of deceptions to convince their admirers that nothing has changed. The list of artificial appliances is almost endless, and in some cases highly inventive. Books have even been written on the topic that covers nose moulds, latex stockings and some ingenious solutions to ‘that’ problem. After all, an elderly and tightly corseted woman cannot sit at a formal dinner for five hours without the call of nature becoming completely unbearable.

Marlene Dietrich succumbed to old age less than gracefully. In her youth, she as this to say about girdles, "What an unattractive object. Women have immense faith in the miracles a girdle can produce. I believe they are labouring under a false illusion. I don't feel equipped to argue to vehemently about the pros and cons of girdles, except to say that the natural line of a woman's body has its points." A decade later, Marcel Rochas, a designer best known for his invention of the guepiere, or long-line girdle, was called in to fit Miss Dietrich and preserve her hourglass image. Well past her prime but still on stage comes the following report, "By the 1970's, the stage had been strategically darkened to camouflage her age, and she resorted to a number of painful tricks to maintain her glamorous image. These included braiding her hair tightly before donning a wig, and wearing a tight, all-over girdle under her elaborate costumes and gowns. The ironclad garment restricted her movement, however, and she once fell into the orchestra pit and broke her hip at a Washington performance." This girdle was described in her biography as an extraordinary foundation that covered most of her torso and legs. It was used when she wore very tight trousers during stage appearances. Older women lose the flesh from their legs and the muscle tone from all over their bodies. The girdle was exceptionally tight where muscle tone had flagged, and padded where extra shape was required. I remember seeing her on television in a tight blue satin trouser outfit. She still danced well, however, the outfit had the strange appearance of being inflated, so smooth was the surface without any lines showing whatsoever. The poor women had to be laced and constricted into the girdle and then covered in a padded costume to conceal the engineering beneath.

 

Similar comments were made on another Hollywood actress well past her prime:- "Special undergarments and corsets were employed to hold her body in shape. She had lost the firmness of youth and looked matronly before her time." The old Norwegian cartoon on the left is sadly perhaps not as far removed from the truth as was supposed!

 

 

 

Yet elderly woman are as much a prey to vanity as film stars. The corsetry firms knew this, and in the 50's and 60's advertised extensively and blatantly at the older woman.

Forget the frills (right), this was a back-laced girdle available in London. "Oh no, Dear, I don't need to wear a corset you know!" Of course not with a foundation like that.

 

I remember my mother-in-law watching a TV appearance of Hermione Gingold in her later years. "She must be well strapped in to look like that" quoted the normally very polite lady. Indeed, some elderly actresses were 'strapped in', 'laced up', 'buckled tight', painted, pomaded, padded and perfumed. Sadly, some very beautiful women have refused to grow old gracefully, and the end result is sad at best and a caricature at worst. It was said that the gorgon wasn't hideous in absolute terms, but it was the despoiling of a once-beautiful woman that turned those that gazed on her to stone.

 

I have heard talk about neck corsets. Such a device, of course, if it were truly a corset, would throttle the wearer in short order, however, one British actress, far, far beyond her ‘sell-by date’, did resort to a false neck. (I had a few comments on this artifice; frankly quite scathing. I was rescued by my husband who remembered a picture of a woman having her back and neck straightened by means of a corset and a celluloid neck piece - this can be glimpsed on the right. It would take little modification to shorten the under-jaw extension thus rendering the device virtually invisible - IL). But I digress. This ancient relic of the British music halls had, as many older women do, developed a turkey skin wattle below her jaw. The false neck, made of stiffened flesh-coloured latex, covered her own neck and was secured beneath her wig at the back. A projecting piece of rubber fitted under her lower jaw, thus forcing the wattle into that convenient cavity from where it had dropped. This also had the effect of stretching the skin across the jaw and removing some of her myriad wrinkles. Her oversized dentures performed a similar stretching on the face. Lastly, and this was, and is, still commonly practiced, her scalp was taped. This requires powerful surgical plaster to be stuck just above the forehead and pulled strongly backwards. It is in effect, a non-surgical facelift. The plaster adheres to the scalp. Such ‘taping’ can pull the sides of the face taut as well. The base of the plaster in the case of this actress was taped down the back of the false neck, thus securing the whole artificiality of the poor woman. Apparently ‘taping’ is extremely uncomfortable, let alone the false neck. The make-up girls now had a moderately smooth countenance on which to work, and they could indeed make this actress appear 30 or 40 years younger. The snag was that the wattle would push her tongue high into her mouth and that her face, neck and head were completely immobile. If she wasn’t known as a dumb blonde in her acting days, she was truly a dumb blonde at the end of her career, for she could not utter a word thus encumbered.

 

The beautiful woman on the left wears a neck corset. It begs the question, is the corset a fashion accessory or a surgical appliance. Whatever, the lady carries off the restriction of her neck with charm and aplomb.

 

People have asked me if I was referring here to Mae West in her latter days. I was not. However, as the real and the fantasy Mae West blurred in later life, she was described, in embarrassing detail by a reporter who visited her at home. "Her face was almost immobile from make-up and the invasion of her over-sized dentures; the wig perched atop her head was equally motionless. She could barely totter so tightly was she corseted and clothed. She never sat during the interview (for she could not), but simply leant against a piano, cunningly placed so that her movements never required more than a few steps. The smile never changed and questions were answered (with difficulty) in monosyllables!"

 

In these famous publicity photographs taken when Mae was 70, she looks decades younger, unless that is you are a reporter who gets too close or sees her move. Then the illusion is immediately shattered and one realises that this is indeed an old woman.

A devoted Spirella client all her life, and passionately scared of hospitals, one suspects that every artifice at the make-up girl's disposal was used for these occasions.

 

Hip-spring

 

A feature of the elderly, and well illustrated by Miss West is the loss of hip-spring with age. Hip spring is the difference in inches between the waist and hip measurements and is used when selecting ready-made foundations. On a normal woman, the hip-spring is 10 - 12 inches with anything outside 8 - 14 inches simply not within the range offered by most manufacturers. Observe the change in Miss West over the 20 years from 1960 to 1980. Despite heavy corsetry, her hip-spring has changed from 14 inches to less than eight, the extremes of the normal spectrum. Janet Webb and famously, Jayne Mansfield in the film 'The girl can't help it" boasted hip-springs of nearly 20 inches and some tight lacers can achieve more, but this is far outside the norm.

 

Conversely, drag artists, that is men who pretend to be women, start with a normal male hip-spring of 2 - 6 inches, that must be augmented if the effect is to appear genuine. Only in older women, as flesh is lost from the nether regions and accumulated around the waist does the hip-spring reduce to almost male proportions. The corsets of the elderly are far more 'tube-like' than their younger sisters. Corsetieres are occasionally approached by men requesting corsets to be made for their elderly mothers. The similarity in hip-spring between these older ladies and their sons has lead some fitters to wonder for whom the corset was really destined. This topic is, however, best handled elsewhere!

 

Most definitely a corset  for a woman. This example has a hip-spring of 13 inches, close to the limits of normality.

(Spirella 305)

 

 

 

"Married to your Corsets" 

When the baby boy, who would become Kapitan-Leutnant Walter Schwieger  (the U-boat ace that torpedoed the Lusitania), was born, his mother looked at the infant and famously said “How nice. Now take it away”. Within a day, her once-elegant figure was returned to its pre-pregnancy glory courtesy of the corsets she had worn half a year before. This feat would neither have been easy, nor comfortable, but with her attitude towards the birth and plenty of strong maids to dress her, it was quite achievable.  

This act would ensure that Frau Schwieger would never actually regain her true figure without aid. She, like all her peers, were as firmly married to their corsets as they were to their husbands. 

 

This lady would have been born around 1865, however, reliance on corsets was common until the end of the First World War. This meant that even as late as the 1980’s there were numerous elderly women who literally could not live un-corsetted, largely due to the post-pregnancy desire to appear as if nothing had happened as quickly as possible.  

A female inmate of Singapore’s notorious Changi prison during the Second World War was absolutely distressed, not by the treatment of her jailers, or the loss of freedom, but by the loss of her corsets without which she was excessively uncomfortable. Eventually, she bartered a horde of cigarettes for another lady’s corset.  

Strangely enough, the post-partum problem of excess flesh, is encountered also by those who have gained weight and then lose it faster than the elasticity of their skin can accommodate. In these days, surgeons can literally cut away or hoover up (liposuction) the excess. There then follows a period of confinement in elastic garments to remould the flesh. A very candid account of this is given by a Canadian woman who, very sensibly, decided to lose weight. The resultant cellulite and sagging 'bingo wings' were not part of the perceived deal, however, by wearing no less than three elasticated garments, long-leg girdle, bolero top and waspie, she has achieved not just a smooth profile, but an elegant one too! Well done.

 

The very amusing Daily Mail columnist, Claudia Connell, wrote an article in March 2009, where she re-shaped herself with a long-legged body suit, elastic pants, a waspie, a padded bra and shoulder shapers from Connie Elder's Lipo-in-a-box. Her 'bingo wings' were suppressed by arm stockings from Flabuless. The result, she admitted was pretty sleek (as I'm sure you will agree), however, as a representative of a generation unused to proper foundations, the experience left her somewhat breathless. Marlene Dietrich knew a trick or two!

A German Thalysia corset from the 1950's designed for an utterly flat post-partum abdomen

As I mentioned earlier, the corsetiere that I use in Sussex recounts many instances of women whose first act of the day is to don their corsets, and their last act before retiring to remove them. Without this accustomed support, back-ache would immobilize them within a few hours. This is a physiological condition not really a psychological one, although the latter, and the desire to appear at one’s best do, of course, play a part.

I should point out that many of these women in no way had medical conditions that required the constant use of a corset, it was simply the life-long habit of wearing one. These women were both a blessing and a curse to their corsetieres. Obviously, the corsetiere lives from the commission on selling corsets, and the more she sells, the more she earns. Maintaining contacts, seeking new clients and ‘net-working’ (as it is called today) was a very important part of the corsetiere’s trade. The down side, and I know that this forced many women out of the trade, was the elderly woman’s perception that, once fitted, every personal problem encountered thereafter could be laid at the corsetiere’s doorstep.

The elegant lady on the right (1948) is unmistakably wearing a corset. The erect posture, the tubular shape of the hips are all giveaways to what probably is the style of foundation garment that she has worn since her teenage years.

 

 

In Edith Thronton McLeod's excellent book 'Beauty After Forty', she speaks simply and eloquently about how to look your best. Poor Miss McLeod would shudder at the female life forms that one encounters on the streets of Britain today.

 

Certainly no great lover of boned corsets herself, she is, however, adamant about torso control and well-fitted foundations. She illustrates her book quite charmingly with the adjacent pictures.

 

My husband was amused by the picture on the right. "It's sad when grow old and so confused that you wear you corsets over your dress!" Really.

 

What we see on the right is an extreme example of the advertisements showing a lady wearing a girdle over her knickers. It's simply for modesty.

 

 

 

The following account eloquently describes many of the trials of growing old.

 

The Squire’s Wife   (Beccles, Britain 1974 - 1977)

 

The country squire had been married for many years. Mrs. M., was a vigorous and forceful lady, who did not suffer fools gladly (amongst whom she appeared to regard her husband). On this committee and that committee, Mrs. M. was tolerated by the phlegmatic rural community, in the same way that all pestilences had been tolerated for centuries. That was by quiet hope, and prayers for the divine removal of the affliction.

 

Inevitably, Mrs. M. was also a local magistrate who suffered from none of the modern, socialist, ‘soft’ approach to criminals. Unfortunately, the length of sentence decreed by this paragon of rectitude was closely controlled by her temper, and her temper was largely controlled by her back. Now this may appear very unprofessional, however, it is a historical fact, that many thousands of soldiers have been sent to their deaths, simply because the General's 'piles' were playing up!

 

Mrs. M’s assault on each new day followed a pattern. Rising at 6.30 am precisely, she would emerge from her bed, a somewhat less than attractive apparition in her voluminous nightie. She would pick up some underclothes and retire to the bathroom. She appeared to have the eyes of an owl, for all this was achieved with merely the glow from the lamp standard outside their house.

 

Emerging after a noisy 10 minutes clad in brassiere and surgical stockings under her house-coat, she would shuffle to her chest of drawers, her abdomen supported by her hands. This gave Mr. M. the first clue as to the potential severity of Mrs. M’s temper. Was she stooping? Would she groan as she bent over to retrieve her Spencer corset from the Ottoman chest at the foot of the bed? The corset would be laid on her bed; she would sit into the corset and fasten the back suspenders and side suspenders. She would then pull her long knickers up to her knees and insert her feet into her shoes (the latter act being impossible once corseted). Lying down, the innumerable hooks and eyes that closed the front of the device would be attached. Occasionally she would mismatch the hooks with the eyes, which would call forth an angry fusillade of “tut-tutting”. Recumbent on the bed (in the Trendelenberg position), and wriggling her abdomen into its proper place, Mrs. M. would attack the laces and work them up from the bottom of the corset, tightening the device inch by inch. The sound track that accompanied this process always amused her husband, as with much puffing and straining, Mrs. M achieved the desired tension, largely proportional to the condition of her back. On regaining the vertical, the final tension was administered, the bow was tied, and the spare lace tucked behind the flap. At last with the lights on, Mr. M. had to admit that the corset certainly did its job well, for his wife’s desperately saggy abdomen was now as flat as a board, and her troublesome spine rigidly encased in its steel and brocaded satin cocoon. The sound track continued as Mrs. M. started to complain about her back, the weather and the state of the younger generation. Her corsets would join in the daily tirade, since once tightened beyond some critical tension, they tended to creak alarmingly as she moved around the bedroom.

 

Mr. M’s dilemma was his inside knowledge of his wife’s temper. If she was sitting on the bench at the magistrate’s sessions that day, he knew how she would behave, and it seemed rather unfair that some hapless felon should be parted from his family for an extra three months, simply because his wife’s back was ‘playing up’. What to do?

 

Mr. M. was a popular figure at the local town’s Conservative club, where he played snooker with several colleagues, coincidentally, most of them lawyers. He felt that he could not possibly interfere in the process of law, however, he also felt that his wife’s decision-making process was unreasonably erratic; a fact well known to his legal friends at the snooker table. It was at one of the club’s social functions, that Mrs. M. unreasonably snapped at one of the lawyers. Mr. M. later apologised or her behalf, and seeing his chance, added “You can always tell when she’s going to be bad tempered; you can hear her stays creaking”. This apparently light-hearted aside revolutionised the magistrate’s court, as the court secretary listened for the tell-tale creaking of Mrs. M’s corsets, and informed the lawyers whether to proceed that day or to suspend until a later date!

 

 

Mother's Bridge Friends  (Winchester, Britain 1958)

Every other Wednesday, Mother liked to play Bridge and this usually provided a pleasant distraction for me during the holidays. Mother's Bridge friends were all older than her, I think in their late fifties and sixties, and I would position myself by the landing window to watch them arrive. Mrs. P., a large and well dressed lady, was normally quite prompt and she usually gave Mrs. L. a lift. These two were always good value. First of all there would be the performance of Mrs. P. attempting to get out of the car. First the door would open followed by one monstrous leg in its fitted stocking and sensible shoes. The next leg would emerge and then grasping the door frame in both hands, the magnificent bosom of the woman would emerge, closely followed by the rest of her body which could then be levered up to the vertical. I often wondered how she could ever get behind the wheel of her car so vast was her bosom.  She carried this prodigious bust like the ram of an ironclad. Indeed, ironclad she might have been since I saw no flexibility in her figure at all. In contrast, Mrs. L. was slim, tall and extremely elegant for somebody well into their sixties. It was only when she walked that the restrictions of her surgical corset became apparent. I learnt that she suffered periodically with that bane of the elderly, a bad back. I had overheard from Mother that during these spells, she enlisted the help of Mrs. P. who had been a nurse, to help her into her corsets on a Monday. Release from her tea-rose brocaded prison depended on the expert eye and good offices of her friend. Her periodic incarcerations could last a week, so poorly was her back and so helpless was the old lady when thus afflicted. She was often heard to say "Agatha's awfully strong you know, but it's good for my back; not to mention my figure!" She was a delightful lady who I imagined resented the embarrassing indignity of her weekly ritual with her formidable partner. I frequently wondered how these corseted old women ever were allowed to drive, for surely there was no earthly way that they would have the flexibility to drive properly.

 

What’s in a Name ? (Bexhill, Britain 1962)

 

My father had an irreverent way with names and frequently the butt of his unkind inventions were mother’s bridge cronies, or crones as father would remark.

 

Juniper was a singularly appropriate name for a stout lady called June. This jolly old soul kept her spirits high on a daily ration of gin, the calorific consequences of which were controlled by an old-fashioned laced corselette. Of course I never saw the garment, but the tell-tale bulges under the armpits gave away her secret. Her powerful foundation ensured that her clothes fitted perfectly over the corset, but her unfettered arms and legs had grown to fill her sleeves and skirt to the point where her very locomotion was impeded.

 

Polly’s years overseas had played havoc with her complexion which had deteriorated into a myriad of fine wrinkles on a distinctly yellow base, a consequence of anti-malarial prophylaxis. Heavy make-up (polyfilla) filled the cracks and restored an approximation of English Rose colouration. My father used to tease me and suggested that she used to spread her make-up with a trowel. This wasn’t so far from the truth and her heavy make-up rendered her expression curiously immobile.

 

Bendy Wendy was a tall, thin woman whose height had engendered a stooping posture. My mother always said that her poor posture would give her back problems and ultimately this was the case. Sometimes she would appear stooped, and other times she would be ramrod straight depending on whether her condition necessitated the wearing of her corsets. “It’s a lumbo-sacral support” she once announced proudly although indistinctly since her neck was held immobile in a collar (not a modern spongy thing I might add but one of those perforated leather devices that can pull apart vertebrae, or so the old woman claimed).

 

Varicose Vera had alarmingly knobbly legs that even the power of her heavy-duty surgical stocking could not conceal. She always wore two sets of stockings, with more fashionable support stockings over the elastic ones. Supporting all this hosiery caused her quite some trouble until she came on the solution of wearing a corselette over her corset (that must have been a good commission - Ivy). In this way, both sets of stockings were secured and the engineering of the corset concealed, or so she believed; incorrectly. At least she was happy, even if the click of neighbouring suspenders accompanied her every move. Father once said “I think she’s got the four musketeers under there!”

 

One poor lady to whom my father’s warped humour never had to be applied was unfortunately called Miss Mellon. A completely average woman in all regards she possessed the most disproportionately enormous bosom. This can be remedied these days, but in the 1960’s, she simply had to live with it. Convention and comfort demanded that she wore a bra and whatever corsetiere she frequented (for no off the shelf model would have fitted, I’m sure), ensured that her breasts were hoisted into place. This feast of engineering left the women with a serious blind-spot and she had to hold her cards well up to see over her bust. As all heavy-breasted women know, back and neck-ache are constant companions, and like the unfortunate Wendy, Miss Mellon occasionally sported a collar. When she partnered Bendy Wendy thus encumbered, the difficulties of articulating clearly and even seeing the cards properly resulted in some very strange bids indeed.

 

Not one of these women could move as nature intended, whether it was tightly confined thighs and legs, an immobile visage, hair or neck, I was often reminded of a group of puppets. With nylon commonly being worn and meaty stocking-clad thighs acting like a generator, to attempt a hand-shake was to risk electrocution!

 

My mother, in such company, seemed almost boringly normal and average, but even she was a victim of 1960’s fashion and sported a hurricane-proof hairstyle completely lacquered to immobility. Her girdle held her in but limited her flexibility. As Vivian Vance once said before meeting the Queen, “If I wear a girdle to fit into my dress, I can’t curtsey!”

 

 

Confinement and Locomotion

The comments above caused me to search our web-site for articles on similar subjects. I've grouped them together with a view to expanding on this topic in the future.

It took me ages to help my friend dress, the process being complicated by the corset and the back fastening of the dress which was covered by at least 30 buttons. There was no way that my friend could release herself from the dress and corset without help. In fact, I remember having great difficulty in removing my own dress that evening since my arms filled the sleeves so tightly that reaching behind my head to undo the zip was nigh on impossible.  

The bride needs bridesmaids to control the flowing train. She needs help to alight from car, even to sit down, and undressing by herself is impossible. Her mother, heroically girdled to fit a dress two sizes too small barely dares to breathe. Her feet ache in unaccustomed shoes and any attempt to sit causes her thighs to spring open alarmingly. Granny totters around, the rubber, elastic and steel contraption that is her  foundation confining her locomotion to that of a marionette. Even the gorgeous young thing in the modern twin set is reduced by her panty-girdle, pencil skirt and heels to a ludicrous mincing gait. Not one of the ladies can sit in comfort, going to the loo is a nightmare, and nobody walks in the way that nature intended. An extreme example perhaps? I don't think so, and that's why everybody stands at weddings!

Did stiff, old ladies walk like that because they wore stiff, old corsets? Certainly, the joints stiffen with age, but a woman's locomotion is very dependent upon her underpinnings. Ask any young secretary from the late 1950's clad in tight skirt, heels and panty-girdle of tourniquet strength!

 

She strutted into dinner at an Eastbourne hotel, each step a jerky battle of muscle and elastic. She sat rigid and erect with her less formidably corsetted friends. When the soup came, she could not raise her hands as far as her mouth and in embarrassment left the table. Some while later she returned, less erect, but with mobility restored.

 

 

The Husbands' Education

 

I had very little to do with my wife's underwear, other than foot the bills I suppose. I was quite shocked at one bill from a corsetry emporium in London (Rigby & Peller at a guess - Ivy) but let it pass. A few weeks later my wife was dressing for dinner and I heard unusually strong language emanating from the dressing room. My wife was tugging at her girdle that seemed stuck around her thighs. I watched the spectacle with fascination as she crossed her legs, grabbed the garment and with a convulsive heave jerked the girdle an inch at a time up her hips. Her contortions jumped her off the ground in what looked like a potentially dangerous fashion. My rapt attention was not appreciated, however, once the girdle was properly located she turned round and to my astonishment said "Well do something useful. Lace me up!" I realised that this girdle laced half way down the back; in fact it was the only method of entry hence the heroic struggle.

 

I courted an elegant older lady for years before we wed. Marrying late in life is a steep learning curve. She was surprised that my teeth were my own (hers were not), and I was surprised at the complexity of her corsets. My first wife had worn a girdle all the time I knew her, but this long, unyielding structure with its intricate lacings and buckles that my new wife wore was quite alien to me. "It's good for my back and it keeps my tummy flat!" she said the first time I saw her thus attired; "Haven't you seen a woman in corsets before?" I wisely refrained from saying "Not since my Granny" so I had to admit that I hadn't. The device certainly gave her a fine figure of which she was proud and I, in turn, was proud of my new wife despite her complicated underpinnings.