Surgical Corsets

 

 

 

A Spencer abdominal corset of the 1960's

 

 

Surgical corsets cover a huge spectrum, however, the topic described here is the more complex corset that could still be recommended and fitted by a corsetiere, albeit with some extra training. Often, a doctor's recommendation would be required, however, this was usually to secure a contribution to the costs from the NHS or latterly, insurance company.

 

Many women wore what were sometimes referred to as 'surgical corsets'. Indeed, corsetieres could gain extra qualifications in this field that opened a large and potentially lucrative market. This was a point of some pride to the fitters that achieved this level "I can fit surgicals, you know!" To what extent gullible women were persuaded to wear unnecessarily complex (and thus expensive) corsets will probably never be known, but it certainly did occur. This is not to diminish the sterling work of most fitters who bought relief to thousands of women over many decades of service.

 

The subject of surgical corsetry originally appeared under Spirella in the contents page since this is the way the web-site grew, however, Spencer probably was the bastion of surgical corsetry in Britain in the post-war years. The remaining corsets of the type described below are still made these days by Spencer, with whom Spirella merged in Britain in 1985 and, as I have said before, many of these corsets are derived from the basis of the standard Spirella 305 corset.

 

Spirella's abdominal equivalent (1992) that requires the adjustment of no less than 16 buckles and full back-lacing.

 

What is the definition of a surgical corset? To some extent it is a matter of degree. A conventional Spirella 305 is not a surgical corset (although by the standards of 2008 it may be considered as such) although it may well control a wayward back or support a sagging abdomen. A surgical corset will have extras, such as spinal steels, buckles, an under-belt, or lacing constructed for ease of tightening the garment so that its form can be impressed upon the wearer.

 

To this end, Camp was pre-eminent for never was there a lacing system so easy and effective to adjust. The down-side of Camps were the inevitable (and hard to disguise) bulk of the garment.

 

Many manufacturers made what could be generically referred to as 'surgical corsets'. At many points within this web site, we have referred to surgical corsets and the most popular references are included below.

Spirella's Surgical Corsets

At its minimum the surgical corset was a basic 305 with stiffer boning. At its most supportive it could be fitted with up to four wide steels bones at the back curved to hold the shape of the spine, front and back lacing (the 325 model), with under-belt to support the abdomen and occasionally shoulder straps to prevent the upper back from leaving the support of the corset. Inner and outer belts were not uncommon to hold the corset fixed against the correct part of the spine. Often, straps and buckles were used at the front rather than laces. It was not unusual to prescribe for a woman with back problems, a garment containing between 14 and 20 adjustable straps. I have shown an example from Mrs. I, a corsetiere of Worthing, of a 305 corset with an under-belt controlled by four buckles on each side. This posture corset with buckled under-belt (1994) shows the characteristic high back and well defined waist. 

The next corset, a Spirella 305 with the double-laced under-belt, was ordered in 1986, just a few years before the demise of Spirella in Britain. It required at least one seamstress to come out of retirement to advise on the construction of the garment, since nobody at the factory knew how to make it! It has the double lacing for the under-belt that the front fly, folded back, reveals. The horizontal creases at the waist of the corset shows that it has been used and laced quite tightly. The painted suspenders and the thin attaching straps (a latter day - 1990's - giveaway) are adjusted at their highest setting. A complaint from many older customers is that modern stockings are far too long.  

Below  we see the 325 corset (a modern example from 2001).  Note again the high back, but less well defined waist for this customer. Whatever, there would be little chance of  one's tummy bulging in a garment like this.

 

The variation on the 305 theme is quite enormous.  Like all good Spirella corsets, the top lacing bow defines the waist and both these corsets rise some three to four inches above this; the longer measurement being at the back. The corset had only been tried on a few times before it was returned for some minor alteration. The front- and back-laced 325 was made in 2001 (!) for a lady in her late 40's. The horizontal creases on the back of the 305 corset indicate that the corset has been worn quite tightly, but not often, since the back-lacing has yet to be personally re-adjusted from the corsetiere's original lacing. This unassuming lady is by far Mrs. I's youngest client and has been ordering the 325 for over a decade. Mrs. I. explained that the lady in question suffers from no back problems, but that she simply feels 'better' wearing the corset. Inevitably, the lady has lead a rather sheltered life and was introduced to Mrs. I by her Mother, however, it is encouraging to know that in this day and age, there remains at least one lady who wears a corset because of the feeling of 'well-being'.

 

Adjusting the laces of the 325 is a daily task and quite simple once learned. My Mother wore a 325 with the front and back lacing. The front was adjusted daily to make the garment easier to don, whilst the back-lacing was only touched periodically to cope with weight fluctuations or perhaps a tighter fitting evening gown. I did suspect that the pattern of the back-lacing was sometimes visible through evening wear, and I preferred the 305 which I still normally wear.

It is, of course, wrong to call these corsets made since 1986 by their Spirella designations, since they were made by Spencer, however, they are the original design fabricated under another name and so I make no apology for using outdated terminology. Both these examples are made from the Orchid material that has been available since the 1950's. This is a shiny satin-like material of great durability despite its relative lightness.

Spirella always advocated the use of back-lacing for women with back problems but this was normally in addition to the front-lacing as well. These back support corsets often were furnished with aluminum or steel bones running either side of the spine. I have a beautiful Canadian Spencer front and back-lacing corset (the equivalent of the Spirella 325 which, when this corset was made, had merged with Spencer in Canada) is the heaviest corset I have found weighing well over two pounds and reinforced by no less than 26 bones. It is finished in a gorgeous satin material yet is extraordinarily strong. The garment possesses eight rows of double boning, two flat steels at the front, four thin bones to control the lacers and four full-length, heavy surgical steels running either side of the spine. The back length of this corset is 21 inches. It permits the wearer to sit, to stand and to walk with comfort yet no movement of the lower spine can occur; for this was its designed intent.                                Canadian 325 from 1975

Until the 1980's, there was never any need for a woman who required such a support to have anything less than an elegant garment. The garment has exterior loops through which a spinal support belt would have passed, however, the lady has had this removed. These lumbo-sacral belts could be mounted internally or externally (as in this case). under-belts fulfilled another similar purpose by hoisting the internal organs into the correct position before the corset was laced tight to pull the steels against the back thereby supporting the spine. (The story of these corsets' acquisition and owner can be found in the Ivy Leaf archive section.)

Another complex corset with an amazing 14 buckles is from Spencer itself. It is the standard posture corset with under-belt (three buckles on each side), a hip strap and instead of front lacing, seven more buckles to secure the garment. Much less bulky than many of its competitors, it is still a major exercise to get into the corset.

The Spirella abdominal corset (1994) is another formidable garment requiring the adjustment of 16 buckles (six on each side plus another four to control the abdomen). If this werenít enough, it laces at the back as well. The garment carries 17 single bones, 10 in the back panel and 7 in the deeply dished front panel.

The garment on the left with 14 buckles is a Spencer from 1995, and on the right, no less than 16 buckles in the Spirella abdominal corset from 1988. In addition to the straps, the corset has back-lacing as well. 

All the corsets above are made from satiny materials, however, when you heft the Canadian corset you can feel an entire quality difference that two decades of decreasing choice of materials have wrought. Observe the brassiere of the lady on the right. Like so many traditional Spirella wearers, she has forsaken the Spirella brassiere for the cheaper and frankly just as good Triumph 'Doreen'.

The middle corset carries the Spencer label, but also that of Remploy who bought the patterns and the name in the early 1990's. The name, I believe was bought again by Thamert in the late 1990's, however, the Spencer label is still carried since it appeals to the older traditional clientele.

Under-belts

On this web page at the top there is a picture of the 305 with an under-belt adjusted by four buckles on each side. These were reasonably common from the 1920ís right through the era of modern corsetry. Indeed, their main purpose was to hold the sagging post-pregnancy or obese abdomen into its correct location before the final layer of the corset was applied. The following sentiment is not untypical:-

I did wear one briefly after pregnancy but the struggle each morning of adjusting the buckles, then the effort of putting on my surgical stockings (standard wear for the young mother) followed by the front-lacing was too much and I reverted to the conventional 305. Perhaps if Iíd been wearing a corset longer at the time I would have handled it all, however, coming from a girdle it was quite daunting.

As regards the under-belt, Spirella made (at least) two sorts.  The first has lacing on both sides and the second fastens with several buckles on each side which can be adjusted from outside the corset unlike the lacers. My mother used to wear such a garment and with ten individual buckles and a full front lacing, it was quite time consuming to put on, particularly with six suspenders as well. She was very adept at this however, and only in her 80's did she go without the under-belt and the back suspenders which were too tricky for an old lady to fasten by herself.

Spencer US in 1947 displays a style that remaining unchanged for five decades

My corsetiere talks highly of under-belts although sheís sold no corset with one for the last decade. In fact she suspects that thereís nobody left in the Spirella (now Spencer) factory who would know how to cut and sew one correctly any more. The under-belt, apart from its supportive role, was an additional item that the corsetiere could persuade a client to order. Every extra item meant extra commission and if you could sell a client a four-buckle under-belt, why not a five-buckle one ? Cunningly, Spirella was adamant that the depth of the under-belt, which was determined from the client's measurements, would determine the number of straps and buckles. Mrs. I. told me of so many little marketing ploys that some of her acquaintances used. The extra suspenders, plush lining, rigid steels at the back could be increased from the normal two to four and if a corset comes above the waist, where does it stop ? Every extra inch in length is more commission. I imagine that very few corsetieres were so mercenary as to force their clients into unnecessarily complicated garments but there were certainly some that did. 

Note (right) how the webbing from the four starboard under-belt straps on this classic Spirella 305 were tucked away. This was a standard method taught to all corsetieres.

 

I have seen under-belts that range from a small 'three-belter' to what can only be described as a second corset underneath the outer garment. Corsetieres that I have spoken too conclude that the latter device was simply a means of doubling the cost of the garment. My record garment, an utterly lovely satin Spenall, boasts a total of 33 hooks-and-eyes! 

Below is a typical under-belted Spencer corset.

 

Why do we need under-belts ?

Q: The late Victorian corset was complex in its cut and boning, but essentially was simply two pieces, left and right, fastening at the front with the busk and at the back with the lacing.  The Spirella and other makes of corset so beautifully described on your site are complex. They have under belts, additional lacing etc., to make a much more complex garment.  Why the complexity?  The Victorian version seemed to work well?

A: Corset designs of Victorian times and earlier were indeed complex but symmetrical. Once the shape of the panels and gores had been drawn, two of each could be cut and two symmetrical pieces sewn. The bone casings were subsequently attached to the joins thus ensuring a perfectly symmetrical garment. With a busk-fastening (and that is such an easy fastener), and back-lacing tightened by a maid, the garment would force the wearerís body into the shape determined by the corset. The corsetiere was frequently the maker of the corset and simplicity was the key to success.

With the advent of more sophistication in sewing machines, automated cutters and materials, companies like Spirella and Spencer could provide an individual corsetry service to millions of women all over the world via the medium of their corsetieres. At last the asymmetrical women (and we all are) could achieve a perfect fit. The garment could now be designed to support rather than constrict. Sophistication of the asymmetrical design, lead to comfort for millions of women.

Another fundamental reason for the asymmetric corset was front-lacing. As personal maidís vanished from the household, front-lacing necessitated an offset fastening. The busk became a bit stiff and heavy to be offset and so the hook-and-eye came into fashion (although frankly, itís nothing like as convenient).

Complexities were not unknown in Victorian times, particularly designing corsets for the pregnant women where the changing and expanding curves could be accommodated by arrangements of straps and buckles. These could be incorporated much more successfully and subtly as time went on.

A disadvantage of the more supporting, comfortable garment was that the pregnant, obese or simply flaccid abdomen could sag within the support of the looser more modern corset. The under-belt was designed originally to prevent this. The corset could donned, the under-belt positioned and the laces of the outer garment secured to the desired tension. The external straps to the belt could then be finally adjusted to provide that feeling of security as demonstrated by the charming Spencer caricature from 1920 (above).

Of course, the under-belt was an addition to the basic corset and only came at a price. Unscrupulous corsetieres, with an eye on their commission, could and did recommend unnecessary additions and complexities. A good saleswomen could sell a corset based on price X, and then persuade the client to add extra suspenders, an under-belt, felt trim, lace, extra straps and high-quality materials. The garment would now cost 2X and the fitter would have twice the commission.

The corsetieres that I know say that the under-belt was rare, even four decades ago. They maintain that a well-cut corset does not need one.

So, in brief, the complexities of modern corsetry were precipitated by the increasing sophistication of machines and materials, that is, they COULD be more complex. The rogue corsetiere benefited from this, but I doubt if it was ever really that common.

A stunning example from Gilo49 of an under-belted American Spencer corset. It is made from a light-weight material for those steamy Florida summers, however, one suspects that this was never a cool garment.

 

Maternity Corsets

Both Spencer and Spirella made a point that they would cater for you throughout your life, and indeed many women wore their products for as much as nine decades. Of course, this would encompass several pregnancies, and it gave the designers in the surgical corset division a chance to exercise their complexities.

 

Spencer's post-partum corsets from 1931

Once the child was born, your Spencer corset would supply all the support required to return one's figure to its former glory. In practice, if one pulled the straps and laces tight enough, this could, and not infrequently would, be achieved overnight!

Heavier Corsets for Heavier Women

Spencer, in particular, attended to the need of the seriously pendulous abdomen and brought tremendous relief to these women. These pictures are slightly more graphic than others on this web-site and despite the pictures being somewhat pixelated, we leave it to the reader to click on the thumbnail. Some of the photographs in the Spencer fitter's manual were not for the faint-hearted.

 

Spencer shows how the sway-back and bulging abdomen should be controlled in 1936.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pul-Front

 

The Pul-front corset which has its origins in the beginning of the 20th century, disposed of lacings and used buckles instead. This certainly provided for a strong controlling garment, however, buckles will always be slightly bulkier than lacers. In the early 1990's, Spencer either bought the Pul-front name or agreed to manufacture their designs under licence. It was not a success ! The garment illustrated was ordered from Spencer in the early 1990ís. It is fully lined and has the traditional overlapping double under-belts. Each under-belt is secured by three buckles and the overlapping front by another six buckles and a hip strap. Four lined layers of material therefore cover the abdomen and quite frankly any reduction in size of the wearer is completely negated by the bulk of the garment which needed 13 buckles to be adjusted each time the garment was put on. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see a name that was mildly famous in the corsetry world in the 1930's struggle on into its seventh decade with a virtually unchanged design.

Pul-front advertisements from 1935 (top), 1975 (above) and an actual corset from 1978 (right). The corset is effective once the seven straps have been mastered.

The Spencer acquired right to the Pulfront design has resulted in this garment below. Heavy, largely due to the felt lining, the construction of this garment was faulty, and the women who paid over one hundred pounds for the corset never wore it.

The double under-belt itself requires six straps, and the fold over front, another seven. The felt lining of the orchid (nylon satin)garment means that the wearer's abdomen is covered by sic layers of fabric, fourteen bones and 13 straps. Overkill, surely?