The Feel of Foundations

 

"The Corset Lady had piercing black eyes and a large bust and stomach apparently encased in steel, for when I brushed against her it was like bumping into our oil drum."

so quoted Betty MacDonald in 'The Egg and I' (1945).

I make no apologies for quoting Betty MacDonald once more (I used the quotation in Corsetieres), since this encapsulates exactly what this page is all about. Both the feel of somebody else's, and the feeling of one's own foundations are covered here.

Our inspiration to pursue this line of research came from a letter:-

"I was born in 1930 and my memory of girdles and corsets goes back to somewhere in 1936. My mother and my aunts were dedicated wearers of lacing girdles and the picture of the kneeling corsetiere at the top of your page on the visibility of underwear prompted me to write to you. I must have seen firmly corseted figures like that one, thousands of times and they always fascinated me. I remember the hugs from my aunts and the feel of being crushed against their rock-hard corseted bodies. Amongst my cousins I was the only one to admit to this and I would come back for more. The others hated it or so they said. It but it was not only the feel from the outside that I found fascinating I used to wonder what it was like to be inside one.

I lived in Australia and the brand of corset my mother wore was called Lady Ruth. She always wore a front-lacing corset with an elastic busk under-belt. Although my mother complained about being too hot at times in summer she made no secret of liking the support her corset gave her. She could not stand elasticated girdles. I am sure she was not alone. She liked to be able to control the degree of support it gave."

Oh well, those days are long past.

Simon writes "My original interest was stirred by my wondering about how it would feel to wear corsets, particularly the laced ones like Granny used to wear. It always thrilled me to put my arms around her and feel her stiff corsets, and I knew from the way that she would bend to pick things up from the floor, that she could not bend her body."

Of course, this subject should cover, not just the feeling of somebody else’s foundations, but the feel of the wearer’s own. I remember two quotes, one from a motoring magazine, where the lady reporter enthused about the seats on an exotic Italian automobile. “They feel better than my underwear” she gushed.

 

Another example from decades before was by an immaculately coiffured and gowned lady about to leave home for a ball. “I feel fantastic. I’ve got all my ‘things’ on underneath.”

 

In practice, rarely do those ‘things’ feel fantastic. In principle, one shouldn’t feel anything at all other than support and a general sense of well-being. Of course if bones dig into your thighs, or you end up sitting on your suspenders, then life will become painful, and you should have serious words with your corsetiere!

 

The Heavenly girdle company (surely a name dreamed up by a man - right) advertises an emotion that was alien to most girdle wearers.

 

 

Mature ladies with that 'give-away' circularity of the waist and distinct 'corset posture.' The lady ion the left  would be uncomfortable in any lower a chair. The lady on the right is pure elegance but in such a tight girdle!

 

We have not discussed the world of Victorian-style ‘tight-lacing’ because it is so rarely practiced. It is an engineering fact, so my husband explains, that the ovality of the normal waist, will, under the forces of tension, approach a circular shape. This is a measure of the degree of tight-lacing so he claims, although he also says that he’s never put this to the test. Certainly, in Victorian times, contemporary photographs do show this approach to circularity, and the fabulous silver cuirass of Cathie Jung is quite obviously circular at the waist. The Victorian lady knew well, as does the wearer of any, even modern, elasticised support, that marks are left on the body after removal of the garment. In Victorian times, these marks could almost be described as welts, so severe was the constriction.

 

 

The two Victorian poses on the left and above show this circularity of the waist and the exaggerated posture required either to sit or lie down.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere, an elderly lady of our acquaintance. With few other pleasures in her narrow life, she spent lavishly, although sensibly, on her clothes. A wispy old lady in floating chiffons and delicate lace, her hair shone like the spun silk of her favourite dresses. It seemed as though this ephemeral piece of thistledown would blow away in the breeze. It came, therefore as a shock to my husband, the first time he helped her into her chair. Aware as most men are of the softness of the female form, he was struck by the incongruous rigidity and hardness of her frame. I had already seen her corsets on a previous visit and knew what was coming. The poor old dear was anchored to ‘terra firma’ by no less than three pounds of Spencer’s firmest surgical corsets.

My husband recounts a less than successful attempt to learn ball-room dancing. In his 20’s, he held his matronly partner in the approved manner but was at a loss where to put his right hand. Too low and he encountered a flabby bulge protruding from the top of her panty-girdle (that he could easily feel), and too high, his fingers played restlessly across the sea of hooks and eyes that secured her brassiere. The partnership failed to last the evening and he was teamed up with a pretty, but rather plump girl of his own age. Her own hidden accoutrements were hardly different from the older women, but in this case my husband’s embarrassed fingers received definite encouragement. They went out together for two years and, so claims my husband, she used the phrase “my girdle’s killing me” quite often. It probably was, if the brassiere didn’t meet the girdle (see awful examples). My foundations never ‘kill me’ because they are properly fitted!

Prompted by an email from a reader, we decided to check out the girdles with the most bones and seams. Our reader commented that, as a teenager, she wore a girdle just like her mother. The trouble was that her mother was half again as big as herself so that the bones, seams and zipper, that seemed entirely reasonable to mother with a 35 inch waist, were uncomfortably close together for a girl with a 25 inch waist! The Sears standard panty-girdle does well with 11 seams, a zipper, six bones and six suspenders, the rearwards of which lie exactly where you want to sit down. The Spirellette 105, can only boast nine seams, six bones, a zipper and four suspenders but is heavier and feels more substantial. The materials are simply heavier duty items. The Spirella was, however, custom-made and the owner may well have omitted the rear suspenders. The Sears wins again around the leg with five seams per leg; Spirella can muster only four. By comparison, the M&S satin-elastic girdle of the 1960's fields nine seams, a zipper, six suspenders but a whopping nine bones and outweighs either of the panty-girdles.

 

"But, they really didn't stand up by themselves, surely?"

 

How often have we heard that comment. In the nature of scientific enquiry, my husband and I selected the Spirelette 105, an unused M&S satin elastic girdle (8054/956B, for those of you who are girdle spotters) and a 2010, firm control panty-girdle - sorry - shaper also from M&S. The results are clear to see, and those vintage girdles are not touching the wall or supported in any way other than by the very fabric of the garment. The collapsed mess in the foreground is, of course, the modern shaper!

 

On the far right, two models try on these half century old foundations in 2011. The model on the left loved the girdle so much, she wanted to buy it, whereas the model on the right did not like the restrictive feel of the admittedly formidable Spirelette 105. "It might be OK for horse riding" she ventured.

 

"We all wore girdles then!"

 

“I’m glad we don’t have to wear these torture devices any more!” To refer to a foundation as a torture device is to misunderstand the whole concept of corsetry. Often, these women are of an age (let us say 50-something) that would have made them teenagers in the early 1960’s. It was a time of immense change and not a few reluctant girls suffered with foundations that they did not want and were poorly fitted. The experience was often disagreeable. We tried to recount some of these experiences below.

Young Bridesmaid wears a Spirella girdle 206 in 1958

Spirella's accent on FEELING - 1964

 

Misses:  

 

It has been a long time since teenagers wore proper foundations, at least 30 and more probably 40 years ago, however, the memories of this period are still alive in many middle-aged women. For some it was a 'rite of passage'. As soon as the teenage years began, the willful tomboy of the playground began to experience profound physical and psychological changes, and from the chrysalis of pre-puberty freedom emerged the beautiful butterfly. This new creature, inexpertly adorned in the adult plumage of brassiere, girdle and stockings with appropriate make-up, hair and serious clothes was completely alien, although not unattractive to her far less mature male peers. The freedom was replaced with a feminine restraint and guile, the knowledge that her physical strength would never match the male requiring other more subtle weapons for dominance. (Scarlet O'Hara describes this most eloquently in 'Gone with the Wind.') For some, the restraint was not just simply crafted femininity, but a physical restriction imposed by the tight girdle, the tight skirt, unaccustomed heels and hair 'that must not be disturbed'. Changing social attitudes in the 1960's liberated many women's' thinking and such restraints became irksome, often interpreted as a male plot to subdue the female. Women threw away their brassieres and girdles, and with them some of the finest weapons that women possessed. The world would never be the same again.

 

I know some girls who were so excited about their first 'grown-up' clothes, and of course, the hidden appurtenances that went with them. However, attitudes in the 1960's were less tolerant of the sweaty embrace of Playtex's latex creations, the bones of Marks and Spencer's firm hi-line girdles and the innumerable hooks-and-eyes of the dreaded long-line brassiere. Sitting on one's back suspenders was the most common memory along with the embarrassing snap as a suspender lost its grip on the stocking. For this generation, such inconveniences were simply not as acceptable as they had been to mother and granny.      

 

The reference that is still my favourite is the girl who called her Marks and Spencer best girdle "The Beast!" She seemed to have had a love-hate affair with this garment for it was heavy and hot on the one hand, but on the other, it had a pronounced (and beneficial) effect on her figure. She wore it to lure 'her man' to the alter and promptly discarded it thereafter, forever so she thought, until the detrimental effects of three children on her figure persuaded her otherwise. By then the foundations available were not a patch on those from a decade before, and the loss of the Beast was sadly mourned.

 

I hated wearing a girdle and stockings; it just seemed unnecessary for a slim teenage girl. My mother was full of the usual warnings of collapsed abdomens and bad backs but I thought it was a lot of tosh. One day I sewed my stockings onto a pair of knickers and I couldn’t believe how comfortable it was. I suppose I pre-dated tights by five years or more.

 

I dreaded Sundays and the formality of dressing for church. Particularly irksome were the back suspenders that dug into my thighs however I sat down on the hard pews. Even on padded chairs they left indentations in my flesh. I cut them off one day reckoning that four was enough for anybody. Was my mother ever angry at this vandalism of some (very expensive) underwear, but it made such a difference.

 

My first real grown-up girdle was a pure satin beauty (M&S satin-elastic ? Ivy). I loved the feel of it and the way my clothes flowed over the expensive material. I never felt more womanly.

 

My boyfriend seemed to be very keen for me to wear what he vaguely defined as proper underwear. I usually wore a bra and panty-girdle but to humour him I ordered a basque. What a terrible mistake that was. The wretched bones at the front folded back on themselves when I sat down and I had a miserable evening. The boyfriend failed to notice or even comment until I mentioned my new purchase. Immediately he grew interested but I was well past that stage and just wanted to get out of the horrible thing – alone.

My first (and nearly last) girdle was a Playtex. My mother was convinced that rubber next to the skin has some magical health-giving property (indeed, the Playtex girdle was at one point marketed as the ‘Magic Controller’). Perhaps I missed something but they made me sweat and itch, furthermore, I was completely unconvinced that they had any effect on my tummy, the reason for mother to suggest the wretched thing in the first place. The horrid garment was consigned to the furthest recesses of my undie drawer in short order and I relied on Markie's standard fare thereafter, but only for special occasions.

My mother insisted that a pantie-girdle less than 20" long simply wasn't worth wearing. The first girdles that we bought together were disasters, my mother ignoring the fact that she was taller than I and over-ruling the saleslady. The girdle nearly reached from my breasts to my knees. Finally, I purchased a shorter version, and comfort, and I must admit a pretty sleek figure, were the result.

My mother returned from America in the early 1960's and introduced me to the 'panty-girdle'. I binned my old roll-ons and began a two-year struggle with the wretched things. The panty-girdle suited mum, but on my far slimmer figure, it seemed to be all bones, zipper, panels and those awful hidden suspenders. It was only when it came to Britain that I realised that pull-on panty-girdles were available. I rediscovered comfort and have wore them ever since.

In the 1950's, you wore what your mother wore and there was little choice or question in the matter. After a couple of years in what my mother called 'a training girdle', I was fitted with my first proper foundation; just like mother's. In fact, it was an exact copy of her standard Spencer with one important exception. I had (at the time) a 25 inch waist and was quite tall, whereas mother's stout frame measured 38 inches (although she denied it). Accommodating all the bones, bone casings, elastic panels, satin panels and a zipper in a two-thirds smaller garment resulted in dozens of seams. The garment was all bones, but I wore it dutifully every day. It stood up by itself; I did actually try that!

 

Jeans as tight as a girdle    Confidence from panty-girdles

 

Married:

 

Marriage brought with it a trousseau, not just of clothes but of the essential underwear that a doting mother considered necessary for her daughter. However, even the most protective mother realised that in order to have grand-children, her daughter must be provided with something less than a chastity belt, thus, a good supply of girdles, panty-girdles (for slacks and sport) and sensible supporting brassieres was the absolute minimum. Note the emphasis on the word sensible. The new bride obviously wanted to look as good as possible on the big day and for as long as possible thereafter, so the foundation trousseau was gladly accepted with the proviso that nothing too fuddy-duddy was included and, Heaven forbid, for even the chubbiest newly-wed, corsets went out with Granny. If a corset was worn by the bride, and it did happen in the 1960's, it was for special occasions only, and usually more for whittling the waist than confining the hips. The hips could easily be disguised in the cut of the gown. I know of many newly-weds who were quite thrilled by dressing stylishly for their new husband and if this meant squeezing into a girdle, then so be it. Others, as was described in Misses, simply used their foundations as a lure.

The stylish and shapely woman on the right comes from 1969 when she was 30 years old. Amazingly (even in those days) is the fact that she is wearing a corset, Spirella's famous 305. It certainly works wonders for her. All the other women featured in this wedding and who were under 50 were wearing girdles. I wonder if the woman was a regular corset wearer or was just dressing for the special occasion. She certainly looks confident!

 

I loved dressing up for any occasion. To me, the tighter the underwear the more glamorous I felt. Sure it was uncomfortable but I knew I looked like a million dollars and that’s what counted.

 

A man invented the girdle as a punishment for women. Mind you, I never really thought about it for we all wore girdles then. It was when we were made aware of the panty-girdle and tights that the old habits suddenly seemed ridiculous. My girdles went in the bin in the late 1960’s and I’ve worn a panty-girdle ever since.

 

I was preparing for a formal do and found to my dismay that my waist simply didn’t fit into my one formal dress. What to do? I borrowed a pair of corsets that my mother had left behind and simply laced them tight enough to get into the dress. I looked good I have to admit but I couldn’t eat since I thought I would be sick and I hadn’t the confidence to dance since I didn’t want any male hands feeling the obvious bones of the corset. I realised the truth of what my mother told me “The dress fits the corset, not the corset fits the dress!”

 

My husband remembered an old cartoon from (of all sources) MAD magazine. It was a picture of a wedding party. A close-up of of the stunning bride revealed her thought bubble "This is MY day. Everybody's looking at ME. Everybody's thinking of ME!" In the final frame thought bubbles appear from the gathered guests and not one concerns the bride at all, but particularly, one middle-aged matron whose bubble says "My girdle's killing me. I can't wait to get home and take it off!" Enough said.

 

 

Maternity:

 

I won't delve long into maternity except to mention that some of the most complex and un-feminine devices that have been constructed in the name of underwear went to support the pregnant female. George deals extensively with this subject. Forty years ago it was supposed that no mortal female could support her abdomen without recourse to serious engineering. These days that is considered nonsense, but the truth (as always) lies in between. A heavy pregnancy can ruin a woman's muscle tone forever, however, proper exercise can minimise the effect. Some support in such cases is beneficial, however, the power of the corset to flatten an abdomen scant days after giving birth lead to many women becoming dependant upon their corsets for the rest of their lives. Sufficient support and sufficient exercise was and is the key.

The Camp maternity corset on the right is a relatively basic style by the standards of the 1950's. It has fan-lacing at the back adjusted by straps, and twin lacers at the front to accommodate the expanding abdomen. I have another in our collection that has no less than four front lacers, two with adjustable straps and with four heavy back steels. This must have given some strong support but it weighs nearly as much as the baby!

Perhaps we should add here the surgical corset since it could be worn by all age groups.   The Wren's back   Surgical Mother-in-law

 

I couldn’t believe the engineering of the maternity corset that my mother unearthed from her days of pregnancy. There were straps and laces that supported the abdomen and rigid steels for the spine. There appeared to be attachments for other straps and my mother terrified me by explaining how shoulder straps could be added, later in the pregnancy. I wore the contraption and felt, looked and walked like a parcel.

 

My post-natal tummy appalled me and I wore the tightest possible girdles to hide the bump. I basked in the comments of how well my figure had returned despite the acute discomfort. Sadly, my tummy never fully recovered and I became of prisoner of my girdle forever.

 

 

 

Middle-Age:

 

Spirella's American advertising (and to a lesser extent the British advertising) played a strong moralistic theme in the 1930's - 1950's. How could a housewife perform her chores or duties without the support of a proper foundation? It was only in the 1960's when women discovered that the support was largely superfluous that the myth was exposed and suddenly all women started to wear panty-girdles. The ethics (and brilliant marketing) of the period is seen in this Berlei advert from 1942.

Basically, foundation garments were war materials since without their support, how could women carry on their daily duties. For sure a lack of rubber and steel might limit the range, but Berlei was there to support the war effort.

 

I never really considered what it felt like to wear a corset. I simply wore one most of my life. It’s like being asked what’s it like to wear shoes. You just do.

 

I called my corset my best friend. When I got up in the morning I was flabby, grumpy and good for nothing but nagging and carping. Once in my stays my confidence and poise returned. I became fit, erect and tolerant. My long-suffering husband was well aware of this daily metamorphosis and was often heard to say “For Goodness sake get you corsets on!” Quite a change from when we were married and he couldn’t wait to get my corsets off.

 

I once bought a panty-corselette that was far too short (I have a long torso). It brought home an expression my daughter had used (somewhat inelegantly) that her panties were 'gagging' her.

Spirella corsetiere wears a 305 corset to a client's daughter's wedding

In several of these accounts, although the word ‘corset’ is used, the lady means a girdle – Ivy

 

Auntie's rubber corsets     Colonel Blimp     Waddle in; wiggle out

 

 

 Matron: Personal recollections of a corset-wearing generation are rare these days and we have to rely stories that were related concerning people's elderly mothers, aunties and grannies.

Finally we come to the older lady who, in the 1960's may well have been a life-long corset wearer. At least until the end of the 1960's, a girdle was almost mandatory. A Dutch corsetiere once explained to me why there lurked a few old-fashioned corsets amongst the prevailing 'sea of brassieres' in her high street shop on the Frederik Hendriklaan. "You see, there's still some old women who grew up with corsets. They are physically unable to support themselves in comfort without them." Her sympathy for her elderly clientele was tempered with the Dutch ethic to make money and she charged her devoted customers dearly for their support!

 

Mum was devastated when Spirella sold out to Spencer. She’d worn their corsets since a teenager. Mind you, the writing was on the wall as the luscious materials of the 1960’s got removed from the swaths that the corsetieres used to carry.  Her last order was for four corsets, all she could afford, but she hoped they’d see her to the grave. I told her to switch to Spencer but she wouldn’t hear of it, you know how old folk are. She used to say "I just don't feel right without my corsets." Whether this referred to what she considered to be proper dress or the need for support was not explained.

 

Our Sussex friend who has worked as a corsetiere since the 1950's remarked that several of her clients explained that their tight and expensive underwear made them feel every inch a woman.

 

The lady on right is absolutely typical of her generation.  Born in 1910, she wore a girdle until the late 1960's and then moved with her peers into a panty-girdle. For this particular wedding however, she wore a corset.

 

My Granny, in the repetitive way that older folk have, always commented when her corsets were drying on the line “I bet you’re glad you don’t have to wear these things any more!” To this I would ask in all innocence “Why; don’t you like them?” This brought forth a litany of the difficulties of washing and drying them, the expensive purchase price, the commission of the corsetiere, in fact almost anything except what they felt like to wear. On this point she seemed genuinely not to understand. “Well, I’ve got to wear them, I’ve worn them since I was a girl.” “But are they uncomfortable, are they hot in summer?”  “Of course not. They’re made to fit me, I don’t ever notice them.”

 

Conclusion:  So there we have it. Love them or loathe them, we all wore girdles then. Perhaps in summary, and for the majority of women, the hoary old expression "My girdle's killing me" is a fitting epitaph to a vanished era.