The Corsetiere and her Trade
Rather than lay out this page in the same format as the Spirella page, I have decided to travel with Spencer through time from the 1920's to the 1990's. This is not so much to show how corsetry has progressed, but to demonstrate that within the subject of corsetry, the corset did not progress except in detail. In a world where change has become an almost reckless business principle, the unchanging style of the corset would, like the steady tortoise, ultimately win over the reactive hare of the girdle.
The corset is sold by Spencer today exactly as it was a hundred years ago albeit to a hugely diminished clientele. The girdle has come and gone, the pantie-girdle remains a flimsy remnant of a once proud garment. Only the brassiere, an upper foundation, and therefore not as serious as the 'lowers', has become a marketing phenomenon. As my husband said dispiritedly in the Hague branch of Marks and Spencer in 1994 when we were searching for a real girdle "This place is just a sea of bras". He was right.
In 2005, one of Spencer's few remaining corsetieres informed me that they had ceased to make brassieres and corselettes. Only the corset remains.
But let us return to this fascinating and changing era and look at the picture below which displays a garment that would be a mystery to most modern women. If a picture could describe how the whole concept of corsetry has changed over the last 40 years, regard the image below kindly supplied by TP. In the 1960's a genuine supporting garment could also be a fashionable item and some lovely examples are shown on the fan-lacing pages, however, Spencer have created a masterpiece here.
In this particular example, the lady has forgone the pre-shape surgical steels in lieu of five sets of double boning. This could be ordered in various strengths. Perhaps the lady in question would wear this corset under a evening gown and Heaven forbid that the boning should show!
This is a corset of very serious intent. The back could have been boned with wide pre-shaped 'steels' (usually made of Aluminium) and the buckles would have held the garment closely against the wearer. Despite its serious function, the black lace overlay on the mauve satin was a Spencer option for their materials (and by no means cheap). What a gorgeous garment for the lady who had to wear it. These days, a beige coutil wrap-around with Velcro fastenings would be the accepted article. I know which one I would prefer!
A corsetiere with whom many people have enjoyed a lively correspondence is Alison Perry who trained with Spencer (USA) in the 1950's. She's been kind enough to share her memories with us and given me permission to include them at the end of this article. We both understand that the era of the corsetiere has virtually (but not quite) vanished and that the memories of these days should be preserved. Alison's recollections are enclosed in italics. I've taken the liberty of adding my own comments so as not to dilute Alison's words and to remind me of interesting points for future discussion and research. Occasionally, I have merged some of her correspondence and put the letters that she wrote in chronological order.
During this account, it becomes obvious that Alison is
American whereas I am English. Iíve not corrected any spelling variations and
the reader will have to understand that a corselet is the same as a corselette.
Suspenders and garters may be a little more confusing but thatís about as far
as it goes. Women'sí fashion does however vary across the Atlantic and when
Americans were well into panty-girdles, their English sisters were still wearing
the open bottom girdles of their mothersí generation. Treatment of this topic
will require a full article in itself.
Spencer through the Decades
Throughout this article you will find that the garment worn by the woman in her 50's born in 1870 is repeated each decade almost unchanged. The examples below are taken from a corsetiere instructor's fill-chart from the 1960, and define the basic styles available:-
|From left to right, the corselet (note the spelling), the Spencer All (referred to as the Spen-All), Spencerette (girdle), corset, supporting corset, lumbar corset*, belt and Spencer Form. The term belt is used quite in a different context from other companies.||
* This corset was called dorso-lumbar or lumbo-sacral dependent upon the arrangement of the ancillary strap.
Although elastics improved, the quality of corsetry materials hardly changed and the designs even less. Simple modifications to the basic patterns were all that was required to accommodate the larger frame of the post-War woman (the second world war, that is). Amazingly, the woman from 1870 can still be fitted for and purchase a corset that she would recognise. She might be surprised at the lightweight material and wouldn't even begin to understand the nylon zip, but the boning, the cut and the suspenders would all be familiar. The detail finish would disappoint her and the fact that the cost of the corset had increased by a factor of nearly 200 would make her realise that if corsets hadn't changed much much in eight decades, other things had !
Let us travel back to the 1920's, a couple of decades after the original formation of the Spencer Corset Company.
Spencer Catalogue US 1962