Alison's Story 

- Her times as a Spencer Corsetičre  

-Questions to Alison

-Alison's views on rubber corsets

 

My Early Days

A number of people have asked me about my very early days as a Spencer corsetičre and whether my decision to become a corsetičre was influenced by my family upbringing.

I came from a strict family and grew up in the 30’s and 40’s. I wore girdles from an early age and was fascinated by my and my mother’s visits to the corsetičres. When I was growing up, I was like most other girls and started with a garter belt and stockings and a bra. Later, as I became a little older, I progressed to a girdle and stockings and a bra.

My mother was a most fashionable lady of the day.  She always had a personal corsetičre who visited and made her corsetry. Fortunately for me, her corsetičre retired about the same time as I started with Spencer, so my mother became one of my first customers.

My visits to her were pre-arranged for the whole day every other month, and even more often before Christmas and Easter when a lot of entertaining was done. The day before, she always prepared for me, and got out her dresses, suits and gowns which she wanted to wear with her foundations.  She was very fastidious about this.

It’s hard to remember these days, but a foundation garment is meant to shape the figure, and the clothes then fit that shape. Well-fitting clothes accentuate a well groomed figure; they should not be loose and baggy to hide a bad figure. Ivy

My mother was always very happy, very pleased, to be trying on her new foundations; she loved them.  After fitting her, I would sit back on my stool while she looked at herself in the mirror, and she would ask me if I thought she looked good. She did look wonderful and absolutely beautiful in those white satin and brocade foundations. She always asked for ribbons adorning the suspenders and fine lace over the front panels and cups of the long-line bras she favoured so much.

These were very firm and very well boned garments; the bra cups were full coverage, the corselets were long over the thigh, and the bras were quite high backed. But they had a lovely sheen to them, and had the lace and ribbon adornments that made them so feminine; and of course, they produced such a lovely silhouette.

I was always expected to be beautifully turned out, and we would sometimes go out for lunch as a break during the course of our day, or after a morning of product reviews and preliminary measurements.  I don’t think this intimacy, yet privacy, normally exists in the family today. I enjoyed these afternoons (but I didn't let on), and she knew it.  My father was very proud of his wife's appearance, and his business colleagues always complimented him on how stunning she was.  He loved that, so he never complained about the Spencer bills.

Occasionally her lady friends were invited for coffee at 11:30 and I would fit them too.  After their first fittings, the new designs and fabrics were discussed in great detail. These were also social occasions, so whilst corsetry was discussed in great detail, decisions would also be made for which foundations would be the most suitable for a forthcoming event, where a particular suit or gown would be worn.

As you know only too well, ladies openly discussed foundations in those days. The personal matters and private aspects or complications of a particular fitting were, though, absolutely confidential, and a special trust existed between me and my mother and her friends.

The candid intimacy between women is a surprise to those who were not present during this period. Look at the Spirella corsetičres quite openly modeling their wares in front of their friends. (I have to admit that at least one lady looks rather less than confident). Ivy

 

My Spencer Training

When I saw an ad to be a Spencer Corsetičre, I applied. When I joined Spencer in 1953 I had to attend a training class given by our local manager. In this class we learned about the product line, how to analyze figure problems, and of course how to fit the girdles using the “Spencer method” and the measuring girdle.

Ultimately I became a "Spencer Consultant" and had a territory, and I visited ladies in their homes and fitted them with custom-made girdles and bras. I liked the job very much and I think my customers did too. All the measuring and fittings were done in someone’s home, and it was a lot more relaxing than going to a store. But let's return to the beginning.  

The main thing I remember about the training was that it was rather intimidating. It took a week and was held at one of Spencer’s factories. I was in my early 20’s at the time, and I know there was some discussion that I was too young. But they felt they needed some younger corsetičres to attract the younger customers, so I was hired anyway.

But right away I got started on the wrong foot. It was summer, and it was very hot. On the first day of training I came dressed in a summer dress under which all I was wearing was a cotton bra and a light girdle. For the life of me I still don’t know why I dressed like that. I had much firmer foundations in my wardrobe, but here I was coming to Spencer with absolute minimum undergarments. I guess I knew I had a good figure and was proud of it, so, perhaps subconsciously, I was trying to show the other women I did not really need many foundation garments. But I knew I was in trouble when I met the rest of the class. There were about 12 ladies, the youngest of whom was at least 10 years my senior and all very conservatively dressed, with very matronly looking figures showing they were wearing good foundations. I stuck out like a sore thumb.

Our instructor was very nice and made the introductions. We were told that the mornings would be for general instruction and the afternoons would be for fittings. We were given the first of our instruction manuals, which, as I remember, dealt primarily with elementary anatomy and different body types and shapes. 

After a short lunch break came the first fitting instructions. Our instructor told us that the first thing a good corsetičre must do is feel completely comfortable seeing other women in their foundation garments and we must be comfortable being seen in our own. So to start us she wanted each of us to disrobe and describe the foundations she was wearing and why she chose them. The rest of the class would then make comments.

I was horrified, especially when the first few women disrobed to show firm, custom-fitted corsetry (much of it made by Spencer) and they described their figure flaws and how they had been fitted with the various garments. When I came to my turn I removed my dress to show only my light bra and girdle. I stood there not knowing what to say while all eyes watched me in silence. I was finally rescued by our instructor who made some comment how “Alison was obviously waiting to be correctly fitted so had purposely left her regular foundations at home.” After the rest of the class disrobed she did too, showing the most beautiful and exquisitely fitted satin girdle and long-line bra.

She then introduced us to the adjustable measuring corsets, and guess who was the first model? 

All Spencer girdles were fitted using the “Spencer method.” It consisted of specially made girdles, corselets, bras and long-lines with a series of straps that made them completely adjustable. They came in a number of basic sizes. I was to be the model for the first fitting, so the instructor called me to the front of the class. I unhooked my stockings and removed my girdle (another rather embarrassing thing to do in front of a roomful of relative strangers). She put the measuring girdle round me and zipped it up at the back. She then pulled on the various adjustable straps and showed the class how she could pull in my waist, hips, upper thighs, etc., and as she did she gave advice on what would be best for my figure type.

She made the straps tighter and looser and asked me how it felt and the class how they thought it looked. She had me sit down, then stand, then sit again as she made adjustments to the length of the skirt, then bend while standing and sitting while she got the height and the waist set. Eventually she got the correct adjustment and wrote down the settings of all the straps and adjustments on a special form, along with notes about the fabric and boning, as well as comments about the style, panel design, lacings, hooks, zips, etc.

Explaining the fitting process took all afternoon, during which time I had to sit or stand in front of the class dressed in the measuring girdle. The measurements, she explained, would then be sent to the design department. They would produce paper patterns, which would then be cut and sewn together. This process normally took a few days, but in the case of our class we would be monitoring the process, and so my girdle would be ready the next day.

As the class ended I apologized to the instructor about my foundations, but she said not to worry, as by the end of the next day I would have my first Spencer girdle.  

  

   

The corsetičre measures the client in a variety of specialised measuring garments (1947)

As I remember, the next morning’s classes were on the history of fashion and on the different types of fabrics and elastics and fasteners. In the afternoon we went down to the design department to see my girdle, which had now been designed and cut and was then sent to the fabrication department, where it would be put together. We then went back to the classroom, where we split into pairs to practice fitting each other. The instructor (whom I really liked) made me her partner while the other women muttered that I was fast becoming the “teachers pet.”

This time the instructor removed her girdle and I used the measuring girdle on her. It was more difficult to use than I expected, as it was hard to get all the different straps adjusted without getting the girdle completely out of shape, and I remember we were all engrossed in the fittings when a seamstress arrived with my finished girdle.

I remember my first impression was that it was like no girdle I had had before. For a start, it was of shiny black satin like our instructor’s (a fabric and a color that was considered rather risqué in the 50’s), and it looked much longer and heavier than I was used to. It was a side-hooked girdle (which was the most common style in the 50’s), with the hooks covered with a zip. The class paused and the ladies took their seats while the instructor demonstrated how to fit it. When it was on me and completely done up with my stockings attached (to six garters instead of the four I was used to— an extra set at the back), she had me try walking around. Not only did it look different from girdles I normally wore, it felt different. It was heavier and stiffer and had a longer skirt than I was used to. This longer skirt made walking a little more restricted, and she had also made the garters shorter so they pulled hard on my stockings at every step. The girdle also pulled my stomach in and its higher waist made me stand and sit up straighter. The class was very impressed with the way the girdle fitted. “It almost makes Alison look like a lady,” I heard a lady murmur.

I had worn heavily boned girdles before, but I must admit not very often, and most of the girdles in my wardrobe at the time were relatively light control. So when I was hooked up into my first Spencer it felt quite different. My initial feeling was definitely one of pleasure and well-being at being so tightly caressed, and when I looked in the mirror it certainly made me look very good. This pleasure lasted for some hours, but I seem to remember that by the time I started to walk back to the hotel along the hot street I began to have second thoughts.

As I mentioned, the girdle had quite a long skirt that held my thighs and limited the length of stride I could take, and the stronger elastic Spencer used in the garters caused a pull on my stockings at every step, and that was also something new to me. I also began to find the overall tightness and control rather uncomfortable as the evening wore on. It was something I couldn’t escape from; it was with me constantly whether I was standing up or sitting down.

I worked for Spencer for many years, and I have to admit I never really got completely comfortable with being so tightly girdled and controlled. The foundations I wore were just too restrictive to let me forget about them. I think this strict corseting was pretty obvious to my friends. If we ever went somewhere where we had to get changed I would get a lot of sympathy, but also some envy. I think the whole reason they corseted me so strictly was to show other customers what a correctly corseted figure looked like.  

The next day we started our training on fitting bras. The Spencer system for measuring for bras was quite complicated, and some people (especially young girls) found it quite intimidating. The next afternoon our instructor showed us the two systems, one for regular bras and one for long-lines. We were told we should normally use the long-line measurer, as these measurements could be used for both types, and it often persuaded customers to buy a long-line (which was more expensive).

I was again selected as the model. I had to disrobe again, but this time I was proudly wearing my new shiny black Spencer girdle. Unfortunately, the instructor pointed out that I did not have it adjusted properly, so I had to unfasten it and hook it back up correctly. Then I had to remove my bra, and she put the measuring system on me. The body of it was made of rather firm material with many adjustable measuring straps, but the cups were made of extremely light, flexible, stretch fabric. It had shoulder straps, and hooked up at the back just like a long-line, only with a long row of about 12 hooks. It felt very strange when it was on, as it was very stiff and heavy, yet it gave no breast support, so my breasts felt as if they were just pushed through two holes in the rigid material and left to hang there.

The instructor then adjusted the measuring straps and, as she did so, she pointed out that my breasts were being pushed further out into the soft cups. This was the way it was designed, she explained. Adjusting the body of the bra invariably pushed the breasts further out and, as the cup material offered no resistance, they could expand to their correct size. I was not sure I remember liking the idea. When she was done with the measuring straps she used a tape measure to get my breast size (remember Spencer did not use ABC cup sizes). Once the measuring was complete I should have been released from this heavy and uncomfortable contraption, but she then went on for about another hour explaining all about breast sizes and shapes while I was standing there in front of the class with this heavy device strapped to me, feeling more and more uncomfortable and embarrassed.

Eventually she finished and released me and sent the measurements out for my bra to be made. Then we were split into pairs again and for the rest of the afternoon we got to practice. The measuring system was quite difficult to master, and even after the training was complete I had to fit quite a few customers before I became very efficient.

On the final day of the training we again had lessons in the morning, and in the afternoon our instructor had my first Spencer bra ready for me, fresh from the factory. Once again I was called to the front of the class and asked to disrobe to demonstrate the fitting. I undressed down to my girdle (which the instructor inspected and congratulated me—I had it on correctly this time).

She then unwrapped my bra. I saw, to my disappointment, that it was a long-line and appeared to be as heavily boned as the girdle. It was, I had to admit, very pretty and was made of shiny black satin to match the girdle. I put my arms out and the instructor slid it onto my shoulders and pulled it round me. She had me lean forward and position my breasts into the firm cups. It was fastened by a row of side hooks covered with a zip. It overlapped my girdle by about and inch, and had short straps on the bottom, which fastened to the girdle. She spent a few minutes adjusting everything and stood back to show the class the effect. I think it must have looked good, as there was a soft applause from the other ladies, and again the whispered comment “now Alison really does look like a lady.” But I did not notice. I was too concerned by the completely new and alien feeling of being encased from shoulders to thighs in unyielding black satin. At the time I had never worn a long-line bra and my main complaint was being tightly controlled around my rib cage. Unlike the long-line bras of today, there was almost no elastic in the section around my chest and there was no adjustment, as it had been made exactly to my measurements. The only stretch was in the fabric itself. Not very good for deep breathing! It was a sensation I had not experienced before, but one I would come to know only too well during my employment with Spencer.

The rest of the class went in a whirl, and at the end of the day we were presented with our certificates and were now fully fledged Spencer corsetičres. I traveled home, and the next day I had my first meeting with my manager, who was, over the next few years, going to have a powerful influence over my life.  

 

On the Job, the Manager and the Spen-All

I came to the manager's house proudly wearing my new professionally fitted Spencers. Right from the start, however, I sensed she did not like me. I think she felt I was much too young to be a corsetičre. At this first meeting she flatly stated that my new girdle and long-line, despite being fitted at the factory, were not satisfactory. She required all her corsetičres to wear corselets, or “all-in-ones” as they are often called now. She thought they gave a much smoother figure (which I must admit they did) and, as they were the firmest type of garments Spencer made, they gave a good example to our customers. After all, she explained, if we didn’t wear one how could we recommend they wear one? I still remember that corselet; it was called the Spen-All.

I am not sure I remember it so fondly. Spencer’s rules said their corsetičres could wear only Spencer foundations, and these could be ordered only by the mangers, so I had no choice but to wear my Spen-All and similar ones all the time. The Spen-All was rather like a combined girdle and long-line bra connected at the waist. It was made of a shiny flower-patterned material called brocade. It had an inner supporting section or under belt that had to be hooked up first, a side zip and laces down the front of the girdle part to give a really flat stomach. Although girdles at the time almost always came in white or pink, we corsetičres were only allowed to wear black. I found the Spen-All very restrictive, especially when I had to bend down to measure a customer or adjust her stockings or garters, but in time I got used to it.

Even after all these years, I am still a little upset that right from the very start my manager made me wear one of Spencer's firmest and most restrictive corselets. In my opinion this type of corselet gave far too much control for a girl in her early 20's, especially as I had to bend and move about to do my job. The underbelt on it made it especially tight and uncomfortable, and I did not need it, as I already had a good figure.

The Spen-all is a lasting memory for Alison since she partially repeats the episode. Note how the Spencer corsetičres were only allowed to wear black. In the Spirella corsetičre pages, many of the publicity photographs and displays show women wearing black, which was by no means the most popular colour. The reason, I suspect, is that many of the foundations looked and photographed better in black. Also the old-fashioned image of a “corset” could to some degree be dispelled by the ‘racier’ nature of the colour. –Ivy  

A remarkable parallel to Alison's account is drawn from the recollections of Isobel, a British lady who served in draper's shops, as they were quaintly called. --Ivy

Initially I hated the Spen-All corselets, as not only were they very restrictive garments with a lot of coverage, but also my manger had fitted them very tightly. Unlike modern girdles and corselets, which are very elastic and mold themselves to the wearer, the firm-control Spencer foundations molded the figure to conform with the foundation. I remember almost crying when I had been wearing one of my Spen-Alls for hours, knowing I had to keep wearing it until late evening when I was safe and my manager would not come around.

Then, strangely enough, after a few months, I began to need it. In fact I felt lost without it. I am not saying I particularly liked it, but after the first few months I started to look forward to the feel of its firm support, and I put it on as soon as I got up in the morning.

Spencer’s requirement of six garters on a corselet was also a problem. These six garters, combined with the firmness of the corselet, caused constant tension on my stockings and greatly enhanced the whole effect of being tightly controlled. I don’t know whether any of you women who read these postings have ever had the feeling of being so completely covered and controlled by your foundations that your dress just slides on top without really touching you. That’s how I felt.

Another interesting observation here. That the dress should fit the foundation garment and not the person has already been mentioned; however, to avoid folds and creases, the dress should indeed slide over the under-garment. To this end, underwear was made of, or had panels of, satin, to facilitate the sliding. This is also why the petticoat is called a 'slip' in Britain. (Not to be confused with a slip, which in Europe means a panty-girdle). –Ivy  

Many people have asked me what my Spen-All corselet was like. Well now you can see. A friend drew my attention to this Spencer advertisement.  According to our brochure, which I still have, “The lovely Spen-All banishes bulges, and gives a healthful lift to mind and body. When you wear it you will see the slim young lines of healthful posture and you will sparkle with new health and energy”.

This is a typical Spencer before and after advertisement from the 1940's. One tends to be a little cynical about some of Spencer's advertising since it seems that the very act of wearing their foundations not only improved the figure but also the hairstyle and teeth. Some of these advertisements were more blatantly modified than others. Spirella made similar advertisements which were closer to the truth.

Although the ad is dated 1941, it is almost identical to advertisements Spencer was using when I worked for them as a corsetičre in the early 50’s. It shows a customer in her regular girdle and bra with all her figure problems, then there is another picture of her wearing her custom-made Spencer garments.

Comparing the two pictures gives you some idea of the rigid control a Spencer corselet gave. It certainly brings back memories of the years when I had to wear this corselet 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. Not only did I have to wear it, I had to work in it all day, bending and stretching while I fitted my customers.  

I've often been asked, Why did I have to wear the Spen-All? For two reasons; firstly, Spencer company policy said their corsetičres must wear only Spencer foundation garments or face instant dismissal; and secondly, only their managers could measure and order foundation garments for the corsetičres.

You have to remember what it was like in the early 50’s. Women workers had almost no rights and were often expected to dress a certain way, so I was really trapped. The problem was that only my manager could measure me and order my girdles, so she had absolute control of what I wore. We were required to wear only Spencer foundation garments, and my manager’s trained eye could recognize instantly whether I was wearing my Spen-All. She caught me once without it on and I was given a warning that next time would be instant dismissal, so after that I could not take a chance, as I needed and enjoyed the job.

When I ordered a girdle for a customer, I did the measuring, then sent the measurements to the Spencer factory. They made the girdles, then shipped them to my manager, who checked them, then brought them to my house. I never knew for sure when she would be coming; it could be virtually any time in the day or evening.

She felt all her corsetičres should set an example with a perfect figure, so my Spen-All was always about as tight as it could be. Worse than that, as it was custom-made there was no adjustment. If I was having a bad day I couldn’t loosen it in any way. I couldn’t even put on a lighter girdle; I had to wear my Spen-All all the time.

Another thing I didn’t like was that all my Spen-Alls were black, which limited the dresses I could wear without it showing through. (I was told this was to make sure we always looked “professional”.) This was not bad in the winter, but in the summer I could not wear lightweight or light-colored dresses.

The Spen-Alls I wore during my career fitted like a glove. This perfect fit was a combination of being fitted by an expert corsetičre (my manager), plus the fact that she had many chances to enhance and perfect the fit as she made me new ones. The control was very even all over. There were no portions of it that dug in or rubbed; it was just form-fitting. I am not sure whether this was because the fit was so good or that my body gradually adjusted to the contours of the rigid design.

I have to admit it was like no other foundation I have worn before or since. From the wide shoulder straps, through the perfectly contoured bra cups, through the nipped in waist and the laced front panel, all the way to the skirt of the corselet and the six garters, it fitted me like a glove and was the perfect example of a Spencer fitting at its best. One advantage of wearing it constantly was that it made buying clothes rather easy. My figure always remained exactly the same inside the rigid confines of the corselet.

Alison's relationship with her Spen-All continues. She mentions again, as the underlying reason for wearing foundations, that the clothes are to fit the foundation and not the woman. If the foundations are firm, then the clothes will fit perfectly all the time.

The corselet could be rather uncomfortable at times, however, especially during my period, when I often felt rather bloated, which made me a little irritable. Remember this was long before PMS was “officially” recognized as a fact of life for women. My manager, however, had my periods carefully “charted” and would avoid assigning me to important customers at the wrong time of the month. I think she knew my cycles better than I did and mandated the use of the Spencer-supplied sanitary wear, to protect my corsetry. Just writing about this makes me think how things have changed (for the better?). Just imagine the outcry there would be nowadays if women employees were “charted” by their managers, and their work schedules adjusted appropriately.

As with all full-length foundations, a lot of the control came from the fact that they gave vertical control in addition to the normal horizontal control of a girdle. For this reason my Spen-All had wide shoulder straps as well as wide garters.

It is amazing how this increased the overall control of the foundation. When fitting a customer, I could utilize this effect in a number of ways. For instance, a regular long-line bra and girdle gave good control. However, if I attached hooks to the bottom-front of the bra so it could be attached to the girdle, it increased the control dramatically. Hooks could also be attached to the back of the bra to give complete control. These worked well, but were both inconvenient and unpopular.

The standard Spen-All came with a “floating front,” in which the front of the bra portion was allowed to “float” over the girdle portion. This greatly increased comfort when bending and moving. However, we corsetičres had to have hooks under the front, which in essence fixed the two parts and completed the rigid control. After all, my manager explained, she wanted her corsetičres to set an example, and looks were a lot more important than comfort.

Alison's continued reference to this garment has prompted us to insert another page. The Spen-All  - Ivy
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Marriage

 

Getting married is always huge event in anyone's life and brings about a lot of changes but I was always amazed in the 50s how it also signalled a major change in a women's corsetry too. I had a number of loyal customers who I fitted from the time they first put on a Spencer through into later life and I always found it interesting how the styles of corsetry changed as the women went from single to married. 

 

One obvious change  was the colour of their corsetry that  changed from white, which was the most popular pick for my younger customers, to the more mature looking dusty rose pink.  The style of their bras also changed once a girl was married.  Spencer offered a wide range of bras of course, and it was my job to make sure their bra fitted perfectly and was comfortable at all times, but also suited their new married status.  

 

For example, when  I fitted younger, unmarried customers my first choice would always be a relatively light weight bandeau bra whereas i would tend to fit married customers in something longer, more reinforced and heavier to reflect their more conservative status. 

 

For an unmarried girl with an average bust I would order a short bra made of stretch elastic net and broadcloth to hold the bust in a natural position.  For an unmarried girl who needed a bit more support I would fit a short bra made of non stretch broadcloth with a little padding to keep her natural rounded lines.

 

But once a girl married, even if she had a well defined average figure, I would have her graduate to one of Spencer’s long-line bras.  As most women know, wearing a long-line bra with you girdle or corset brings a whole different feeling of control as your complete torso is covered, and your chest, although not really restricted, has to cope with the caress of the elastic or fabric of the long-line bra hooked tightly round you.  

 

Spencer's  lightest style of long-line bra was made mostly of rayon with net elastic and no stays and would give good uplift with  control.  They closed with a single set of hooks at the back.  

 

For women who needed more control, the next step up would be a long-line bra giving more control of her diaphragm and would be made from broadcloth and lace, and closed with a double row of hooks at the back.  The looser set of hooks would be for casual daytime wear and the tighter hooks for evening wear.  This bra came with relatively light stays and hooks at the front to attach the long-line bra to the girdle or corset.

 

For even more control; Spencer had another line of long-line bras made of heavier, non stretch cotton broadcloth, complete with corset stays and with a longer midriff line to flatten as well as firmly control the diaphragm.  This style of bra came with side hooks.  These side hooks did not give such a smooth line as the back hooks, but were necessary as this style of bra was too tight and stiff for a woman to reach around and hook at the back.  I did sometimes get requests from customers to have back hooks on a bra like this, but i had to warn her that she would probably need to be hooked up by her husband and would be trapped in her bra for the rest of the day.

 

Maternity  and New Ideas from Spencer

I always thought I should have called my daughter Spencer. She was born in the early 50’s while I was a corsetičre working for Spencer Corsets. She was conceived while I was wearing my Spencer corselet, I carried her wearing a Spencer maternity corselet, and after she was born she was breast-fed while I was wearing a Spencer nursing bra.

Let me start at the beginning. I think my husband was just like many of the men who write to this forum, and was always fascinated by my black Spen-All corselet, which I had to wear all the time I was working for Spencer. In fact he was so fascinated that I hardly remember having relations with him except when I was wearing it. I remember thinking it rather strange, as he always had to battle with the skirt of the corselet. The skirt, as you may remember, was quite long, and when he made me keep my stockings on as well he also had the tension of the garters to contend with. Still he seemed to enjoy it immensely and I must admit that I found sex while I was so tightly corseted quite exhilarating.

I had just found out I was pregnant when a message was sent round that Spencer was developing a new range of maternity wear and they were asking for corsetičres who were pregnant to volunteer to try the new designs. I was immediately volunteered by my manager and was sent to the regional office where they were designing them. My interview consisted mainly of an examination by their consulting obstetrician and an inspection of my current corsetry by the Spencer design team. Both the doctor and the Spencer staff were impressed that someone as young as me was used to the strict control of a Spen-All, and I was selected to try not a maternity girdle, but a new maternity corselet that they were designing. I was totally unenthusiastic about the idea, as I was assuming my pregnancy would free me from the restrictive corselet and let me wear something less controlling. But, alas, it was not to be.

The designers measured me very carefully, and a few days later I was summoned to my manager’s house for the first fitting. The first thing I remember about the maternity corselet was that the “all black” rule for Spencer corsetičres was not going to be relaxed (at least not for me). I still remember thinking how black it looked and how large the bust was (I found out why when I had it on). After my manager hooked the straps over my shoulders, I immediately noticed how heavy and stiff it was.  

The maternity corselet was a very interesting and, for its time, a very advanced design. It had a flexible underbelt, which went under and supported my belly without compressing it. This hooked up at the side with many rows of adjustable hooks to allow for expansion. The most innovative part of the design was the front, which consisted of a floating panel that was attached to the two sides of the corselet with six adjustable straps. These straps could be loosened as my belly grew to give firm support to the growing baby without putting undue pressure on it.

The bust was also very innovative, and probably the most unusual part of the foundation. The cups were made of stiff material and were sized for what the Spencer designers estimated would be my final bust size. The inside of these rigid cups was lined with very soft padding. The idea was that as my breasts grew they would compress the lining, so they would always be fully supported, but from the outside my bust would remain the same size. Spencer thought this feature would be very popular, as it would save women getting different size dress tops. I am not sure I liked it much, as I remember finding it very inconvenient going instantly from a B cup to a D, and I also found the thick soft padding made my breasts very hot. My husband, however, was very impressed and thought my expanded bust-line very attractive.

Although the front of the corselet was flexible, the sides and back were definitely not. Spencer was aware that good back support was needed during pregnancy, and the designers had used their years of experience in corset design to make it optimum. The corselet incorporated heavy, closely spaced boning in both the back and sides. My manager also pointed out that there were also two long sleeves stitched into the back of the corselet on either side of my spine. These were designed so that two full-length steel stays could be slid into them to provide complete back support. I winced when I saw them, hoping I could avoid adding them as long as possible.

After getting it on me, my manager then fussed about and pulled the front straps tight and adjusted the corselet until I looked perfectly trim and my pregnancy did not show at all. Finally she produced a pair of stockings, which Spencer had sent as part of the outfit. I was a little dismayed when I saw these were also black, as in the 50’s everyone wore beige stockings and black were rather unusual. I was even more dismayed when she rolled them onto my legs and I felt they were elastic support stockings. They were, and still are, recommended by many doctors during pregnancy, but I was at a very early stage and did not relish wearing them for months to come. But, as usual, my protests were ignored and my manager soon had them pulled up and attached to the wide garters.

I wore my new maternity corselet for about a week before I returned to the Spencer office. Here I met about ten other ladies who were also taking part in the study. We were taken to one of Spencer’s large changing rooms where we all disrobed, and I was able to see that we were all wearing different designs of maternity foundations. It became rather like a pregnant women’s social group as we all went round comparing the designs of our foundations and discussing different aspect of child-bearing. I could not help noticing, however, that despite my manager’s assurance that the all-black regulations were still in effect, most of the other women’s foundations were pink or white, not black like mine. I also saw most were wearing maternity girdles with separate bras, which looked a lot more comfortable, while only two of us were wearing corselets.

The other woman wearing the corselet was quite heavy, with the kind of figure you might expect to be wearing a very supporting foundation. I was more than a little disappointed to see that the women with my slimmer kind of build were all wearing relatively light girdles with minimum support. I resolved that I would have a serious talk with my manager, not that I thought it would have much effect.

We were told that all the foundations were different designs that Spencer was evaluating. For the next few hours we were measured, examined and questioned about different aspects of our foundations: how comfortable they were, how convenient, and what kind of support they were giving. All through these interviews I was dressed only in my corselet and support stockings. Even though I was used to being seen in my corsetry, there were so many Spencer personnel coming and going that I began to feel more than a little embarrassed. This was especially true when I caught sight of myself in a mirror and saw how much the pink of my arms and thighs contrasted against the black of my corselet and stockings. But eventually the examinations were over and we all got dressed and I could return home.

These visits to Spencer were repeated every two weeks, and at each visit the consultant obstetrician and the Spencer design team examined and interviewed me. The doctor was very pleased with the fit of the corselet and the support it gave, but the designers kept tinkering with the design. They always seemed to be adding some type of new adjustment such as an extra row of hooks or a different set of lacings to give just the amount of support they thought was necessary. As they made these changes and modifications, new corselets were sent to my manager for her to fit.

As my pregnancy progressed, my belly expanded, but my manager insisted on keeping the corselet laced and adjusted very tightly. I remember it did an extremely good job of supporting me, and I eventually became quite grateful for the stiffly boned back. However, I remember I was never too enthusiastic about the design of the bust. Even though the padding inside the stiff cups was very soft, as my breasts became larger it started to squeeze them slightly and, as other women who read this posting can attest, that can become very uncomfortable.

My pregnancy proceeded very smoothly and, despite the best efforts of my manager, who kept the corselet as tight as possible, I eventually began to show quite noticeably. The visits to Spencer continued, but the design of the corselet remained more or less the same, as the design team became satisfied. They felt the design was one of their best, and I was often asked to show it off to various visiting managers or top sales people. This was all very well for them, but I remember starting to feel like some kind of show, constantly being moved from room to room to meet different people while being only scantily dressed in my corsetry.

Because I was so well supported by the corselet, my manager insisted that I kept working as long as possible, but it soon became apparent that I could not really do all the bending the job required. Finally, on one of the visits I complained I was feeling back pain. I thought it was caused by the way the corselet was laced, but the designers were convinced I needed more back support and decided it was time to insert the final stays in the corselet. As I described earlier, they had sewn in two long sleeves at the back of the corselet, either side of my spine. Two full-length steel stays had been specially made and had been shaped to my back at the beginning of my pregnancy. These were now produced, my corselet was removed, and they were slid into place. The corselet was then put back on and tightened and adjusted. The effect was immediate, and I can still remember today the feeling of my back being held completely rigid. I could not move my back or bend at all.

Looking back, however, I must admit that despite the firm control the maternity garment gave, it was reasonably comfortable and I was used to wearing corselets anyway. The elastic support stockings were a different story. I know they were good for preventing varicose veins, but I found them unacceptably tight and uncomfortable. They were not like modern-day support stockings. They were made of strong elastic that only stretched around my legs; there was almost no up-and-down stretch at all. When they were attached to the wide garters and the garters pulled tight, it stretched the corselet taut right through to my shoulder straps. I remember it gave me the feeling of being rigidly encased from my shoulders all the way down to my toes. I protested to both my manager and my husband, but they insisted it was part of the package, and insisted on my wearing them for the remainder of my pregnancy. After all, they told me, it was my figure they were protecting, and I would be grateful later. I was not so sure.

I earlier described the softly padded bra cups for growing mothers-to-be.  This Spencer variable-fill padded cup was designed so that the nipple could protrude correctly.  As I mentioned, I thought these cups were very hot and overly constraining at the end of my pregnancy.  Spencer’s doctor, who was involved in assessing my development, made sure that the tips of these cups were empty enough of padding, to prevent compression or flattening of my nipples by the stiff, contour-holding material of the outer shell.

An alternative was for a well-constructed firm bra with a good wide supporting under band, wide non-stretch straps and deep cone shaped cups.  These were to be worn from the twelfth week, and for increasing periods daily until term. Monthly observations were recommended for the doctor to assess the woman’s progress for successful breast-feeding.  In all cases doctors were very concerned that the mother-to-be had a bra that gave very firm support but did not compress the nipples during the last 24 weeks of pregnancy.

Spencer advertised quite heavily in maternity journals and produced brochures showing their medically endorsed maternity foundations and related obstetric supports. I remember the brochures displayed young models who were beautifully fitted with these foundation garments. They were all most attractive 'smiling and blooming' pregnant young women, yet they were wearing long-line, heavily boned posture-supporting designs.  Cotton taffeta and white-flowered broche and satin lace were featured in these garments, so these young ladies looked very attractive in their foundations.

When I was wearing my maternity corselet, the manager at Spencer’s head office arranged a number of photo sessions for brochure illustrations, with me wearing in the company's most expensive and controlling corselets.  I was supposed to convey the life-form and life-style for these brochures, which were aimed at sales to elegant mothers-to-be and their husbands.  In some cases Spencer was trying to sell two expensive foundations, the first one having been endorsed by the husband for his wife, and the other being chosen by wife for herself.  I don’t think any of my photos were ever used.

At this time, obstetric figure-care was also very much in vogue.  Doctors were recommending the wearing of a really firm and well-boned deep girdle after the birth, in order to bring the hips bones (pelvic girdle) back to original size, the hips having expanded in later pregnancy in order to provide a widening of the birth canal.

 

Fitting Clients

Looking back, I find the social aspects of my fitting sessions were rather interesting. As I mentioned in some of my previous postings, girdle- or corset-fitting sessions at Spencer were often almost a social event, with family members and friends present.

Nowadays, I think the idea of disrobing in front of friends and family would be very disconcerting to most people, especially as it was my job to point out the customer’s figure flaws. Perhaps it was because, once she was correctly corseted, all her flaws disappeared and many women ended up with a virtually perfect figure. (Even though they were now very firmly controlled by their foundations.)

Thinking back, I remember more than one person attended many of my fitting sessions. Perhaps solo sessions with only you and your corsetičre were just too intimidating and women enjoyed the moral support of a friend or family member. I, as a trained corsetičre, always had an idea as to what I wanted a woman’s figure to be like, and, with the degree of control a Spencer could give, I could mostly attain it. The customer however had to decide whether the discomfort she experienced would be worth it, and she would often discuss this with other people present. For instance if I pulled in her waist very tightly with the adjustable measuring corset, she might ask her partner how it looked versus how it looked when it was less constrictive and more comfortable. My customer always knew that, as her corsetičre, I would push for the firmest control, so perhaps it was good to have someone else on her side.

There was also the flip side to this, as sometimes the other ladies present encouraged more control. This was sometimes the case with mothers and daughters, although very often teenage girls were highly motivated to get their first real girdle. They had, perhaps, seen their older sister or mother in their foundations and they had certainly compared notes with their friends at school. Many of these teenagers picked quite heavy girdles from my catalog and insisted on firm control. These girls often became my best customers and, while still in their teens, would have quite an extensive wardrobe of different girdles and corselets.  

Customers either came to my house, or I went to theirs. I always tried to make the fitting a relaxing and pleasurable experience. If they came to my house, we would first have some tea or coffee and I would chat to make them feel comfortable. All the time I would be watching them for posture, how they sat, etc.

I would then ask them to remove their clothes down to their underwear. I would carefully study their figures and critique them. I had been trained to point to problem areas. A bit of a tummy bulge here, poor posture there, shoulders slumping, bust too small (or too large). After this I would tell them how a Spencer foundation would take care of all their figure problems. How could they refuse? If they still hesitated I would remove my dress and show them my Spen-All, which, despite being uncomfortable, was perfectly fitted and looked really good.

We would then look at the catalog and I would make some suggestions. Remember I got paid a percentage of the sale. Of the foundations we sold, bras were the cheapest, longline bras next, light-control girdles next, then firm-control girdles, corselets, and finally the most expensive items, gorgeous satin strapless corselets for special occasions. I was always supposed to guide the customer to the most expensive item. The last thing I wanted a customer to buy was a regular bra and light-control girdle.

After we had decided on the style, say for a girdle, I would use the 'Spencer method' for measuring. This was a special measuring girdle that the customer put on. It was a basic size non-stretch girdle that had all sorts of pulls and buckles that I could tighten. As I pulled them tight I got rid of all the slumps and bulges and got her figure exactly how I wanted it. She could then look in the mirror and get a preview of what she would look like in her Spencer. All the straps had markings on them, and when the customer's figure was exactly right I would write down the numbers that would give me the size for her girdle. I would then help the customer dress and make an appointment for the next fitting.    

 

 

A corsetičre in the late 1940's gets her client fully adjusted and measured. A Spencerette for the younger figure.

I then used the measurements to fill out the order form. At this stage there were all sorts of options I could add to customize the basic design of the foundation. For instance, I could make the skirt of the girdle longer or shorter or tighter. I could make the waist higher or lower or tighter. I could add zips or lacings. I could add boning or an under-belt. On the bra section, I could select different types of cups and add padding. I could increase the coverage by lengthening the waist or use a built-up back to bring the bra up towards the shoulder blades at the back. I could decrease the size of the cups for cleavage or could increase coverage so the breasts were held immovably.

After the measurement session I described last time, I would normally wait about a day before I sent the order in. This was because I often received a call from someone who had had second thoughts on the style of the garment. It is interesting that she almost always called to order a firmer girdle than the one she had originally chosen. I think she tended to forget exactly what she looked like and perhaps thought more control would be better. The other people who called were mothers who had had their daughters measured. In these cases they had known from the start they wanted their daughter in a firmer girdle, or in a corselet instead of a girdle, but didn’t want to argue at the session. Sometimes they would even call me in advance to tell me that although they had told their daughter she was being fitted for a girdle they were actually going to order a corselet or a girdle/long-line bra combination.

The girdle would then be made at the Spencer factory and a few days later my manager would deliver the girdle to me. It would be time for the fitting. Again, this could be done at my house or the customer's. Although I tried to make the fitting session a relaxing experience, the customer always seemed tenser. If it was a new customer she was worried what her first Spencer would look and feel like. If it was an old customer she always seemed a little worried about the fit.

After some small talk came the moment when I would remove the corset from its covering and the customers got their first look at it. It was interesting to see the different expressions on their faces. These went all the way from pleasure and a smile, to a giggle, to consternation or even shock. This was especially true if a girl was expecting a girdle, and a corselet confronted her. Or if she had been expecting a light-control girdle and instead saw a rigid control girdle. With some teenagers I had to leave the room and let their mothers sort things out.

Most would settle down relatively quickly and I could move on to the next stage, where I would carefully and slowly show them all the features of the garment, the various hooks, zippers and laces and show them how they fastened. Then I would hand it to them and let them examine it, to get them used to the look and feel of the garment.

Then came the actual fitting. If it was in their home I first had to double-check that there were no prying eyes or 'little boys' around. Then I asked them to remove their clothes down to their panties or bloomers. While they were removing their clothes, I would often remove my dress to point out some of the features of my corselet and let them see how firmly I was corseted. I liked to do the actual fitting dressed only in my corselet and stockings. This had a great calming effect and I think they often became more relaxed with their garment when they saw the extent of my corsetry, and there was a sort of “we are all girls together” camaraderie.

I can still remember exactly how I fitted the girdle, as I did it so many times. First I would sit or kneel down, place the girdle round her and do up the top hook to hold the girdle in position. Next I would turn her round so her back was towards me and straighten the girdle, centering it on her body. I would fasten the back suspenders to anchor the girdle in the correct position, then turn her sideways so the fastenings were facing me. I would then draw her towards me, and, keeping my legs together, I would pull her against my knees to steady her while I did up the hooks from the bottom up, pulling the girdle closed as I went.

After I had a few of the hooks done up, I would stand up and survey the girdle and say a few reassuring words. Normally the girdle had to fit about two inches below the fold where the buttocks met the thighs at the back and had to be straight on her figure. (Sometimes mothers would want the skirt of the girdle to extend further down their daughters’ thighs, but I will tell you about that later.) I would then adjust it by giving a steady downward pull (not a sharp jerk or she might fall over and we would all end up in a heap of girdles and stockings), which would settle the girdle well down over her seat and thighs. Once I was satisfied it was sitting properly on her body I would continue the fastening. While sitting, I would undo the top hook and finish fastening the hooks from the bottom up. I could then pull up the zipper to cover them. I would then turn her towards me and adjust the front if necessary. Last of all I would fasten the front garters to her stockings.

I was asked if men were ever present at their wive’s girdle fittings. Most fittings were done during the day, so husbands got involved in the fittings only if they happened to be at home when I was there. When they were there I liked it, because it always seemed that I sold the more expensive (firmer control or with more coverage) when men helped decide on the styles.

We had one style that the women almost never chose, but was popular with their husbands. This was a corselet that fastened with a full-length back zipper that ended between the shoulder blades. It was supposed to be designed so the wearer could unzip it herself, but when the corselet was tightly fitted, as most were, she was basically trapped until someone decided to unzip her.

It was a really beautiful corselet made of white or pink satin, and because it was fastened at the back it had a very smooth line at the front with bones running full length. It had to be custom-made and fitted (as all Spencer’s were), because it was of rigid construction with virtually no elastic. It looked really nice in our catalog, but after it was delivered and I did the final fitting, many of my customers complained it was difficult to wear, as it was too constrictive. This was especially annoying if their husband zipped them up in the morning and didn’t return till late, and the garters were pulled tight to the stockings. I don’t believe anyone would wear that type of foundation today.

When it came to bras (whether it was a regular bra, a long-line or a corselet), the most popular style from Spencer that I fitted in the early 50’s had rigid, heavily padded cups. This style was not often featured in our brochures, but was what women (or their husbands) actually wanted.

When I fitted a woman or even a teenager, I was trained to ignore the size and shape of her actual breasts, and instead to design the foundation for the best possible silhouette. For instant, suppose I measured a young woman as an A cup, but decided she would look better with a B cup or even a C cup, I would simply specify that on the order form and the factory  would add the appropriate padding.

Sometimes the customer would tell me how much padding she wanted, but normally it was my job as a corsetičre to give my customer the idealized silhouette she saw in the magazines. (Note that we didn’t actually use the ABC cup sizes at Spencer in the 50’s, but you get the idea.)

This style of bra had a lot more coverage than today’s styles. It showed no cleavage and held the breasts completely rigidly. The bra covered the breasts so completely that it was impossible to tell what their real size was. Although these heavily padded cups did wonders for a woman’s figure, they also caused some problems. I remember one girl telling me how she had been at a dance when someone accidentally bumped her breast with his elbow. It made a big concave dent in her bra and it wouldn’t pop back out. She had a very embarrassing few minutes before she made a dash for the ladies room and could get her fingers inside to push it back out!

The corselet I described in my last note was normally considered too restrictive for younger girls, even in the 50’s when girdling was common. The only exception I remember was one of my better customers, who complained her teenage daughter kept removing her girdle whenever she got the chance. She looked through my catalog and decided the back zippered corselet would be the answer.

To my experienced eye her daughter had a good figure, certainly not the type that needed firm control, but as I was paid a percentage of the sale, and the corselet was one of our more expensive items, I did not argue. The measuring session went quite smoothly and I delivered the finished corselet.

I remember the fitting session quite vividly as the girl later became one of my best customers and we often joked about her first real girdle (or corselet). I arrived a few minutes before her, as she had to be excused from school. Knowing she was late the girl came rushing in skirts flying. She was dressed in her school uniform, a gray pleated skirt and white blouse. I remember noticing she was wearing bobby socks, Mary Jane shoes and no stockings. Her mother had her undress and she was wearing a lightweight roll-on girdle and bra. She removed these; I unzipped the corselet and held it out so the daughter could put her arms through the straps. She took one look and burst into tears. Her mother and I had to persist and persuade until we got it onto her shoulders and smoothed out in the front. I then zipped up the back. At this stage we managed to get her calmed down. Her mother produced a pair of dark beige stockings, she put them on and we attached them to the garters. I remember the stockings were too short and we had to pull them up as high as they would go. She then put her uniform back on and we tried her sitting down. She had to practice sitting down very carefully and to smooth her skirt down, otherwise the tops of her stockings showed.

She was sent straight back to school. But this time she moved a lot slower and more carefully. I guess you could say, more ladylike.

A number of people have asked me whether my customers were all older ladies. The answer is yes and no. Although my customers were predominantly older, on occasions they would bring their daughters to be fitted also.

Now most people thought that fitting young ladies was a waste. For a start Spencers’ were more expensive than regular girdles. Secondly, a Spencer was carefully custom made to the customer’s exact measurements, and was more rigid. Thus it did not allow room for growth, and young ladies were obviously still growing and would soon outgrow their girdle.

Nevertheless, some of my better (and probably more wealthy customers) seemed to think it was worthwhile. I also got some referrals from other corsetičres, as, at the time, I was the youngest corsetičre in my district.

Spencer did have some designs that were targeted towards younger ladies, such as their Spencerette. But even this was a lot firmer, and gave a lot more coverage, than a girl expected. Unfortunately, I have to admit I took on these fittings, as at Spencer we were paid on a commission basis and at the time I needed all the income I could generate.

What was the biggest complaint I got from these young ladies, you may ask. Well the biggest by far was the length and the tightness of the skirt of a Spencer. They complained that it made sitting too uncomfortable. I was always very careful during a fitting to check the Spencer when the customer was sitting down. This often meant adjusting and shortening the front boning of the girdle to make sure it did not dig in. So it was not the boning that caused the problem. I suppose it was just the overall control of such a rigid girdle.

The other complaint was about the back garters. Although I could order a Spencer with only four garters, my draconian manager (whom I told you about previously) always checked my orders. She insisted that all Spencer girdles and corsets be fitted with the proper and traditional six garters. No exceptions!

It is true that the back garters were difficult to attach, reaching behind, then fiddling to get them fastened. But I think the main reason that younger wearers disliked them was that when the suspenders were done up the pull on the girdle was really noticeable.

The time you really felt the tension of the back garters was when you sat down. With four garters your girdle would release a little as you sat, but when the back garters were tightly fastened to your stockings that was not possible. Remember also that in the 50’s stockings did not contain any Lycra and did not stretch the way they do now. Leaving the back garters unfastened was not too good either, as they could be very painful if you sat on them awkwardly!

The biggest complainers were the girls who were still in high school and had to spend most of their day sitting at a desk on a hard chair. This tended to emphasize both the tension on the garters, and also the lack of seat room in the tight skirt of their Spencer girdle.

Talking more about garters: With a regular girdle or corselet the garters were, of course, attached to the bottom of the garment. If the foundation had an underbelt, however, the garters were attached to a loop between the underbelt and the skirt of the girdle. I always found this to be a far more satisfactory technique. This was because the underbelt was much more firmly attached than the outer shell of the girdle, and gave much better anchorage for the garter.

Fitting College Aged Girls

One of the things we had to do as a Spencer corsetičre was always to be on the lookout for new business.  To help us, Spencer had cards printed for us, a bit bigger than modern business cards, more like an index card with a picture of one of Spencer's nicest corsets together with my name and phone number and the words "Alison Perry professional corsetičre" across the bottom. These cards were meant to be pinned up on notice boards.  This form of advertising was popular in the 50's. You could pay a small fee and have them displayed in local shops.

I was hungry for business so I distributed these cards wherever I could. One of my most successful postings was in the female dorms of our local College. Female dorms in the 50's were nothing like those of today's universities. They were definitely totally female domains. No males were ever allowed past the entry foyer.  If a boy came to pick up his girlfriend he had to wait in the foyer while she was called and under no circumstances was he allowed inside. 

Anyway, to get back to my recollections.  I asked to have one of my cards posted on the notice board and I was a little surprised when  I got a call the very next day from a student who said she was interested in a Spencer fitting.  Now you would think that the last thing a liberated girl who has just gone to university would be interested in would be wearing a Spencer.  After all, these girls had probably just escaped from their mothers' domination and for the first time in their lives they were away from home and able to make their own decisions. Surely one of these decisions would be to dress as they liked in whatever skirt or dress they chose and more especially what kind of underwear.  But remember these were the 50's when fashions were a lot more formal and the more exclusive colleges had expected dress codes for both men and women to attend classes. For females this included stockings which inevitably meant a girdle or suspender belt.

When I met with the girl, it turned out she was not so interested in a corset or even a custom girdle but it was a custom bra she wanted. She said she was too flat-chested and her clothes did not fit properly  When I asked her to take her blouse off I could see why.  It was not that she was particularly flat-chested, she was simply wearing a terrible bra. I had to giggle to myself as she almost looked like the model in one of the awful Spencer ads. Her bra was so saggy and worn out it was giving her no support at all. I immediately switched to my professional mode and told I could really help. I told her I would fit her for a regular bra and also for a long-line bra. I explained that part of her problem was with her posture. She was slumping her shoulders and a Spencer long-line would straighten her posture and pull her shoulders back, push her breasts out proudly and give her confidence in her figure. Then with some professionally placed padding in the cups she would have a pert firm bust-line that would be the envy of her friends. I was in actual fact following almost exactly what my manager had trained me to say.

When I came back the next month with her new Spencer bras and did the fitting, the transformation was just amazing. Gone was the flat-chested girl with slumped shoulders and in her place was a woman with the classic Spencer figure with her breasts pushed up and out and with the stiff padded cups I had ordered.  A perfect transformation.

In this female dormitory, I had found a lucrative source of customers for my fledgling career as a corsetičre.  A group of four ladies all living in such close proximity to each other and all trying to impress their friends by looking their best. When I had delivered the bras I suggested that I should measure her and fit her with a girdle as well. She hesitated telling me she didn't want to be corseted like her mother so I left it. But sure enough I received a call a few days later asking for a fitting. When I arrived she told me the reason was that she loved her new Spencer long-line bra but it was uncomfortable when worn with her girdle. When she disrobed I could immediately see the problem. Her girdle was too short and she was having the excruciating problem of flesh being caught between the two garments.  My new customer was quite tall and was a perfect candidate for a high-waisted custom made Spencer as it was unlikely she would find an off-the-shelf-girdle of the required length. I considered her figure carefully then pulled out one of my favourite samples, a beautifully made Spencerette.  It was an exquisite corset from Spencer's range of corsets designed for younger customers. Much lighter than a traditional corset and designed to control and support a younger figure who's body was supple and easy to shape. I thought it was a beautiful garment with it's satin and lace embellishments and available in white or dusty rose but not in black as black would definitely not be allowed for a virgin female.  Even if I had put an order in for a black Spencerette either my manager or the factory would have checked it against the particulars of the customer and would have rejected the order.  Even worse I would have been disciplined or my commissions frozen as punishment.

If I may digress for a moment, I should mention that Spencer corsetičres were closely supervised. In the 1950's opportunities for women were limited. A girl could aspire to be a nurse, a teacher or a secretary but not much else. Being an independent corsetičre was considered a privilege and we were closely managed to make sure we didn't get too many independent ideas. My commissions were managed for me and money put into a savings account so I couldn't be a silly female and spend it all.  If I misbehaved I could be fined and money taken from my account.  As I mentioned earlier, this discipline extended to a strict dress code.  My Spen-all  had to be correctly and tightly laced and perfectly fitted at all times and anchored securely to my stockings with all six garters.  The slightest movement or wobble of my breasts or behind would result in a new corset fitting by my manager to give my figure even firmer control.  A Spencer corsetičre was supposed to wear severe straight fitted dress, but being younger than most of my peers I was allowed a little leeway and could sometimes wear a more fashionable fuller skirt, especially when I was filling younger customers.  Well fitted gloves were also expected, smart slim fitting leather gloves if I was outside making calls and cotton or satin gloves, dyed to match my outfit, if I was inside ready for a fitting. I remember becoming quite adept at working in gloves and it perhaps gave my customers more confidence if I was touching them with satin gloves rather than bare hands.  Jewellery was to be kept to a minimum. A pearl necklace was acceptable especially when tastefully matched with a black dress.  No bracelets or bangles which might interfere with lacings or tight hooks.  Spencer required an overall professional look.
(It was recommended practice for fitters to show off their own foundations if required to secure a sale, hence Spencer's insistence on properly fitted garments - Ivy.)

Getting back to my customer, as she was a student and would be doing a lot of sitting in class, I measured the Spencerette a bit shorter than normal so make sitting more comfortable. I also ordered only four garters. I knew this might get me in trouble with my manager who said all Spencer's should have six garters, but I knew how uncomfortable the back garters could be when sitting on a hard chair and how hard they pulled on a girls stockings when seated.  I then discussed the different priced fabrics that Spencer offered.  I was very pleased when the girl told me she would order the most expensive option. It turned out that her mother had visited and the girl had shown off her new Spencer long-line bra. Her mother was so pleased and impressed with her daughters 'proper corsetry' that she had offered to pay the entire cost of any other Spencers her daughter wanted.

Girdles and Swimsuits

One of the questions from the 1950's is “Did women wear girdles under their swimsuits?”   The answer for many women was yes, and perhaps I can tell you about my own experience  Those of you who remember the fashions of those days will recollect that the average woman's swimsuits were much fuller coverage and of thicker material than today's. The material of the swimsuit was not so stretchy as it is today but they had some rubberized elastic built in to give them shape. Before I went to work for Spencer I could comfortably wear just such a swimsuit, but once my body had got used to the ultra firm support of a Spen-all it didn't react that well to suddenly being unsupported. I thus joined the legions of women who needed a girdle under their swimsuits.

For once Spencer did not have a specific dress code for swimsuits. Perhaps they felt their corsetieres would be too busy to participate is such leisure activities as swimming, or perhaps the average corsetiere was too old, but either way I was free to chose my own foundation. I remember the fist time I went swimming after joining Spencer I happily removed my constrictive Spen-all with all its hooks and laces and put on my swimsuit. I felt great for about an hour, but then I began to feel this dull ache from my stomach and back and that strange ‘falling out’ sensation with which corset wearers are familiar. I knew I was going to need to wear a girdle under my swimsuit.

At this stage I knew there was no time for me to get a Spencer girdle made so I decided to get one off the shelf from a department store. I had seen adverts about the new molded rubber that seemed very popular (Spencer never produced a molded rubber girdle but for a short while they did supply rubber girdles made from stitched sheet rubber that I described previously). They had displays of these strange girdles on the counter and you could just pick one out without being measured by the corsetiere. This was a new concept for me I thought.  I finally picked out what would nowadays be called a rubber panty girdle. A single piece molded rubber garment with no apparent seams complete with a rubber crotch which was perforated with a number of holes. I was a little surprised when the girdle came complete with a small pack of scented talcum powder. The shop assistant told me in a conspiratorial whisper that this was to help the girdle slide on easier and also to disguise the rubbery smell.

I took my purchase home. It seemed like the perfect girdle to wear under my swimsuit; light and very form fitting with no seams to show through.  I unpacked the girdle and was impressed by its cool rubbery feel but was a bit concerned by the pungent smell. I shook some of the talc into the girdle and rubbed some onto my thighs then I pulled on the girdle. It was rather tight but as my body was dry it slid on surprisingly easily. I pulled it up, and the initial fe
eling was quite nice; a pleasant feeling of firm control without any of the restrictions of stays or laces. I had selected the panty style without garters of course, and it was nice to walk around for a few minutes without stockings or the inevitable garters flapping against my thighs.  I then pulled on my swimsuit and looked at myself in the mirror. I was impressed. The girdle firmed me up and there appeared to be no sign of it under my swimsuit. This was wrong as it turned out!

(In those days, swimsuits were often constructed like corselettes, and with their figure forming power too. Spirella’s swimsuits had back zips and even boning. Remember that women were very used to wearing some support in the 1950’s and 60’s – Ivy)

I thought the rubber girdle would be perfect under my swimsuit. I decided to go to the public pool and I put on a dress over the swimsuit rather than try and change at the pool.  I was so used to being tightly corseted in my Spen-all that it felt strange to be out wearing only a girdle and swimsuit under my clothes and even stranger not to be wearing stockings.  It was so unusual not to feel the familiar pull of my Spencer supplied stockings on my garters and onto the bottom of my corset as I walked. It was not the front garters that pulled so much as those annoying back garters with their wide strong elastic.  The back garters were awkward to clip to my stockings and annoying to walk in, in fact I sometimes think they were designed by the male designers at Spencer to further subjugate women.

I arrived at the pool and, as it was hot, immediately got ready for a swim. It took a little while to get my hair clipped and corralled under the mandatory white rubber swim cap. In the 50's all women were required to wear swim caps in our public pools as it was claimed our long hair was unhygienic in the pool water and would clog up the filters. I am not sure that was true but it also kept the chlorine out of my hair.  I noticed as I pulled down my rubber swim cap and fastened the chin strap that it had the added bonus of masking the rubber smell of my girdle. 

I remember having fun swimming but it was when I got out of the pool my problems began. For a start water had got inside my rubber girdle and when I stood at the edge of the pool, the water drained out of the perforations of the crotch of girdle and through my swimsuit. I was acutely embarrassed as it looked exactly as if I had an accident.  I quickly sat down to sunbathe but as my swimsuit dried in the sun it changed colour slightly as material did in those days. And to my embarrassment the suit dried unevenly as part had the rubber of my girdle under it and part did not, and it was soon clear for all to see that I was wearing a girdle and exactly where my girdle ended.

A few days later I happened to mention my problems to my manager. She was rather upset with me and insisted I bought one of Spencer's custom made swimsuits with built in corsetry from our catalogue. I had been avoiding this as they were rather expensive even with my employee discount, and gave a lot of control, but she took the money from my commission anyway so I had no choice.  My manager already had all my measurements and ordered one with extra control features probably as punishment for my foolishness.

 

Spencer Under-belts

Spencer offered quite a number of girdles and corselets that came only with underbelts, and, as all our corsetry was custom made, I could specify that an underbelt be added to almost any of our styles. Having said this, I must say that an underbelt was not an option that many women relished. The wearer herself almost never requested it. Mostly it was a feature added either at my insistence, or at the insistence of a mother, a husband, or some other person who was accompanying and advising the customer.

The reason for this was simply that an underbelted girdle or corselet was a very difficult and controlling garment to wear. In the case of a Spencer, the underbelt was heavily boned at the back as well as the front. It could range from about 6 to 10 inches deep and was fixed permanently to the girdle so the wearer could not remove it. Spencer underbelts were also laced closed under the girdle to give the maximum control.

Speaking from personal experience I might also comment that it made getting dressed in the morning a grueling process. When I wore my Spen-All, first I had to loosen the laces of the underbelt. I then had to place the corselet over my shoulders and get it into position. Then I had to hook the underbelt up, adjust its position, then pull the laces until they were completely closed. The corselet itself was so tight that I could only do it up if the underbelt was completely closed.

Most Spencer underbelts were front or side-laced and fitted very snugly around the customer’s waist, so there was no chance of them moving. Speaking from experience, I felt it made the garters and stocking more comfortable to wear, as it minimized the pull on the girdle.

This method of attachment was, however, predicated on the girdle or corselet having an underbelt. Although I was required to wear one while working for Spencer, not many people my age or younger would put up with the extra control the underbelt imparted to the foundation. So it was mainly my older customers who experienced the underbelt’s advantages.

Spencer’s underbelts were stitched securely onto the girdle or corselet. I could order them stitched to the back, in which case they were like an inner girdle going completely round the body, or stitched to the sides so they were like a “half girdle,” to give more control at the front to smooth the tummy. Either way they were shorter, but more strictly boned, than the outer shell of the foundation.

As these foundations were custom made and fitted, there was no need for any adjustment, and if a customer wanted a less controlling foundation without an underbelt, I would do my best to sell a second foundation.

It is certainly possible that some of the senior girls at school in those days were wearing underbelted foundations. As I mentioned, they were not popular among younger women, but I did occasionally fit them to girls, normally at the request of their mothers. I am not sure whether they were always needed for figure control, but perhaps despairing mothers were hoping they would make their daughters more refined and ladylike.

 

Bridal Corselets

Spencer bridal corselets were our most exciting (as well as our most expensive) items. They were beautiful corselets made of shimmering white satin and were mostly strapless. When fitted properly, they could make the bride look absolutely stunning. They were also among my favorite corsets to fit, and I soon gained a reputation of being an expert at making brides look their best, so I had many referrals.

From the outside, these bridal corselets looked light and lacy, but the looks were deceiving, and to the bride wearing them they were very heavy and restrictive and gave the ultimate in firm control. You only had to hug the bride to find how firmly she was corseted and, when I was present at the wedding, I often watched some of the male guests holding the bride a little too long while running their hands up and down her back and round her waist feeling the extent of her corselet.

These corselets were cleverly constructed of two parts, an outer decorative portion sewn to an inner control portion. The outer portion was made of sheer, shiny, full-length satin panels, normally with no elastic inserts. They were decorated with frills and lace and gave a perfectly smooth effect.

The real control of the corselet, however, came from the inner portion, which consisted of a full-length under-belt constructed of rigid brocade. This under-belt covered her from her hips up to just under her breasts. It had very heavy boning and laced up at the back just like an old fashioned corset. The idea was that all the lacing was on the inner portion so it did not spoil the effect. The bra portion consisted of strapless cups, which were heavily padded. I was considered an expert at maximizing a bride’s cleavage to the extent that, on occasion, I was worried she would 'bare all' during the ceremony.

When the bride got dressed, the corselet was laid round her body and an assistant held it up while the inner belt was laced as tight as possible. The laces were then tied off into a neat knot. The rest of the corselet was then carefully positioned, her breasts were anchored in the padded cups, and the full-length back zip was closed. The bride was then effectively trapped in her corselet until it was unzipped and unlaced. Spencers advertising stated, “With a bridal Spencer, your bridesmaid zips you in and your husband zips you out” (I always thought this was rather risqué for the 50’s). White stockings were then attached and the six garters were pulled taut.

One refinement I always made (which was not part of the standard Spencer design) was to add a U-shaped insert to the front of the skirt of the corselet that could be unhooked and removed on their wedding night. I thought the use of this was obvious, but some of the girls, especially those from wealthy and sheltered families, seemed to have no idea what it was for. When I explained its use to one young bride, she was absolutely devastated and reduced to tears. In hindsight I think this removable panel made it too convenient for their new husbands. Wives would sometimes tell me stories of how their husband loved their bridal corselets so much that they were trapped in them for days before they would finally release them.

The bridal corselets were definitely more difficult to put on than regular ones because of the back lacing and zip. I don’t believe it would have been possible for the bride to put it on by herself (or remove it either). It was assumed the bride would have help, either from the bridesmaids or her mother.

In the 50’s being fitted for bridal corsetry was often quite a social occasion, and I would often fit the mother of the bride and the bridesmaids all in the same session. Then, when it was the bride’s turn, there was always a lot of encouragement from mothers and the bridesmaids to out-do them.

The bridal corselets looked so pretty in the catalogs that it was easy for the bride to underestimate the degree of control they gave. I think many of the brides had no experience with an under-belted corselet. They did not understand how restrictive an underbelt made the foundation or how tightly it could be laced until the garment arrived, and then it was too late.

The painful memories of long hours tightly laced and firmly molded to Spencer’s ideal shape did appear to linger for a while, but sooner or later many of the women were tempted to wear them again and they were frequently brought back for alteration at a later date, by which time I assume their husbands would have mastered the art of fastening them up.

I often thought that Spencer made them with back lacing and a back zip to stop the bride from attempting to loosen the corselet once it was on.


The End of an Era

This time I thought I would recall some aspects from life in the late 50's towards the end of my career at Spencer.

As you know, women continued to wear stockings as normal everyday wear long after I left Spencer.  Many women did not like pantyhose when they came in during the late sixties, and the long-leg pantie girdle had come into fashion, which made stockings a little more tolerable.  But then, particularly in the fifties and early sixties, pants were not worn by many women, except for when doing practical, domestic or cleaning jobs, and even then, stockings and a high-waist short girdle were usually worn underneath.

Many of my customers complained that ready-made corsetry in the 50’s did not fit properly, was plain, was generally too bulky about the waist, and was uncomfortable. They wanted Spencer’s tailor-made foundations, which were beautifully made of satin with lace, and looked so feminine.

Another big complaint was that bras in the shops were always too big in the width of the back for a full bust and would ride up all the time, and to get them to fit you had to buy a size too small, and then they pinched the sides of the breast.

Fashion has changed so much over the years; then, as you will remember, the most desirable look was to achieve ultimate separation of the bust cups, so that the whole of each breast was fully contained and properly positioned within each cup, and then lifted so as to totally eliminate any pendulous appearance in the lower part of the breast.

Spencer’s cup design maintained a fullness and youthful appearance of the breast in the top half of the cup. I still remember my customers saying “I want to go in the right places, and I want to go out in all the right places.”

Corsetry was rapidly changing by the early 60’s, and Spencer was finding it difficult to keep up.  Only full-figured women over 25 now wore the corselet, and whilst paneled, they were generally made of the new flexible spandex. I did continue to fit some women who wore classic foundations, but they tended to be in their forties.

Another big change was that the zip almost completely took over from lacing and hooks-n-eyes. This was a massive change-over in the ten years since I started.  In the 50’s I fitted lace-up foundations and well-boned high-waist girdles to be worn as normal everyday wear. By the late 50’s pantie girdles and pantie corselets were becoming popular.  These had a forward-facing hook-and-eye crotch, or were open, or with the short leg cut for the upper thigh.

It seemed that some mothers still wished their daughters to grow up quickly, particularly if they did a lot of entertaining, dinner parties and more formal events.  They wanted their daughters to wear formal dresses and evening wear when entertaining, so they adopted the tradition of having their daughter fitted with their first foundations as soon as they developed their figures, and they would purchase a quality semi-padded bra and open girdle.

A good bust was very important, and often a young lady who had not developed by 14 tended to be fitted with a very well-padded bra.  Mothers seemed most concerned that their daughters should have 'a nice full bust', and I often fitted a well-padded long-line bra for a daughter who was a little small. The bra needed to be a long-line, as the cups were so well padded that they would not stay in place without a generous under-band to keep them in place. But this was, by now, the era of the spandex long-line bra, with front and side boning. The new fabric allowed much more movement in the upper back and shoulders, and they were popular and reasonably comfortable, particularly when worn with a cuff-waisted girdle.

This reminds me of an incident from my times at Spencer. I was the equivalent of a natural B cup, and when I started with Spencer my first corselets came with natural cups, and I bought my entire wardrobe to fit appropriately. Every few months our corsetry was replaced by Spencer to keep up with the latest styles. Unfortunately, on one occasion while my manager was measuring me, we had one of our many arguments. When I received my new corselets, not only did they have a tighter waist, I found she had padded out the bra portion from a B to C plus cups.  

The ideal image of the day was the shapely woman and both Spirella and Spencer’s publicity photographs show their corsetičres as being ‘well endowed’. It would never do for a client to think that Spencer garments diminished the bust-line! Ivy

As you can imagine, all of a sudden none of my dresses or blouses fitted properly. All of my clothes were pulled taut across my bust and I had difficulty in doing the buttons or zippers up. It was an extremely embarrassing situation for the next few days, until I could finally get them altered.

 

At the end Alison echoes the sentiments of so many of us:-

Those are some of my fondest memories of those days of corsetry, sadly now gone; these memories bring tears to my eyes.    

Questions  

Corsetry in bed? A man wrote to me and recalled the stories of young women wearing their older foundations under their nightgown in bed. Obsessively (he said), they claimed that it was cold and removing their underwear was a bit cold just before bedtime.  When he pursued this once as a tease, he got the answer, "you shouldn't ask a lady so many questions” and "anyway we want to preserve our figures." 

It turned out they were wearing the pink bust-reducing or pink waist- and buttock-reducing foundations that could be worn as a set to “solve all problem areas at once.”  These were available in the late fifties and were also often worn as nightwear or at home as late evening wear under a nightgown or taffeta housecoat. They were marketed on the basis that "they worked for you whilst you were resting." They promised to tone the flesh, and the natural rubber lining could be removed from either cup in the case of uneven breast size, or worn for longer periods at home in place of the usual bra, if a woman wanted to reduce a heavy bust.

Rubber “reducing corsetry” has an amazing history right from the invention of latex until the present day. Currently, the latest generation to sweat through a muggy day or night in its rubber underwear is the Latin Americans. Our mothers started it in the late 1920’s. There is another question on this subject later. –Ivy

Long-line bras: A caller described a brassiere as follows “It is beige and has 7 hook-and-eyes in the back. There is no elastic on this at all, but looks to be made of cotton. The cups are lacy and have darts in them. The straps are satin with metal slides. There is a piece of elastic hanging on the front that has a hook on the end; did it hook to the girdle?”

Although this one was made in the 40’s, I fitted similar ones when I worked for Spencer in the 50’s. The seller seems puzzled by the fact that this long-line bra had no elastic in it whatsoever. I must admit it was not the most comfortable style we made, and a woman was constantly aware she was wearing it every time she breathed, but it did give excellent figure control and had hooks to attach it firmly to her girdle.

Girdles of the past: Girdles today are a lot different from those of the 50’s, when I was fitting them. I think it would be difficult to reproduce the corsetry of the 50’s, mainly because the type of material is no longer available. Spencers’ were made of non-stretch material with only the minimum elastic inserts, and were designed so the women’s body had to conform to the garment rather than the other way round.

That is what made Spencers so different from today’s foundations. When the underbelt of the Spen-All corselet I used to wear was laced tight, there was almost no give in it and my stomach was held as flat as a board. The rigidity of the upper part of the corselet made me breathe with the upper part of my chest, and because the cups of the corselet were also very firm, it caused my breasts to be pushed up with every breath. This “heaving of the breasts” was considered very seductive and desirable in the 50’s, and the effect was much sought-after by Spencer corsetičres. I don’t think many women today would put up with this degree of control, except perhaps for special occasions.

The mysterious corset: A reader describes a corset she found. “I'm wondering if Alison has any memories of anything similar to a Spencer corset (way more than a girdle, methinks) like this one which I have in my collection. The tag reads "Individually Designed" and the Spencer Logo is between the words. There are only two small stretch panels located at the top front. The rest of the foundation is of non-stretch materials. Most of the material has a beautiful stitched leaf and flower pattern. It cannot be opened, that is, it has no busk. It is laced in the front. To put it on, these front laces must be loosened enough to struggle into it. The back has two sets of double ˝ inch wide by 22 inch long steel "S" shaped stays, one set on each side of the spine. They reach from below the buttocks to between the shoulder blades. Also on the back, toward each side is a set of side by side 1/4 inch wide by 21 inches long stays and each side is another similar set of 1/4 inch wide by 13 inch long stays. The stays go to the top of the corset and the fabric extends below the stays 1 ˝ inches at the center and 3 ˝ inches at the side That's a total of 12 steel stays on the back. The top back tapers to the side to go under the arms. Approximately centered with reference to the back is a "flap" 9 inches high at the side and 11 inches high at the front. There are two more sets of the 1/4 inch stays on each side before a final single 5/8 wide by 10 inch long stay next to the set of 13 eyelets through which the front laces are strung. That is a total of 22 steel stays. The eyelets don't go quite to the bottom of this front flap, as there is a buckled cinching strap at the very bottom. There are two non-removable garters in the rear and two more just below the eyelets and cinching strap.

In addition, each side has another "outer flap" that starts from the side of the rear section and is 11 inches tall from the bottom. It tapers to 7 inches in height and has seven hooks at the edge. The two side garters are attached to this "flap."

My process for putting this on is to first get into the main body, position it properly, and attach the front and rear garters. This is necessary as, once laced, I cannot twist enough to work the rear garters. I then pull the laces closed and pull the cinch closed. There is a loop in which to tuck the excess cinch strap.

This next part took me forever to figure out and I suspect that there may be some parts missing. I use the hooks on the outer flap as if they were eyelets, and crisscross lace the front as tight as I think the hooks will stand. This turns out to leave about a 2-inch gap in the front. This flap covers the bottom portion of the main laces and the cinching strap. With difficulty, I fasten the side garters.

We are not through yet! There are straps that attach to the top of main rear stays. There are several ways they can be positioned. They can be crossed in the rear, brought over the shoulder, under the armpit, though a vertical loop in the center of the back, around the waist though two more loops in the front where they are hooked together and tightened. This can cause a very severe pulling back of the shoulders. They may also be brought straight over the shoulders, crossed in front, through the rear and front loops, hooked and pulled tight. Even with practice it takes me about a half an hour to get it all put on.

So you ask, what does it feel like? The amazing thing is that it fits me! However, it certainly is the most restrictive thing I have ever worn. There is very little twisting of the body possible. The outer "flap" is low enough that it restricts my stride considerably. It is awkward and difficult to climb stairs. Sitting is absolutely impossible. Transition from a standing to a horizontal position is very difficult and returning to a standing position is next to impossible. So far the longest I have had the opportunity to wear it, is about an hour.

I really can't imagine the original purpose or the fitting process. Do you have any ideas?

After this remarkably detailed description, Alison replies and I have included my own thoughts after hers.

The corset you describe is definitely a Spencer. Although I cannot visualize exactly what it looks like I remember we had some very rigid models for people with real (or imagined) back problems.

I did fit some women in these types of back support corsets with no openings where they had to squeeze it on. I also used steel stays in the garments, but I never remember using 22 in a single corset!    

I have seen a few pictures of what I believe the questioner describes. Have a look at the picture below (with the slightly unfeeling comment added, of course, by my husband) and regard the lady. She must be wearing something rather similar to the description. –Ivy  

   

The photograph on the right might have been the same lady as on the left, but she isn't. The lady on the left is a Spencer client in the 1940's and the right hand lady is Norwegian from the 1960's. A recurring theme of the corsetry of this period is that there is no need for a functional garment to be plain. Satin looks pretty, is hard wearing and allows clothes to slide over the garment unimpeded.

 

Roger K's Questions 

 

1.         You mentioned that you checked for “little boys” in the background before a fitting.  According to company lore, did one of the little imps ever sneak into a session?

Yes. I know of a number of instances where youngsters were caught either eavesdropping or peeping into a fitting session. The reaction of the women present ranged from anger to amused tolerance. I have been asked whether the “little boys” were punished by being fitted with corsets, however, I know of no such case.

 

2.         Did little girls (under 14) ever attend a session, and what were their reactions?

In the 1960’s it was common for daughters to watch their Mothers being fitted. This would be in preparation for their own fittings to come within a couple of years. It’s much the same as a Father letting his son drive the family car in the driveway of the house before being allowed on the road.

 

3.                  When teens were fitted, if it was their first girdle, did they experience “rite of passage” (“now I’m a woman”) emotions?

Very much so. For many girls, stockings, adult underwear (meaning a girdle and brassiere) and make-up were the defining moments of womanhood. Sadly many young women learnt far too late that Motherhood is the real defining moment.

 

4.         Were there any husbands who objected to their wives’ purchases on the grounds that they thought girdles and corselets were unnecessary items?

Rarely in the 1960’s and 1970’s. These days, many men object to their wives even wearing pantie-girdles. Fortunately my husband is not one of these men.

 

5.         Did the males (some? all?) at headquarters routinely observe models and/or visiting corsetičres in their underwear, as happened when you were modeling your maternity corselet?  How blasé were they about it?  (E.g., how quickly did visiting corsetičres at Spirellas who might never have “modeled” before adapt to The Male Gaze?  Were there written or customary guidelines for them to observe, such as Don’t Stare (not to mention Don’t Wink!)?  How blasé were the models and other undressed women there about being observed by males or being walked around the plant to be checked out—or was the latter something that rarely happened?

I never met anybody who wasn’t embarrassed the first time they appeared in public in their underwear or watched somebody else parade around undressed. Some of the photographs on my web pages show the various degrees of confidence of the amateur models. Professional models are, of course, unflappable, but even they had their ‘first time’.

 

6.         Were (to your knowledge) many male employees embarrassed about where they worked?  Did other males kid them about it?  Many male employees were quite coy about their jobs.

Even when girdles and corsets were widely worn by women, there was always a smutty undertone to the expression ‘ladies underwear’ which featured strongly in many of the “Carry On” films for example.

 

7.         Is there some way to contact former managers at your company and collect anecdotes from them?  They must have a few dozen interesting tales.

I have been trying to do this for some years with limited success. So many of the Spirella employees saw nothing unusual or remotely amusing in their work. I do have a couple of interesting stories about ******** ******** and ******* *********’s daughter who were regular Spirella wearers, but such confidences cannot be aired on the Internet.

 

8.         Did Spirella sell Merry Widows?  To whom, and how satisfied were they with them?

The nearest item to a Merry Widow that Spirella sold was their Spirelette basque. It was bought by brides but was such a low volume seller that it was discontinued in the 1970’s.

 

9.         How well did “cold calls” go—i.e., calls where you introduced yourself by saying a mutual acquaintance had given you her name?  Did you get any remarkable reactions from women who refused?  What happened if only a man or child was at home?

Cold calling was never as successful as a positive recommendation, or better still, an introduction. If the lady of the house was not at home, the corsetičre would simply leave her card.

 

10.       How many customers failed to reorder, and why?

Failure to re-order, which was thankfully not common, was due mainly to the expense of the garments. Today, a Spencer corset costs about GBP 160. For a widow, that is two weeks of state pension.

 

11.       What happened if the fit was badly off, e.g., because a novice corsetičre made a mistake.  Were returns allowed?

Returns were allowed and not infrequent. Sometimes the fitter would be at fault, but often the client’s whims, or even body size, would change during the weeks it took to construct the garment.

 

12.       Was there a repair service?  What were the most common repairs needed?  Were there ever amusing reasons why repairs were needed?

Repairs were carried out at the factory provided that the garment was returned in a clean and laundered condition. The most common failure was when the ends of the bones broke out of their casings. Splits in the material from wearing the corset far too tight did occur. In the 1980’s there was a disastrous batch of black orchid material which was not to specification. I tore two (very expensive) corsets of this material by the simple act of sitting down. Torn seams are very hard to repair and I only ever got one corset repaired, at my own expense I might add. Spirella discontinued all black material a few months later. It was a regrettable trend in the general decline in the choice and quality of materials.

 

13.       How long did an average garment last?  Did they outlast store-bought garments?  (I read recently that European bras outlast American by 2 to 1, for some reason.)  What failed first?

An average garment can last from six months to several years. The variables are regularity of wear, duration of wear, is the garment worn next to the skin, how acidic is one’s perspiration and frequency of laundering the garment. Spirella’s girdles definitely outlasted store purchased items particularly when you consider the repair service. Elastic gets worn but can be replaced.

 

14.       What was the dropout rate for new corsetičres?  Did new (or experienced) corsetičres make any embarrassing or amusing blunders?

The dropout rate was remarkably low. Many corsetičres needed the money and many saw their services as a social need. Those that did drop out found the rewards poor (by today’s standards a corsetičre earns something less than a chemist’s assistant).

 

15.       How long did it take for first-time customers to get used to the “control” of the rigid Spencer’s?  Did you have to reassure them that the garment and themselves would both get broken in over time?

The women that wore the rigid Spencers usually had been wearing all their adult lives, and so were used to the control. Certainly, a new corset will be like a new pair of shoes and it does take about a week for corset and wearer to adopt a comfortable compromise.

 

16.       Did you need to keep back-up measuring garments, etc. in the trunk of your car (e.g., in case the customer was very fat)?

A good corsetičre would always try to gauge the size of the customer over the phone. Even on cold calls, a future appointment would normally be arranged. The measuring garments were actually very versatile and could accommodate most frames. Only once did a corsetičre of my acquaintance have to improvise with two measuring garments to circumnavigate a huge client.

 

17.       Did you ever get a sense of the attitude of sloppy dressers of the time (e.g., like the wife in “Anatomy of a Murder”) to well-girdled women?  

The attitude was one of jealousy, much in the same way that a plain woman will criticise a pretty woman for wearing too much make-up.

 

18.       Did you ever get a sense of what the attitude of your customers was towards sloppy dressers?  Did they envy them their lack of need for figure control, or look down on them as slackers, or regard them with indifference?

Indifference, unless it was a family member when pressure to ‘smarten up’ would be applied.

 

19.       Did you ever get a sense of the attitude of your customers toward other well-groomed women?  Did you sense a feeling of camaraderie?  (I’m developing a theory that women wanted to look shipshape, in part, to one-up the male sex and raise women’s status collectively.)  Did you ever sense a “team spirit” and an unspoken sense of feminine superiority to males in the realm of clothing, body presentation, and demeanor?

That’s a complex question that neither I, nor my husband can answer offhand. I’m not sure that I feel superior when I try to look my best, I simply feel good.

 

“Roger K”

Ivy Leaf

 

 

Rubber Corsetry: Some of the questions asked to Alison have prompted so many recollections and ideas, that I've moved the topic to a separate page with the idea of developing the entire theme.