The Old Corset Shop

From the Corset Shop in St. Leonards, Sussex that closed in 2009.

 

Rosalind's Recollections

The Lady's Shop in Newcastle

The Corset Shop returns

America in the 1950's

 

 

We had to resist the temptation to title this page "Ye olde corset shoppe" or something similarly nostalgic, but quite inappropriate. 

 

The characters in the cartoon are amazingly reminiscent of those stalwarts from the British comedy series "Are you being served?", and everybody from the matronly Mrs. Slocombe to the rather dotty Miss Brahms is represented.

 

 

The incredibly clever Dutch cartoonist, Jan Sanders, captures the ambience of the traditional corset shop in this cartoon (left). Note that not all the serving staff are female. Note the stacks of boxes with different sizes and styles of garment. This is the classic emporium of the two post-War decades, where a thousand variations on what is 'after all' quite a simple theme would be on offer, on the counter and for sale.

 

A lady could spend an afternoon struggling in and out of a dozen pairs of corsets, encouraged, chided and 'brought back down to earth' by her close friends, the corsetiere herself, or her daughter; the latter secure in the knowledge that her turn was next. (Dhr. Sanders was undoubted aware of the many excellent corset shops in Holland at the time. Sadly, few remain).

The Hunkemoller corset shop in Amsterdam, quite possibly Jan Sander's inspiration.

 

The cartoon and the picture on the right (from Germany in the 1950's), show a feature that existed for hundreds of years, and yet oddly is unknown in today's liberated society. The corset shop has a male attendant. Of course,  only a female member of staff would be allowed 'behind the curtains.'

In the full cartoon, a group of sailors have just bought some "frillies" for their girlfriends and are laughing at the poor old Chief selecting something 'appropriate' for his - obviously - well-built wife.

I know women who were terrified to visit the 'corset shop' and others who looked on its very much like a trip to the hairdresser. A pleasant, fairly mindless afternoon, quintessentially female, and secure in the knowledge that the end result would be an improved version of the person that entered the premises. The women that were scared probably had had encounters with the rare, but sadly real, 'dragon' of a fitter. "Ah, Modom will require the formidable corset section, I presume", or to quote the old music hall joke:- Timid overweight customer "I'd like to see some corsets that would fit me please." Rude assistant "So would I Madam; so would I!" Sometimes, indeed, I thought these shops should label their corsetry sections, 'formidable corsets', 'corsets for normal women', and 'girdles for nice girls'. A old acquaintance recounts an episode in Shinners of Sutton where her substantially constructed companion had vanished into a cubicle to try on a specially ordered corset. She heard the woman call the fitter and explain that she didn't expect so many straps and things. The fitter announced that with her figure, the more straps the better. There followed what sounded like a scuffle, but turned out to be the combined efforts of client and fitter to adjust the garment. Some time later both women emerged from the cubicle, red-faced and angry. In the street outside the large lady exclaimed "What a dreadful woman! I really don't think I'm going to get on with this contraption!" Her friend cautioned her to be patient and let the corset settle down for a week, and added, with an economy of truth, "It really helps your figure." "Don't you start" the other retorted "Do you really think so?" Such is vanity and the corset shop.

 

 

     

 

That's what we like to see; lot's of corsets, lots of variety, satins and brocades, everything required to keep the burgeoning Hausfrau under control.

 

  

Flapper era, Art Deco and from France on the right, three ladies apparently cavorting around the woods in their satin-panelled corselettes. It is, of course a reflection! Why do models and even mannequins stand in that contrived concave fashion when wearing these corselettes. Is it that the corselettes are designed for shorter figures?

 

 

 

My husband and I are firm supporters of the 'crowded shop' and the museum that fills its rooms full of fascinating objects. The modern museum, with its acres of space designed to show off a few expensive trinkets, bores us and makes us wonder "why bother?"

 

The Victorian corset shops above left no space vacant. Every nook and cranny was filled with their wares. Even Roussel's emporium (1930 - below) has a reasonable foundation-to-area ratio; however, the Smart-form shop below in the mid-1930's displays but six garments in a massive 600 square feet. The emptiness inside would hardly seem likely to attract a prospective customer. But Smart-form, which was none other than the very up-market Barcley, sought a wealthier, supposedly more discerning clientele.

 

     

Another attempt at a corsetry display from a major department store in 1944 (below) looks more like the window dresser has gone off for coffee half way through her job! Staying on the western side of the Atlantic, the saleslady below (1944) demonstrates how one can transform one's bosom into the 'bullet' shaped cones that, presumably, rose in response to the ongoing war. The war featured strongly in corsetry advertising.

       

This is what we like to see. Plenty of garments on display, a smiling and helpful lady, ready to give advice, and the line which we all fall for "I've just got in something special that I think would really suit you. It's slightly more than you wanted to spend." Spirella's showroom (above right - 1930) and their London shop (below left - 1952) are excellent examples of the upper end of the market. Berlei and Sarongster feature in the scene from Australia in the late 1950's (below). No doubt the shelves on the right would have contained garments from Australia's other major brands, such as Jenyns

 

      

From the 1960's, a Lancashire corset shop. These were the hey-days of corsetry; however, the chipped paint on the skirting of the shop front indicates that profit margins were never huge in this trade, certainly not in the provincial towns and cities. A cause for hope amongst us traditionalists is the corset shop in the middle. This photo was taken recently in Spain, one of the last bastions of traditional Triumph corsetry. On the right, we have a throwback to the 1960's. We shall not see these times again!

              

Here are another two photographs that tell a tale. On the left is a German street market in the 1950's. The brassiere with the three strap fastening at the back dates it nicely. On the right is an American shop, but doesn't it just give away an air of faded glory. The permanent SALE sign, the missing flourescent tube. Profit margins would have been close to zero and it is not just the old advertisements that reveal the 'writing on the wall'.

But let us move into the hallowed sanctum of the fitting room. How many husbands have stood on the edges of the 'forbidden area' in the department store. Slightly flushed, slightly embarrassed, probably bored but with the nervous anticipation of footing what he suspects (correctly) will be a rather large bill. Silly man, he should be anticipating his wife, rejuvenated in both confidence and figure!

I think everything is here to persuade the most recalcitrant of torsos into that special dress for the wedding. Hundreds of yards of lacing, innumerable buckles and straps, under-belts, spiral bones, double bones, rigid bones of alloy and steel. Brocades, satins, shiny (and rather noisy) nylons adorn both the foundations and the dresses. A mistake in the combination of these materials could generate enough electricity to draw sparks from the wearer's rayon gloves!

To the uninitiated, the corset shop all too often conjured up a vision of unyielding strong satin, rows of hooks and eyes, yards of lacing, and bones, bones, and more bones!

(paraphrased from the Spirella Magazine January 1958.)

Brassieres of all lengths, corselettes, girdles, panty-girdles and corsets. All are represented together with the more risqu sounding basques, waspies and waist nippers.

Everything can be adjusted from the heaviest of surgical corsets for granny, Jenyns' best flattening devices for mother, laced brassieres for matrons who can go without breath or food for an entire day, and imaginatively complicated panty-girdles for the bride, whose will-power between the first and last appointments has left her a size beyond her prime.

 

Spirella*, Spencer, Barcley, Jenyns and Camp*, all feature here - but sadly, they feature no longer in any shop that exists today. Most women will say "Thank Goodness," but some will miss the flattening and flattering persuasion of such archaeic devices.

* Actually, Basko-CAMP is still sold in Holland and Germany, however, the drab coutil garments are so utterly unfeminine. Spirella has been re-awakened in Sweden, but once again, their products are somewhat utilitarian.

 

Whatever happened to Whalonia, Freeman, Trueform, OTC and Avro. Camp is still with us (just). The box above tells its own story. It is very old and therefore contains an unfashionable garment. Perhaps this would not be a concern to the sort of aged client who might wear one, however, the unlikely size (50 inches) and the reductions in price tell of a declining interest. The word 'under-belt' is written on the box, for nobody in the shop remembers what model 4521 means anymore!

 

 

This is a scene from a bygone era. All the foundation garments came in these packets of similar size. They could contain anything and everything from a panty-girdle for one's daughter to a formidably-boned corset for granny, complete with under-belt, lacing and buckles. There were so many boxes because women tend to come in so many different sizes!

What happened to these boxes? Many were thrown away, sometimes after long use as a receptacle for something completely unconnected with corsetry.

 

Lastly, a sad reminder of present times. The shop below is one of the few remaining traditional corset shops in Britain. The shop is closed, although it is 2 pm on a normal working day. A closer inspection reveals that the proprietress only opens about 15 hours a week. This is not surprising; the lady has run the shop for decades and is well into her 80's. The window displays some relics of a former era and a corset that seems to have been returned, modified, and then failed to find a buyer. There is a good satin girdle on display; however, the general appearance of something better than neglect, but less than faded elegance, pervades the scene. The shop could easily be mistaken for a Charity Shop (Thrift shop in the USA). The badges of former pillars of corsetry, Camp and Spirella, proclaim wares that haven't been sold for years. Oddly enough, Triumph, the name on the door, still holds a firm foundation on continental Europe.

The Camp sign is decades old, since the style was modified long after the shop had ceased connection with this company. The shelves, however, still hold relics from this company in the unusual and thus unsold sizes. Lumbosacral* and dorsolumbar supports could be found, but the proprietress had forgotten what they were supposed to do. Fiendishly complex maternity devices were shunned by modern women who felt that pregnancy was uncomfortable enough without having to wear a straight-jacket!

The Spirella sign, again, a throwback to an era long-gone, would never have been placed in a shop window in the 60's or 70's. The High Street retailer and the bespoke businesses were keen rivals. The proprietress was simply trying to advertise every possible foundation garment to her diminishing clientele. The piles of unboxed corsets hint of damp in the store-room and a consequent unappealing deterioration of the boxes; the corsets themselves survived. Allusions to proud weddings of the past (but not the present) tell a sad tale: for the whole shop is nothing more than a fading reminder of something that has passed away.

The old corset shop in Dymchurch, sadly closed

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Corset Shop Returns

 

Indeed, what with the resurgence in 'shapewear', the modern corset emporium, whilst lacking the innate feminine charm of yesterday, at least s making some effort. Sadly, style has being discarded along the way.

 

From Seoul in South Korea (left) comes this amazing display from an underground station in the city. Personally, I prefer to select my under-pinnings in a less public environment!

 

Until recently, the few remaining 'corset shops' has become brassiere emporiums. The word was a throw-back to a bygone era.

       

 

 

Yet another 'sea of bras' (left). At least this market stall in France still has some proper foundations.

Examples (above) from Portugal and South America, once again demonstrate the Latin demand for a feminine shape. This movement spread to the Far East as Japanese and Korean women discovered the power of Spandex and now, after a absence of several decades, girdles (even if they are called shapers) have returned to the shelves of the European high street.

 

Massachusetts 2005

A reader sent in this photograph from a Massachusetts corset shop. I love the rows of boxes and the slightly chaotic assemblage of articles.

 

New Zealand 2005

This is a photo of Maree, the owner, and Robin, her assistant, at the "Maree Louise Corsetry" shop in Papakura, near to Auckland, New Zealand.  Notice a strange similarity to the ladies at the Coja corset shop in Rijswijk, Holland.

Coja, Holland 2008