Corset Detective

My husband is a great fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 'Sherlock Holmes', hence the rather elaborate title of this section - Ivy

In the course of a year, my husband and I will look at hundreds of corsets. These may be additions to our collection, photographs from journals and brochures, or simply pictures of articles for sale or auction. It is the pre-worn corset that we discuss here, for in each wrinkle, each fold and bend of the stays lies the story of the owner. Was the previous wearer a rich, elderly widow living out her days in a Brooklyn apartment, a thrifty Scottish woman retired to Ayr, or some elderly Dutch woman, her corsets strained to destruction by the vigorous daily cycling to the 'Simonis' fish market at Scheveningen. (We have known all three, and the last example has an amusing aside. Firstly, my aunt was such a person in the 1960's, and secondly, the firm 'Simonis' operates the largest fish market in Europe, and until recently a shop of the same name sold corsets in the Laan van Meerdervoort. The firms are quite unconnected!

The Case of the Catholic Corset. On the right is a rather special German corset. It has double-lacing at the sides in the style of the Spirella 527. These were for post-pregnancy or post-operative wear to allow an abdomen robbed of it muscle tone to be returned to its original shape. This corset is actually blue, a fact that if the source of the garment was unknown, would locate its source as either France or Germany. The corset has been worn tight and often as the horizontal creases reveal. The elastic of the middle suspenders is worn indicating that the wearer needed stockings stronger than normal. This points to post-pregnancy. All the indications are that this was worn by a fashionable lady, probably after her last pregnancy at a more advanced age than normal. Worn in the 1960's, the lady would be in her early 40's, well-groomed, elegant and with four or more children. Most likely she would come from the south-eastern, predominantly Catholic area of Germany near the Rhine River.

 

The Case of the Canadian Corset. The lady in question passed away in the late 1980's and had obviously suffered from a 'bad back' for some years. The second corset (unlike the one in the photographs) shows all the signs of regular use, yet it has been well looked after. Small repairs, inevitable in a well-worn corset, are present but expertly executed. These were strong, unyielding garments, which only a regular corset wearer could stand. The slight hip-spring of the corset suggests quite an elderly lady in whom the weight loss of age has reduced the differential between waist and hip. One can guess that the lady was probably born at around the turn of the last century, and would probably have experienced her first corsets as a teen-ager. If she had worn corsets all her life, and many women of that generation did, she would be quite unable to live without them in old age. It may be that she returned to corsets in later life as her back began to weaken. In either case, wearing a corset would be familiar to her, perhaps even a way of life. 

The corsets are made of exquisite materials which would not have been the cheapest in the brochure. I suspect that the lady took pride in her appearance. She may well have been comfortably off; the repairs simply suggesting the older generation's natural tendency to mend, rather than replace. Certainly, corsets are like shoes, if you have a comfortable pair that you can wear all day, you will look after them. The removal of the exterior belt is interesting. The lady would have had excellent posture (there was little choice in such a garment), and I imagine this elderly lady, well-dressed and quite fussy about her appearance, would have been mortified if her corsets had announced their presence either aurally or visually. I suspect she removed the exterior strap since she would be concerned that it might show through her skirt. In such a strong corset, the strap is largely redundant. Perhaps the corsetiere added the strap as one of the 'optional extras' to increase her commission. The corsetiere, however, missed out on selling the third pair of suspenders, since the corset has but four, front and side-mounted.

Again, this is typical of an elderly widow, for whom the task of attaching rear suspenders once the corset is donned, is virtually impossible. I know; I've tried it, and along with several of my elderly friends we can agree: That's what husbands are for!

 

 

The Case of The Widow's Legs. Once again I must quote the hilarious Tom Sharpe from his book 'Porterhouse Blue' in which the Stilton cheese reminds the husband of his wife's legs "blue and veined!" Sadly true, many elderly women suffered badly with their legs until the 1970's when removal of troublesome veins became commonplace. Until then, heroically powerful stockings were worn, and they needed a heroically strong anchorage point, and that meant a corset firmly fixed to the wearer's waist. Whether the afflicted women wished to possess a well-defined figure, she had little option.

 

We love these 'finds' where a lady's underpinnings are retrieved from an estate sale. So much can be deduced about the previous owner. These are Spirella's finest 305's. Three are made from satin orchid material, and one from a lighter mesh. Perhaps the lady lived in the north of the USA and visited Florida during the winter or perhaps her offspring in California. Had she lived permanently in a hot climate, then all the corsets would have been light-weight. The absence of rear suspenders denotes widow-hood (the beasts are difficult to do up when one is old.) The stretched suspenders on one of the corsets is testimony to the power of her stockings. The other suspenders have been replaced at various times as they have given up the ghost. The corsets date from the late 1960's to the early 1980's and were worn regularly and tightly. Her waist probably bulged a little above the top rim of the corsets as the horizontal creasing shows. They are a bit grubby and lacked regular washing but they have worn well and probably served their wearer well for the last decade of her life.

 

 

Another example of a corset well used by a widow is shown here. The corset has six suspenders, the traditional requirement to anchor any form of support stocking, however, they are all clustered as close to the front as possible. This would simply have been for ease of donning and attaching the stockings without having to twist around for the back suspenders. Whether the corset came ready manufactured like this or was made to order (I suspect the latter), it tells the story of a elderly widow all too clearly.

 

 

 

The Special Spirella

Ostensibly, a Spirella from the 1960's - 70's period, there's just a few things wrong with it. The material is fine. Spirella used the black pattern for many years before it dropped black altogether in the 1980's. The front-lacing an elastic inserts, again, fully original, classifying the corset as a 305. The four strap under-belt was a classic Spirella option. That the buckles operated an under-belt, rather than a lumbo-sacral over-belt distinguishes the Spirella from the Spencer of the same era.

The oddities are the pieces of white ribbon around the top, and the back-lacing. The ribbon is not Spirella and must have been added later. The back-lacing, that, in addition to the front-lacing, was quite a common request, looks odd. The spacing of the grommets is far too wide. Furthermore, Spirella almost always covered the back-lacing on the 325 (front- and back-aced models) with a fly. This lacing and the grommets has been added at some point in the corset's life.

 

Had the owner gained weight, and wished to expand the corset without the (considerable) expense of buying another one? Possibly.

 

Had she lost weight and cut out a rear section? Unlikely. I know many women who have sewn the backs of their corsets to decrease the diameter. This works, but is prone to split (embarrassingly) and puts all the bones in the wrong proportional position.

 

It looks like the corset was modified for theatrical purposes; a back-laced corset being required. Perhaps the owner had tried wearing it back-to-front, and realised just how horribly uncomfortable that is.

 

 

The Case of The Heavy Woman's Corsets:

 

We came across these lovely black orchid (Spirella's satin) corsets. They had been well used, but well cared for. The wearer was lucky. A batch of these black Spirellas, made in the mid-1980's had defective material and could easily split! Spirella abandoned black as a colour in consequence. It is a fact, that as a corset-wearing women starts to gain weight, the support of the corset for the abdomen outweighs the desire to achieve a fashionable profile. Frankly, forcing the fatty tissue into the abdominal cavity already occupied by equally fatty organs is unpleasant at best, as potentially harmful at worst. The corset requirement tends to be for a shorter, broader garment since abdominal support, rather than compression, is desired.

 

Such corsets are put under terrific stresses as the creases at the back of the waist (left), and at the top of the thighs (right) reveal. The top of the corset front has even bent over as excess avoirdupois spills from its container. The corset should perhaps have been cut longer above the waist, but not laced tight. That would have prevented what must have been quite a roll of flesh!

 

 

The Third Corset:

 

There are two corsets here that came from the estate of an elderly lady. They are classic Spirella 305's in white orchid material (artificial satin). They are almost certainly 1960's vintage judging by the suspender style. Another interesting feature, usually seen on corsets for regular wear, are the waist creases caused by firm lacing. The hooks-an-eyes closure, rather than the metal zip of the 1960's, is another clue as to the wearer's preference to have her corsets well-laced. Those zips were prone to occasional catastrophic failure, an unacceptable occurrence. The question is "Where is the third corset?" Why three? All Spirella wearers were told by their corsetieres that one corset was for wearing, one for the drawer and one for the wash. A regular rotation of three corsets would maximise the life of all three. As the oldest lost its powers (usually in the elastic), it would be replaced by a new one.

    

 

One of these corsets is in very good condition, and the other (stored neatly in its Spirella plastic bag) is slightly more worn. On a label, is hand-written, "second best corset." So where is the third? It would have been more worn than either of those on display. Was it thrown away as unusable; possibly. Far more likely is that the third was thrown away, but shortly before the old lady passed away and her last corset was purchased. Without the time or inclination to re-label the corset bags, her new corset would have literally been taken to her grave.

 

 

The Girdles' Story #1

 

Firstly, regard the collection of girdles on the left. They came from the estate of an elderly American lady. They are all conventional long-leg panty-girdles. Some are worn and some are new and most are still available in the shops today. They are quite unexceptional and probably resemble the underpinnings of another million elderly women in America with one exception -- and that is the girdle in the middle! It came from the same estate but is far older (look at the metal zip and the real satin panels). It stands alone as a beacon of quality in a sea of mediocrity. This is definitely not on sale today, so why is it there?  All the other girdles speak of a regular replacement of worn items by new ones. There are blacks for evening, whites for Church and beige for normal use. I suspect this old friend was a true favourite. Of a strength and quality unknown today, it became the girdle for 'best' use, albeit someway past its prime.

Women have little sentiment about their underwear (usually it's the opposite) but in this case, the girdle was simply too effective and well-made to discard.

 

 

The Girdles' Story #2  Again, another girdle that appear quite ordinary at first glance drew my attention. This girdle looks just like a million other up-market girdles of the 1960's. These are strong, heavy and extremely effective devices. In this case, however, the waist is a scant 23 inches (55 cm) and the hips only 30 (75 cm). There is precious little stretch in these old girdles (although I do know of a lady who forced a blatant 40" waist into a 34" girdle). Was it a young girl's girdle ? Probably not, although girls of 12 did wear girdles in the 1950's and 60's, however, they tended to be softer and shorter items (this girdle is very long) designed mainly to hold up the stockings and remind the poor creature of the devices to follow within a few years.

 

Almost certainly, it's the girdle of an elderly woman. The scant hip-spring of seven inches (most mature women are 10 to 12 inches) is typical of the older women who starts to loose weight off her derriere whilst retaining a slight waist-line plumpness. Women were thinner in the 60's than today, so I can conclude that the girdle belonged to a fashionable women, probably in her early 70's and born around the turn of the last century. She would have been a US size 6, but tall for her era, possibly 5ft 8in, on account of the length of the girdle. Women of today might ask "What on earth does a tall size 6 need with a girdle?" Remember when she was born. Being a teenager in the 1920's and probably child-bearing in the 1930's, corsets and girdle would have been a six decade old habit. Such a woman literally could not live without a firm foundation.

 

The Girdles' Story #3

 

Estate sales, thrift and charity shops do occasionally turn up interesting, sometimes even poignant, reminders of at itemís previous owner. Regard the two girdles that came from the back of the same drawer. The open-bottom girdle is immaculate, unused and still with tags attached, the panty-girdle well cared for but used, particularly the suspenders that appear to be slightly stretched. These foundations of an older woman can probably be dated to the late 1960ís. The conventional girdle was in decline and the lady, a wearer for decades, never used the last one she purchased. The panty-girdle took its place, the suspenders necessary to maintain the tension on her support stockings. Wearing the panty-girdle, she could wear slacks and disguise her hated stockings (and probably legs). Latterly, she wore support tights and the powerful panty-girdle was no longer needed and consigned with its cousin to the back of the drawer.

 

The Girdles' Story #4

 

This recently acquired girdle is a rare panty-girdle from that mainstay of Australian corsetry, Jenyns. As one would expect, it is incredibly well constructed with the elastic doubled in most areas. The girdle is 21" long and was designed for a 26" waist.

 

The hip control bands suggest that this was worn by an older woman, perhaps even a Jenyns corset wearer who felt the need for a more modern garment whilst retaining a firm degree of control. Certainly this is a powerful girdle. I can imagine a slim elderly, perhaps slightly classy lady around size 12 (UK) and quite tall. The girdle has been well used and the frequent use of the zip has torn the satin pull and metal end away. This was not a girdle for the faint-hearted yet feminine touches abound:- the little rose on the top right, the satin rear panel and the lacy leg ends.

 

 

Long Corsets for a Long Lady

 

We came across yet another excellent example of corsetry from an estate sale. Two corsets of amazing length considering the scant waist and hip measurements. There was a Spirella 325 at 22" long in the back and 19" in the front, and a Camp of similar dimension but slightly shorter in the skirt. The waist measured 26" and the hips 34" on both corsets. Back support corsets are often cut short in the front, but these were designed to put a figure on a tall, thin, elderly woman even at the expense of flexibility. The skirt of the Spirella (the longer of the two) comes well down to the thighs, and only a generous gusset of elastic permits perambulation. Indeed, a terrific strain must have been placed on the gussets every time she sat down. There would be no soft sofas for this woman!

 

It seems that the lady, who must have been around 5 foot 10 inches tall and about size 10 (UK), had enjoyed a series of 325's but latterly, as with so many older women, the multiple lacings became a chore and she employed the simple fan-lacing of the Camp. Despite my love affair with Spirella, I have to admit that there's nothing like a Camp to flatten the abdomen with a couple of tugs on the straps. (Lady Mary adjusted the straps on her surgical corset with a vigour that reminded Sir Godber of a race meeting - Tom Sharpe's Porterhouse Blue). Matched with the Spirella 325 (that has both front- and back-lacing), is a brassiere with a laced back, another Spirella feature. Before she discovered Camp, the lady in question had to negotiate a whopping 50 inches of lacing. In practice, of course, the back lacing is rarely adjusted, nevertheless, I can imagine that the simplicity of the Camp was a boon to her old tired hands. Perhaps she had a maid when she wore the Spirella combination, and for one reason or another the maid left her employ and suddenly her mistress's basic foundations were almost impossible to don. The Camp's engineering to many women detracts from its appeal, but I think this lady, for whom a flat stomach was paramount, was quite prepared to suffer for her vanity. For years her very locomotion had been impeded by her underpinnings to the extent that it would seem natural. This was a lady who would never, and probably could never be seen without her corsets.

 

 

A Spirella Trove

 

Sometimes, estate clearances can produce the most interesting collections of garments. Regard the assortment of Spirella foundations on the right. They came from the estate of an elderly widow in the early 1990's and have only just come to light as 'something the estate clearer could not sell, but was reluctant to discard, uncertain of their historical significance or value'. Monetary value, close to nothing. These are well worn with the exception of a new girdle and have seen decades of use. Historical value, close to zero for a museum, but priceless to the collector of Spirella memorabilia. What does this motley assortment of somewhat dirty foundations tell us?

The woman was a Spirella wearer and had been for many years. Most of the foundations are tea rose in colour with a few white bras. It may be that the white lowers simply disintegrated and were thrown away. Tea rose disguises the mild soiling that looks awful on a white garment. There are three corsets, very well worn. One suspects that this was a well-to-do woman who took her figure and foundations equally seriously. In later life, she moved towards the girdle, the best preserved of which is hardly worn. Either she passed away before wearing it, or, and many Spirella devotees did this, she purchased a garment to 'see her out' as Spirella went out of business in 1988. The general unkempt appearance of the garments suggests a  common malaise of the elderly and that is a desire to look good, but a reluctance to wash and dry these heavy garments. She probably passed away at the end of the 1980's, the estate clearance being delayed as her financial affairs took several years to sort out, her husband having passed away some time before.

 

 

What am I bid for The Legacy of a Large Lady shouts the rude auctioneer!

 

 

Again, the unwanted remnants from an estate sale speak volumes about the rather large matron over whose estate the auctioneer presided. Surely the final indignity is to be remembered by one's rather soiled under-pinnings, but on the contrary, the history that these garment relate is worthy of attention. All these garments are large with a waist size around 42 - 44 inches. The length of the corselettes, at 19 inches, speaks of a woman of average height for the 1960's for this is the era of these garments. We can surmise that our 5 foot 5 inch, 44C - 42 - 48 matron weighed around 180 - 190 pounds, the ever present threat of breaking the 200 pound barrier being the bane of her life. She was not particularly well off since the garments show signs of long and heavy wear. They are rather soiled but this is from long storage rather than lack of personal attention. She would have normally worn her corselettes, the one on the left with a full under-belt, resorting to the corset possibly on Sundays and for 'occasions'. This stout woman's legs were in fair condition for her age and weight since the suspenders (garters) fail to show the excessive stretching that surgical stockings exact. In later years, she lost some weight as the elderly do and the corselettes have been adjusted to her smaller frame either by herself or by a seamstress. The corset remained unaltered. The forces exerted by such a garment are far too much for common thread to withstand. The spoon busk indicates that the corset is rather older than the corselettes and it is a couple of inches larger in the waist. This pre-dated her change to the comfort of the all-in-one garments. Were these garments finally abandoned some decades ago as the lady took to the more modern panty-girdle, or did the old lady pass away, the remnants of her life surfacing only recently? I suspect the later.

 

 

An Old Lady's Corset

 

One might say these days, that of course this is an old lady's corset. Who else would wear such a thing? But such a sweeping statement blinds one to the myriad clues and details about the previous owner.

The corset is long, at 19 inches with a waist measurement of 34 inches and hips of 38 inches. It is very heavily boned in the back with eight steels (and these are not the spiral variety). It is a classic Spirella 305 and the writing on the corset is barely faded. The suspenders are rather long and the suspender knobs have the little metal button. The corset is made from a pink brocade fabric.

From this evidence we can deduce that the owner of this lovely garment was a tall lady who, like many of her tall sisters, suffered from a bad back. The corset has hardly been worn as the clear M305 and lack of wear on the elastic demonstrate. The corset was probably purchased in the 1960's since such suspenders were not made after that, and certainly, the short stockings, as evidenced by the long suspenders, were barely available after that decade. The lady would not have been poor since there were far cheaper corsets available, but sadly, she appears to have passed away shortly after receiving the garment. She would have been quite elderly judging by the very scant hip-spring.

 

 

I can almost see her now, tall, elegant, but with the narrow hipped stiffness of the elderly lady. Her skirt would have been unfashionably long since her choice of style would have remained rooted in the past, after all, she was probably born in the 19th century. That this corset could be worn today and would last for many years is a tribute to the quality of the garment.

 

The Tight Lacer

 

Just take a look at this corset!

 

 

They don't make them like that anymore! This is a beautifully made corset that only a few talented corsetiŤres could have produced. Laced tight, it would produce a waist of barely 20 inches. The materials are sumptuous and expensive. The corset abounds with those touches that only the experienced corset wearer would demand from the corsetiŤre; the plush lining of the busk, the heavy fabric flap under the lacing, the reinforced eyelets, eight suspenders, heavy-duty laces and tape binding at the waist. The wear and tear on the exterior surface and the concave set of the busk speak of very, very tight-lacing. Such a corset brings to mind Ethel Granger and Cathie Jung, but this would be far too big on either, nevertheless, this gives a clue as to the provenance of the device for it comes from non other than Madame Diana Medeq of Duke Street London.

 

Another Old Lady's Corsets

 

Regard the following collection of corsets, all taken from the estate of an elderly lady.

 

 

The two photos on the left are the front and back views of a very well worn corset, in fact a back-lacing Spirella 315. (The dark patch on the front view is a home-sewn pocket). These corsets were never very popular unless you had a maid to adjust the back lacing. The third photo is of the back of a Spirella 325, the front and back-lacer. This was designed for daily tightening using the front lacers and for periodic figure review using the back lacing. It is obviously newer than the first corset. On the right, and in a far plainer material is an unworn Spirella 325. The older corsets have a 27 inch waist and the new one a 28 inch waist.

 

I would suggest that these corsets belonged to middle-class lady who could afford to buy Spirella, but who could not afford regular replacements. The corsets would be worn until they disintegrated. Perhaps she lived in a city, hence the concealed pocket. I doubt that she was a jewel smugger or the like. The style of the corsets and the short suspenders shout 1950's to early 60's. Without replacing her corsets regularly, they would get grubby, but this was not uncommon in older women. Tired of the back-lacing, she invested for the last time in a front and back-lacer. There she could accommodate her spreading waistline by adjusting the back-lacing. It would appear that either she purchased a new slightly larger corset, or more likely, some caring family members helped her to buy a new clean set. Incorrectly, these helpful people would get her a larger size feeling that 27 inches was too tight. They would fail to understand why the old lady wore corsets in the first place. The plain material is 1970's at a time when Spirella started to drop its quality materials. That the corset is unworn means that the poor lady probably passed away just as the corset was delivered. Sadly, this was not uncommon.

 

 

A Well Dressed Thrifty Lady with Tired Legs

 

There is so much to see in these pictures!

 

The articles depicted below came from the estate of an elderly lady who recently passed away. The corsets are standard Spirella 305's and the original suspenders and fabric indicate that the latest corset (right) was probably made in the 1980's. The corset on the left is a decade older at least. What is very obvious is that the lady has added four extra suspenders to each corset. On the older left hand corset, the suspenders do not match and come from what appears to be a suspender belt. On the right, the later corset has very old suspenders judging from the centre-button style. I imagine that the lady had a number of corsets but purchased these relatively expensive items quite infrequently and used them until they wore out. The spare parts were then cannibalised to provide the extra (rather ill-matching) suspenders that she needed.

 

It is a fact, that before the removal of varicose veins (tired legs was the euphemism of the 50's and 60's) became commonplace, they were a bane to many elderly women. Fashionable women detested the very obvious, shiny and heavy-duty surgical stockings of the day and attempted to conceal them by wearing a more fashionable pair over the top. This exercise require at least eight suspenders for any sort of reasonable security of hose. In the 1980's, stockings had followed the diminishing trend of the mini-skirt and had become too long for the suspenders of the thrifty elderly whose corsets were a decade old. This explains the shorter original suspenders on the corsets since they were made in the late 70's / 1980's and the longer suspenders that would accommodate the far shorter older surgical stockings that she hated but cherished (they were no longer available to purchase).

 

The modified 305's - and if you don't believe that women wore two sets of stockings, the evidence is above, and I have seen a lady wearing two pairs since the underneath pair had got wrinkled and the effect was quite obvious.

 

 

The suspenders from the 1980's living side-by-side with those from the 1960's or even 50's.  Sensible shoes complement the very sensible leg wear that this well-dressed, but thrifty women would have worn. The corset has a 30 inch waist and the shoes are size 6. This would have been a shapely, 1960's lady about 5 foot 5 inches in height. A classically proportioned woman who could well have graced the wedding group in the picture below.

 

 

Multiple Corsets:

 

Here we have an auction lot. Five Spirella 305 corsets; two unused and three used. Four spinal steels come with the set. They are quite modern corsets, probably dating from the late 1980's before Spirella in Britain sold out to their rivals Spencer. They are made from the striped shiny cotton that was one of the few materials that Spirella offered in their latter days.

Spirella always put great store in owning three corsets:- one on the body, one in the drawer and one in the wash. This was designed to preserve the life of the corsets and, of course, to boost the corsetiere's commission! I know several ladies who, on discovering that Spirella was going out of business, and with no intention of abandoning a lifetime of corset wearing, bought enough corsets to 'see them out'! I suspect this was the case here, particularly since two are unused. Oddly enough, the suspender tags are missing on some of the corsets. Perhaps these were the older ones; they did tend to break with prolonged use and heavy duty surgical stockings. I suspect this lady had 'tired legs' (that 1960's euphemism for varicose veins) and in the late 1980's decided to furnished her wardrobe with a lifetime's supply of corsets. The steels were quite expensive and simply could be removed from their pockets for ease of laundering. There was no need to have them for each corset.

The fact that two of the corsets are unused tends to suggest that the lady passed away some time ago and her treasure trove of corsets has only recently been unearthed from an attic. The lady would not have been poor, in today's money, those corsets represent an investment of just under £1,000 ($1,600). She was probably in her 70's when she purchased them so she must have had a good pension but a poorly back and legs.

Oddly enough, the corsets appeared at a German auction. Was the lady German? Was she married to a German or are these corsets simply some German's collection that is being sold on. Who knows?!