Ivy Leaf's Diary

2008

 

 

January 2008:

 

Living in a new area, my husband and I decided to spend New Year's Eve at a hotel and enjoy ready-made bonhomie rather than invent our own. We've been exhausted recently with the move of house and simply wanted to relax whilst somebody else provided the fun. I must say, at the dinner dance, the guests were well-dressed, but sadly in that 'expensive clothes but no clue about foundations' mode. One robust lady, wearing a tight chiffon blouse and long satin skirt was the worst example. Her panty-line was alarmingly visible as was the roly-poly spare tyre. Her thin brassiere cut into her back, was mis-hooked and worn far too high thereby squeezing more rolls of flesh above and below the offending garment. To cap it all were pads that perched uncomfortably (and unevenly) just off the ends of her shoulders. Didn't her husband mention anything? Didn't she look in the mirror? I'm probably as robustly built as that women, but at least my flesh is controlled properly. If it wasn't, I would expect my husband to mention it. I might not be pleased, but his comments would show that he cared. Perhaps that's the answer, they just don't care.

 

Being on a table for two allowed us ample opportunity for people watching. Across the room, there appeared a sad sight. A husband and wife who appeared to have nothing to say to each other and certainly did not seem to be enjoying the party. The woman looked very 'po-faced' (if you know that expression) and stared disapprovingly at the younger elements in the room whilst the husband simply looked bored. After several hours of inactivity, a bit after eleven, the lady suddenly became animated and dragged her husband towards the dance floor. Without cracking her expression, she jerked around to the famous 'chicken song'. The spectacle was so hilariously incongruous with this disapproving and prim lady strutting around the dance floor, that she received a round of applause at the end! On returning to her seat, not a hair on her coiffured head had moved and I noticed that nary a bulge spoiled the line of her old-fashioned evening dress.

My husband was moved to comment "You know, she must have been quite a stunner in her youth!" I agreed, the lady was indeed very elegant, well-dressed and obviously appreciated the benefit of a firm foundation, but what experience had caused her to adopt such an expression? My husband produced a picture that we came across in Holland recently that seemed to beg for a suitable caption. Suggestions like "Ooh, that's rather tight, have you a smaller size?" spring to mind, however, this is so like the lady of last night that we felt that we should include it here.

 

 

Invisible Lacing:

 

I will not even attempt a short history of social attitudes towards corsetry, save to say that wearing corsets used to be the norm and the garments were discussed frequently. As the corset declined, so wearing became rarer and even clandestine, as some matrons, well aware that their peers had moved onto the girdle, still required the support of a laced foundation to maintain their figures. To cater for these discreet wearers, or perhaps for the women who required a 'waist' for the evening came 'invisible lacing'. I had only ever seen this before in the catalogues of Ambrose Wilson, however, last year I purchased a gorgeous Rigby & Peller girdle from the 1970's that had discreet back-lacing. Recently, I found an example from Warners, so perhaps these devices for the vain were more common that I had believed!

Note how the box refers to a 'Tie-up top'. No mention of laces here!

 

The Mystery Girdle

 

Last year we dwelt at some length upon a Spirella girdle that I could not identify. We have several in our collection and a reader had raised a query at the same time. At last, and purely by chance, I saw for sale an American Spirella brochure from the 1960's, and there was something close to the mystery girdle. Amazingly, it is advertised as a 205, but the cut is quite different from the British version. Our corsetiere friends explained that the British and American styles began to diverge with the advent of the girdle. Differences in fabrics and cut evolve on the two sides of the Atlantic but it seems that the nomenclature stayed the same. So is the problem solved that these are American Spirellas?  Not quite since the girdles we possess were made in Britain (the Spirella label is quite distinct). It may be that this was an older British 205 style that Spirella copied for clients who preferred not to change. Spirella were very obliging in this way and as more than one corsetiere remarked with feeling, "Never under-estimate the elderlys' reluctance to change!" I must add of course, that this reluctance to embrace change made a lot of commission for the fitters who kept their clients in corsets and girdles well after such a fashion had ceased to be popular. On the other hand, if you've worn a corset for decades, you cannot suddenly do without it overnight, and in some cases perhaps never. Some women were in tears when Spirella sold out to Spencer, even though Spencer made (and still makes) an excellent front-laced corset. Sadly, it is the price of these corsets today that reduces one to tears. I know of several ladies who cannibalise their old corsets just to keep one pair in service.

 

 

 

February 2008:

It never fails to amaze me that correspondence can dry up for weeks and then suddenly a flurry of letters and emails will arrive. It is rather like hunting for collectables on Ebay (or waiting for a bus adds my husband). Roger K provided some humorous anecdotes gleaned from his encyclopaedic collection of articles, a Finnish lady told us of her web-site and provided some amazing examples of Finnish corsetry, and an American Gentleman recounted his experiences of what women wore in the 1960's to 1980's. The latter has been published as correspondence between the gentleman and myself simply to illustrate how an adolescent curiosity with female underwear can be turned into valuable historical data. I always stress to my gentleman correspondents that without their recollections, the history of corsetry would be less well understood. Remember that classic description from Ian McRoberts where he describes his elderly wife "Strapping and lacing herself into the satin tube that was her underwear!" How eloquent; one can almost see the garment, however, no woman would have written that phrase. After all, to most women, our underwear is an everyday fact and neither worth remembering nor recounting; it takes man to do that!

 

Three erudite articles passed our way recently. Firstly, our regular correspondent, Roger K, provided us with an update on girdle sales statistics, followed closely by a similar article on bra sales, and a few days later, I found a paper on brassiere size calculations (pdf format). Brassieres are notoriously difficult to size, and Spirella corsetieres had the most trouble with these garments. The female torso is very three-dimensional (my husband's words; I would have said voluptuous) and rarely symmetrical. Some of our fitters refused to fit upper garments since latterly the quality was not up to previous standards and complaints became the norm. I know of one woman who refused to wear anything other than Spirella but was disappointed with the fit of her brassieres. Eventually, the corsetiere ordered her brassieres with 'soft' side-lacers; rather a poor compromise to adjust the fit. Nevertheless, the old lady continued with these brassieres until Spirella sold out to Spencer. The Spencer brassieres were no better and amazingly, in the 1990's, Spencer lost the templates for its best selling brand, the 190. Spencer has sold hardly any brassieres since.

 

 

March 2008: 

The web site has a repository for humorous anecdotes and stories that we glean from our readers and acquaintances. These are normally put into Corsetiere's Stories, however, I must relate this conversation I had with friends who were visiting us in our new location. Incidentally, I hate moving and am thankful that we have fairly well settled down at last.

 

We were having lunch in our 'local' pub. My husband was chatting with my friend's husband about the merit of the local beer or cars or rugby or something when their prattle ceased and we followed their eyes towards a woman that was standing by the fire. She had taken off her cardigan and revealed unusually powerful arms. "Horse rider" said my husband "Look at those arms; you need power to control a horse!" We agreed. Living in the country we meet many of the 'horsey' set and I have to admit that I admire their confidence and deportment. This lead us onto a discussion of failing strength in the arms and nimbleness of the fingers in the elderly. "She'll be OK" volunteered my husband regarding the girl. Although age may have its disadvantages, it certainly increases the store of anecdotes lurking in one's mind and don't we just love to tell them! My friend was first:- "My granny had strong arms until the day she died. She worked on the land during the war, you know. She used to put on a heavy pair of corsets every morning, lace them really tight, and not take them off until retiring. During the day she'd fill the boiler with coal, work in the garden, and wring the washing out. They were tough then!" Whether her feats of endurance and strength were due to her corsets or the exercise involved in lacing them was unasked. Personally, I've known as many women who were dexterous with the myriads of hooks-and-eyes, laces, buckles and straps of their underwear, as were finally defeated by the daily chore of wearing such complicated garments. My friend's husband chipped in. "Auntie M. used to stay with us. When she went to her room each night I could hear this terrible ripping sound. My mother explained that it was the velcro on her corset!" Many older women tried velcro fastenings; it was marketed as easier for those with arthritic fingers, however, the sound effects put as many off! My husband had the final say, and recounted meeting a relatively petite woman who had extremely muscular arms. He enquired whether she was an equestrienne to which she retorted "No. I used to be a baggage handler at Kennedy International!"

 

 

Nancy Millar's Book:

 

 

Unmentionable History of the West

Nancy Millar

Letter to Ivy Leaf, 2006

Hi Ivy Leaf,                                                                              

 

It's a wonderful website. I am the author of the Unmentionable History of the West, a book that's to come out later this fall (2006) about underwear and how it affected the history of women in western Canada. ............. It's a serious book and takes underwear seriously. Incidentally, I have a story on Spirella since one of the women I interviewed in Red Deer, AB, was a Spirella agent before she went onto local politics and ended up with a major road named for her in that city. See where corsets can take you?

 

Thanks for your consideration,

Nancy Millar

 

P.S.  The book is to be published by Red Deer Press. I have written other books on history.

 

This is the sort of corset my mother wore in the 1930s and 40s ...

I tried to figure out how to lace this thing up!

 

 

Fashions and Disturbing Social Indicators:

 

My husband and I dislike flying intensely; in fact I nowadays avoid it, but my husband must follow the dictates of his job and, when absolutely necessary, resort to the air. He had to visit the Far East recently and, against his wishes to use Singapore Airlines, was given a seat on British Airways; business class thank Goodness, for the 13 long hours to Kuala Lumpur. He returned several days later in as remarkably agreeable mood as one can have at 5.30 in the morning. "Thoroughly impressed!" he replied to my questions about the trip. "I've not flown BA for years and they were (word deleted - Ivy) excellent!" "Fine wine, good films and a flat bed - a really flat bed. Horizontal in fact! I actually slept!" Later he praised the stewardesses for their charm and style, and expounded upon the elegant new tailored uniform that BA has had commissioned. Apparently the new tailored design has replaced, the silky, but rather informal previous efforts. Inevitably, we started to draw the parallels, of outer fashion, inner fashion and the times in which we live.

 

After the war, airline stewardesses wore derivatives of uniforms from the armed forces, often complete with shirt and tie. No designer's name was connected with these outfits. In the late 1960's, designers were commissioned, however, the styles were still very smart and tailored. Cavanagh, Evans and then Hardie Amies and Baccarat Wetherall dressed the flight attendants of the days in fitted suits and dresses. Only in summer plumage was a slight informality enjoyed. As the military uniform gave way to the tailored uniform, so did girdles and suspender belts get replaced by lighter garments, until the 1980's when the floppy silks of Klein and Costelloe reflected a society beginning to enjoy unparalleled wealth and freedom. If stewardesses wore any foundations at all during this period, it really would have been unnecessary in the flowing informal fabrics favoured by these designers. The newest, tailored look heralds a return to the days of Amies and Baccarat Wetherall. Foundations have gone the same way, and from the dearth of lower foundations available in the 1980's and 90's, the stores are now full of 'shapers', the new name for the panty-girdle. For historical observers, much as birds and animals go quiet well before an earthquake, so does fashion become more formal and structured before a crisis. Sadly, it seems that crisis is knocking at our doors.

 

Terminal Note:

As a footnote, I must add that the article above was written before the opening of Terminal 5 on the 27th March. Oh dear! I hope the 2012 Olympics (if we ever get that far) will be handled better. No doubt everybody tried their best, but it will hardly seduce me to leave terra firma.

 

 

April 2008:  White Brassieres

Whilst on the theme of air travel, I was delighted to receive an instruction manual for British Caledonian airways. I hoped to lay low the myth of rules mandating the wearing of girdles. Indeed, on the pages devoted to female cabin crew, it simply states "Only white underwear may be worn underneath the uniform blouse. A bra must always be worn --- Tights or stockings are to be seamless." So, bras were mandatory, so was colour (the regulation blouses were white). How you achieved elegance and deportment, however, was up to the individual who, like all women, would wear what their peers wore.

 

My husband recounts how during exams at Oxford University in the early 1970's, when women had to wear a white shirt or blouse, coloured bras were prohibited. It was feared that the male concentration might be diverted from Pliny or Aristotle at the sight of some ghastly Marks & Spencer hue looming provocatively through one's neighbour's blouse. Just as British Caledonian's uniform remained unchanging for two decades because it was just so smart and so correct, so did the hideous coloured foundations of the late 1970's die a quick and grateful death since they simply were not.

 

Apparently the American University featured in the charming Maidenform cartoon (right) had no such rules!

 

 

 

 

What you see - may not be what you get!

 

Whilst perusing the auction sites I came across a classic piece of advertising. All sellers and marketers know that a tall, slim garment looks far better than a short broad one. For this reason, models are chosen to be tall and thin, exactly the sort of women who wouldn't dream of wearing the garment in the first place; well, after the 1960's that is! Regard the image on the packet, and the reality of the girdle that is far broader than it is long.

 

Fortunately, our gorgeous new Spirella is just appealing in reality as the advertising suggests! My only regret is that it is simply too small for me!

The advertisement on the left, and the doctored photograph of the girdle on the right (a frequent auction house ploy) are mocked by the reality in the centre (below).

 

 

Whatever happened to Strodex?

One of the problems associated with constructing a web-site, is that searches for new information keep on turning up one's own work, either directly or indirectly. I recently came across an alarming Strodex surgical corset that we acquired in 1975 with a shaped abdominal panel in tea-rose brocade to contain a pendulous abdomen. On searching for Strodex on the internet, my husband found the title of this piece from Ivy :Leaf's Diary of 2003. It was penned after buying a rather pretty Strodex corselette, the antithesis of the formidable abdominal support. None of our acquaintances nor their mothers or grannies wore Strodex. If they had made-to-measure it was Spirella or Spencer. The only additions to our knowledge are as diverse as the two examples we already possess; a very attractive long brassiere (sometimes called a 'combinaire') and a fearsome back support. Its seems that Strodex, based in Leicestershire where the cotton mills were, produced as diverse a range as the more widely-purchased competition.

 

 

May 2008: Time Warps and the Hippo

Our new location in rural England has transported us back in time half a decade. One leaves the car park that is laughingly called a motorway, and as the A-roads become B-roads, so a magical transformation occurs and one discovers that the picture postcard village still exists. Sadly, prices seem to be immune from this time warp. Fashions similarly have moved on and, although the elderly denizens of such villages are well past retirement age, jeans seem to be standard dress, even for Lady S., who owns the home farm. A farm labourer's cottage, that a hundred years ago was basically fit for demolition, now costs the best part of a million pounds so popular is the time warp. Nevertheless, the village in which we live boasts an excellent inn that serves my husband's favourite choice of beers and a fierce local cider that has become my standard tipple. In winter, the locals own the public bar, but as summer approaches, so the tourists appear and excellent opportunities for people watching abound. The other week, during Sunday roast lunch (at which the inn excels), a singular couple appeared. The man was a huge, shambling creature with a girth of door challenging dimensions, but his wife was a small, dainty woman who at some point had decided that she should remain frozen in time somewhere in the 1950's. Twin-set and pearls, enamelled face, lacquered, tightly-permed hair (or was it a wig?) and lipstick that bore only a passing acknowledgement of the actual extent of her lips. She looked like a china model of a 1950's Englishwoman so limited were her facial movements. She fussed and fretted at her enormous spouse who seemed only vaguely aware of her presence. I suspected that the woman had purchased her final wardrobe (and underpinnings) decades earlier for no woman has a tummy that flat without the serious corsetry of yesterday. We had seen a similar couples years before and I wondered if it was a reaction to her husband's 'going to seed' that had determined the wife to retain herself like some unchanging museum piece? The contrast between the prim and fussy woman and her gross spouse led my husband to compare the man to a hippopotamus, with his wife as the tiny white bird that fusses and pecks at the monstrous river horse of Africa. I thought the analogy rather appropriate!

 

Recollections

Although we receive a wealth of stories and recollections from female acquaintances, it is men that often provide the humorous or detailed anecdotes. The correspondence or conversation usually proceeds along the lines of "Odd subject you fellows study!" or "Can't remember really - not interested in that sort of thing!" This is invariably followed by  a minutely detailed account of the gentleman's wife's underpinnings. Of course, in those days many men were quite unaware of their wife's foundations other than through the bills. In the morning, the wife would arise and vacate the bedroom surrounded by a protective barrier of wincyette or nylon, and not reappear until all bits and pieces were in their proper place, and decently covered too! Perhaps it's my Dutch upbringing, and not until recently having the benefit of a dressing room, but my husband knows exactly how I look 'before' and 'after'. Sadly, there's rather more of a difference than there used to be, not least the rise and fall of my ample bosom. Why is it that men find breasts attractive? They are heavy, sweaty and expensive to support (breasts I mean, not men). But back to some recollections. One gentleman recounted how angry his wife would get when hooking up her corselette. She would finish the process only to find that somewhere in the middle, one hook and eye had come apart. It's amazing how difficult it is to re-attach the little devil in the middle without starting again. The gentleman remembered that there were 18 hooks involved. I'm certain his wife never knew that! (I have to add, since I've done it frequently, that the most frustrating exercise is to finish the hooks-and-eyes, or buttons on a blouse, to discover one empty hook at the top and one empty eye at the bottom. Start again!! Another wife was driven to a frenzy, again by hooks-and-eyes, but this time on her corset. She was donning a Camp side-lacer and she simply could not get the edges to meet. "I can't have put on that much weight" she wailed as she struggled to force the contraption closed. Amazingly, she did get it half on before her husband quietly pointed out that the middle buckle on the left side had not been released! The extra two inches returned the corset to its normal size. "You might have told me!" was all the thanks he got.

 

 

June 2008:  Corsets and the Moral High Ground

We have written at length about the 'feel' of corsets, implying the physical sensation, however, there is a mental counterpart equally important. Our corsetiere friend from the south coast still has a client who claims that wearing corsets makes her feel good. This is nothing to do with the physical support, but more the feeling of being properly attired. She claims to 'feel like a real women', and this is by no means one of our friend's elderly clients. A new acquaintance from our village told me of her aunt who belonged to the Salvation Army. Normally she wore a girdle, but when she wore her uniform, she wore a corset. She candidly explained this to my friend during one of her holiday visits. The uniform would have fitted perfectly well without the corset, but, so the aunt maintained, it made her feel 'better', more morally upstanding (probably quite literally!) How curious is the human ego and the perception of the moral high-ground. Give two identical people airline tickets; one economy and one business class. The traveller in business class is not just far better cosseted, but actually feels superior to his or her identical peer in economy. The same phenomenon is apparent in large four-wheel-drive vehicles. The person with the higher eye-level feels superior to anybody at a lower level. Car companies make fortunes selling these behemoths on the basis of this perceived status. I think that a member of the Salvation Army would be horrified to be accused of pride, but without a doubt, the lady in question felt that her corsets in some way elevated her above her peers.

 

Noisy Tennis

I have a passion for watching tennis that is completely out of proportion to my limited abilities to play the sport (and that was three decades ago)! I watched an incredibly vocal Russian lady play another Russian at the beginning of the French Open. What a racket (and I mean the noise not the tennis). The appalling grunting that the lady produced was off-putting to myself, let alone the poor opponent. A hundred years ago when women played tennis, they wore long skirts and bustles. The only sound heard was the pat-pat of the ball and the creaking of the players’ stays, the poor garments being quite unused to the heat and activity of such an un-ladylike event!

 

Some weeks later

Good gracious; she's at it again in Wimbledon but seems to have been knocked out of the tournament. My husband was busy in the study editing some new text that we have recently received and came through to ask what the noise was! That reminds me, that in our attempt to glean knowledge of world-wide corsetry, we have never come across any Russian products. Perhaps they were not allowed after the era of the Tsars.

 

 

The Russians appreciated corsetry and silence before the revolution (Princess Ella)

 

 

 

July 2008:  Spencer and Bulges

We were lucky enough to acquire  Spencer Catalogue from 1934. This images are stunning and of a quality that reminds us of Barcley, the up-market, break-away renegade from Spencer. The catalogue contains many advertisements and 'banishing the bulge' was the clarion call to all women. Of course, I am not so naive as to believe that all women were elegant in 1934, however, regard three images from 1934, 1971 (right) and 2008 (below).

 

The gross abdomen of 2008 may not be a  recent phenomenon, but, as I have mentioned ad nauseam, the blatant display is. As my husband once suggested "An instant cure for voyeurism!" Certainly there are advertisements today that show shapely women, but often the feeble spandex  fails to conceal the bulges. This is obviously not the case with the ladies on the right.

 

It was whilst watching tennis at Wimbledon recently that our attention was drawn to the number of superbly fit female players sporting a distinct 'spare tyre'. I'm not advocating that these modern Amazons resort to playing in their 'stays', but I simply want to know why the bulges have returned?

  

 

 

Demise of the Corsetieres

There are precious few of these dedicated ladies left. Many who entered the trade after the war to supplement their husbands' poor wages, began to leave in the 1970's as proper lower foundations (corsets and girdles) gave way to the panty-girdle that, frankly, does not require too much training to fit.  A few soldiered on and it has been our privilege to meet some of them, however, even the remaining stalwarts are quitting the business. Their clientele is dying and the cost of these made-to-measure garments exorbitant. Our friend from Exeter has just retired after five decades of service. Simply put, a corset, even a standard 305 (sorry; the Spencer equivalent), costs well over £100. The state pension is about £100 per week which is a third of what the government calls the poverty level. If our friend went to see a client or vice versa, the petrol costs at an astonishing £6 per UK gallon (that is over $10 per US gallon according to my husband), are simply prohibitive. Sadly, many of the humorous cartoons of the sea-side genre, depicting stout women struggling to get into their stays with some caption like "I can't make ends meet!" has now come to pass.

 

 

Humour

One of the reasons that my husband and I have been together for over 30 years without ever arguing, is an ability to laugh at ourselves, life in general and to find humour in innocent situations. We have chuckled in the past at the very descriptive term "noisy nylon" used to describe the material beloved by Spirella wearers in the 1970's. It was, indeed, noisy but so easy to wash and dry that it became extremely popular. Many an itinerant corsetiere heard the susurration of noisy nylon drying on the washing lines in the wind, rather than the wind itself. A Spirella brassiere was recently advertised at auction as "Russelly nylon". Oh dear, I suspect they meant the word to spell rustley, but perhaps the seller was overcome with the image of Jane Russell, the quintessential brassiere model.

 

 

August 2008:  Thanks to all our Readers

 

Ivy Leaf and her long-suffering husband wish to thank everybody who has visited the web-site, and especially those who have contributed recollections, articles and have made contact with us. It is so gratifying that the labour of love that we started in 2002 has been visited over one million times. In itself, that is praise indeed! If you have anything to contribute, particularly along the lines of 'who wore what, when', please don't hesitate to contact us.

 

ivyleaf@corsetiere.net

 

A Trip to Holland and a Wedding

 

If nothing else reveals the age of myself and my husband, it must be the prodigious number of great-nieces and great-nephews that our families have produced. Fortunately they are all well-brought up and call me Auntie, rather than 'The Great Aunt', that corseted virago described so well in Arthur Ransome's childrens' stories. I might wear corsets but I am NOT a virago (I hope). To some close members of the family I am known as the 'corset auntie', partly because of my old-fashioned underwear and partly because they know of my general interest in corsetry. It was at a wedding in Utrecht recently that my sister-in-law introduced me to a rather smart, elderly lady with the enigmatic words that we had much in common. It was the lady that broke the ice with "I understand you still wear corsets; so do I!" Trust the Dutch to speak their minds. Two English ladies could, and probably would, talk around the matter for hours, days even and then never quite get to the point. It transpired that the lady had worn a Camp corset for years, just as her mother had done. Her problem was, as it is for all corset-wearers, diminishing supply. She had purchased corsets from Coja for years, but the Basko Camps corsets latterly were sturdy, but hardly feminine. She candidly agreed that she was vain (what lady is not), and nothing held her stomach in check like a Camp, but she lamented the passing of the glorious materials once available. We talked on this theme for a while, at least two glasses of red wine's worth, until my husband appeared and dragged the conversation back into English. "Look at the bridesmaids" he exclaimed. "Surely they could have made their dresses fit?" The lady and I regarded the frumpish, overweight bridesmaids bulging through the shiny material of their poorly cut dresses, every line of their insubstantial underwear embossed for all to see. As if on a signal, the lady and I smoothed our skirts over our hips in an automatic reaction. We nearly collapsed with laughter and left my poor husband muttering "Women!"

A Charis corsetiere from 1936 performs this quintessentially female gesture.

 

 

We purchased recently a copy of the trade journal 'Corsets and Brassieres'. What a delightful throw-back to a vanished era, or is it? Reading the journal and seeing past the many advertisements (something my husband found quite difficult I might add), it is simply a trade journal where products are displayed and advice is proffered on how to turn those products into profit. Wasn't it ever thus? We recently met a young saleswoman in a car showroom who indiscreetly proclaimed that she could sell cars or corsets with equal facility! Since she drove a rather nice car but was badly, and blatantly in need of proper foundations, I suspect that an appreciation of your product gives even the best saleswoman the edge.

The Corsets and Brassiere trade journal of June 1952

 

 

September 2008: Sport and Support

 

We touched on the matter of noisy female tennis players some months back and how some of the top players might actually benefit from a bit of 'shaping'. The recent Olympics (and didn't Holland do well for a small country) revealed that if you wear a skin-tight swimming suit you can go faster than your opponents and look pretty lithe into the bargain. It reminded me of an advertisement by Playtex in 1960's where a swimming champion endorsed the brand not least because you could wear the girdle whilst swimming! In fact, if you consider some swimsuits of the 1960's, especially those made by Spirella, the structure is basically a coloured corselette complete with bones and a back zip! As for cycling shorts, just don't get my husband started on that one! "Good Heavens! My mother used to wear things like that. At least she had the decency to keep them under her clothes!"

The interior bra structure of a Spirella swimming costume from the 1960's

 

 

 

The Mystery Girdle

 

At last, at last! After a year, and encouraged by more than one reader, we have found the number of the Spirella girdle that we could not identify. We wrote about these girdles in Ivy's Diary of April and June 2007, and January this year. It was the purchase of a 1938/9 copy of the American Spirella fitters' manual that identified it as a 212/222* girdle. This designation did not appear in 1935 when the girdle was called generically 210/220 and was differently styled. That these girdles regularly appear at auction and were being made well into the 1970's, shows that the 212/222 was a successful design! This discovery prompted my husband to complete a list of Spirella numbers, a task that he has been putting off for a long time now.  *The 212 was for medium (28" - 34") and the 222 for stout figures (32" - 44+"). The girdle on the right is therefore a 212. Although the measurements of the 212 and 222 overlap, the 212 was available higher above the waist.

We have made many updates this month, largely based on the details gleaned from the Spirella manual and a recent trip to Yorkshire. We hope you enjoy them.

 

Autumn

 

The autumnal equinox is but a day away and don't we know it! There's a coldness in the air that hints at the change of season. The leaves are beginning to turn and the fireplace in the local pub is clean and ready accept another seven months of constant use. In many households, the summer clothes will be washed, dried and stored until next May, and the winter woolies (free from moths one hopes) will once again fill our drawers. As a friend of my mother, who emigrated to New Hampshire, used to remark, "It's time to get out the winter weight corsets." Indeed, all the bespoke corset houses in America offered lightweight corsets for the summer heat, foundations virtually unknown on this side of the Atlantic. Even now it seems incongruous to me that a device of laces, buckles and bones should be made from some gossamer thin (albeit strong) material. In the west country of England, my white orchid (material) corsets are comfortable the whole year around.

 

'Comfort in corsets?' asks a generation completely unused to such devices. I came across some comments in recent auctions; "Can’t believe my 87 year-old mother could have even thought of wearing this torture garment." The garment was a maternity corset. "How could a woman wear such a thing?" She didn't! The caption was directed at a male CAMP support! It reminds me of the teenage girl who refused to wear a girdle that she described as "A chastity belt designed for the subjugation of the female." To demonstrate her independence, she spent hours in a bath shrinking her jeans onto her body. After this ludicrous exercise, she was so restricted that her mother had to help her descend the stairs. It is normally grannies and aged aunties that used to require such help. "When gran visited I often helped her on the stairs. Beneath the old lady sensible clothes I could feel the bones of the steel and rubber straight-jacket that she wore every day! No wonder she had trouble on the stairs ." A classic reversal of cause and effect here!

 

 

 

Camp Corsets and How to Lace Them

 

A corsetiere acquaintance of mine once remarked "Never unlace a Camp. You will never, ever put it back together again!" Exaggeration? I think not judging by the accounts of tears and frustration that the remarkable, but fiendishly complex lacing of the Camp requires. Obviously, Camp's trained lacers and fitters could master the task, but it took my husband over an hour with one of my old Camp corsets (that I rarely wore) to attempt to master the lacing pattern. For a start, two laces are involved and a powerful mechanical advantage - pulley system to us non-engineers! My husband produced a diagram that may be expanded by clicking on the picture. It is a brave effort, but I fear tears of frustration will be shed attempting to understand it!

Camp did produce some non-fan-lacing corsets, however, some Camps that appear at auction were originally fan-lacers with the straps removed and re-laced as conventional corsets. One can only surmise that some infuriated matron lost patience with the yards of lacing. The only way to re-lace a Camp, is to copy an existing one!

 

Having extolled the virtues of the Camp corset on many occasions (it's by far the easiest corset to adjust) I was asked why I rarely wore one. The simple answer, and this is echoed by several  acquaintances, is that they were too short. I bought the longest available at the time but I am rather long in the back and it simply didn't fit well. We even tried to turn an old Spirella 315 (the back-lacer) into a fan-laced corset, but a combination of my husband's lacing technique and my own indifferent sewing was a disaster!

 

October 2008: Ramblings

 

It has been another poor summer in Britain. May and June were brilliant, but that seems like an awfully long time ago. The evenings have more than the chill of winter about them and the first frost has heralded the return of the Brussels Sprout and the looming threat of Christmas parties. The clocks change next weekend and evening walks will become a memory until next April. It was on one of these walks recently that we encountered a not uncommon spectacle, a stout, elderly walker standing on one leg supported by her companion while her other leg waved in the air above her boot that was stuck fast in a muddy bog. My husband gallantly (and not without some effort) retrieved the boot and restored the matron to her usual bipedal state. We all walked on together to our usual hostelry for some liquid refreshment. Even in October, a blazing fire roared in the grate and the matron removed the muddy boot and offered her damp stocking clad foot for drying. We regarded the couple. The younger companion was dressed in the 'trainers-synthetics-kagool' genre whilst the elder lady (her aunt as it transpired) later commented that modern rambling clothes were simply "not her style". She was more conservatively attired in tweeds, sweater, head scarf and body warmer, all in 'country' shades and my husband ventured to remark that Mount Everest was nearly climbed in little more in the late 1930's! We lunched with the women and began to admire the 'no-nonsense' spirit of the older woman. Political correctness was an expression alien to her and we realised that we had encountered one of those rural throw-backs to a bygone era. She asked if we were local and whether we would like to join the rambling club. I declined. I like walking, but in the muddy conditions of winter, a slight slip could really put out my back. She commiserated with me and used an expression that I had heard a few years previously, "I know how you feel. You've got to wear your armour!" She thumped her torso with vigour. Her booming voice was audible across the pub and her niece discreetly pantomimed a volume control being turned down. Her aunt's voice dropped several decibels to a stage whisper. Unlike the frank Dutch, English women are unlikely to discuss their underpinnings in public but I ventured that finding the appropriate - er - armour was proving difficult in our new West Country location. Again she commiserated and described how she had purchased her last corsets several years ago in the hope that care and attention could make them last out her own life. We all made flattering noises vaguely suggesting how long that might well be! We exchanged phone numbers and I promised to give her the address of my own corsetiere in return for which we look to have made a life-long friend! She even paid for our lunch!

 

 

Barcley

 

We managed to acquire a rather charming Barcley catalogue from America of 1957. This will be featured soon on the appropriate pages, however, there are a few interesting features. Firstly, many of the garments are identical to those made by Smart-Form that even advertises the same factory. One presumes that Barcley had acquired Smart-Form. An interesting corselette is called the DW5C by Smart-Form and the Barcolette by Barcley. Definitely a case of different target audiences!

The catalogue contains a garment called a 'sports belt'. Perhaps this is what those noisy tennis players I talked about in June really need! It's quite amazing to those bought up after the 1960's that women used to wear panty-girdles, girdles and even specially designed corsets for sport. The Spencer advertisement from the late 1950's (American of course; the British were a decade later in discarding their girdles) shows a young lady ready for anything that life might throw at her - including a vigorous game of tennis.

 

 

November 2008:

 

My husband and I have been together now for over 30 years and I know and accept his foibles and his occasional rants. This paragraph is taken from my diary of February 2007:-

 

We listened in amazement as this quite unexceptional (and young) couple talked proudly of their first home, nothing special in the southern suburbs, that they had casually bought for half a million pounds (one million $US). This seemed to be quite normal. "The world's gone mad" fulminated my thrifty husband. "Yes Dear." "D'ye realise that England's afloat on a binge-spending, binge-drinking loan?" "Yes Dear." "They're printing money,.... Mark you, we'll see double-digit inflation in England before the decade's out; mark my words."

 

I'm just waiting for him to say "I told you so!" in that irritatingly smug way that he has. At least his prediction of exchange rates was wrong!

 

We recently acquired a bra and corset set from a lady who was clearing the effects of her recently deceased mother. Her mother had reached the fine old age of 101 and, according to her daughter, bought the set from Spirella in the early 1980's as a 75th birthday present for herself. I assumed that we would be acquiring the standard tea-rose brocade beloved of the elderly, but not a bit of it! Black orchid and lace, and in excellent condition was the choice of this elderly woman. "Good for you" I thought! It's always appealing to realise that in most elderly folk, there's still a youngster trying to get out.

 

For those of you that have visited the French pages on our web-site, you will know that the colour blue features in their corsetry unlike most other countries. Isn't that so French!? A lovely example of one of these corsets came to auction recently with the caption "..with many whales inside!" I do suspect that they meant whale-bones, however, having seen some of the gallic matrons that used to patronise  Henrietta's corset emporium in Calais, perhaps 'whales' is not so far from the truth after all!

Some time ago, a correspondent sent me this note that appears under 'Corsetieres' Anecdotes':- At a diplomatic party in Argentina, a British diplomat was heard to remark on the elegance of the women. His wife was less enthusiastic. "All the elastic in Buenos Aires is here in this room!" she replied caustically. A fan of our site wrote last week that she had visited friends in Buenos Aires recently and remarked that these days both elastic and silicon were mandatory for celebrity status. She added, however, that she had returned with a good supply of Argentinian 'elastic'. "They make good girdles" she noted frankly, then added somewhat cattily "They need to!"

 

 

December 2008:  Married to your Corsets

I wrote some time ago under our page on 'The Older Woman' how vanity could lead to dependence upon corsets. It is hard for the modern generation to understand that our grannies actually needed their corsets. This was not just some fashion, or fanciful whim.

When the baby boy, who would become Kapitan-Leutnant Walter Schwieger  (the U-boat ace that torpedoed the Lusitania), was born, his mother looked at the infant and famously said “How nice. Now take it away”. Within a day, her once-elegant figure was returned to its pre-pregnancy glory courtesy of the corsets she had worn half a year before. This feat would neither have been easy, nor comfortable, but with her attitude towards the birth and plenty of strong maids to dress her, it was quite achievable. This act would ensure that Frau Schwieger would never actually regain her true figure without aid. She, like all her peers, were as firmly married to their corsets as they were to their husbands. 

I thought that this act was a relic of the early 20th century, however, an advertisement from Spencer dated 1930 reveals that the practice was common, not just after, but before delivery. Good Gracious, what effects, both mental and physical did this have on the poor offspring? From Spencer's Maternity Corsets booklet dated 1930:-

 

 "My child was born two weeks ago, and so successfully did my belt keep the lines of my figure unimpaired even my closest friends did not know of the expected arrival."

 

A Spencer maternity corset from 1941. Some of these corsets did not have the benefit of elastic side lacers like the model shown. They had under-belts as well!   

 

Christmas Time 2008: 

Spencer's humorous approach to the festive season!

One of the joys of Christmas is getting in contact with old friends and acquaintances, and none more so than two of the last remaining Spencer corsetieres in Britain. Both have been fitting corsets regularly since the 1950's; one starting with Spirella and the other with Spencer. The Spirella lady, who originally was based in London's West End, once fitted the wives of the rich and famous. Actresses and politicians were to be counted on her client base of several hundred women. Both sent us newsy cards last week and in some ways, it is lovely to hear how these octogenarians are still fitting a few woman of similar age. Sadly, neither has been completely immune from the ailments that come with advancing years but their sheer spirit is quite undiminished. They really are an example to us all.

I must once again thank my long-suffering husband for compiling this site and turning our ideas into the reality of the internet. Honestly, sometimes I think that he could give Victor Meldrew lessons in grumpiness, but he means well. His dire predictions about the state of the economy have sadly come to pass and due to the greed of others, we may all have to suffer through the next half decade. I think a good dollop of Christmas spirit, both spiritual and literal may ease us painlessly into 2009, but it was tragic to see the empty shelves in the local Woolies, looking like something from the third world. Is that where we're heading? I hope not. We should take a lesson from our two corsetieres and carry on regardless.

But to end on a cheery note, our Yorkshire friend has been in constant contact throughout the year and sent us her interpretation of Christmas. She wore this outfit to a fancy dress ball and whether she represented Mrs. Klaus or the Christmas Tree Fairy, I'm not sure that even she knew, but certainly all those at the party didn't seem to care one way or the other. As always she looked magnificent!

Wishing you a Merry Christmas and as good a New Year as we can make it