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VI: CONSOLIDATION AND NEW CONTACTS
Those readers who have persevered in reading my scribbling must by now realise that I devoted half of Part 4 and all of Part 5 of my Odyssey to a single day of my life in December 1982. I hope they will forgive me for going into such detail and understand that the day will forever stand out as the most memorable day of my corseted life. For that was the day I truly fulfilled my desire to be accepted for what I was, a normal heterosexual man who happened to like to wear a tightly laced corset complete with taut suspenders holding up black seamed stockings under his male clothes, for both work and recreation. Indeed, the initial period after Mrs Norris started to take customers at her home was also the most memorable time of my chosen lifestyle. Hence my record of the years 1982-84 is long and I assure readers that will not be representative of how long the rest of the account of my Odyssey will be.
As ever, what I write is based part on letters I wrote, on my diary of the time and finally on memory jogged by my reviewing all the items in my files. For the most part I have tried to maintain a chronological record of how my experiences influenced my thoughts and needs but I trust readers understand that of necessity at times, my story has to look forward or backward to put matters into context.
For those who are starting to read my story with this part, I should explain that, on that memorable December day in 1982, the woman who had been my corsetiere since June 1977 had not only laced me into the new corset she had made me, she had, without being asked to do so, then actually assisted me with the suspendering of my stockings. In doing so, I felt she had accorded me the ultimate acceptance that a male customer could expect of his corsetiere. For me her actions meant even more to me because I knew that, when she was lacing and suspendering me that she herself was tightly-laced into her formidable corsets while the straight seams I could see on the stockings she was wearing at the time were visible testimony to her own preference for taut suspendering.
Her acceptance of me, dressed like that, was all the more wonderful because, apart from her being a corsetière and me a customer, both she and I had grown up in an era of much less tolerance of men with my predilections than has become the norm in the 25 years since 1982. I knew that, even then, many of her contemporaries in her profession would have dismissed me with no small puff of disdain and made their distaste for me evident. Yet she, a woman, had seen me, a man, not just in my corsets, but with my suspenders clipped to my seamed black nylons too. It was not just the fact of that day that pleased me; it was the fact that, with good fortune, she was going to be my corsetiere, and possibly my confidant, for close to 20 years more. Moreover she had always treated me with, not just understanding, but in an encouraging and helpful way at all times, as though the unusual items I chose to wear was quite normal, whereas the public at large would have judge me harshly for doing so.
Those of you who are reading this, may think I am belabouring the point, but I felt I had already risked a lot but my compulsion meant that I was ready to risk more. I knew the respect of my co-worker’s would evaporate, were my secret to be exposed. As for my self-esteem, only with difficulty and very gradually had I come to terms with the compulsions that had led me time and again to her understanding door. All efforts at reflection, in an effort to find an explanation for my motivations, had come to naught. I was definitely “beyond the fringe” of what was considered to be normal behaviour amongst my family and peers. However thanks to my corsetiere’s understanding, over the five years I’d been her customer, my “corset self” had grown in stature. My knowledge of what a corset was and how I could integrate the wearing of one into my daily life has also matured, just as had previously happened when I began to wear suspender belts and stockings back in 1967. To paraphrase the old adage - “familiarity had bred self confidence.”
Old readers of mine will recall that later on that same momentous day, I had overcome my inhibitions and actually met another avowedly heterosexual man, albeit one with very similar predilections to me, namely the Berks Corsetier. Following up on our correspondence, I had met with him at his home, which ended with a meeting of minds and a session of mutual platonic fitting and lacing one another into our respective corsets and with the suspendering of our stockings. In having such a session I had proved to myself that my idea was not just fantasy, it really was possible to conduct such activities on a platonic level with either gender.
If ever a person had been on what in the modern age is termed “sensory overload” that memorable day, it had been myself. Indeed for weeks I had to metaphorically pinch myself to confirm that what I had experienced over a period of about two hours on that grey December day really did happen, just as I have described. But that was now in the past and I had a bright future to look forward to in my corseted life.
2 GETTING TO UNDERSTAND HIGH -TOP CORSETS
In the words of the song, after one’s final fitting begins the process of “getting to know you”, the “you” being the new corset actually begins and I suppose, I have for many years been guilty of anthropomorphising my corsets and regarding them as being akin to friends.
In the time left before Christmas as the weather remained cool, I had many more opportunities outside work to fit and wear my new high top for increasing lengths of time. It is strange but I always found that each new corset I had, proved different from the others and in some way special. Each time it was an opportunity to get to know what Mrs Norris had made for me for, with the growing shortage of specialised materials and fittings each one was of necessity, slightly different.
Writing now, late in life and with great corseting experience, I now know that no corset respects its wearer but unfailingly commands the wearer’s respect whether it is new or well worn. Even then, no two corsets, however similar, ever feel quite the same when being laced on, even when they are well worn. As for new ones they always call out for careful attention, if not respect. As for the new high top, despite the fact of my being corseted all day in a G78 casual for several years, I found it hard after a day’s work to fit the G72 high top and remain comfortable in it for as long as I would have liked. Contrarily, if I started the day by lacing on the high top, it was fine, but as of yet this pleasure was still limited to Saturdays and Sundays. This is what I wrote in my diary at the time:
“I found I was delighted with the "New Job". The shoulder straps weren't quite right, so I planned to call in again and get it corrected and hopefully for her to lace me in again in just my corsetry and stockings. That was the zenith of my corsetry life so far. The incredible thing is I didn't feel as shy or awkward and I do not think she did either. In fact she went ahead and attached my suspenders to my stockings automatically!. She clearly considered it to be part of her duty as a corsetière.”
I almost regretted having to interrupt my programme of familiarisation while I passed Christmas with my family. As I sat with them watching television, I felt rewarded only in the fact that, safely out of sight, was the only undetectable recourse that remained open to me to assuage my compulsion - my deep-cut, boned, suspender belt, still with four pairs of sewn on suspenders. While we sat and watched the Queen’s speech little were they to know that I was quietly savouring how those suspenders were pulling my stockings taut and invisibly whitening the skin of my knees.
Of my new corset this is what wrote in early 1983 to the second, Yorkshire contact, who had answered my magazine advertisement:
“The corset she made that I fitted when I met (Berks Corsetier) was settling down very well. I've got the correct rings - key rings - on it now and I shortened the elastic on a few of the suspenders to get more tension in them and my stockings and get more pull on the corset skirt. However the shoulder arrangement defied improvement, so I had to take it back and get it modified in the hope that she'd again lace me in with me in just my corset, suspenders and black "Walking Sheers". I told you how nervous I felt before meeting her dressed like that yet the amazing thing is I didn't feel that way at all. I just felt very warm inside, not at all shy or embarrassed. A sort of silent bond of understanding that I may be a man, yes I did like to tight lace and suspender ladies’ black nylons to my corsets. It was wonderful to have her securing my suspenders to my stockings without having to ask her to do so and that she then also started adjusting the lengths - without asking me. She clearly regarded it as part of her duty as a corsetière. (Page 36 para 3 of Kunzle's book says it can transcend gender).
I am getting to like its tightness more and more. I had discussed it with Mrs Norris several times. She said that most people who wore corsets regularly had started with them somewhat loose, and that very gradually, come to appreciate a tighter fit. Of course she pulls in really early before eating to get her corset tight for the day, because she needs that amount of pull in to close her waistband of her skirt over it. However it is clear that, apart from liking to have a small waist to show off, she also likes the feeling associated with being tight laced. That of course is one point that does come out in the Kunzle book that many people men and women do enjoy the tight laced feeling.
The corset is basically very good with a nice high back with ½" flat steels. I love the lower front, with three hooks and eyes below the busk. In time I think I can wear it regularly. I'll try to have it on when I call to see her for it to be altered. I am wearing stockings to work every day. I have to, I need to feel suspenders tugging at my stocking tops!”
In referring to Kunzle’s book, I meant its first edition of 1981 when it was still fairly new and, as my patient readers many recall, reading it had been the one of my main motivations for continuing with my Odyssey in the face of discouraging odds.
3 A NEW YEAR’S GIFT - MY CHRONIC BACK ACHE IS CURED
By 1982 my slouching in any chair was a thing of the past since I wore the corset almost every day and for most waking hours. As a result, my posture when sitting or driving the car was controlled by the back steels and busk and, early in 1983, I now realise it was no accident that a miracle happened. The backache that had plagued me since youth, and which had been continual for about eight years, suddenly disappeared. Writing now some twenty-five years later, I have other aches but the chronic backache has never returned. A miracle some might say, but I like to think it was no miracle but was simply testimony to the power of a well cut strong corsets to heal and control the human spine.
I will go so far as to say the current modern problems of back ache and scoliosis were less prevalent when young Edwardian and Victorian women were introduced to corseting while their bones were still growing.
Such was the experience of a new friend, of whom I will write later. She was required to wear well-boned, back-laced corsets as part of the dress code the convent-school she attended from about 1949 to 1955. A generation of indulgence, of pseudo-comfort exacerbated by the cult of self-reference, despite the recent revival of interest in the corset, shape-wear and Spanx has done its damage. One feels that, only a sea-change in intergenerational respect, could see a return to the exemplary corseting, practised before the first world war, by women of all social classes, by gentlemen, and by men with the ambition to be gentlemen and served so well by Spirella and others.
In my case, I surmise that my cure happened like this. I had worn a corset, in preference to a suspender belt to work nearly every day, for close to two years. I had noted that my back pain sometimes got worse when I used to wear only a suspender belt. As the day passed, my taut suspenders would pull it down until its upper edge settled and not only dug into my sides but pressed onto the large muscles located about 2-3 inches on either side of my spine. In time this pressure pinched the muscles onto the underlying nerves, which were sent the muscles into protective spasm, which, in turn, destabilised the spinal discs, which all fed on itself and compounded the problem.
All efforts at physiotherapy and prescribed exercises had provided only temporary relief. I had read several paperback books, which discussed back problems. Largely on the basis of the advice given them I eschewed my doctor’s suggestion of the back brace he showed me that was fitted with unyielding flat steels. It had been hard enough to wear a corset I wanted with spiral steels and irrationally I thought that if only I wore my casual corset more regularly things might improve. Yet that seems to be what happened. The imperative of better posture, imposed by the presence of the busk and back steels of a tightly fitting corset to provide the circumstances in which real healing, and hence permanent relief, could occur once I had taken the very big personal decision to practise all day every day corseting. I cannot say if my backache would have returned if I stopped tight lacing. Fortunately unlike some older wearers with whom I became acquainted, I have not been recommended to stop corset wearing by a doctor, on account of heart or stomach trouble, a hiatus hernia or even a stroke, as has happened to some of my contacts over the past 25 years. This important event, coming after my December appointment, only reinforced my desire to go back to Mrs Norris to get more corsets made or altered.
4 RESERVATIONS ABOUT MY NEXT APPOINTMENT
New Year came, and despite the rewards I got from fitting myself into the wonderful new corsets Mrs Norris had made me, despite the success of my experiments with the new corset, it did not take many days for the euphoria of the experience to fade. My emotions again seesawed between optimism and pessimism. At times I saw a bright future in which she would make me corsets for ever, and at times I saw it all suddenly end as I thought it had at the end of 1980 when Gardner’s closed. I in turn would commission more and more challenging corsets and live what had previously only been a dream.
I was satisfied with my progress and with what could be my acceptance as customer of Mrs Norris, however, as I said at the end of Part 4, I continued to worry that suddenly what I had achieved would be snatched away. At all times therefore I had acted more cautiously than my wishes would otherwise have desired. I did so for fear of doing or saying something presumptuous that would instantly lead to losing Mrs Norris as my confidante. She had never given any hint that she might turn against me but I so valued what I and gained that, throughout our association I remained vigilant.
The problem with having such concerns was that it led me to worry about it and perhaps unnecessarily. What if I had gone too far by having her come into the salon and finding me in just a corset and stockings? I would ponder on the fact that while on that day had she just been very nice and accepted me like that just that once or had she done so willingly? Would she reflect on what she had seen of me and refuse to see me again, knowing that just her word would be enough to discourage me from phoning or calling again?
I tried to recall exactly how she acted during those amazing few minutes. I tried to assess whether she had been more reserved in her conversation during and afterwards than she had been before. I wondered whether her chuckling was a nervous response to her embarrassment at being in such a situation with a man. I then thought, well she did help with my suspenders so she can’t have felt too dissuaded. I put off phoning to get a day and time when I could go back and collect the ones I’d left for repair as I needed time to get the cash together. As my funds were still low I could not afford a third appointment simply to “test the waters” of my acceptability by her and could hardly call and see her just to talk. I felt I would have to give her some work to do for me. As for what would she think is she knew of my meeting with another man when we both wore just corsets and stockings, I dared not imagine.
Some of my readers may find this discourse on my thoughts unreasonably exhaustive. But I should point out, especially to any ladies who have read my Odyssey to this point, that, even in the more liberated climate of 25 years ago, for me and other men like me, Simon not withstanding, the purchase of any pair of stockings, suspender belt or corset was always a major source of stress. This did not diminish with time and continued from the first time I’d bought such items of apparel back in 1967 until 1983, the time of which I am writing. I did not want to lose what I had “fought” so hard to achieve, especially a source of bespoke corsets. I had found in Mrs Norris, someone who could make exactly what I wanted, alter or repair all I wanted. It had been a major effort of trial and error to settle on the details that suited my compulsion. I did not want to lose it through an avoidable act on my part.
My musings over whether to write to or phone Mrs Norris are given in Part 5 of this Odyssey and I will not repeat them. In the end it became obvious that only the spontaneity of a ‘phone conversation would resolve matters one way or the other. In forcing my decision to phone, reality was my saviour. Upon examination of one older corset at home over Christmas I found that an improperly crimped brass end of a spiral steel in an older short corset had cut into the black satin and was about to protrude. Closer examination showed that others were close to abrading the strapping on the inside. Apart from that, the rest of the corset was in good condition and I felt that it could be repaired quickly by the likes of Mrs Norris. Here was my “excuse” - a very good one in fact - to phone and ask for an appointment to have some “running repairs” done, ideally while I waited.
5 MARCH 1983 - MY ACCEPTANCE IS CONFIRMED
Eventually I did phone her and she was as pleasant as ever, and said she could see me midweek for my third appointment at her house as her husband was at work. As the days counted down I also realised that I could upgrade my other corsets in three ways - boning provision, shoulder straps on long ones and type and number of suspenders. I already had a real and valid reason to phone without committing to a new one when funds were low. However I would underline that I would readily pay for all repairs she did and extras she made me.
I nearly postponed my visit because of the snow and late cold weather of early March 1983. As it was, the way I chose to get there got more complicated because I tried to avoid diversions on the A412 as the M25 was under construction. I faced traffic jam after jam so I took a route through the high street of one of the old Middlesex villages, long overrun by suburban sprawl . However, on this occasion the old adage “every cloud has a silver lining” proved true.
As I sat stuck in the jam I looked out and saw in a shop window a 1950s style foot “mannequin” on which was displayed the seam and black point heel of stocking, which I knew had to be Aristoc “Harmony”. I noticed the shop was called “Joan”, a ladies’ dress shop and much easier for a nervous man to enter than a corset shop. So, I turned out of the jam just before a railway bridge and drove past some arches and, with difficulty, found a parking spot. I walked back and boldly went in and told a somewhat reserved woman in her late 40s that I’d seen the display, did she have any in black, size 10½ or 11. She did, and I bought four pairs. I continued to patronise her until May 1988 then on one trip to Mrs Norris later that year I found “Joan” was no more - replaced by yes, another estate agent.
When I got outside Mrs Norris’ home, as I locked the car, I wondered what her neighbours thought when her individual male customers like myself visited her house on the days that her husband was at work. But that was not my real concern so I walked up to the back door, confident by now and looking forward to seeing Mrs Norris and admiring her figure and the straight-seams on her calves. But it was not to be.
She opened the door and smiled and invited me in as usual and it was only when I got inside and looked down that my spirits dipped a little. For the first and only time ever, I saw her wearing brown trousers! However hers were no ordinary off the peg trousers. She had used her skill as a tailor to make them figure hugging to emphasise her waist but cleverly tailored to pass smoothly over her awesome hip spring, just as one might see in sketches in 1930s issues of “London Life”. She wore her usual, backless, high-heeled mules and I could just see the lowest part of the brown heels and seams of her stockings below her trouser legs. It was clear on account of her cinched black patent belt that underall she was still as tightly corseted as ever and I am sure her stockings would have been tautly suspendered as ever.
If any proof were needed of my acceptance, on this occasion she made me a salmon sandwich as well as a cup of tea, which I enjoyed as we talked about her work, old customers who’d returned, new ones, and the work she continued to do for Axfords. She quickly complained about the cold weather - hence her attire. All around the place were floral pattered summer dresses she was making for a ladies fashion company - outsourcing - before the term came into vogue. This all made me feel a little bolder and I asked if many of her old customers from Gardners had become her customers and at this she became quite positive and began to recount who they were. She was advertising in a woman's magazine and again making for Cover Girl. She said she’d used my idea of key rings for detachable suspenders for one lady customer’s corsets who had liked them very much.
There was a medium-length brown parcel on the table. I suddenly realised that it was for me and that I had completely forgotten that I’d left the white Wilbro PCRW2 for her to alter on the memorable day in December 1982. My months of worry and thoughts of inventing a reason to phone had all been in vain! She undid the brown paper to show me what she’d done. As requested she'd washed it, strapped on spiral bones to double the provision and she’d taken in the top which, being ready to wear, was cut for a woman. She’d cut off all the suspenders and sewn end loops on their elastics and finally fitted new loops on the hem for the all-important key rings. She pointed out, by way of a criticism of it, that it wasn’t lined, which, as I now knew, was her mark of a real corset.
I produced the corset that needed repairs and she took note of what to do and put it to one side. I then said I’d like her to examine my problem with the ridge at the upper hem of the high top I had been wearing since early morning. I will use what I wrote to my new Yorkshire friend in place of a narrative account of the assessment of my problem. In transcribing it 25 years later I found it a little rambling and, apart from necessary editing, I hope readers will agree with me that it catches the flavour of how I felt at the time:
Anyway I got to Mrs N's and had a cup of tea and then stripped down - curtains drawn in her sitting cum fitting room. There is a lovely high mirror above the fireplace so one can glance at it as if to pinch oneself and realise "yes, it's me in corset and stockings with Mrs N looking at how my corset is fitting me.
Before she came into me by the way, I had changed my stockings and put on clean pants, tights and a cache sex and I called her in with my nylons rolled to my knees.
Anyway she cut the shoulder straps off the front of the corset and safety pinned them into a new and better position but first of all she helped me to loosen off all my lacings and got her to re-lace me after I explained the circumstances of my initial lacing in, in the toilet!
I pointed out that I felt shy to be seen like this and she said not to worry, she didn't mind. It is pure heaven to have someone lace one in. She really can pull. Again this time she pulled me off my balance backwards. I almost wonder if she does it on purpose - she talks as she laces in and responds to appreciative comments and to finally close down the waist she really works at those lacings and says "There, take the ends" and she passed the pullers to me for me to tie up as she watches.
She was intrigued to see me clipping my back suspenders to my right stocking. She must have noticed me rotating the stocking top and said "Oh, I wondered how you managed to clip so many on!.
Then without my asking her to do so, she stepped forward and bent over and started to suspender my left stocking. She was very quick at suspendering and pulled at the tops very hard and assuredly and as she did so I noticed that she had started putting my very back suspender on the seam. So I stopped her and asked if could she put my next to the back suspender on the seam and the back one towards the inside of my thigh.
When I was fully laced in and suspendered I pointed out to her how the very back suspender would pull the seam to the inside of the calf and she agreed. I was honestly amazed by how, without hesitation she came forward to help me with my suspendering. The fact that I am a man wearing women’s black nylons doesn't enter into it. It seems to her that I wear a corset, hence I wear stockings and suspenders and that's it!
Going over my diary, I find it is more accurate than that letter and for the record I will add what I left out. After going into the fitting room I had to loosen off my corset and undo suspenders to fit the additional under apparel that I felt I should wear for a fitting. Readers may recall that the corset I was wearing was higher in the back than I had been used to, with heavy 18 inch long back steels, ½ inch wide all way to top. Once I’d got myself in a decorous state, rolled on my stockings to my knees and hooked up the busk. I opened the sliding door slightly and called to her. It was some moments before she looked my way. She was working intently on putting a new padded flap with press-studs to protect me from the abrasive or indenting efforts that the hooks and eyes of one of my deep suspender belts were making on my left hipbone.
At the time I was unaware she wore a hearing aid concealed in her glasses but I now realise it was not surprising that she had not heard my somewhat diffident “Excuse me” above the whirring of her machine. However, she had clearly sensed the movement of the door and turned her head sideways to look at me and smiled and said in her characteristically sharp voice "You’re ready are you?” It was hard to give a restrained reply but I did, saying, “Could you lace me in please? She looked intently back at the work machine and completed a run of sewing and cut off the threads.
As ever the lacing in was, to use an appropriate word “rigorous” and in response I said "You do a better job than I ever could" and she said, "Most people say that” and added that “Some people will never pull themselves in as much as someone else will.” She always pulled so hard that invariably I was caught unawares and she would all but overbalance me. To my reaction of involuntary calling out when I felt what was to become the familiar burning sensation of fast moving lacings on the skin, she would always respond with a knowing chuckle.
Whilst I was being laced in the phone rang and she went to the kitchen to take it. She came back and was clearly annoyed. I was to learn that some men took advantage of her by bringing girl friends they had persuaded to corset to be measured and fitted only for the woman to have second thoughts. This had been the case and she had made the corsets and the customer was reluctant to pick up the corset and likely would not pay.
Although I should have known better when she stopped pulling me in saying that she thought it was tight enough, I was as surprised as ever by how tightly she had laced me. With the best will in the world the self-lacer can rarely do justice to the capability of the corset. Again, without asking she began to suspender my stockings for me, except again she put the very back suspender on the seam, so I said “Just a moment, I like this one on the seam”, and she chuckled and watched me twist the top in my thigh and then attach the back one 3-4 inches “beyond" the seam. As I did so she said words to the effect "I wondered how you got on alone with those back ones” and “Do you really need five?”. She then clipped up my left stocking exactly as I wanted it. It was clear she regarded suspendering as part of a corset fitters duty - man or woman customer!
Once properly fitted, I quickly sat on one of her upright chairs to show how it bulged and “stood out” at the top edge. As I did so I ran my hands up and down the lines of the double spiral bones in front. I felt how they curved in and out the tautly stretched corset body corset followed the contours of my form over my stomach and past the lower ribs of my barrel-chested form. I marvelled at how Mrs Norris, using just a few measurements, had as accurately cut the shape of the panels above the waist in front so that, when properly fitted - to the level of closure she always pulled the corset. But then mine was far from the first man’s high top corset she had made. For me it was only with the “lie” of its front upper edge that any refinement was necessary.
She asked me to stand again which felt strangely difficult on account of the tightly laced high top and we then set about checking how to remedy it and on just how she should adjust the attachment point of the shoulder straps. In the end she cut away the original piece sewn to the top of the corset with an ever-ready razor blade while I was wearing it, not to cut any fabric, just to cut the threads. I didn’t admit to my friend that this had worried me to have such a sharp object so close to the skin, but she was very dextrous, and had clearly done it before. Then, using safely pins we experimented with the ideal location for fitting the straps at front and back. We must have looked very like a Spirella lady with her customer. She said I also needed the elastic gores at the side and I agreed and said I’d take it off and leave it with her. I then understood her refusal to make a woman a corselette; this was hard enough to get right. She asked me to take it off and she’d correct it right away and started back for the kitchen to await me to take it off
Meanwhile I became bolder and said that I would put on the white Wilbro PCRW2 but she quickly reminded me that the loose suspenders had to be put onto it first. I was inwardly pleased that she knew that I always liked to wear stockings with my corsets. As it was still on the kitchen table I quickly followed her into the kitchen to save her the effort of doing so alone. However, I briefly forgot that I was only wearing the high top corset and stockings but she did not and quickly moved to pull the kitchen curtains and laughed as she did so saying we didn’t want passers by to get the wrong idea! I apologised for coming in dressed like that, and as I now know she would, she brushed off my apology and disarmingly offered me another cup of tea, which I gratefully accepted.
I said I’d put my shirt and trousers back on and she said no, that I could sit down just as I was. I recovered from my briefcase the small screwdriver I used to prise the spring steel open. She rummaged in a cupboard by the sliding door and I thought she would be getting the blunt knife I’d seen her use to do the same thing but and she returned handing me a gleaming spoon busk to examine saying “This is what I told you about. This is the kind of busk I like to wear.” She said it was out of an old corset she’d been given to copy and said that the busk had got bent at the top and she continued “I got my chap (her husband} to get it straightened in the workshop at his work”. It was clearly made of stainless steel and bore the hammer marks that got it back to shape. I was struck by its double curvature and said so and she also said, “they’re very hard to find now and I break them when I’m bending sometimes”, adding with a laugh, that they’re not suitable for a man’s corset.
It was at that moment that I realised that as we sat there it was no wonder she sat so upright at either her machine or at the table, the combination of such a busk and underbusk would do that. It confirmed why she had what I described earlier in this Odyssey as a “Duchess of Duke Street deportment.” Would that the womanhood of today returned to proper corseting and moved in the same way.
This became the pattern of our discourses during this and future appointments - total acceptance of me not just as a customer or corset wearer but someone with whom she could talk a little about her own problems with the three items of apparel we had in common - our corsets, seamed stockings and suspenders. I realise later that since her retirement she probably only had customers with whom to share such concerns and I now wonder now much she missed her life and customers at Gardner’s and had discovered that by staying in business she had an interest in life, could discuss such things and that we became her personal circle of friends outside her family life.
So in just my high top corset and black nylons I drank my second cup of tea as we proceeded to thread the key rings ones I had bought in the local ironmongers just before I called, in the hem and elastic loops. As I wrote in my diary at the time:
Before fitting the PCRW2 I drank my tea in her kitchen and we proceed to fit these white suspenders to the white corset with some key rings I had brought with me. It was while we were doing this together that she said she had fitted key rings and loops for a lady customer who had wanted detachable suspenders on her corsets. Mrs N thinks they are very practical idea, although she said she sews on all her suspenders and doesn't use corset clips. I find corset clips useful at home if one wants to experience extra suspenders for an hour or so, but they aren't reliable enough for all day wear by a man. Now if one comes off the hem I go off to the toilet as soon as I can in fear and trepidation that in the un-tensioned state the button might again accidentally slide up the clip and the whole suspender fall down my trouser leg to the floor as happened to me once when I was walking! Luckily I was able to catch it in time and slip it into the top of my sock, till I could get to the toilet to retrieve it!
Once we’d added the suspenders and returned to the dining room/fitting salon as I de-corseted and de-suspendered myself from my black high top to try on the white one, my PCRW2. She came in and after I wrapped it around my form and hooked up the busk, she started lacing me in. to my great satisfaction I again experienced what I had noticed the first time I lace it on back in 1977 and that was the relentless way in which busk and under-busk covered and “took me over” There was now no “gape” at the top and she tied the knot in the lacing and we did up my suspenders. She then said words to the effect I hope that will comfortable - an allusion to its being unlined I was sure.
Leaving me to appreciate what she had done she returned quickly to her trusty industrial machine and passed the shoulder straps of the high top through it, opened the seam between the side panels and inserted the gores of elastic. When finished we went back to the fitting room and I changed corsets again and the high top now fitted fine.
When I emerged having removed my tights and dressed again, the white corset was wrapped in its brown paper again ready for me to take and I went on my way. My anxieties had all been in vain. Mrs Norris accepted me for what I was which was to prove to be for the rest of her life. In reflecting back on the early years of my Odyssey I can recall even more examples of how while still at Gardner’s where she hardly knew me she did her best to meet my needs. I also realise now that in my small way I was adding weight to her own sadness at the demise of corset wearing as reflected in the difficulty she continued to have in obtaining parts and materials equal to the needs of her customers. This problem had so discouraged her a few years earlier and I am sure contributed to her decision to retire before she really wanted to - apart from the problems of her long journey to work each day of course.
After reading Alison Perry’s account of her relationship with her supervisor in Ivy Leaf’s web site in 2003, I came to understand the bond that had developed between Mrs Norris and myself over 20 years earlier. It was also the secret of the success of the Spirella and Spencer companies’ adoption of the home visit corsetiere. Today the selling of lingerie at parties is cause for a feature article in a newspaper but, to use the old adage, there is nothing new under the sun. Spirella’s customers were dealt with in their own homes by a corsetiere.
As Ivy Leaf’s “Tribute” will tell us, many of these corsetieres were women who accepted the limitations on movement imposed by their wearing of very strong and containing corsets, such as Alison did in her black satin “Spenall”. I now have no doubt in my mind, on the basis of what she said that Mrs Norris would have seen eye to eye with Alison’s supervisor. I am sure that however much of a tyrant Alison thought her supervisor, she probably would, out of choice, have been even more strictly corseted than she expected Alison to be and that the supervisor’s own stockings would have been pulled as taut if not tauter than Alison herself experienced when she tried to bend her knees to attend to the skirt and suspenders of a customer’s corset during its fitting.
What is also illuminating is that after a few months Alison had admitted that she came to like being in her Spenall - I certainly did like being well corseted. What is even more revealing is her admission that her husband appreciated her wearing it and that the Spenall was even integrated into their sex life. To me it also confirms that what is produced in the form of erotic photography has is its roots in the preferences of both men and women for the beauty of the corseted form. Certainly there is copious testimony on the Internet to the power that such images had in appealing to men, still persists.
6 WE DISCUSS STOCKINGS
As she was helping with my fitting she said she was still having trouble with her stockings slipping off her suspenders. She said she had even written to the makers Aristoc to ask them to go back to using less shiny thread” She said "I had no trouble with them years ago!” but she had thought about what I had said before about the problem which most of her customers were having too. She knew that the source of the trouble was the rubber buttons and laboriously packed tissue paper on each button as she pushed it into her stocking top as part of her suspendering. So I said "I know you think I like too many suspenders, but that I thought it did help. I asked her how many do you use and she said while she’d tried four she almost always used three pairs, and said, it gets uncomfortable machining if she sat on the back ones. She said that as it was, hers were just above the chair seat when she sat down. I said I thought it was harder to get used to a new corset, than to sit on suspender clips and that I’d got used to doing it.
She further volunteered that she’d also had trouble getting long enough stockings. She liked a 10½ inch foot with a long leg but could rarely get them, but that her daughter had sent her some at Christmas 1982. I said I understood her problem because we were both forced to buy Aristoc, which was the only maker of fully-fashioned seamed stockings. We agreed that it was only a matter of time before they would stop making them. I said I had started to build up a stock just in case and in retrospect, as I edit my diary written at the time, it is surprising that another decade was to pass before the sword of Damocles came down on British and American fully fashioned stockings.
Writing in 2008, from what I can tell, the knitting machines of Charnos and Aristoc appear to have been bought by two organisations set up by their respective former employees who recognised that a “niche” market for connoisseurs of the style was still there. The firms, respectively are of course Eleganti (left), which offers a ladder stop pattern not unlike the Charnos “Moonbeam” pattern (right) that disappeared in 1969, only a few years after I had started to buy them. Gio produces stockings with the double row of holes to form the ladder stop pattern, identical to the old Aristoc “Harmony”. Because my own stock is so large it will last out my time I have never had to pay £15 or more for a pair that had cost 25p, just under forty years ago at the time of decimalisation
I am glad to read that Gio wearers in particular expressly extol the product. It would also be nice to think that Mrs Norris was aware of the rescue of the machines before she died in 2000. I do have no doubt that she would have been outraged by the price of once more being able to get her size in the lengths she so liked. Happily I know that she too had laid in a large stock before they were finally unavailable. She had written to no avail to Aristoc in an effort to get its accounting-minded managers to change their minds. My only criticism of the modern firms is that they knit only in 15-denier yarn. Charitably I say that while this meets the eternal feminine desire for the sheerest possible product, I know that many women who wore corsets and girdles much preferred the “anchorage” afforded by stockings knitted from 30 denier and my own experience the tactile pleasure I get from 30 denier yarn stockings cannot be matched by the sheerer knit.
7 A FIRST FITTING BY BERKS CORSETIER
At the time I had been screwing up the courage to meet Mrs Norris again, Berks Corsetier wrote and told me that he had finished the ultra long corset. As readers may recall, he measured me for it the previous December, as he wanted to practise his skills on people other than himself. He was ready to give me a fitting at my convenience. My time was limited and I fitted in a visit en route to see my family on a damp winter weekend.
Upon arrival we sat over a cup of tea as he showed me his collection of photographs including some of women with very large bosoms, which I had previously thought was largely a figment of his fantasy though, I saw sadly that such women existed and were clearly willing to pose for profit. He lamented he had never seen such a person pose in a long line bra and corset which was his dream. Clearly, in the absence of being able to meet his desire with real persons he dressed up so that contemplating his reflection was the closest he came to realising that dream. It was hard for me to enthuse about such images but it made me realise that the more particular is one’s interest, the more exclusive one becomes. I wrote in my diary of the time:
He produced the long corset and I was amazed to find he had met my request for a very close pitch of the eyelets. It was about half and inch and on a 25 inch long back gave a total of 48 pairs of eyelets which I greedily counted as I examined it. It was also the first corset I had ever seen with a 7 point busk. I had never seen or knew such long ones were made. (On this point Ivy Leaf in her article on “Long Corsets" commented that she never seen one so long but of course she forgets that Nicole Kidman flashes all seven hooks in the film “Moulin Rouge.” I was thrilled that out there were still a sufficient number of women who actually wanted corsets long enough to need such long busks!
He was very keen, but after six years of corset education with Mrs Norris, I could tell that there were gaps in his perception and knowledge and that the corset wasn’t lined and had no underbusk. Overall it lacked the “body”, weight or fit of what Mrs Norris produced. I would not transfer my patronage but would not discourage him in his worthy efforts to practise.
We then went up to his fitting room to lace it on. Before hand we had agreed that we would have a mutual photo session with me wearing what he’d made. I insisted that I wore black nylons and suspenders if I was to be photographed and with limited time I didn’t want us to get into the business of taking detachable suspenders off one corset and putting it on one that would probably need alteration. So I first put on my boned deep suspender girdle and black 30 denier Alberts “Walking Sheers” with the 8 rows of extensible holes in the afterwelts before I fitted it.
We had agreed that it was to be cut so as to be open two inches at the back when tightly laced, but as soon as I tied to hook the busk I sensed it was too small. After extreme and futile efforts just to hook the first of the seven studs of the 16-inch busk we spent some time add some extra lacing and ended up with three separate pieces of stay lacing and three sets of pulling loops.
Once the busk and the hooks and eyes above and below it were secured, my corsetier began to lace me. He did it very carefully and slowly and initially it was a most satisfying experience.
He had missed to thread in one pair of eyelets and thought it didn't matter but as we closed down the corset, some of my flesh was bulging right out of the gap. He said it needed a flap but on serious tight lacer, who would use such a thing I said. However it took the proverbial Herculean effort to get it closed down to the designed two inches gap when fully laced in. This folded my flesh into the area of the laces as can be seen in a photo he took of me. He worked painstakingly at reworking the laces till I was tightly contained from neck to thigh.
He then took the agreed photos of me in it with stocking top and suspender details and I took some of him in a pink corset with its suspenders clipped to his incongruously short stretch stockings in his favourite colour, chocolate brown, over which he wore a pink corselette with the usual huge bra. Each of us relied on the honour of the other person to frame the photos to ensure they were of the “headless” type, which older readers may recall caused such mirth when they were brought into identity-challenging evidence at Lord Denning’s Profumo Scandal inquiry back in 1963
We then sat around in our corsetry, suspenders and stockings and I leafed through back issues of the magazines which I had stopped buying. Today I felt much more self-confident and found there were elements of being in a corsetiere’s salon that I liked. I found it good to be completely uninhibited in my observations at to actually say "That fan lacing does look good on your corsets” or “I do like the way your suspenders are looped on your underbelts.” However we both agreed that it would only be perfect if only we could be in the company of like-attired women, who understood our motivations.
Knowing Berks Corsetier certainly helped me to overcome the inhibitions I had previously had about matronly corsetry. Indeed within a year or two I was able to contemplate images of women in such corsets with great understanding, even discrimination. Indirectly I had returned to the pleasure I got when I first saw them in the Marshall and Snelgrove adverts in the “Observer” in the early 1950s. Had I not done so, I wonder if I would have been interested or ready to “enter” the world of Spirella, so generously offered to the world by Ivy Leaf and which I enjoy so much. Suffice to say the pride of his corset literature was a blue cloth covered copy of the Spirella handbook on corset fitting. Very different in content from “Corset Fitting in a Retail Store” which had been generously given to me by my new Yorkshire contact who actually had two copies!
8 KEEPING RECORDS
I was thoroughly familiar with the more careful procedure needed to hook up the five points of a 14-inch long busk. Indeed I gained a lot of satisfaction from the fact that my taste in corsets had evolved to the point where I could handle such an item quickly and easily. I felt if I were ever to meet such people as Mrs Norris alluded to as her customers, I would gain their acceptance as a serious corset wearer. I now had three corsets made with them and noted that, though of the same length they differed in how easy it was to hook them up. On examination I found they were not all the same and that one could get variations in the thickness (or stiffness) and width of the two steel plates of a busk. I had still not encountered the spoon busk-of which more later in this account.
I had taken to examining each and every corset I had in detail in order to gain an understanding of what I was wearing. Being a compulsive maker of lists and tables I applied the same attention to my growing wardrobe of corsets and recorded every feature I could. I gradually refined my system of recording my measurements of both self and corset. What had begun as simple measurements such as the level of the hem, the level of the compatible stocking tops when wearing my very first corset - the black satin Contessa, back in 1971, ended with my preparing a grid of my whole form which made a corsetiere’s self measurement form look very simple. I then began a similar system for recording each and every corset, and suspender belt, as well as the other items of apparel as I bought them. I then did the same for those I already possessed, which has made writing this Odyssey much more accurate in its recollection of events.
First I would measure the item unworn, recording the number of panels it had and I prepared small charts and a system for recording the deposition and type of each bones, the seam lines of panels, the width of each panel at top, waist and hem. I recorded the width -usually one inch and my subjective estimate of the weight or relative elasticity of suspender elastic. While I was standardising on five as my preferred number of suspenders since the hem length varied slightly I noted and recorded the location of the centre of each suspender around the hem and until I made all suspenders detachable I recorded the length of unstretched elastic for the location of each pair. Some may say this is an excessive detail, but coming back to review my original notes to write this Odyssey it proved invaluable, especially as I lacked the encyclopaedic memory of a Mrs Norris who it seemed could remember the sizes and personal preferences of all her customers, though of course she always wrote it down as well.
With deep skirted corsets I matched those of my growing number of stockings that could be worn with them and I even sorted the stockings out in this way so that I could store them accordingly in what by now were several drawers. By the time Aristoc “Harmony” were discontinued in 1993-4, there was when a whole chest full of them - new and worn - amounting to about 2500 pairs. Over the years it had slowly dwindled and I cannot believe the book value that the unopened packets now represents.
Reflecting on the subject years later, and knowing what I do now from reading the various information websites on fully-fashioned stockings, I how realise that in the old days the stocking manufacturers put the variability to good use. For each foot size if one made enough stockings one could easily sell the range of lengths appropriate to that foot size and that it was likely not necessary to knit each length - the vagary of the process conveniently provided exactly the standard sizes as well as odd ones too, though often sold as "seconds" or, as with Aristoc,“undergrads”.
Years later in comparing notes with other dedicated corsets wearers I of course found out that none of the ladies I knew engaged in such things but that a majority of the men did and I can only put it down to the fact that of necessity a man who wore corsets was “self taught” and could not normally rely on the wise counsel of the lady from Spirella or Spencer.
9 MY DIARY OF REFLECTIONS
At the time I did not know it but resolution of the design of the shoulder straps on my high top corsets in 1983 was to prove to be the turning point in what until then had been essentially a solitary corseting experience. This is what I wrote in my diary
“I like to feel tight and contained. I like to feel the limitations on my movements. The problem of twisting to fasten a suspender is real and a real problem if a suspender clip slips off a stocking top. The high top changes my gait as well as my deportment. I am getting used to hanging a corset from by shoulders by the straps and if I ever fit a shorter corset it feels odd when hooking up the busk, to have to hold tightly on to the corset at the same time.
I told Mrs Norris about it and she talked about it quite matter-of-factly. It was amazing how she loves talking corsets. As I get to know her better and better through our conversations I became privy to her “World” and the preferences of some of her customers (some of whom were to become good friends). I suppose she's laced in all her life - what 15-16 hours a day - and worked at making them too, they are her main interest. In fact she seems to have quite a troupe of male corset customers who beat a path to her door. all ages it seems. She is in my opinion the doyenne of corsetieres in the UK for sure.
During one appointment I showed her my copy of the Finecraft catalogue, which she had never seen and I will paraphrase how our conversation followed. She said "That's one of ours (meaning Gardner’s) and that one, and that”, as she turned the pages. I had several copies of the catalogue at home so I ended up giving it to her as a souvenir and she was very pleased. I find talk of Herculean lacings, and “not for namby pambys” to be be insulting to real corset wearers ”. Mrs Norris agreed because she was not one for false sentiment and said some people were better at selling than others. (The next time I saw her I learned she had written to Finecraft and hoped to get some more business.)
I fully recognise that there is a strong sexual side to corset wearing, but it is only part of the whole thing - 5% of the time it is important. The other 95% one is wearing them day in day out and the appreciation is on a high psychological level. The beauty of the rigid form, the feeling of tightness, taut fabric, lacings, the steels, the control of the busk - the essence of tight-lacing - the reason Mrs N still pulls herself in to a 23" waist every day of her life, dependent on her corset. I hope to emulate her and become dependent too for physical reasons, not a slave but a partner with my corset. In fact one had to be. It alters one's life for sure - one's movements - behaviour, conduct -especially a man one is conscious of it but only till one gets used to it. It’s second nature to Mrs. N. She's always in hers and her gait and deportment reflected in the way she sits and breathes shows it and I think its wonderful. Take it away and she'd be lost.”
10 REFLECTIONS ON MY CORSETIERE
As for Mrs Norris, I now felt I had achieved what I sought and that was to be regarded by her, and hence by others, as a serious knowledgeable corset wearer. When I would sit down and exchange pleasantries before, during and after a fitting or measurement she would tell me a little news of her family, but much of what we discussed was peppered with references to her own corsets, be it the hot weather, skin breakdown, busk breakages and other customers but always discreetly and anonymously. I once asked if an under-busk is necessary. At this she really was amused and said words to the effect that “If you’ve ever got your skin pinched in a busk you’ll know what it’s like and be glad of an under-busk” adding that “they don’t make busks like they used to” and there was “too big a gap on many” and always say that one could of course try but that she didn’t think it was a good idea. From time to time she’d talk of her own trials ad tribulations with skin breakdown (answer corn plasters over the offending spot), suspenders slipping off tops, staying tightly laced on hot weather, etc, etc., (she couldn’t loosen the lace because the waistband of one’s skirt couldn’t be closed). She admitted that on hot days she would do so to watch television but would afterwards go straight to bed avoiding the waistband problem.
I started to see her generosity. She gave me two pairs of Aristoc “Harmony’ black nylons - she knew I wore size 10½ and these had been given to her by her very own daughter as a Christmas present. Clearly she did not to know that her mother would never wear black. I never asked her why she would not but suspect it was related to their association with widows. She also gave me two pairs of the same brand - by now they were the only ones in the UK - in Chocolate Brown, which a male customer had given her. They were too long for him and had proved to be too long for her too, so she generously passed them to me and, in both cases refused to accept any payment.
She slowly became more expansive about her own problems. As she was to say in letter of Jan 22, 1984 "I made myself a corset with an old spoon busk, then one side of it broke in half, so I had to take it out. (Berks Corsetier) sent me one for Xmas so very likely I'll make another one for the fine weather." Jan 22, 1984.
When I look at the images of well corseted women in Ivy Leaf’s “Tribute” I now get a strange sense of companionship or fraternity, as though because they choose to be corseted like that they would have understood me and me them. That was how I found it. In future years I was to meet with equally well-corseted men or women. There was no need for justification for what brought us together, no need to even talk about it. Each of us knew what we were wearing often “out of sight” and knew what we were experiencing. An individuals, having found what she or he "needed" we would try to encourage the other person to try, but I found that, on the whole a person’s stockings, suspenders and corset preferences were entirely personal, that no two individuals were alike. While other men wore stockings they didn't lace as tight as me. For obvious visual reasons it ill-behoves a man to cinch his waist so that generally the women laced tighter but then with one exception they didn't like so many suspenders as me, though one lady who used four pairs kept hers so taut that one could almost play a tune on them.
This need to talk was reinforced by our own Ivy Leaf. In her August 2008 diary entry she records her conversation with a Camp corset wearer at a wedding:
“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.”
I hope it is not to presumptuous of me as a mere man to say how closely I identify with the sentiments Ivy’s fellow guest alluded to. Whilst I have never worn a Camp corset, I believe my appreciating of a proper busk and underbusk to rein in my stomach accords with her feeling. As for sentiments of vanity I have never sought accoutrements of female vanity such as frills or delicate facing. For me “sturdiness” would be the ultimate accolade I could give to the styles of corset, shoulder straps, boning and suspender design that my corsetière made me when “finding my Corset self” and to what became my preferred corset styles.
There is no doubt that subconsciously right until the 1950s, it was the collectivity of women’s needs that effectively demanded that men, even husbands, design and make them corsets, corset components or corset patterns and that it was men who responded and designed the busks, bones, suspenders and fittings, envisaged lacing systems to meet their needs. Other web sites are filled with examples of patents granted in the UK, USA and elsewhere and almost every applicant was a man designing to meet the needs or vanity of women. As Ivy Leaf notes in “Corsetry Compendium - Trapped inside my Panty-girdle” about an unsuccessful attempt to do up 17 hooks and eyes. “This device just had to be invented by a man.”
While some would call the corset a tyranny on women others like me came to admire the women I knew, and didn’t know, who chose to wear a busk-fronted corset or a Camp or a Jenyns fan lacer. For them it was an essential part of their attire and persona so that many of those women were tightly laced in their corsets, all day every day – some overnight too - for 40, 50 or more years.
11 REFLECTIONS ON FITTING AND WEARING LONG CORSETS
Fitting and relaxing in corsets became its own reward. I came to find the busk was the part I liked best. I liked to here the metal clicks as stud and slot engaged one another as I hooked it up . Once hooked, I liked to see the hook plates glint in the light and finger the tiny domes on the top of each stud in turn. Even now I find nothing more appealing than the glinting parts of the busk up the front of a corset and writing in 2008 no more so than seeing Nicole Kidman in hers in “Moulin Rouge”.
Once laced in, I found I liked to relax and for example expand my belly just to feel my busk resist. I still liked to run my finger up and down my spiral bones only now in a high top the length was much greater. I derived much reassurance from putting my hands on the tautly stretched and boned black satin facing on my hips and using my thumbs to press against my pair of back steels or reach back and "strum" the taut crosses of the back lacing. All this gave me solace that I had done the right thing. I also liked running my fingers up and down the satin covered busk, plates, the seams between the panels and of course the boning. When I did so on spiral steels boning I marvelled at how pleasing it was to feel through my fingertips the subtle indentations caused by the presence of their rolled spring steel coils.
I don't know if it was on account of my being a man but I came to appreciate the technical aspects of corsets and stockings. I studied the way stockings were knitted and marvelled at the thought that went into the design features of fully-fashioned styles.
I had now worn stockings almost all day ever day for 15 years and had got used to feeling warm legs on the warmest days of summer. However as I didn’t feel right without them, I came to accept it as part and parcel of my commitment. As anyone person - man or woman - who wears suspendered thigh-length stockings will tell you, the tactile sensations they make on the wearer’s legs means that one is continually aware of their presence, whether one is moving, standing or sitting still. As for the high top corset, one of the biggest challenges I faced was trying to wear it in hot summer weather and on occasion I would end the day with the lining damp before I realised I should wear it over a cotton under vest.
12 REFLECTIONS ON SUSPENDERS
I don’t apologise for writing for one last time about suspenders, which after all were the third pillar of my compulsion and the obligatory link between my stockings and a corset or suspender belt. As I was discovering more and more about “my corset self”, as you my reader may recall from the end of Part 3 of this Odyssey, I had concluded that best answer to the fraying problem with some but not all of my suspender elastics was to fit “detachables”. These paragraphs are simply to record the fact that by early 1983 all my corsets and deep boned suspender belts had fitted with loops on which to fit detachable suspenders.
Years earlier I had found repairing suspenders was not easy and I did not enjoy doing it and despite use of a thimble regularly pricked myself of cut myself with blunt blade of a screwdriver or other tool I used. With the very first suspender fittings I used and tried to repair the design used part of the steel length adjuster to crimp one end of the elastic under part of the metal. My ministrations with a sufficiently fine yet rigid screwdriver to price the crimped metal apart were initially rewarded with stabbing my fingers with it blade and no pair of pliers was equal to the task of re-crimping the two halves of metal firmly enough onto the new elastic - if I could hold it correctly in place. Visits home involved furtive visits to my father’s workbench where the jaws of the vice could do the job. At the time, all suspenders I could buy including Winfield brand in Woolworth have included this detail. The design had no doubt evolved to reduce the bulk of a suspender so that it didn’t show through a tight skirt. Only later did the makers revert to the integral loop, which allowed the elastic end to be sewn to its length adjuster. I will not bore readers with the all the other things that could go wring but more than once I succeeded in getting individual items of a suspender - the length adjuster, the clip’s buttoon fitted incorrectly which necessitated unpicking stitches and repeating the exercise at hand.
In contrast I had now had the privilege of seeing Mrs N at work on the machine sewing up five or six suspenders at a time. As I did, I marvelled at how she never made errors of the kind I did all too frequently - full testimony to her professionalism and why I knew I needed her to keep me on my Odyssey. Back in 1982-3, another important factor in being accepted as a customer was that Mrs Norris was always ready to help with running repairs for a modest charge on any corset, whether she had made it or not. This was an additional way for me to give her business and to meet her.
As to my needs. I wanted four changes - first to standardise the number of suspenders at five pairs and second to have only detachable suspenders. This meant secondly to have 10 loops for five pairs sewn on the hem of all corsets and boned suspender belts. As for the elastic I wanted them in a variety of lengths according to position around the hem and thigh and fourthly I wanted to have some of each length made up with three weights of elastic.
Hence regardless of earlier changes I would gradually get Mrs Norris to convert all my corset that I wore regularly- and happily it mattered not whether she had made them or not. That meant removing all sewn on suspenders and sewing onto the hem instead the loops though which the split rings I discussed in Part 3 could be threaded. I was quite particular about loop location and got the front pair close to my busk and the back pair immediately below my back steels. The three side pairs directly below the pair of spiral steels.
As you have read, it had not been without its travails. I’ll summarise how I reached each final choice solution in turn
Corset loops: Mrs Norris had tried using several materials for the loops including elastic and twill tape both of which got cut and frayed by the edges of the split rings while Petersham or bias binding tape or built up strips made of “regency” nylon satin proved to be much more durable. We never tried elastic loops - as I had learned with my disappointing Kesman basque and waspie in the early 1970s, its use defeats the desired goal by reducing tautness and moreover quickly breaks down.
Suspender Elastic: Fraying, leading to suspender breakdown had become the most problematic aspect of my new lifestyle. If stockings laddered - until 1994 at least - and could always be replaced at reasonable cost - but, as I quickly learned, my preference for very taut suspenders was incompatible with long life for suspender straps. Over the years I had experimented with different weights, weaves and widths of elastic and in the 15 years since I had started on my Odyssey I had become reasonably competent at handling a needle and thread to sew new elastic into my humble suspender fittings. I paid her appropriately for such work and used it as a reason to visit her more regularly without the need to order a new corset every time. I now had 10 corsets - even after discarding the Pink Wilbro - and so had regular need of access to repairs beyond my skill with needle and thread but easily done by an industrial grade sewing machine in the hands of a skilled seamstress like Mrs Norris.
As noted l had become more sensitive to the importance of having the right weight or strength of elastic in particular suspenders or to use with stockings of certain lengths or deniers. At this time the weights and types of wide 1c inch suspender elastic that Iris used were longitudinally ribbed - the lightest, cross weave of intermediate width and long weave which was the heaviest. I had encountered many other weaves in the twenty of more makes of ladies suspender belts I had bought between 1967 and 1980 but all were in the 3/4 inch. I had even use belt grade elastic in both widths, but as part of my home repair kit in 1984 I bought from Iris 10 years coil of heavy or strong cross weave from Iris to make my own. Through my experiments I had become a great believer in graduated length and graduated strength of my suspenders. In general I liked very strong elastic in the front and less strong in my back pairs which I usually sat on.
As I noted in Part 3 I got Mrs Norris instead of getting a set of suspenders for each corset I got her to make me up a variety of lengths based on unstretched elastic length ranging as follows
This was my initial order.
In strong or heavy elastic: 3 inch -4 pairs, 41/2 inch (classic provision ) 6 pairs, 6 inch 6 pairs,
In medium strong elastic 6 inch 6 pairs, 9 inch 6 pairs 10 inch - 6 pairs and 12 inch 6 pairs.
The strong front ones would not pull when I sat down but would give me a satisfy sense of their pulling hard on my stockings when I stood up. Moreover the lighter strength back ones would not cut in if I sat for a long time driving the car.
Still if I took off my under-apparel at the end of the day it was surprising how one could discern many details in the pink marks my suspenders would leave on the white skin of my thighs. A fact which inhabited my wish to ever be seen in a sports changing room though today I wonder if anyone would put two and two together as the cause of such marks!
Rings; at first the corset or suspender loops tended to come off simple steel rings. Hence I refined my choice to that of split, or key rings to link hem loop to suspender loop. I initially matched ring diameter to strap diameter but found the 1/14 inch diameter rings were a little unsightly and moved on a smaller diameter of 1 inch. In doing so I found the smaller rings were usually made of a superior steel - a true spring steel which after threading the loop into position would always closed the edge tightly. My initial ring purchases had been made with lower quality steel and even an initially prising apart would cause them to “gape open at each end a fact which was quickly detected by the strained elastic and during the course of a day I would experience the ignominy of a slipped suspender.
13 ADAPTING A PLAYTEX IDEA
I had been used to seeing the long narrow brown paper parcels in which Gardner’s and then Mrs Norris customarily rolled up a customer’s completed corset. Doing so served one of two purposes it was protected from dust and damage prior to the customer calling for a fitting or it could be mailed back and forth if additional alterations were necessary between corsetière and customer. I tried to keep my corsets in the brown paper but in time it proved inadequate and I resorted to using padded envelopes of padded “bubble wrap” especially to carry short corsets in my briefcase.
For visits I tended to use a what is often referred to as a “Pilot’s document case” but if I carried high tops some even if folded with ten suspenders proved to be too long for such treatment. So I settled on what I call a “Playtex-type” cardboard tube. I had first seen the cardboard tube in a Playtex advert in the mid-1960s and later walked passed them in a department store and noted that girdle tubes were about a foot long and 18 hour corselettes were in tubes of about 18 inches long. At the time, though I would desperately have loved to try on a corselette, unlike Simon <<link>> I lacked the courage to go into a store and buy one for myself. But I never forgot the cardboard tube. In the right length they would allow me to carry one of my high tops while the world at large imagined I was carrying a roll of architectural plans!. Of course when rolled a high top needed twice the diameter of the tube and almost double the length (30 inches) I remembered with Playtex. So, fifteen so years after first seeing the Playtex tube, I adopted the idea and sought out tubes of different lengths to suit the various lengths of my corsets to store them when washed and dry I might add - and to carry corsets on my travels.
That said, to anyone contemplating such an idea in these security conscious times more than once between 1981 and 2001, I know my luggage was searched by the luggage security section after check in. I can just imagine how a long corset rolled up with 20 or more 16-20 inch spiral and flat steels and a heavy busk, it must have appeared to look like a gun or weapon on the scrutiniser’s X-ray screen. I could tell such things had happened by the fact that it was no longer as I had packed it and had been impatiently stuffed back into the tube my a zealous security agent. I was also glad that I never locked the suitcase as no damage was ever done.
I often wonder what words were exchanged when they looked at my humble high top with its ten dangling suspenders and why it was in what was otherwise gentleman’s’ clothing. But then I am such people have seen even more unusual or incongruous item of apparel in their time. Today I wonder how many would even recognise what it was!
14 IVY LEAF AND THE ROLE OF PHOTOGRAPHY
Accounts of my Odyssey would be incomplete if I did not at least discuss my interest in self-photography. In this regard writing now in 2008 I wonder if I’d had access to Ivy Leaf’s “Tribute to the Corsetiere” and its wonderful reproduction of corset photographs whether I’d have felt compelled to make a photographic record of my own corsets. Indeed I will forever be being grateful to Ivy Leaf and her husband for their altruism in for their web site and their innate altruism. It is amazing what had been possible -positive and negative since the inception f the Internet.
That said I now beg the indulgence and forgiveness of them and my readers when I tell them that for myself the chance to access so much material about corsets and corset photos had been wonderful. In the past, the availability of corset stories, experiences and photos was always very limited. Whilst a number of pleasing studies were published they were few and far between and are now of vintage age they were few and far between.
Hence since I could not find the type of photos I sought in the late 70s like Berks Corsetier, I became my own model using a tripod, and flash to high speed film. Thanks to the web I now know we were not alone in doing so. All we sought as self-photographers was a more permanent record of what we transiently saw when we looked at our corseted reflections in the mirror. The Internet is now veritably littered with such images. Regrettably most but not all are taken by younger photographers who, together with their models or partners, sadly lack the grounding in he appreciation of the innate beauty of the correctly cut and properly laced corset, of suspenders and their fittings and of stockings and their seams, finishing loops, afterwelts heel and seam reinforcements that persons of my generation gained in every day life of the 1940s, 50s and 60s.
15 EVENTS ELSEWHERE
There was also a revival of interest in fully-fashioned stockings and to that end a new window display which I was surprised to see in many more of the smaller stores which dealt with ladies fashions. It was a photo placard for "Harmony featuring the rear view of a winsome model in black lingerie, strategically raising the legs of her black satin French knickers to reveal the tops of her black stockings below which straight seams ran into the point heels above the sole of backless, high-heeled mules. I wrote to Aristoc congratulating them on their initiative and my flattery resulted in them sending me a copy of it free and gratis, which I cherish to this day.
In February 1984 the cover of Playboy featured Shannon Tweed wearing a vintage corset, faced in blue. I was fascinated to see the two-way curvature of the corset front as well as the five glinting busk hooks, which had created both her décolletage and sharply defined waist. Other details I noted were the exquisite fine sewing of what might have between cane stays and fine contrasting stitching. This was a major event for me to see such a thing worn on the cover of a mainstream magazine, the fist since I’d seen my teenage crush of close to 30 years earlier, the red satin corseted Dawn Addams who had appeared as the centrefold of Picture Post back in 1955.
Corsets featured in the spring 1983, in the movie "Picnic at Hanging Rock" an Australian film with a “crocodile” of six or more schoolgirls simultaneously lacing one another into their corsets, accompanied by the sound track of the tightening laces squeaking. In a second scene, a farm hand is helping to lace in a maid’s corsets and she involuntarily calls out "Oh" as her corset takes control of her figure.
In Part 5, I record the thoughts on the future that Berks Corsetier and I had shared at our first meeting about identifying makers and minimum orders For example the last British busk maker Ariel Works of Leicester, which no doubt lost it’s biggest customer with the closure of W & R Symington in 1981 still offered to make busks but the cost was based on a production run of no fewer than 10,000 items for each length produced.
]About this time one of Paul Raymond’s stable of magazines "Club", included a portfolio of drawings by Rick Blue. The most memorable was one inspired by the doyenne of corset wearing models from the 1950s featuring tight lacing corsets, seamed black stockings with cuban heels, and steeple heeled shoes. Further ironic evidence of a revival of interest just as availability was in decline.
In the outside world, the economic news was not good. Mrs Thatcher may have won the Falklands war, but she had doubled VAT so that inflation remained at high levels, serious though not as bad as the Wilson years. It is ironic that as I write, Thatcher’s policies and those of Reagan are all but discredited. At the time they meant that industries were closing every day, unemployment was rising, and money didn’t go so far. The price of corsets rose all the time as well. A G72 high top that had cost £40 in November 1980 by December 1892 was costing me £55, while today it might cost £200, even £300. I have already noted how stockings were becoming much more expensive.
16 PREPARING FOR 1984 - RESOLVING DOUBTS AND LEARNING THE FINER POINTS
It took time to learn the best way to do almost everything related to my chosen way of living. Sometimes I despaired to the point of abandoning the corset for days at a time. But as I had found, the need to wear a corset returned within days and I was again required to address the issues I found so daunting. In more reflective moments I came to realize that things were different for me, a man. I didn't start from the same way as women. Starting in their teens, several generations of women had successively introduced to the intricacies of stockings and suspenders, then to girdles and some corsets over a period of years. They also had the benefit of sharing ideas and how to do things. They picked things up from the day-to-day example of the mothers and grandmothers too. I had to learn it all on a comparative crash course without reference to no one - until I met Iris. Even then on occasion I would ask myself if it was all worth it. Then, once I wore a corset more regularly it was the days I didn't wear it that I found I wanted to have it on. Earlier it had been the same with stockings and suspenders belts, which I decided to wear every day in the late 1960s .and have done ever since- TH1 is on the days when a corset is out of the question -usually on account of hotter summers mmaking even the casual too . For those who may ask, yes for close to 30 years I wore stockings either with a corset or suspender belt for air travel, but that ended in September 2001…
I now realize that I chose to start on my Odyssey at the very end of the golden era of corsets and stockings. To my personal distress many of the items of women’s apparel that had fascinated me were not only being discarded but were no longer produced while young women no longer wore seamed stockings. Within a few years they abandoned them totally and within a few years more, as tights became popular first suspender belts and then girdles were no longer worn and joined corsets in being harder to find. I was the proverbial fly in amber, caught in a time warp. Yet, as long as Mrs. Norris lived - for she showed no signs of growing old or slowing down until the last year or two of her life - I would be able to get replacement corsets.
As for my commitment, I have never quite overcame the anxiety I still felt each time I slotted up the busk. It had been the same with twisting do clip on the back suspenders which needed me to twist more than my back -healed as it was from childhood injuries would allow me to. Yet when it came to making a choice, compulsion trumped anxiety. My introduction to wearing a corset had been in snatched moments at inconvenient times./ Not surprisingly when I had gained the experience of wearing it for many hours and got confident enough to wear it to work, things became much easier,
I learned that there were advantages in not being laced to the limit in that one could wear the corsets all day. However I tried to vary my diet or eating pattern, I always got a sense of overeating however much or little I ate if laced too tight. It would manifest itself in various ways but one way was a slight pain about 2 inches below the top of my busk in a 12 inch where my spare tire would
It was more difficulty with corsets and I did learn that for me the best procedure was to put my stockings on first of all, rolled to my knees. I would then slot up one hook on the busk . Like this I could twist enough to clip on my back pairs of suspenders, which if the busk was fully hooked up, I could not do.
As for the tendency of the suspenders to drag down the corset below the correct level, I found that because the ideal elastic length for the back suspenders was so great, even after they were clipped on my stocking tops they were still much the elastic did not pull on the loose corset at all. Thus once all my clips were on my stocking tops I was then free to finish hooking up the busk in the preordained manner with the comfort of knowing I had my stockings held up - albeit loosely. Once the busk was slotted I could then pull in to the first level of tightness which was enough to counter the down-pull of the suspenders. I would rotate the stocking top to get the very back suspender closer to the inside of my thigh. I id this primarily to position it so that I did not sit on it all the time
I came to find that there was no anxiety associated with clipping on the other three pairs of my suspenders as those were all in view and I appreciated taking time to deal with them carefully. I would start by looking between my thighs and if I could just get a glimpse of the very back clip I would then clip on the very front suspenders about 4-5 inches from the back ones well to the inside of the thigh. The second or centre front suspenders would then be right on the front of my thighs coming straight down. At this point I got the visual pleasure of seeing the chrome of the clips and the length adjusters glinting and reflecting the light. all that was then left to do was to tilt my head to catch sight of the seam suspender and gauge the distance between that clip and the centre front one and carefully attach the last pair of clips mid way between them right on the side of my thighs, almost over my hip bones - or to use the term beloved of those 1930s corset instruction book writers, who must have had an understanding of equine medicine - the trochanter.
With all ten suspenders clipped on I made a point of walking around to allow the pull of the suspenders to act on the stockings before going through the process of shortening the elastics. Again I experimented with the order to follow and again practice taught me that reality was different from fantasy. It was unrealistic or unnecessary to expect all ten suspenders to be taut all the time. Indeed it was better that the back ones were long enough to make sitting easy but short enough to pull up the back of my stockings as I stood up though I knew that when walking they would momentarily come right out of tension as I observed myself in the mirror on one occasion. Likewise the when sitting to have the front suspenders taut was equally impossible anatomically but as long as they were there to pull the stockings uptight over my knees when I stood up it was enough. . I would start the elastic shortening with the seam clip and then the centre front pair. had learned that this was advisable as lacing in just once meant that within the hour the corset would feel loose.
Equally satisfying was the fact that even with all the down-pull of ten suspenders I could barely detect their down pull in the corsets but a slight dip of the hem where the rings held them showed that the force was there. This simple fact was enough to remind that at the outset I had sought the perfect suspender belt that could not be moved by the pull of suspenders. It was the reason that I approached my first outfitter for a corset back in 1972, when I had been unable to resolve the lack of distance between the suspenders of my “Contessa” and my stockings tops. The outfitter’s advice to wear a corset had been right and I was not disappointed but pleased. I
also realise that detractors of men with my predilections will say that using more than three pairs of suspenders one is in the realms of fetishism. I have examined that remark in two ways. On one level it implies that fetishism is innately bad, whereas as I believe anyone who knows me will say, I am the first to admit that my "need" to wear corsets and stockings might be called fetishism, but. I will respond by saying that it is because I am so particular about what is acceptable to me that I do so and that if anyone chooses to mark me as a fetishist it is his or her choice.
Even then, life was not the bed of roses I imagined possible. I could leave nothing to chance for with the long elastics of the back suspenders it was surprisingly easy to unwittingly twist a strap only to discover the error when it came to shortening its length. By that time, on account of the tightness - not to mention the limitation on twisting of a correctly fitted and laced high top corset I had taken to wearing as much of the time as summer weather would allow - it was all but impossible to rectify matters without unlacing and that might men opening out some or all of the suspender length adjusters and slacking off on the lacing. Only then could I unclip the offending clip, untwist the elastic and do everything again. With time I leaned to check and double check these details and now after close to 25 years of the "high top corset life" I like to tell myself I know as much as even as experienced a Spirella corsetiere.
In referring to her, I sometimes wonder if any of those censorious Spirella and other corsetieres, had ever been as broad minded as to accept a man like myself as customer, they might have realized, as Mrs. Norris clearly did, that the mere wearing of corsets, suspenders and stockings gives their wearers a common bond that far exceeds the difference in gender. They would have also understood the fact that men were quite capable of appreciating the same physical sensations all day every day that are derived from wearing those items of clothes, as can any woman.
As for tightness, it took time but I gradually learned that one is too easily seduced by the initially sensation of increased tightness. Against that one has to balance what one plans to do over the next few hours, not to mention to think out the opportunities for lacing adjustment, which in the case of a man at work have -of necessity to be accomplished in the far from desirable confines of a cubicle of a toilet if at work or on an aeroplane. That is not to say I couldn't do it - on occasion I had no choice but to do it as discreetly as I could.
17 A CORSETIERES’ CO-OPERATIVE?
1984 dawned and happily for me no Big Brother had spied on me. The secret I carefully kept under my everyday clothes remained safe and was known to only three people. But I had not bee idle in following up on contacts given to me through the good offices of my corsetiere. My financial situation was eased and I would be able to indulge my flights of fancy by getting Mrs Norris to make me what I call “challenging” or “recreation” corsets, suitable only for relatively short term wear either at home or in the company of like attired women and men at a corset soirée
In summary what came out of my contacts was the fact that if bespoke corsetieres cooperated and pooled their resources or buying, they could over come the acute shortages of supply of components particular to the preferences of tight lacing corsets wearers, which are nothing if not exacting, and I entered 1984 as an exacting wearer
I wrote independently to my first contact for corsets -my old outfitter “Cover Girl” and to her former employee who had in rivalry begun “Stage Door”. It turned out that Berks Corsetier had been successful in obtaining orders from her - she was his first bulk customer. When I told Mrs Norris of this she was what might best described as charitably disdainful of what corsets might be made using anything other than an industrial strength sewing machine and a commercial eyeletter. However, my discussions with Mrs Norris and with the Berks Corsetier made us realise that there were advantages to corsetières knowing one another in order to buy and sell or exchange components that were hard to get.
I told Mrs Norris of my idea and over the rest of 1983 she was to gradually introduce me to some ten of her customers. For each one she was kind enough to tell me her opinion as to how she judged them. I took is as compliment that she did, but initially I didn’t realise that already she regarded me as a friend as well as a customer. It also was interesting how alike we thought because when I came to meet some of the people I could not but be struck that invariably I was finding that her observations of a particular individual were exactly how I would come to feel about them myself, and this meant positive, neutral or negative feelings.
One would think that individual male corset wearers would simply be glad to know each other but among them, as in other walks of life there was a spectrum of personalities from warm and friendly to courteous, outwardly pleasant to the boorish, pushy, disputatious and gossipy. In all this she was always discreet and would sharply tell me if she felt I had been indiscreet or I stepped out of line. In all she was kindness and understanding of the lot of a man to the point of sewing black satin tabs over pink suspenders as she thought pink did not suit my personality.
18 CORRESPONDING WITH NEW CONTACTS
In the meantime I had struck up a correspondence with David Kunzle whose book “Fashion and Fetishism” had opened my eyes to a whole new world of corset wearers. He told me of an American enterprise which sold corset patterns and so I learned of Past Patterns of USA. In turn Past Patterns told me of an American lady corset wearer, but she responded with a polite but firm rebuff. I felt like a man rebuffed by a Spirella lady of the old school! Past Patterns also put me in touch with Ruth Johnson of BR Creations in California, who had just set up her firm and published the Corset Newsletter.
On one visit Mrs Norris showed me a corset whose fabric had completely frayed from the strain of tightening. After using the old one as pattern she was required to salvage all its components and make a second one faced in his favoured black spot material.. She put me in touch with him. He proved to be a space scientist from Germany with two doctorates who was addressed as Dr. Dr. A. B_______. He had been a customer of the renowned Berlin corsetiere, Hella Knabe.
Another contact was the man who owned the company “Fanny Copere". He had produced the four volumes of the “Corset Question” for which Mrs Norris had posed for the photographs and for whom Gardner’s had procured the orders for his company
Mrs Norris also introduced me to two lady customers to whom I wrote very discreetly with my proposal. I was glad I had been discreet for in one case the husband replied. In the other case I heard nothing, but out of the blue a retired career army officer, who lived in a minor stately home often used as a film and television set for period drama, replied. It turned out he was a friend of the other lady and her husband. He said that they were hopeless correspondents but very approachable by telephone and, with their permission he gave me their very private ex-directory number. He had been raised by his nanny and became fascinated by her corsets when she hugged him. As a young subaltern he’d had the good fortune to meet and form a relationship with a well-corseted, older widowed lady he had met on a ship returning from service in India in 1938. She took him to Laurence Lenton where she was an established customer.
Another man, I’ll refer to as Gardarma, because that was his nom-de-plume, a transposition of blocks of letters forming the name of the corset brand “Armagard” used by a corsetiere that his wife, her sisters and their mother had patronised for many years. His memories appear under his nom-de-plume in the Long Island Staylace Association (LISA).
In every case but one I was fortunate to get a telephone number for each person, which eased communications. The exception was a man who lived with aged parents who wanted to betray no hint of his patronage of Mrs Norris and could only be contacted by letter. He was a most enthusiastic wearer of a tight-laced corset, suspenders and seamed stockings like me, but as I was to find out some years later, the similarity ended there. Indeed, upon hearing I had arranged to meet him she told me, in her most confidential manner, that she felt great empathy for his situation. As a result she said that after fitting him in a new corset would let him dress fully in full lingerie, high heels, dress, put on a wig and make up, after which leave in his car and visit an appropriate club in London, before returning to his aged parents.
Contact with these few initial contacts proved to be very like a pyramid letter. Within months I had been referred to a whole network of corset enthusiasts located in France, Germany, Finland, Sweden, the USA and as far away as South Africa - a man of 88 years old no less – Australia and New Zealand. Many had been part of a correspondence circle originally centred on Will and Ethel Granger and included every name acknowledged in the preface of David Kunzle’s book.
I especially valued introduction to her oldest customer an old Wykamist and career oil man. I was flattered no end when she told me that he, with a generation more experience than me, had, when told of what I was wearing asked to be measured and fitted with similar styles and even gave her repeat orders. Quite amazingly, after she had resumed work from home he had commissioned many corsets than normal, in different lengths, cuts and boning provisions. He did this in fear that supplies of parts might run out or that she might again retire, or as Mrs Norris put it “He things I might die before him”!
Sadly, in his late 70s his one side was severely incapacitated by a stoke and, having been predeceased by his wife, who was his equally corseted partner for many years, suddenly he had no one to help him lace into the long corsets that he and she so loved to wear together. In genuine despair he admitted that it had taken him several hours and many laddered stockings to achieve his desire to relive for one last time his former passion, using just his good arm and hand. At that, this former world traveller abandoned the effort and not long after passed away. I know he sorely missed his wife but I also know he fretted and despaired of what had been a life of corseting that began in the early 1930s when he first met Overett’ at Knightsbridge close to 55 years earlier having sought a catalogue while still an inquiring schoolboy.
Another of Mrs Norris oldest customers was from northerly city of Aberdeen. He too had moved to Gardners in his 50s when Overett died in 1962. He was now of advancing years and for several years broke off correspondence with me because his doctor told him to stop corseting and he feared that any correspondence on a subject that was so dear to him would cause him to lapse from his abstinence of corseting and fall ill again.
Last but not least I met the original person to call himself Frangard - hence I am Frangard 2. His commitment to corsets and stockings had begun in the late 1930s with Laurence Lenton and after his death he became a customer of Marie Stafford who had been trained by Lenton. He moved to Overett when Madame Marie, as he called her, retired in the late 50s. but that association was of course short lived. He then patronised Gardner’s, knew Mrs Norris but had also dealt with Madame Medeq. He had known the Grangers and like Will, he corresponded with literally dozens of enthusiasts around the world.
I could go on but I refer to these because they were the most important living corset wearers so strongly associated with the preferences of the “London Life” magazine of the 1920s and 30s and its short lived successor “Bizarre” which finished publication in 1959. Several had been inspired to respond to Lenton or Overett’s letters after reading corset-related letters, which had appeared in those magazines. They fondly remembered both publications and even in 1980s and 90s, averred that the letters and articles in the equivalent modern magazines were only a pale imitation. What upset them was the ignorance of what real corsets or fully-fashioned stockings were.
19 MARCH 1984 - MY FIRST CONSULTATION FOR A YEAR
My work arrangements were such that close to a year was to pass before I again visited Mrs Norris. She greeted me and used by first name, which uplifted my spirits no end and she assented to my calling her Iris, which I recalled was the name my first outfitter used when I went back to have a set of longer suspenders made for my first real, red-satin faced corset back in 1972.
Many things happened in the meantime, not the least being the efforts I made in contacting other corset wearers. Mrs Norris, or Iris, was getting orders from her old customers and suddenly was getting more outwork. Added to this Mr Gardner had reflected on her failure to return to work with him and so, in had agreed to lend him the eyeletters. She had no nowhere to set them up but the garden shed, which was some distance from the house and cold in winter,. Initially she was forced to use her brother's heated garage, which, though he lived nearby, was inconvenient. Hence in response to this problem she had arranged during the summer to have an extension built on her kitchen where she finally set up the machines and proved a second work area- a small version of the work room she’d had at 28 Barnsbury Square -give or take the intervening fridge and stove!
This is what I wrote to a friend at the time:
“I knocked on the side door and Iris called out "Come in “so I walked in and she was standing resplendently corseted under her dress, with a lovely small waist and her ample high bosom rising and falling as only the tight-laced life allows. "I'll just put on a cup of tea " she said and turned to go to the sink and I looked at her legs. She was, as always wearing beautiful stockings - dark brown with arrow straight seams and gorgeous point heels which reached about 9" above the sole of her mules and that were suspendered so tautly that they were shimmering on her calves as I’ve seen them before. She was wearing backless black 3" heeled mules.
“I stood by her at the stove and we chatted about this and that, all the time we both knew everything about each other and that even as we spoke we were both wearing corsets, suspenders and stockings - mine black, hers dark brown.
“Before long the conversation turned, as it always does to corsets and so we talked it was rewarding just to watch how she moved about. When she sits she brings her arm across her body under her large bosom across her waist and holds herself on her waist line when she takes it away she seems to be supported ethereally and is obviously resting against the corset wall. Periodically I could hear her stockings whistle as she crossed and uncrossed her legs!
“I asked her about her problems with her busks and she said "Terrible”, I’ve broken three since Xmas(!) but luckily your friend (the Berks Corsetier) sent me three spoon busks, which you know I like, and I’ve put that in and things are better. That's the trouble when you pull in a lot"
“I get the feeling she was smaller than I’d ever seen her - I almost wonder if she pulls in a bit extra when customers visit, but she said she is holding steady at 20" and for a lady of 63 that is wonderful. I fear she’s put on a little weight since she retired but she has a superb ample bosom that MC said her adores.
“She'd been fairly busy with orders and alternations for corsets and is doing a lot of clothes alterations. She showed me a pair of corsets she was repairing for a lady in Manchester. They were beautiful in v expensive, figured broche orange pink pattern a black background -almost like a Grecian urn. !9" waist and about 18"+ hip spring beautifully fluted and made by Iris some years ago. She'd finished the alternation and it had four pairs of suspenders to sew on.
“I had sent Iris some stockings (walking Sheers) coffee Colour for Xmas but they were too big and she said she had given them to another customer in exchange for two pairs of Aristoc 'Harmony" in 'Bitter Chocolate" which she said she was wearing at that moment. He was an old customer who she allows to dress up completely as a woman once she's laced him in and lets him sit with her to talk. It doesn't bother her at all.
“We then planned the new corset. She proudly produced a 16" long busk for me. Following up on our cooperation idea she had actually bought three of them for me from Berks Corsetier.
“Together we looked through her stock of steels - flat spring ones and spiral springs too for suitable lengths. She was so helpful and knowledgeable, offering ideas and answering my questions. After some discussion she suggested I had nuli steels on either side of the eyelets so we found two pairs of 18" long ones. That's what I have", she said . "You'll like then, hold you up nicely!.!
“She said she had some trouble with her own steels -spirals bones digging in on her hip bone and had rubbed raw her skin. "it makes me mad Because I don't feel right unless I’m pulled right in so I've put a piece of sponge on my corset to keep it off the spot. I felt it was wonderful that she'd put up with anything to be tight laced in her corsets and warm inside to know that she and I were laced as we talked about it.
“I went to the fitting room and took off my high top for her to take measurements and when I started to put it on again she said "Come on, I'll lace you in" I didn't like to seem too ready to accept in case she thought something so I said "I'll just slot up the busk and them you can help me. so I did it with loose trousers on, as I wasn't really prepared in cache sex and tights. I still felt I didn't want to abuse her trust by being seen in just corset, and stockings with underpants rather than a cache sex and tights underall as was my habit in her fitting room.
As had become usual Mrs Norris, it took some time to easily call her Iris, laced me into the altered high back with the shoulder straps and helped me suspender my black nylons. After I dressed, I rejoined her in the kitchen for another cup of tea and we talked about customers and corsets.
She brought out an old corset of the “hopeless correspondent” customer of very long standing, which she had repaired. The corset had been repaired more than once but still had beautiful pale orange broche facing but what amazed we was its hip spring. In response to my comment Iris said it would create a spring of over 20 inches, which she herself had always aimed for. Several years later I was to meet the woman at her 50th birthday and I found out later it was a favourite of hers which had been made actually been made for her by Overett some 25 years earlier.
20 WITH IRIS AGAIN
I hardy thought that after a year between visits I would be back to see Iris again within two weeks but I was anxious to have a fitting for my new high top with a high back and the new style shoulder straps. As I wrote to a friend:
She'd been modifying and repairing some of my old corset and suspender belts and has fitted me into the new one with a 16" busk. During this second visit she laced me into three corsets and helped me suspender my stockings each time. My shape has settled down now and she knows my figure exactly and each one closed down beautifully. I told her to cinch me down like she would herself and she got me down to what I found when I checked later was just over 27” over the corset. About a 7" pull in.
During my fitting session I was stretching and bending and sitting to check it out and became aware that she was watching me intently, as I was revelling and luxuriating in corsets and taut suspendered black stockings!. I caught her eye and she smiled slightly embarrassedly as she looked directly at her and she simply said "That looks very nice on you, very handsome.” So I said or mumbled something like "that's nice of you because most people would think a man like me in corset and stockings is mad" and she said something like” You shouldn't worry, it's what you like that matters, X_______".
I remembered our conversation about slipping stockings the next time I sent a mail order to Alberts in America for “Walking Sheers”. In addition to my own order, I ordered two pairs for her in her foot size in Taupe and the same for the Berks Corsetier. When I wrote to her I pointed out that the ribbing knitted into their tops and thought that it might help overcome her suspender slippage problems. I again suggested she tried using more suspenders, though, who was I, a relative novice to tell her what to do? She replied by return thanking me and said, “I wore them last week.” However when I saw her next she told me that they were too big and did I mind that she’d given them to another male customer. In turn she gave me a pair in “Bitter Chocolate”, also too big for her that he had bought her at her request. To make amends when I went back the second time I took her two pairs of Harmony I bought her in London and she was very pleased.
When I sent him his pairs I told Berks Corsetier that if he ever saw her wearing cuban heeled nylons they were probably a present from me. By return of post he thanked me for them and sent a Polaroid a rear view photo of himself in the pink-brocade faced conventional busk fronted back lacing corset Its back suspenders were clipped above the finishing loops and seams of cuban heeled stockings and the caption written in lead pencil at the bottom band of the photo “Trying on Walking Sheers”.
21 A CONSULTATION WITH A CORSETIER OR WAS IT A CORSETIERE
It had been a year since I’d tried on the long corset with Berks Corsetier and he told me he’d had altered it and had ready for months so I agreed to visit. This time it was daylight and I found my way to his home with ease. I no longer felt self conscious about calling and was well laced into my high top. I knocked the door but saw no movement behind it and the door was opened a crack and from behind a curtain pulled across I heard an almost disembodied voice calling me to come in. As I moved though the curtain I saw only what I took to be woman’s face. I shut the door and a hand reached to lock it. As the curtain fell back across the door I was greeted by the alter ego of Berks Corsetier or was it Berks Corsetiere for that is how it looked? Below the bewigged head, made up face - mascara, rouge and lipstick - I saw a full white blouse buttoned over a bosom that I judged measure in excess of 50 inches. Below was a cinching black leather belt and a knee-length pleated purple skirt, black stockings and strappy silver high heels. I followed the “person” into the sitting room and as “she” walked I quickly noted thick black seams on the semi opaque stockings and concentrated my attention on them.
We sat down and I said if he was going to be dressed like that, I wanted to get into my under attire. So I went upstairs and took off my outer clothes and I rejoined him in my high top corset, suspenders and black nylons and we resumed our discussion of corsetry. I said however that I was very pleased to see he was wearing black stockings, so he pushed back his skirts and in a mock display of sauciness he showed me his stocking tops. They began on his knees and the suspenders were stretched as taut as could be. I didn't think I’d have liked such an experience but I knew him and it all was decorous and platonic.
He said he had put on the seamed semi-opaque black nylons to please me and as was his need, they were almost as short a style of stretch style that it was possible to buy, probably foot size 8½ or 9. He did so to ensure that they would anchor his suspenders properly, which would then pull hard on the hem of corset and maintain its taut “wrap” of its skirt on his hips. He then stripped down to his bra and three pairs of corsets and the short black nylons.
In acting out our desires or compulsions as far as we had, we now had tastes that would exclude us from a close relationship with almost every member of the opposite sex save the persons we might be put in touch with by specialist corsetieres like Mrs Norris or Madame Medeq both of whom had a keen sense of the difference between myself and what constitutes gay or transvestite behaviour.
He looked every bit the lady corsetiere who had taken off her dress to help a diffident customer feel less uncomfortable while wearing underwear in the presence of a stranger. Over all the other corsets he was wearing an amazing fan lacer - Jenyns in pink brocade. Above he wore a superb hostess long line bra, in ivory white satin, with the usual huge bosom so that he, or should I say she, was totally contained in matronly corsetry, stockings, big wide elastic suspenders.
He unrolled my altered long corset. It was still the same length but now with just 25 pairs of eyelets and much wider back panels. He had still not fitted suspenders or loops for detachables, and though I had not brought along a deep boned suspender girdle and I insisted that if photos were to be taken I would only do so wearing stockings and suspenders. As I write this now I can see how much I had grown in self confidence about what I wore and wanted to be seen wearing by persons who “understood.” So, he rummaged in his drawers and produced 4 pairs of suspenders with pink elastic and corset clips which we attached to the hem before he laced me in. Doing so was so easy compared to when it had the 48 pairs of eyelets that it was barely tight on my form. . I now faced his dilemma about stocking length and ended up wearing a pair of 15 denier Albert’s “Classic” which were the shortest stockings I had with me. No photo can record the antics that the “corsetiere” and her “customer” had with the corset clips which randomly slipped off the hem of the corset at inconvenient moments as we shortened their elastics, though I am sure such scenes must have occurred countless times in the salons of Spirella, Spencer or Barcley in the golden years. He then gave me his camera and asked me to photograph the details of his Jenyns for him. In turn I modelled my altered high top and he took lots of photo of details like suspenders, stocking tops, eyelets busk etc from many angles using a close up lens.
22 MY FIRST CONTACT WITH A CORSETED MARRIED COUPLE
In answer to my questions Iris had several times mentioned a lady in the Midlands she had put her husband in touch with me. I wrote and was interested to see their address was pre-printed in Gothic lettering and cream paper. Today with the Goth association with outré attire I might have thought this was a code but as I was to find when I met her nothing could have been further from the truth. I though I thought I had been in contact with a lady when I first wrote. Somewhat ominously he said they didn't want to know transvestites and I knew not what she’d think of my black seamed stockings and suspenders under my trousers. Suffice to say the subject never arose and I never admitted it to them, though I soon knew they did not regard me as being of that persuasion.
I decided to combine a visit to them with a stop en-route at Bletchley. I had sent an order by post for a second high top corset with shoulder strap, like the one she’d made me close to a year earlier. I told Iris that I planned to continue on to visit them and she was clearly very pleased that she had been the one who had introduced us. On this occasion the usual fitting included her assistance with my suspendering When I was fully laced in under her gaze, I bent, stretched and sat down to confirm that the cut at the top was right. She asked if I was going to wear it for my visit. Usually I would have carried it home but I realised that she was hoping that I would keep it on. However I knew that the way she had laced me was more than I felt I could tolerate in over and hour of driving plus the prospect of wearing an “unknown” corset for many hours ahead. So she withdrew while I removed by tights, put on my trousers and she then laced me in less tightly.
I asked Iris for a little information about them and asked if he wore stockings wit his corsets, to which always the essence of discretion she said, well if he does they aren't on the corsets I make him. That sealed it for me I would not disclose to my hosts that I was wearing stockings. In. all the times we corresponded or met, I never said I did, and it was never discussed. I left Iris in mid afternoon, and rejoined the M1 and continued onto the M6 and left onto the A45 near Coventry. I had not been up the road since the mid-1960s -18 years early and was astounded at the changes. I reached the A 452 and wended my way into the outer suburbs of Birmingham and arrived at their Tudor-gabled semi detached home a few minutes early.
23 THREE CORSETED FRIENDS DINE
I parked the car and was, feeling quite self-conscious I walked as confidently as I could up the front door and knocked. In just seconds I saw movement and the colour red behind the hammered glass and was greeted by a smiling woman in her late forties opened it. I looked right at her. We were both a little nervous and she broke the ice by saying “You must be Frangard.”
I confirmed I was and my field of vision opened up and took in the most tightly cinched small waist I had ever seen. There was no doubting that she owed her figure to a wasp waisted corset and was easily the smallest and most amazing waist I had ever seen. Below what proved to be a red blouse with a flounced front was a wide cinching black belt. Below, a grey pleated skirt welled out over a hip spring of the type I had to that time only ever seen on Iris and the hemline ended modestly on the knee.
She turned to lead me into the house and I saw below her skirt seamed full-fashioned dark brown stockings with point heels and four inch heeled, backless black mules. If nothing else she and Iris agreed on the fashions and accessories they liked to wear. I was not surprised she had introduced us and as an introduction of myself I told her I had just visited Mrs Norris. I had no need to say why and she simply asked if she was well.
She asked me to sit down and the only choice was a chair or sofa of three-piece suite which, given my high top corset, was not what I wanted to sit on but good manners told me I could not decline. Fortunately I did so fairly easily and breathed a silent sigh of relief that neither one of back suspenders slipped of because in the quiet of the room my hostess would certainly have known from her own experience what she was hearing and would guess my secret that lay under the legs of my trousers. My concern would then have been that, as yet they did not yet know me well and given her husbands stated concern about transvestites, they might have prematurely branded me as and what turned out to be a positive friendship would have died at once.
She told me her husband had phoned to say he was leaving work and would be home soon. Meanwhile we engaged in what could only be referred to as a cautious exchange of pleasantries and of my memories of passing through the area twenty years or so earlier and how unrecognisable many of the roads now were. At about half past five, later than she'd had expected her husband arrived. He was about my age too and came and sat with us, at which point she went to fix supper. He asked if I’d seen Mrs Norris and I confirmed I had.
Around the home I noted very high-heeled wedge mules were located near each door for which she apologised saying she liked to have pair handy to slip on or off. She had found that because she was constantly laced so tightly that by evening she developed backache. Alternating between low and high heels gave her the changes of posture necessary to alleviate it. She was a school nurse and said she wore high heels at the school all day out of choice.
Since I had advised them that my time was limited she had prepared an early dinner and after about another half hour of conversation I was invited to the table. I did all I could to disguise my struggle to get off the low sofa and said as I’d advised them in my letter that I was wearing a high cut military style corset and that Mrs Norris had altered for me and had she had laced me a little tighter than I was used to. My hosts said nothing other than to ask how Mrs Norris had been, and to say that he hadn't felt he could venture to try into such a style. Again to my relief my secret remained safe - all my suspenders stayed safely clipped on my stocking tops as I rose.
Over the meal of roast chicken, our conversation became more expansive. I noticed my hostess ate only sparingly and that even then she appeared to have more than a little trouble stifling belches, which I put down to the fact that she might have laced herself extra tightly for the occasion.
24 EXPERIENCES ARE EXCHANGED
There were very few moments when the conversation lagged and in the first of those I realised that this was the first time I’d sat down when three people were corseted and that it was the first occasion on which I’d worn a high top corset in the company of others, albeit persons who would understand. At that moment realised that the meeting would prove to be a real test of whether I felt I could tolerate such an increased degree of corset control on a regular basis.
The husband asked me how I started to wear a corset and this was one of the few occasions on which I told a white lie and said I’d had to wear a back brace and when my back was cured I found I “missed” wearing one and started a search for a maker for men and eventually ended up in Gardner’s consultation room
With such an opening gambit I returned the question. She very candidly said she had done so since her early teens and now so abhorred the sight of bulges she saw in her clothes if she was not corseted and rather inelegantly said simply “I hate bulges”. In this her husband concurred and had encouraged her to continue tight lacing long after if went out of style.
At one point both of them had put of weight and joined the Weight Watchers programme. Once they had reached their goals his wife said that if a corset was good for her it was good for him and suggested he wore a corset to monitor his weight and eating. Thus he too became a customer of Mrs Norris, and had worn a corset almost every day, including to work for what I gathered had been several years. He solved the visibility problem by keeping his jacket on at work until the weather got too warm when he would not wear his corset. It also turned out that theirs were among the clamour of voices that had asked Mrs Norris to reconsider her retirement.
She had worn proper corsets since age 13 at which age they became part of the dress code prescribed by the nuns of the convent school she attended. I expressed surprise and she said that the school referred pupils to a particular corsetière and that as part of their vocation the sisters in the convent were required to be strictly corseted. Even in the late 1940s, in the pre-girdle era when corsets were still widely worn, the requirement was irksome to many of the new students but my new friend had grown up in a household where both her late mother and grandmother always wore wh at the husband called “very strong corsets. From the very detailed description she gave of her mother’s corsets they clearly had been very similar to those that Mrs Norris wore.
They were childhood sweethearts and he said how among the things about her that had encouraged her husband to invite her out had been her very small waist and deportment. She volunteered the information that by the time they married she had become so accustomed to having the small waist that wearing a corset afforded that she knew she would never be able to without wearing a corset all day every. As result she had always felt grateful that unlike most men her husband had taken and interest in her corseting and of how supportive he had always been in seeking out corsetières who could make the small waisted corsets she liked. From the early 1960s when they married this quickly meant visits to London to Jean Appleby in Edgware road close to Marble Arch and which a firm from the east end, M Yanovsky, which they had also patronised and which merged with Appleby and moved to the west end premises.
At this I felt a little bolder than I had up to that point and asked her what style she favoured. She liked a short fluted corset, rather like a waspie, as it gave her the freedom of movement for work and household chores. She also volunteered that she had reduced her waist to the level she liked before having children and had found it hard to give up the corset during her two pregnancies. Apart from the joy of having a new baby the second thing she looked forward to was getting back in her corset which her husband actually brought to the hospital and which she laced on gently within days of each birth. She also said that for the past 15 years or so she had taken to wearing a night corset as it reduced the effort of pulling back to her preferred waist each morning.
Both said it wasn’t always easy as her active life sometimes used to result in her breaking her busk and had been so glad that Gardner’s and then Mrs Norris at home could repair or replace them, which they had found many corset makers would not do. In this matter her practical husband eventually found a rigid piece of flat mild steel and curved it to suit her form. She had a pocket made into which to insert it in all her corsets and used it every day with no discomfort and no longer suffered from busk breakages. I didn’t ask but I gathered that, on account of the short styles she favoured, a spoon busk was not an option for her.
Both said how much they liked her to wear clothes in the fashion of the early 1950s, which I realised she was wearing as soon as I first saw her. She even went to a special shop where the woman catered for people who liked the wasp-waisted, full skirted, “New Look”. She preferred seamed stockings and used detachable suspenders on her corsets since the early 70s she often wore tights for work.
At times our conversation digressed as we discovered points in which our lives or interests overlapped such as places we both knew or had taken holidays. It was reassuring to meet a couple with the interest that had brought us together. They were church going, had a grown up children, the son in the forces and their daughter was children’s nurse who had never been pressured to wear corset having chosen not to follow her mother, who worked as a school nurse in a neighbourhood school.
In retrospect I asked what proved to be an inappropriate question and my hostess would not tell me what her waist was, disarmingly replying "I haven't checked lately”, adding very candidly that in any case it “goes up and down”. She said a lot of people commented on her waist but she never let on that she wore corsets and that small waists ran in the family. She also cheerfully volunteered that she was not above using the attribute to charm male colleagues and tradesmen to get her way, if she sensed they were fascinated by it. Later I asked Mrs Norris what her waist was, and to her credit she was equally discreet simply saying said that for many years she had the smallest waist of any of her customers. My guess was that it was less than 18 inches.
They were to prove to be very private people and the only corset contact they’d had, had been a man whose name was to crop up many times as I was making contact with others and who coincidentally died at around that time. Like I had, he had called when initially she was at home alone and she felt so preyed upon that she ended up moving into the Garden until her husband came home.
25 MEETING MADAME MEDEQ
During the trauma of Iris retirement at Gardner’s I again wrote to Madame Medeq and was surprised and disappointed to receive a form letter reply advising that she was closing her Duke Street salon relocating to a rural address in Sussex. Back in 1977 when I was first looking for a personal corsetiere among the firms I wrote to had been hers. In order to facilitate her answer I had prepared a Q&A sheet, which she filled in and returned with a letter. In the event I settled on Gardner’s. I took this move to be a response to the problem of shortage of materials and fewer customers and took the opportunity to write to her and tell her how other small makers were tying to come together.
She wrote back inviting me to visit and we agreed on a date. She even gave her home phone number, in case I got lost and might be late. To some corset wearers of the 1960s and 1970s she was the doyenne of tight lacing corsetières in UK and I felt privileged to accept. I took the day off work, which gave me the chance to put lace on my high top with my black nylons as soon as I got up. I did some chores fully laced in my high top then phoned to confirm that I would call after lunch.
When I set out it was clearly going to be a warm spring day in late April, just after Easter, which was about as late as it could ever be that year. I kept all the car windows open so that, despite my wearing the high top, I managed to remain cool. As I drove, the miners’ strike, which had begun a few weeks earlier, was starting to turn nasty and making headlines again. Her home was in rural Sussex and after turning into the lane I drove up past sheep in field.
She greeted me warmly and somewhat to my surprise the figure under her elegant grey wool dress told me that she was not wearing a corset of the type she specialised in making. I had clearly interrupted her while sewing up her work as short threads of pink sewing cotton stood out against her dark dress. We went to her sitting room and she must have sized up I was well corseted saying “If you’re like many of my customers I expect you’ll prefer an upright chair” I said I that would be very kind as I was wearing a high cut military corset to which she nodded and smiled.
She talked of her most favoured customers including "Corset Hans" of Zurich (now dead) and a man from East Sussex and confirmed that she had met David Kunzle when he was researching his book. She was a charming woman of about 55-60 years of age. She had been a nurse at a London teaching hospital and met and married an orthopaedic surgeon who had died very young some 25 years earlier. Close to penniless she got into the corset trade when, on the advice of another orthopaedic surgeon friend she bought a business making surgical corsets and found they also did tight lacing corsets for other customers. In time she took over other similar businesses, and slowly built up a slate of enthusiastic tight-lacing corset wearers.
She also expressed the wish that someone might read the old records of businesses she took over as well as issues of the 1930s magazine London Life she had “inherited” and to which Graham Greene refers in his 1939 novel” The Lawless Roads.” She confirmed she still retained the services of two part time machinists and told me of some of her customers from the past, such as the late Ethel Granger, who she had liked very much and of her husband Will Granger who she found overbearing. She said when they came for a fitting, Will would arrive with cameras and lights and take photos of Ethel in the fitting room when he insisted on lacing in new corsets to 13 or 14 inches. On occasions he would pull the ever-compliant Ethel so tight, and so quickly, that she would faint, which Diana thought was cruel in the extreme.
Apart from her business she had a busy life breeding the prize sheep I’d passed in the drive and holidaying at a cottage in Cornwall. She knew John Sutcliffe the founder of the first specialist company in leather attire, Atomage and had fitted his creations - boots and “Avenger-type” suits such aas Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg made famous - with corset spiral boning to achieve added smoothness. Through her I got in touch with him and he told me of a woman he’d met who ran Versatile Fashions, in California.
The most impressive thing I learned was how very fond she was or had been of her present and departed tight-lacing customers and all associated with corsetry which implicitly meant she did not judge men who cross dressed, wore stockings or whatever, saying, but of course everyone should wear suspenders and stockings with real corsets. A particular favourite of hers had been Corset Hans who was the age of the century and was 84 when he died not long after I met her. She referred to how much he loved planning new corsets which she made for him. They were extremely elaborate long, patent or chrome leather corsets, in many colours usually with built up breasts and internal suspenders.
Years later, another German contact and customer of Mrs. Norris was to send me a photo of Hans, clad in a purple leather faced corset extending from his upper chest to his knees, with at least a foot of lower front lacing below his busk. A person of indeterminate gender, wearing a saucy “French Maid’s” attire - black satin dress, white apron and cap, black stockings and high heels, was attending to him. Madame Medeq said he was not just as a wealthy customer but had become a warm grateful friend and she was very distressed by the failure of his family to understand his motivations. She said they were so scandalized by his intent to fulfil his needs that they arranged to have him certified and incarcerated and cruelly burnt his corset collection.
Happily within months he regained his freedom, excluded them from his will and she happily assisted him in the re-equipping his with a corset wardrobe for which money was no object. Some years later, a French couple, also her customers, contacted me. They were friends of Cora and also of Hans himself. They also sent me several charming sketches of a “Mademoiselle tout-en-cuir" and of her French maid lacing mam’selle into her knee length, lace frilled, mannequin corsets. Accompanying the sketches was a short narrative which gave me my first French lexicon of tight lacing words and phrases. Over time he sent me many photos of himself wearing Medeq-made patent leather faced corsetry while he was displaying his amazing collection of thigh high boots, etc. Some featured a "shrine" he had erected to the memory of Ethel Granger. He was clearly an inveterate contributor to magazines and I had seen some of the photos reproduced in magazines I read from time to time. He also sent a lovely informal colour photo of the wife of a person her corresponded reposing in a most attractive, heavily-boned, pink-satin faced corset with innumerable wide black suspenders and what were coming to be the mandatory seamed black nylons beloved of many of my new contacts. A note on the back said "a recent picture of G, thinking of you!"
We talked of Laurence Lenton. She thought he had operated in South Kensington, but I was to later find out that he had been located in Fulham, somewhat to the west. She had understood that both he and his wife were dedicated tight lacers and basically catered for women and men who were more demanding tight lacers. She said that the only example of such a corset that she had seen truly was a work of art. Since his chosen field was specialised, in the depression of the 1930s he was always short of money and relied on subventions of say £20 or £50 from wealthy customers and would then gradually make up corsets to the value! She understood that he cross-dressed and apparently there was a big scandal that in about 1941he had died of a heart attack when out so "dressed" which runs contrary to the story of his having been killed in an air raid.
I ended by saying how I had first become aware of her business in 1975 when I saw a pin-up photo of a corseted model, who no doubt with the assistance of her photographer, had contrived to wear her corset, back to front as well as inside out I suppose the image of a corset lacing is judged more exciting than the busk hooks. Apart from making it all but impossible to find the pulling loops to lace it tight, she had inadvertently contrived to do several interesting things. First she or they had exposed the makers label, normally hidden form view inside the back. This one read “Mme D C Medeq” in red flowing writing on a white cloth label and sewn longways near the upper edge.
Secondly they revealed details of an alternative way of forming the lacing loops, which mobilised five pairs of eyelets instead of the more conventional two pairs. This intrigued me so I began to experiment with lacing threading methods and found this arrangement to be very effective, though until the lace developed a shine it was a little harder to pull. However the method means that there is a very marked reduction in slippage during the split seconds in which the lacer’s grip is relaxed while repositioning the grip as the last stage of lacing proceeds. That is less “loss” of what had been gained which can be very frustrating for lacer and lacee.
Of course she had never seen the photo but said she never knew where her work might ultimately end up but was glad that she was able to help and please people. On this point, she left me with one comment that I will never forget. She said she disliked labelling of individuals and preferred to regard her customers as “enthusiasts”, not “fetishists” which she regarded as a pejorative term and not worthy of her customers, some of whom she came to regard as friends.
So with a whole world of new friends on the horizon I take a break in my story, which will resume with meeting the new friends and dealing with Iris, who to me was no longer Mrs Norris.
End of PART 6
VII: HORIZONS WIDEN
7.1 MORE CONTACTS
The much-dreaded year 1984 proved to be a watershed year in my quest for the high top corseted future and life ahead. I now knew that there were other straight men like me who wore real corsets and some wore stockings too but I still had residual elements of phobia in my psyche about being identified with gays and transvestites. Yet, the more I read, the more it became clear that my own private activities were certainly as taboo to the public at large as those of gays and of the outré behaviour of some transvestites.
But life in private was better. I had my own corsetiere who would even buy stockings for me. What is more we were now on first name terms. It wasn’t easy at first but I now found it easy to call her “Iris” to her face as well as over the phone and in letters and she reciprocated. My circle of corset-minded friends was growing. Yet writing this some 25 years later I wonder if readers will understand that many of those friends were the last link with the pre-war and early post war era when tight-laced corsets were fairly commonly worn though the era might be better known as the halcyon days of the Spirella-type corsetry, when there was a Spirella lady in every town in Britain. While nylon was to revolutionise stockings, its cousin Lycra had effectively been the death knell of corsets, first with girdles, and later control top pantyhose. Now in 2010 it is Ironic that control garments such as Spanx are being recognised as 21st century corsetry!
These new friends who had known the likes of Overett, Lawrence Lenton and his protégée Madame Marie Stafford. Many also had known both Will and Ethel Granger and I liked to think that at least I began wearing corsets before Will died and began going to Gardners' five years before Ethel died in 1982 and that she was still tight lacing and meeting these friends. More than anything I valued my visits to Mrs Norris. My finances were improving and I had the money to experiment in the styles of corsets I wore. As I met more people, at times she told me to be careful as she clearly thought I might come too much under the influence of some of the people she had introduced me to some of whose activities she did not approve of. That said, in retrospect her judgment on such matters was always sound. It was obvious that she had always accepted transvestism but other things were a definite “no”.
Although I felt confident that I would continue to be a customer of Mrs N for some years to come I was very aware of our 20-year age difference and that by the law of averages I would outlive her. Hence I thought it wise to keep up contacts I had established during my “headless chicken” year.
7.2 RUNNING REPAIRS
With my new contacts I started to receive more and more “corset” mail from all over England and suddenly from several other parts of the world. True to her word Mrs N had put me in touch with close to a dozen of her customers who thought they might be interested in my idea. In the rest of this Odyssey I will refer to them more and more.
One of those contacts was John Sutcliffe of Atomage, who was always very forthcoming despite the fact my interest was corsets and not the amazing creations in leather that he produced. Years later I was to learn that he had risked jail in the cause of freedom to express himself in such a way and I now realise he understood the difficulties that man such as myself who wished to wear corsetry would experience. During the conversation he told me of a Mrs Johnson in America who he said was producing very attractive corsets. But how to make contact? I used my new contact David Kunzle author of “Fashion and Fetishism” who also alerted me to a firm in the US called Past Patterns, which even made paper patterns for one to make one’s own corset. Their owner kindly put me in touch with two US contacts, one of whom turned out to be BR Creations, which was run my Ruth Johnson - Sutcliffe’s Mrs Johnson.
The other contact reacted in the way I had come to expect - an abhorrence of men who wore corsets. John S also mentioned a Jeanette Zinkan whom he had met at an Atomage function at the Regents Palace Hotel but it was some time before I realised he was referring to a woman whose enterprise produced the magazine “Reflections” in which I first learned of Ethel Granger back in July 1980. I was to learn later that Mrs. Zinkan aka Ms. Antoinette <<image ant14plus.jpg >>had apparently scandalised the hotel staff by proceeding to travel in the lifts and enter the foyer wearing just her corsets, and showing her suspenders and stockings tops above very long boots.
7.3 A CHANGE IN MORES
Part of my compulsion arose from a fascination with pin-up photos of models posing with their skirts raised to show their lingerie, stockings and suspenders. Writing in 2010 it still amazes me how reliant even the popular press is on the allure of a stocking top, more than a generation after such hosiery has been almost totally out of mainstream fashion. Yet such images live on the Internet.
By the mid-1980 popular pin-up magazines were including features on the models of 20 years earlier. In May 1984 the retrospective issue of Paul Raymond’s new magazine, with a somewhat raunchy content called Fiesta (95p), which normally featured lots of 1980s models wearing the suspenders and often seamed stockings that their mothers had abandoned. In it was information on “Girls of 1960s” such as the voluptuous June Palmer, Nancy Roberts (later of Opportunity Knocks TV show fame), Harrison Mark’s muse Lorraine Burnett, all of whom I had seen posing while wearing Charnos “Moonbeams” stockings all those years before. There was even information on the studios and photographers of 50s 60s, Valley Arts, Roger Davies, Bob Robson of H and C who blazed the trail in the 1950s.
7.4 MY NEW FRIENDS
My new friends in the Midlands were in the process of moving as a result of municipal mergers to a new post further south. Iris had made R some new corsets in white - 18" waist - while her husband was always most open in and friendly in conversation, correspondence and phone about his and her corset wearing.
Out of the blue I heard from a man in his 80s living in South Africa whom Iris remembered as one of her male customers at Gardners’ and later by mail order who could achieve a very small waist of 22 inches
It seemed as if all whom Kunzle had acknowledged in his book were in touch with one another and had added me to their circle. Basil Costin did a 21" waist and was also a customer of Iris. As for me, I was at this time able to get down for short periods to 27" over my corset from 34" natural, and was happy at 30" over my corset, but it was impractical for wearing to work. Best of all I was in touch with a renowned corset wearing couple in Manchester, who had been friends of the Grangers, but more of them another time.
7.5 THE OLD CORSETIER AND THE NEW CORSETIERE
I immediately wrote to BR Creations and within two weeks I received their catalogue and the very first issue of the BR Corset Newsletter, which was issued every quarter. The letter was signed by “Ruth Johnson”. The designs were spectacular and modelled by attractive women with surprisingly small waists. This had to be the Mrs Johnson of whom John Sutcliffe had spoken not many months before.
In reading the material it turned out that Mrs Johnson herself had been a customer of R.G. Loomis “The Ole Corsetier” who had written the biography of Ethel Granger which I had seen in “Reflections” magazine in 1980. He had subsequently encouraged Ruth to learn how to make corsets and to then open a business selling them made to measure. She even modelled the corsets for the catalogue and although she called herself “Big Ruth” the initials of which she used in her newsletter, she did in fact cut a fine figure when corseted.
The fact that she offered not just four but “6,8,10,12,16,20 and 24" suspenders on her corsets and suspender belts also indicated that she catered to customers with interests not too different from my own. I subscribed to her newsletter but the prices of her corsets, even allowing for the fact that mine would be in utilitarian grey or black was far out of my league and another factor would have been the swinging customs duties they would have attracted.
7.6 MAY 84 RUNNING REPAIRS WITH IRIS
I had time available and enjoyed my meetings with Iris and might be accused of looking for reasons to call and be with her for an hour or so. I did genuinely need a number of small repairs. A steel had popped out of the front of one of my suspender girdles I had bought from my outfitter “Cover Girl” in 1980 and on another corset the strapping was wearing thin. She relocated some spiral steels in my suspender girdle. I was now close to having changing from four to five pairs of suspenders on all my corsets as well as on my suspender girdles, including changing all the elastic from 3/4 inch to 11/8 inch on the one I had bought from my original outfitter back in 1974. I always paid for work done but Iris also said a lot of people got corsets made by others and came to her for repairs because the others wouldn't do them.
As I drove to see Iris in early May, news of the Soviet withdrawal from the Olympics at Los Angeles was reported. This was my firth visit to see her at Bletchley and I had now worked out a better way to get there. I was visiting much earlier than I usually did and arrived before 10 am. I walked confidently to the side door and Iris greeted me. As was my wont as she turned I looked down to see her stocking seams and heels and was surprised to see her wearing much paler shade of stocking than I had ever seen her wear.
I sat down for tea and cake and she produced a 12-inch corset I’d left on my last visit. It was originally made with two ½" flat steels in parallel as the underbusk. Originally she was short of 10 inch long, 1 inch wide, under-busk steels and had put in two half-inch flat steels side by side. The half inch ones were actually two bound on one another bit even with my normal 5" pull in I was finding the busk was bending too much when I sat down. I found that I was straining the busk even with a modest pull in. especially if I leaned over. With visits once or so a year I didn't want to break a busk. She had now changed it to a standard heavy one inch wide one.
I arrived wearing the high top and four pairs of sewn on suspenders and I had to take it off for the five pairs of loops for detachable suspenders. After she'd done it and made new elastics in the suspenders as well, she asked, "are you putting this (the altered 12 inch) back on, because if you are I'll lace you down if you like". I retired to her sitting room. She drew the curtains and left me to put it on. I slotted the busk and then did up the suspenders myself as I felt I was tasking advantage of her in helping me do my suspendering which I regard as a great privilege and anyway she was working on my high top as I waited. I put my trousers back on and called Iris, who closed it down. As she was doing it I said, “There's something nice about someone else lacing one in" and she said " That's what most people say'. At the end she said "there. That one looks very nice on you,” she said
She put new suspender loops on my high top and pointed out that the old ones were getting abraded by the key rings. Happily we - I could not do it without her sewing skill and machine - were nearing the end of the process of converting all my corsets to have hem loops for key rings and detachable suspenders.
As for Iris I use the words sincerely she was resplendent in her favourite shade of dark brown Aristoc "Harmony" with straight seams clearly she was as tautly suspendered as ever. Her waist was cinched, or as she preferred to say “pulled in”, beautifully with her blouse filled by her fine bosom, which heaved gently and as we sat over a cup of tea and for the first time I became aware of the gentle creaking sound of her busk as she breathed.
As she stood to pour me a second cup of tea she stood sideways to my field of vision and, in the profile of her calves, I noticed that the seams of her stockings stood proud of the sheer fabric on either side of them. This indicated to me that she wore her stockings “seam side out”, the opposite to what the makers intended their wearer to do and felt bold enough to think I could ask her why. I opened my question by first saying it was always a pleasure to see a woman with straight seams like hers. Before I could ask my intended question, she answered with a stream of words about how she was still having trouble with slipping suspenders. Zealous readers are referred back to my discussion of this in Part 3 - “Imperatives - Suspenders” when I told her that on the basis of my own experiments I thought that because the rubber buttons provided on modern suspenders were too thin if too strong a pull was exerted on the button by its stocking the rubber would get bent and pull of the lug retaining it on the wire of the clip. She agreed that she agreed that part of the trouble was the rubber buttons are part of the trouble which had never happened with the centrally rivetted style, which are the subject of a photo. After clearing up that irritation she returned to the matter of how she wore her stockings and confirmed that she did it out of choice since that way she found her seams stayed straighter much longer - chacun a son goût. Years later some new friends, G and M, told me that G had glued pieces of rubber on to the buttons of M’s suspenders to stiffen and fatten them so that her stockings did not slip off them at inconvenient moments! That said in all my 50 or more visits to Iris I can only recall commenting that one of her suspenders had slipped off about twice.
She said that her business was improving and was now keeping quite busy with old Gardner customers and had made a new 18" waisted white corset for R, the distaff side of my new Midlands friends in April. She too knew they were moving because he had changed his job. She said and kindly told me but only after swearing me to her confidence, that J wore a 12" deep corset 7" up and 5" down, just as I did, for every day, but with no suspenders. I knew she was glad she had introduced me to them, and she very kindly suggested I kept quiet about the fact I wore stockings as they were very proper and went to church!
I said I hoped she didn’t mind me bringing her so many repairs. And she said not at all. She now drew the line at people who were not real customers who bought cheaper made to measure corsets by mail order and being unable to get the supplier to repair them came to her and didn’t want to pay what she charged.
After she had re-sewn the edge elastic and loops onto the corset hem, she watched me thread the five pairs of split rings in the loops at the ends of the suspenders and on the corset and again teased me about how many suspenders I used. I told her I’d seen pictures of women with 8, 10 and even 12 suspenders per stocking and read what seemed to be true, not a fantasy letter of a couple who each liked eight suspenders and she laughed and said "You don't have to tell me, I’ve done that for some people"
This time when I'd got all the suspenders back on the corset loops she said 'Come on and I’ll help you lace in" We moved into her sitting room, she discreetly drew the curtains, I hung the 18 inch high top corsets off my shoulders with the new straps and slotted the busk. She said “Are you ready" and firmly closed me down doing it so quickly I felt the lace burn as it moved fast on my skin and making me call out involuntarily at which she laughed. Luckily the lacing was now a reasonable length or she would have commented wryly about there being too great a length of lacings to wrap on my waist. As it was, she tied the bow at the side, something I’d never seen done before. I was learning all the time.
Together we then suspendered my stockings and when she finished she stepped back, looked and me and smiled admiringly and said "that corset looks very nice on you, it’s very handsome”, so I said "I feel a bit self conscious in suspenders and stockings, Iris" and she said "I wouldn't worry lots of ordinary men corset wearers wear stockings, they keep your corset more comfortable you know".
She asked if was going to see the my Midlands friends but I said I hadn’t been able to get in touch as they were moving and she asked “Are you going to keep this one on?” and I said I would as I wanted to be properly laced in as I was going to call on the Berks Corsetier instead, on my roundabout way back to London.
I wrapped up my 12 inch causal now with its 10 suspenders and put it back in my brief case. She made a final cup of tea and she said she had something to show me. It was a new spoon busk she’d been able to get from an old corset. I’ll be glad to have it in as my other one had been cut down at the top when it snapped and didn’t come high enough. For all the repairs she only charged me £5 and so another visit with a wonderful lady came to an end.
7.7 EXPERIMENTING WITH TROLLEYED SUSPENDERS
The Berks Corsetier was amazed at how tightly laced I was and as usual we laced one another into different corsets. It was always a pleasure to meet someone who shared my interests and what for each of us was a great joy in lacing one another into very long corsets and enjoying conversation while wearing them. He continued to make and fit me in very long corsets in which I enjoyed being able to cooperate, but his skills were still evolving and he lacked the touch of Iris Norris in those early years before he went into business. That said, I like to think I helped him in his life long desire to be a corsetier of the old Lenton-type school While there I mentioned the problem of the relative length of corset hem and top of stocking and he showed me how he used oval rings to allow him to trolley the suspender clips between an under-belt and the hem of the main corset. As I write this in early April 2010, I have just noted in Ivy Leaf’s Diary Entry for “late march 2010?” a reference to the same problem as I was experiencing.
I was often finding that the back suspenders on full hip control long corsets was too low on the thigh. With the lower cut corset I found it all but impossible to get tension from back suspenders as the clips were simply too close to the top. Berks Corsetier suggested trolleying them with oval rings which he gave me. I sewed them onto loops on the outside of the corset, about three inches above the hem of the corset. Later I saw such an arrangement on a mannequin corset in a photo in a Finecraft catalogue. Clearly others encountered my problem in those days, but who would understand in 2010?
In one catalogue I read of how the front suspenders of a corset fitted with under-belts had “trolleyed" front suspenders. The very word “Trolleyed” fascinated me and recourse to the dictionary told be that this meant that in fact all suspenders were trolleyed on their elastic but some more obviously than others. The suspender ran freely on the elastic straps.
In this regard I also learned from Berks Corsetier that when alone one should clip back suspenders onto one’s stockings before slotting the busk, because twisting to do up suspenders was too difficult something far easier if one had shoulder straps from which to hang the corsets while doing so, otherwise one had to hook the top busk clasp on shorter corsets.
7.8 I VISIT THE UNITED STATES
As chance would have t my firm was collaborating with another in and meeting planned in London and Germany were cancelled and it was decided to meet in San Francisco
Not being Gay the basis idea seemed like a long way to go, but quite by chance just a few months’ earlier I had been put in touch with Ruth Johnson. As luck would have it within moths I might actually meet her. She was based in Mountain View, California, now the home of the then unheard of Google” and about an hour out of San Francisco. There was little doubt that she catered for the diversity of people for which San Francisco has been famous or notorious for over the last 50 years and more.
From her newsletter she seemed broad-minded enough so I packed my new large corset in case she wanted to see it. Our group was due to be there two weeks, and upon arrival I phoned Ruth hoping to see her at the weekend. As luck would have it all I got was a recorded message saying that she was away for -yes a tantalising two weeks. So near and yet so far. The year she came to England to the LGM Bal Des Gracieuses I was unable to attend and never met her.
As I was in America I even tried to phone David Kunzle. I got an answering machine and found the message somewhat confusing so I didn't leave one.
Whilst in America I checked the phone book to see where the Albert’s Hosiery stores were located and found that Albert’s had a store just off market street near our hotel, So, one afternoon I stepped out of the office and went there. They said that the Walking sheers had been discontinued so I bought myself four pairs of their 15 denier Classic in black and bought Iris another four pairs in the nearest shade of brown they had to what Iris she liked called “Sparkle” I mailed them to Iris as a gift.
Since I had brought the big corsets I set about altering the back suspenders with the oval rings from the Berks Corsetier.
It proved to be far easier than I expected but to my disappointment I could still not get my stockings and suspenders taut. However to my surprise, when I tried on my newly purchased Albert’s Classic they were really 1950s style full size in the foot but very short in the leg. The after-welts began not far above my knee and certainly too short for the suspenders on my every day corsets and suspender belts. But I quickly realise they were Perfect for my big corset with its trolled back suspenders.
Whilst I would have preferred to have met with Ruth Johnson I passed the weekend fitting and relaxing in and even sleeping in the big long corsets and very short stockings. As much as anything I was amazed by the sensation I got if I raised a shoulder to tension the shoulder strap that the force travelled though the length of the corset and I felt it again pulling hard in turn on my SUSPENDERS and stocking top on the same side.
On July 11,1984 I WROTE IN MY DIARY
I got up early after a most satisfying nights sleep in the big corset. It was incredible how much it controls ones movements. It comes right up under my armpits and is very high at the back taking in my shoulder blades. I found I could lean back against it and feel the big flat steels take the strain and support me like unseen hands. I looked down at my legs and it was funny to see a dark brown Aristoc Harmony and a Taupe waking sheer showing on my legs. Talking of the high back when I tried it on I leaned back on it and Iris was watching and I said "Gosh I do like this high top those back steels feel good" and she said "A lot of people who've tried it say its best". I thought you would but its no good for a woman a corset like that, it comes too high in front.
I even took some photos that show a back view of the corset and trolleyed suspenders.
As chance had it my visit occurred during the run up to the Democratic National convention, which ended up selecting Mondale. Staying in the hotel was the Newsweek writer George Will and in those pre-mobile phone days, I overheard him talking on a pay phone in the lobby passing on news just in that Geraldine Ferraro would be the first female Vice-presidential running mate. In fact our time ended up being circumscribed by the convention and we were required to check out and return home.
7.9 BACK IN BRITAIN
Back in Britain in September I visited Iris again and arrived in time for an early lunch which she had prepared form- salmon sandwiches and a piece of cake and cups of tea.
This time she was again wearing her favourite shade of hose, which had the longest heels I’d seen since the 1950s fully half way up her claves. Those are very fancy heels Iris. She smiled and said “do you like them” and disarmingly said they were really too long in the foot, that she’d had to sew a fold in the toes and that she’d taken to buying a bigger size to get a longer leg.
The following is taken from an account I wrote at the time to my friend the Berks Corsetier.
She had remade a corset
with a higher back. It now had 18-inch back flat spring steels on each side of
the lacing eyelets. As usual now, we checked the fitting. I slotted the busk
alone and rolled my black nylons to my knees and called her into the
sitting/fitting room to lace me in it. It was wonderful and she stopped and said
"How's that?". I said I'd like a little tighter and she said '”There's about
half an inch to go, I'll close you down all the way if you like
Did she have to work! I raised my arms, pulled in my breath and stomach,
everything, to get it closed. Iris warmed to the task and in the end this was a
real exercise in lacing tight, for me. It was obvious she done it many times
before. When it was done she said, "Shall I cinch you down at the waist? Of
course I said, "Yes please ”
and again she pulled with all her might and I said "do you have a tape measure
and she measured me at 271/2 inches a 7-8 inch pull in from natural. “Oh it's
lovely,” I said and she reminded me about my suspenders and started suspendering
my back suspenders and tensioned the adjusters.
I sat down in it and said "Mmm, Iris those back steels feel lovely on my shoulders and she smiled and tilted her head and replied to the effect "Yes that high tops suits you”. I said I couldn't wear any other kind of high top without shoulder straps and she said "Yes, its funny, all the people I have who wear high tops prefer them with the high back and shoulder straps too.
I suddenly felt self conscious when I realized she was looking at my stocking tops and suspenders and felt completed to say "You must think me odd to wear stockings" and she smiled and said “Look if you wear a corset - man or woman - its much better if its held down with stockings and suspenders and if you don't mind wearing stockings, why worry."
In the end she said, "You remind me of Mr C (a Kunzle collaborator) he liked a high top with a wasp waist like you but mind you he was a thin man and had a 21 inch waist.
She looked as beautiful as ever on both visits. Laced in to about 20", I'd guess with a lovely wide black leather belt, tightly buckled to cinch her skirt. When I saw her last in May I thought she put on weight but she’d clearly lost it over the summer.
As ever she was wearing her usual Aristoc "Harmony" in "Bitter Chocolate." I said to her "Iris, I don't think I've ever seen your seams crooked and she laughed and replied, "That's because I keep my suspenders tight as they should be kept. The only reason people used to get crooked seams was because they were too lazy to get them on properly. She wanted to give me back the Albert’s Classics I sent her from San Francisco. She'd tried them on but to quote her letter "I find them too short they will just about go on my suspenders”.
At this point I had a surprise when she handed me a cellophane packet containing a pair of chocolate brown stockings. They had been given to her by another customer LB who had found them too long as did Iris. So I said don’t give me back the Classics they’ll be too short for me, give them to LB instead. It was to be 4 years before I finally met LB who by now lived alone and spent all his non-working hours as a transvestite. To Iris’ eternal credit after lacing him into his corsets in the fitting room she allowed him to fully dress as a woman to check its effect. Sadly she was forced to end the arrangement when LB injudiciously allowed himself to be accompanied on an appointment by a person of similar persuasion who arrived dressed as a woman. After that she required LB to visit alone. This reinforced my belief that I should never in any way compromise the courtesy of her accepting me as a customer.
She also showed me the corset of my Wykamist correspondent who like me had it faced in black satin and with suspenders. For many years both he and his wife wore corsets and stockings all day every day, but after illness she had stopped tight-lacing. His main complaint was availability of Aristoc “Harmony” stockings in long lengths and had given some to Iris which were too long for her and passed on to me. Before departing I handed over the last high top she had made me before she left Gardners’ in Nov 80 to change the back panel to a high back and to add shoulder straps.
As usual I left around 3 pm en route to what I might now call my South Midlands friends. I had told Iris of my plan and she remarked that R was heavy on her corsets because “she washed them too frequently". She said the materials tends to shrink over the steels and that is when the steels start to abrade the pockets or strapping as she called it. I told her I would do the same in the heat and she said dry them by wrapping over a hot water pipe. But that it was better for a man to wear a vest and a woman a chemise, each of cotton but some tight lacers were too keen on measurements and forgot about care of the corset.
7.10 VISITING MY FRIENDS IN THEIR NEW HOME
I found that my friends had moved from the Midlands nearer to Bristol and realised that I would be able to visit them with only a slight detour after visiting Iris en route to see my family.
R looked as ever superb such a small waist is stunning to behold. During dinner her stomach wouldn't stop rumbling and her husband said that what it was a consequence of her reducing further than he thought she should. She was getting used to the new community and to everyone seeing her amazingly small waist. She said she and her daughter were shopping in Cheltenham and her naive 18-year-old daughter said, "Mum why is everyone looking at us?”... They both regretted that she hadn't been able to make her daughter wear a corset. She said her mother and grandmother were inveterate tight lacers and wore what she called “strong corsets” and started her on a regime in her early teens. .
J said during the hot summer weather in his new office that everyone was in shirtsleeves so he had to stop wearing his corset for fear of it being detected through his shirt.
7.11 1984 COMES TO AN END
1984 was the most amazing year. I visited Mrs N on no fewer than six times the last in November. By that time every corset I had was fitted with 10 suspenders and I had shoulder straps on all my high top corsets. This is what I wrote in my diary after my last visit of the year:
I showered and was able to really take my time to get underdressed perfectly - white support tights, Albert’s Walking Sheer Black nylons. I put on the high top high back laced down a little clipped on the back two pairs of suspenders and completed lacing in. Then I clipped on the rest of my suspenders and tensioned each pair in turn. I spent the next half hour having breakfast - packing and last thing I re-laced the corset and cinched down to 29 inches. It was magnificent. I dressed and you couldn't tell I was superbly corseted except when I sat down or walked. I went to the car and drove up to Bletchley on the old A5.
I got to Iris’s house, knocked the door and she called "come in Frangard" I let myself in and she was standing ironing. She had on a white blouse and black skirt and cinched in as small as I had seen her. I said Hello and was so moved by her appearance, so I said, "My goodness you look very smart today" and she said thank you". She moved from behind the ironing board and I saw she wearing her usual chocolate brown nylons. As before Her point heels came almost half way up her calves.
She said '”I got you the stockings”. My usual source of Aristoc Harmony had not had any on stock for some time and when I had written to arrange an appointment I had send the money and asked her to buy me some Aristoc Harmony from her shop.
She told me that when she got to the Milton Keynes Coop they only had them in brown and, as was her wont, she persevered and went “into Dickens and Jones and they had black. So I got you those and I’m wearing the brown ones I got at the same time, now.”
I said "You've reduced again" and she said "Let's say I sometimes pull in it extra to go out or for visitors. I said I would like to take her photo but she declined as she felt her hair wasn’t right but agreed to be ready for my next visit.
She then said one of the kindest things I’d heard. Every time I dressed after she laced me in a corset, I had asked her if it showed because like the male half of my Midlands’ friends I didn’t want anyone at work to even imagine I was. This time she said:
" Of course I know you're wearing a corset, but I can't tell what kind your in. so I said "a high top and she said I can't tell and the reason I asked is because you're always worried it if will show.”
So I said "It’s a dead give away if I sit down and she said '”good, it keeps your posture correct, that's very important and why a corset should be important you know I couldn't leave it off because of back ache even if I wanted to “.
I felt I was truly accepted my her now. She clearly regarded me as an equal in that we were both corset and stocking wearers and to her it was only natural that we should talk about such things. I’m sure readers will agree that it was true.
This time we talked about busk design and. She was now in touch with the Berks Corsetier who had bought 2000 1o inch long busks - the minimum order - from Steels and BBusks Aerial works in Leicester. He was trying to sell them to anyone who needed them. She had used some but said the workmanship was a disappointment. She said that she’d had a complaint from a customer who didn’t like an under-busk about being pinched by her busk. What was happening was that there was tendency for skin to get squeezed in between the two busk edges and if one moved the busk plates moved closer and the skin got pinched.
As a result she’d compared them to some old busks she had in her stock drawer and asked me to do the same. We agreed first that the spring steel was too light a gauge and second that there was too large a gap between the two sides on account of the bobbles or posts being set too far from the edge of the steel. To overcome this she was fitting underbusks
She was still making for Axfords and matching pre cut fabric to make dresses for Evans Outsize.
7.12 STORM CLOUDS - THE DEMISE OF ALBERT'S HOSIERY
I have already alluded to the demise of the seamed stocking and the reduction in manufacturers. By the mid-1970s only Aristoc in the UK were left and I sensed it was only a matter of time before they too discontinued the style, especially as the dress code of the uniformed military services - police and traffic wardens - finally accepted seamless styles. That Aristoc “Harmony” actually continued in production until 1993 was little short of a miracle and testimony to a continuing, if small demand and by the time they stopped I had bought over 100 pairs of them.
I realized that the prudent way was to keep the "discontinued” styles for wear only on special occasions not for every day. For every day I would wear styles still in production and as a pair laddered replace it immediately. Essentially this meant wearing sheerer ones than I would have liked to wear but at 25p pair in the early 1970s they were a bargain compared to the 7/11 (39½p) I had paid for some for my first real girl friend back in 1958! I usually bought them at larger department stores like DH Evans or Selfridges or Dickens and Jones, but after an attempt at revival with lurex seams in, of all magazines, Women’s Journal” in 1986. By the late 1980s they seemed to be "rationed". This meant that they were sometimes available in either 10½ or 11.
In addition, over the years the stockings had got longer while in response to shorter skirts the tops got thinner and in time the old foot sizes and leg lengths disappeared and were replaced by sizes 1 to 6 - no leg lengths. While I found that size 6 (11) was the best foot size, I could also wear size 5 (10½) which with lower hemmed corsets I preferred on account of their not reaching so far up the thigh they meant that I could get a more rewarding degree of tension or “pull” in both my suspenders and stockings.
As noted above, since March 1983 I’d settled on the small ladies’ store "Jean" at 4 Station Road, West Drayton, whose owner or manageress was initially very reserved but by my third visit she knew what I would order and would remember what I sought and volunteer that she had some size 11s if I preferred. I made a point of going out of my way while going to visit Mrs Norris and as I got to know Mrs N better would buy her two pairs in her size 101/2. She accepted that reluctantly and said I didn’t need to pay of repairs but I always insisted on doing so as I felt she under-charged for what to me was a wonderful service. As was to prove later I was glad I had done this because she reciprocated my thought in several ways.
What a contrast it all was to my experience in 1969 of going in an army surplus store in Kingston-upon-Thames after I spotted the characteristic green cellophane packet of Charnos “Commonsense” which had became surplus when the WRENS dress code accepted seamless hose. When I asked about them, the male assistant leered at me as he peered over the counter to look at my feet saying "What size do you want Twelves?" It had been more than I could take and I said "Oh no nothing like that" and, flushed with embarrassment, I turned and quickly left the store in horror at anyone alluding to what I wanted to keep as 'my secret".
I tried to call on a visit and would always buy six pairs of black for myself - if they were in stock and two pairs for Mrs Norris in her preferred shade of "bitter chocolate" Eventually "Joan" went out of business in about 1988 and the premises had become an Estate Agents office. I boldly asked Mrs Norris on one visit where she bought her stockings and she said Dickens and Jones or the Coop in Milton Keynes. After D and J burned down in the early 90s we arranged that in future, before my appointment would send her a cheque and she'd buy me a dozen pairs at a time to pick up when I next visited. This worked well and I recall to my amazement she presented me with two dozen pairs - in black and other shades. Kindness itself she had done so because she’d heard they were about to be discontinued and done the same for herself.
Before they were discontinued in the early 1970s I managed to buy two dozen pairs of Charnos "Commonsense" 30 Denier since I preferred the way they felt on my legs when they were pulled hard by my suspenders. For wear with corsets they were much better and remain my favourite stockings.
I also quizzically found that Aristoc somehow lasted better than other sheerer ones and only years later did I find they were 20 denier, not 15 the extra five denier making a huge difference.
By now I had worked overseas and had access to US dollars and as a result I began ordering from Albert’s in the USA. I had seen the logo on pin up magazines in the 1960s and realized they offered two grades of fully-fashioned seamed stockings -Classic and "Walking Sheer" and settled on the 30D style, which lasted so well. I patronized them for and between 1978 and 1986 I bought no less than 60 pairs "Walking Sheers" before Albert’s closed down its chain of stores. Surprisingly in the early 1990s, Zoë, a vendor in the US began selling them. I learned that all such surplus of out of style stockings had been concentrated in a large warehouse in the USA. Between 1990 and 1993 I bought all I could afford. Not only did I buy 30D - more than 20 pairs - and some in very short and others in very long lengths and even bought some in 60D. I found the “anchorage” afforded by the 60D stockings to be incredible and liked it very much. However, to my chagrin I discovered that some had cotton tops and the yarn had been partly rotted due the black dye and my quest for taut suspenders soon resulted in them ripping in holes!
Over my Odyssey I bought over 80 pairs of Walking Sheers and still have close to 40 In. my stocking wardrobe. I still wear them regularly and, actuarially speaking at my rate of use they should “see me out”. They were, and mine still are, wonderful stockings and from the mid-60s when I first noticed them, they and their 15 D counterpart "Classic" had been the “seamed stockings of choice" for all US lingerie and corset pin ups - women or TV - including many of those of the late, renowned “leg art” photographer Elmer Betters. Sadly their sizing was never very good and between 1977 and 1986, when Albert’s closed their doors, I identified no fewer than five styles of welts. Being 30 denier they were almost indestructible even In. my hands and last far better than Aristoc’s Harmony Points. Who made them I’m not sure as Albert’s was only a retailer for later I saw a model posing in stockings with the same style of after-welt but with the kormograph printed as Triumph "Ease Top".
And so 1984 ended and I moved on to meet new friends on a regular basis.