A. GARDNER AND SON (CORSETS) LTD, 1899-1981

 

 

 

1 INTRODUCTION

 

Writing in 2006, it is hard to believe that close to twenty five years have passed since the old established firm of A Gardner & Son (Corsets) Ltd closed its door forever, after no less than 82 years in business. The very name will strike a chord of nostalgia in the hearts of almost every person who tight-laced in the post war era. Even if it is only the memory of the label 'Frangard'[1], sewn into an old and loved corset, many post war tight-lacers, some unwittingly, will at some time or another have entrusted the training and subsequent maintenance of their hard won figure to Frangard corsets. Sadly, as will be explained later, many all over the world might have done so without ever knowing actually knowing they were wearing a Gardnerís corset.

 

David Kunzle, in his book 'Fashion and Fetishism', 1982 (reprinted 2004), twice acknowledges Gardnerís. In the preface, among others, he names 'Arthur Gardner' and in the final chapter he writes of Gardner's service to corset enthusiasts.

 

Although this service was still available in the late 1970s when Kunzle did his research for the book, by the time of the bookís original publication in 1982, Gardnerís doors had been closed for more than a year. One can only speculate on what might have happened if the revival of interest in corsets, that dates from the mid-1980s, had happened earlier.

By the time Gardnerís closed, the client base was indeed reduced but there was still more than enough business to keep going. However time is no respecter of age and, after close to 40 years in Gardnerís service, their last corsetiere, Iris Norris, had reached the age of retirement. Iris and the firm had tried and failed to find anyone willing to train and acquire the skills to make corsets. It is a skill that usually began with a long apprenticeship as a machinist to master the complex sewing that is required.

 

Yet amazingly, it was only in the last twenty or so years of its existence that Gardnerís became something of a mecca for individuals who appreciated wearing a tightly laced corset or the elegance of the well corseted figure. At Gardnerís these individuals knew they could rely on the fact that their special demands would be conjured into the magical combination of fabric and metal to gird and cinch their figures. There they could be sure to find a sincere understanding of their very individual needs.

 

In 1962, Gardnerís was still run by Arthur Gardner, the son of Alice Gardner, who set up the business. Yes, the initial 'A' stood for 'Alice' and not Arthur as many life-long clients had thought. He was the 'Son' in the firm's title and it was his son Frank, who Kunzle actually met in the 1970s. As noted, they had always been more of a basic custom made corsetieres, whose machinists where used to ministering to the requirements of heavier, middle-aged women in need of the firm control of stays with under-belts. However their machinists, many of whom like Mrs Norris did tight-lace themselves, had no problem adapting to the special demands of the former Overett and Stafford clients. As the client-corsetiere relationship flourished, so did an atmosphere of mutual respect.

 

 

 

2 VICTORIAN BEGINNINGS Ė ALICE GARDNER

 

Gardnerís began at the close to Queen Victoria's long reign in 1899, when young Alice Gardner was widowed with two young children. With no social security to fall back on, Alice had to 'shift', so to speak and make ends meet. She decided to put to good use the skills she had learned as a corset machinist in the years before her marriage. Thus she established a business at her modest flat catering at first to the corsetry needs of friends, acquaintances and neighbours. Later, as business improved, she rented a shop on Thornhill Road in Islington, which runs between Offord Road and Richmond Road and is parallel to Pentonville and Liverpool Roads.

 

Women of all classes wore corsets in those days. Indeed when Alice set up it was still what is still remembered as 'the golden age' of corsetry. The wasp waist was de rigueur and only a strongly boned corset could produce the kind of silhouette that was guaranteed to please a husband or lure a beau. The Gibson Girl, the Grecian Bend and the Kangaroo Corset and the straight front were still in the Edwardian future.

 

As soon as he was old enough, young Arthur Gardner joined his mother and her small staff in the business, Initially he was a humble goffer, or ironer, but as he absorbed the ways of the machine room he slowly worked his way up to the prized position of 'cutter'. Within a few years, Alice's business had outgrown the Thornhill Road shop [2] and she decided to find larger premises. She knew what she needed, machining rooms, an office cum consulting room, a fitting room and a cutting room. She found what she wanted, an early Victorian Villa large enough to house her family and the business. It was 28, Barnsbury Square, just off Thornhill Road where the business remained till it closed.

 

3  28, BARNSBURY SQUARE

 

Barnsbury Square was one of the early squares built, probably in the 1820s during the rapid expansion to the north of the city of London in what were pre-Victorian times. Before the railways there had only been villages and fields, although some of the village high streets had been lined with Georgian ribbon development. The development of Barnsbury to the west of fashionable Islington was begun in the early 19th century and completed by 1835. Between the coming of the railways in the 1840s and the First World War, the whole of the rest of the section was covered with houses.

 

Lying between Liverpool Road and Caledonian Road, north of Richmond Avenue, Barnsbury was laid out by Thomas Cubitt before his more famous speculations in Bloomsbury and Belgravia, and is a rather loose composition of suburban open-cornered squares, crescents and streets either side of Thornhill Road.  Barnsbury Square with its two partial crescents leading off to the northwest and southwest corners, Belitha Villas and Richmond Avenue, are its best parts. Before the coming of the lines of the Great Northern Railway, which terminated at Kings Cross n 1868, Barnsbury and the surrounding area,  was a desirable and fashionable address. For those interested in the area, it can be found on pages 58-59 of 'A guide to the architecture of London' by Edward Jones and Christopher Woodward, 2nd ed., 1997.

 

By the time Alice was house hunting, in the pre-World War 1 era, the wealthier classes of London had moved on again to the fresher air of what were then the outer genteel suburbs such as Highgate, Hampstead and Brondesbury. Barnsbury and Islington were no longer such a desirable addresses. If however your business was the making and selling of corsets to the ladies of the neighbourhood, you stayed put where you were needed. And so that is what Alice, later Arthur and finally grandson Frank, did.

 

In time the wheel of fortune turned. By the 1960s, Islington was becoming a desirable and fashionable address once more, as the area became one the early examples of the gentrification of the inner suburbs. In more recent years 'yuppies' have invaded the area. Cleaning of the brickwork has revealed much of the handsome yellow London Bricks that had been concealed for decades beneath the accumulated layers of grimy soot deposited in the days before the Clean Air Act.

 

Alice knew at once how her new house would be organised. Making corsets would come first and the family would live as and where they could. But first she secured a brass plate below the bell push which discreetly said 'A Gardner and Son'. She reasoned that those who needed confirmation of the fact that they had reached the right address would get it.

 

Number twenty-eight is the first house you meet if you approach from Thornhill Road and is located half-way along the north side of the square, facing south. It is a two story detached house on two floors with a full height basement. Four steps led up from the pavement to the front door, which gave access to the lobby, the inner glass panelled door and a lofty hall. To the right, stairs led up to the family flat. The office, where representatives of the suppliers of fabrics and bindings would be received, was in the front drawing room, overlooking the square and adjacent to the hall. The office also served as the consultation and fitting room for individual clients. In one part of the room was a desk and chairs. Here Alice would sit with the clients and salesmen.

 

In the other part was a table, some padded chairs and the essential long narrow mirrors on  wooden stands. Here clients could conveniently disrobe and present their figure problems for Alice's trained eye to assess and advise how best to put things right. There was a screen behind which the client could retire if they wished and which could be pulled across the bay window. There were also heavy curtains, which could be discreetly drawn to ensure a degree of relaxing privacy for measurement or fitting.

 

In the mellow gas light and later electric light of the room, Alice would deftly measure a client or wrap newly created corsets around their form as she laced away unwanted inches or rolls and bulges of fat in the cause of a nice line. Her experienced eye and touch sensed the goodness of fit.

 

The back room, which had been the dining room, became the cutting room, the main feature of which was a long, wide, polished, mid-brown table of massive wood. As such it was characterised by its central cutting slot that had the essential width to render it stable and allow the cutting motion to be executed as truly as the cutter desired. On it the rolls of fabric were unrolled, cut into bolts laid one over another ready for action by the cutter.

 

Apart from Haute Couture, the business of corset making is one of the most specialized and precise branches of the garment trade, demanding of both seamstress and cutter. It depended as much on the skill of the cutter because he, it was usually a man, was trusted to make the cuts that maximised the use of material and minimized the pieces of rejected cloth. The cutter's art was his or her ability to balance factors such as the needs of the corsets and conformity with the pattern.

 

Around the walls of the cutting room, the shelves were filled with large rolls of corset fabrics. They were mainly the utility twills and cambric, in shades of pink and white. There were smaller rolls of black, grey and drab as well as smaller rolls in a variety of broches and satins.

 

In the corner was a heavy machine of cast iron equipped with dies suited to punch out the holes and a feeder to supply the eyelets and reinforcing rings, which would be crimped in the holes automatically to reinforce them.

 

A second smaller machine could secure to the tape the individual riveted hooks and eyes that real corsets demand. Hung from a bracket on the walls were large spools wound with hundreds of yards of pink white and black Russian braid used for the stay lacing. In a drawer was the small crimper used to secure the end tags. In other drawers were the wooden patterns for the different styles, which in later years were supplanted by aluminium patterns.

 

4 ARTHUR GARDNER

 

Once he had served his apprenticeship, under Alice's watchful eye, young Arthur became 'the cutter'. Every day he would cut the fabric to length, and lay ten to twelve bolts one on top of the other on the cutting table. He would take the appropriate metal pattern sheets from the labelled drawers and using the patterns mark the cut lines with a chalk on the face of the top piece of cloth. After carefully whetting his cutting knife on a steel, he would cut each of the corset panels out - remember - ten or twelve at a time. He took the cut panels down to the machine room, using the adjacent back stairs that led down to the basement.

 

Only once in 40 years did his knife slip and when it did it almost cut his thumb off. A severe wound it needing instant expert dressing, which was done in the nearby Royal Free Hospital on Liverpool Road. Initially there was some concern as to whether the digit could be saved and fortunately it was though that slip was enough to instil more caution in the future!

 

A corridor approached the basement, or more accurately, the half basement from the stairs. A door off this corridor led to a small storeroom, which in later years, when operations reduced and moved downstairs, became the fitting room. The other door led into the machining room. This extended from the bay window in front to the rear window, which looked onto a large garden.

 

Four industrial duty sewing machines were set up around the sides of a large raised worktable, which occupied most of the space. There was ample room to deliver the cut panels to one side of each machinist, and for the work, in this case the corsets, to be supported flat all round, whichever section of the corset was under the shoe and needle. Initially all the machines were treadle operated, but they were motorized at the earliest opportunity after the war.

 

5 ALICE GARDNERíS LATER YEARS

 

For many years Alice helped with the machining but, as if widowhood was not enough, another personal catastrophe struck. She developed a whitlow on her hand, which turned severely septic. In the days before antibiotics it did not resolve and gangrene set in. There was no choice the surgeon said and she lost her hand and lower forearm to the surgeon's knife. Her positive personality saw her though this trying time and she emerged with her energy unabated, but of course her machining days were over.

 

A cockney born and bred, Alice's enthusiasm for the business never left her. She eventually died in the early 1960s, nearly 90 years old, still active, when Arthur was thinking of retirement.

 

6  THE INTER-WAR YEARS

 

In the inter-war years, tight-lacers had been catered for in London by the likes of Mme. Vermeuil of Baker Street, Mme. Lorrette of Islington, not far from Gardnerís, on Upper Street. In Fulham there were, on North End Road, Kedges, while the renowned Lawrence Lenton ably assisted by his wife operated in Crookham Road. Finally, there was Mr. Overett, originally a cutter with Mme. Lorrette, in Knightsbridge. Her clients had helped him to set up his business when Mme. retired in the mid-1930s. Overett, like Lenton, advertised in Sporting and Dramatic News. Outside London there was Mrs E. Kayne, first in Portsmouth and later in Brighton.

 

In the inter-war years Gardnerís business was slow. The 'walk-in' clients in the neighbourhood were barely enough to keep staff employed. Not only was money scarce, it was the flapper era younger women never took up corsets or gave them up tight-lacing had gone out of fashion, girdles were only a few years away. So, with a view to maintaining a work load in the depression a bigger catchment area was needed.

 

Alice and Arthur used the firm's reputation to solicit business further a field in the east end and in south London. Alice would travel several days a week either measuring clients, delivering finished corsets, collecting repairs, weekly payments or IOUs. Money was hard to come by, corsets were still a relatively expensive and essential item of clothing, but for women who were used to caring about their appearance or needed them they were made affordable if bought on credit or in the vernacular of the time 'on tick' This method of credit, of course served the Gardner's objectives well. It kept them in contact with clients and got them extra referrals. Alice was always ready to give advice, supply a replacement as corsets moved beyond repair. A key feature of the business was their readiness to repair corsets - even those they had not made, or reuse - recycle to use today's jargon B the old parts, such as busks and bones which were still serviceable in new corsets. This repair service was gratefully taken up by clients of all classes and continued until the business closed down. It placed Gardnerís in marked contrast to some of the other well-known specialist names that would not deign to do even a small repair, it being 'beneath' them.

 

7  WARTIME - AND A NEW MACHINIST

 

Early in the war a new machinist, Iris Norris, then in her twenties, joined the firm. Her husband was away in the war and with a young child to look after, she returned to work to supplement the family income. Times didn't get easier and in the end she stayed for 38 years, retiring in early 1981.

 

Just before World War Two started, Arthur's son Frank, who was to coin the trademark 'Frangard' in the 1960s, was being prepared to enter the business. He was the only male in his class when he trained just before the war at Bloomsbury Technical School for Women and took the courses, passed the exams and received his certificates in corset making and corset design. However, unlike his forebears, he never practised his skills in the machine room. Instead he took up the work of collection and delivery, taking with him on his rounds one of the machinists to do any necessary measuring and fitting as well as to judge if a repair was still possible. At this time he also became an insurance agent and always combined this side of the business on his rounds.

 

The war saw many changes for tight-lacers. Lawrence Lenton was no more having reputedly been killed by a bomb in 1941. Marie Stafford, a protťgťe of Lenton, established a well-renowned, if peripatetic salon. Known generally as Madame Marie, she took over some of his clients who faithfully followed her, first to Luton, north of London, then to Catford in S.E London and finally to premises near the clock tower in Sunbury Cross, Middlesex, west of London. She maintained her salon in the flat above her husbandís newsagent business. As for Overett, the business, now reportedly run by a Mr. Elliot, moved to Hanover Square, near Oxford Circus. Despite being close to major rail targets all around, Barnsbury Square and Gardnerís survived the blitz and continued with business as usual.

 

Frangard provided the following addition in November 2008:-

 

By way of explanation, during my search of my files for Odyssey Part 6, I came across an original draft of Chapter 11 of David Kunzleís unedited draft from which the final test of the first edition of his book, published in 1981-2, was prepared. The Chapter was not published and when Frangard1 back in the late 1980s,  offered me the whole 500 page ring binder I declined but asked if I could have Chapter 11 which was material I hadnít seen.

Page 11-7 to 9 covers Gardnerís with the new information that Frank Gardner ďwas the only male in his class when he trained just before the war at Bloomsbury Technical School for WomenĒ. This wasnít all. I then ďGoogledĒ for the school which elicited the fascinating  fact that ďBloomsbury Technical College (sic)Ē  was evacuated to of all places ... Letchworth ...in Sept 1939.

Could some of the women following the courses in Corset Design and Corset Making, which Frank Gardner took, have been sent there as apprentices by Spirella, or were they recruited by Spirella when they got their diplomas? Perhaps all this influenced the choice of location for the School's evacuation. What does your curator contact at the Spirella Museum know?

As to its history, another Google ďhitĒ said it was founded as Bloomsbury Trade  School  for Women in 1913 and the name changed to ďTechnicalĒ in the mid-1930s, Happily it didnít really close in 1960, it was one of several trade schools that were absorbed to form Risinghill Comprehensive School  which opened in 1960. I donít know if you recall the ďcause celebreĒ trouble associated with its closing in the mid-1960s. It was a victim of the ďGrammar v ComprehensiveĒ debate that raged with the LCC/GLC at that time. Oddly enough it was located on Rising Hill street in the area east of Kings Cross and bounded on its west by Caledonian road, on the south by Pentonville Road and on the east by Upper Street, the exact same area in which one found Gardnerís a little to the north and Madame Lorette on Upper Street itself.

As for its original location it was Queen Square which is behind Russell Square (and the Imperial and Russell hotels) . This is not too distant from one centre of the London Rag Trade located in the NE  corner from Oxford Circus, where Spirella used to have its shop. The area is bounded by Upper Regent Street and Oxford Street and Great Portland Street. The 1960s TV series with Miriam Carlin ďThe Rag TradeĒ was set there. I would guess other persons trained at the School could have ended up there.

   

 

8  POST WAR AND A CHANGE OF DIRECTION

 

During Iris Norris' time at Gardnerís, the nature of the business changed. In the era of the 'New Look' a surprising number of fashion conscious women returned to back-lacing corsets or 'waspies', but this fad was generally short lived. By the late 1950s business was again in decline. It was compensated in part by the closure of other similar small businesses, which had referred grateful clients, usually older women in need of heavier corsets with under-belts, to Gardner's.

 

New clients came as other firms closed. In the late 1950s, Madame Marie's husband closed his newsagents and so she was also forced to shut. Many of her clients moved, some to Gardnerís and many to Overett, but in 1962, he, or was it Mr Elliot, suddenly died casting many tight-lacers adrift. Many of these clients had little choice but to move to one of other of the few tight-lacing salons still in London. Gardnerís special appeal was that it catered to the demands of the tight-lacer while offering lower prices. The only concern of new clients was whether they could provide the fit and quality to which they were accustomed. For these clients were people for whom tight-lacing corsets had become an essential element in their lives. Above all else a tight-lacer extols the 'fit' of well-made corsets. They were often hard to please but fulsome in praise of a corsetiere who could achieve a 'good fit'.

 

Then, as now, they were essentially private, educated people. For many years the moral climate would have regarded them as 'fetishists', a word that could easily damn and condemn those who had found for what was for them an entirely innocent pleasure. They appreciated what is, even at the extreme only a modest departure from what at times were the norms of fashion. Tight-lacing had after all been accepted as the height of fashion up to World War I, and had continued on a reduced scale in the inter-war years and had come close to revival with the 'New Look' in the 1940s.

 

Impelled by their zeal to find perfection, tight-lacing enthusiasts used the grapevine to find what they wanted. Many were known to one another. They included people who knew more about corsetry than many a corsetiere and who insisted on dealing with people who understood, and more importantly could make corsets equal to their exacting demands.

 

While Gardner's had always catered for a number of ladies who maintained very small waists through tight-lacing, they were hardly ready for this veritable invasion of enthusiasts.  A new feature was the significant increase in male clients, though Gardnerís had always had male clients who tight-laced as well as others who needed corsets for medical conditions. Many of the new clients had actually started with Lawrence Lenton, had gratefully moved to Mme Stafford, and then to Overett.  Above all else they needed stability and they found it at Gardnerís, who knew and understood the needs of corset wearers. It mattered not if you were a wasp waist or were tending to obesity. It mattered not if you were male or female. At Gardnerís you were accepted or what you were; a corset wearer, first and last.

 

They soon discovered that Gardnerís were professionals, though by now Alice Gardner was very old, and took no active part in the business. It was left to Arthur to continue with the cutting, deal with the many new male clients, who like him, had always enjoyed wearing corsets. Lady clients found in Iris Norris a seamstress, machinist, corsetiere and impeccably discreet confidante, equal to their needs. Although for Gardnerís many of them represented a new class of client, all felt both welcome and at home.

 

The names of the new arrivals read like a veritable 'who's who' of tight-lacing enthusiasts. Many are acknowledged or referred to by David Kunzle. Predominantly British there were more than a few overseas clients including a number of women and men, often husbands and wives drawn from the USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa, France, Scandinavia and Germany. Many managed an occasional visit but they usually dealt by mail order. New clients were often put in touch though the correspondence that the tight-lacers maintained on an international basis, even in those pre-internet days.

 

Over the next twenty or so years, even Will and Ethel Granger patronised Gardnerís, as did half the names acknowledged in David Kunzle's book though, for the record it should be noted that David actually met Frank Gardner not Arthur Gardner, who had died before David did his research.

 

9  THE SIXTIES

 

Gardnerís continued with their round of visits, once a week. Frank Gardner reserved a day from his insurance rounds, and went with one of his lady machinists to the clients mainly in the working class suburbs of London.

 

By the mid-60s there was only full-time one machinist left. Her duties had expanded to dealing with most individual callers at No 28. They would be taken along the ground floor, down the stairs to the basement and shown into the modest fitting room. The Gardner family continued to live in the rest of the house. The change involved the removal of the machining table, to allow room to set up the cutting table, and drawers to hold the stocks which included a wider range of broches, satins and lace trim that some of the more affluent clients favoured, as well as the busks -spiral, straight and wedge - spirals and steels of every length, width and weight for boning, suspender fittings, elastics and lacings. The eyeletting and punching machines were set up on another table close to the garden window, to take advantage of the natural light.

 

Although smaller, the fitting room was appropriately furnished and painted in pale cream. There was a small side table on which corsets could be spread out for lacings to be opened out and a chair on which to sit and place any clothes removed. There were full length mirrors behind the door, on the opposite wall and a half length one above the table. There was no window, but there was excellent strong lighting. All was arranged so that a client could self lace effectively or could assess the progress as a new or altered corset were being laced on by the corsetiere. Typically the door would be shut and the lacer would stand back to the door and minister to the clientís lacings and help with back suspenders as necessary.

 

On the table were copies of the UK trade journal 'Corsetry and Underwear' which went out of publication not long before Gardnerís closed its doors, which a client might read whilst the corsetiere returned to the machining room to effect any slight alterations that were found desirable during the fitting process.

 

There were always copies of Gardner's latest catalogues at hand and the current price list pinned to the wall, adjacent to the half length mirror. The ladies information was printed on pink paper while the gentlemanís was on blue paper.

 

After a photo session in 1972, a whole plate original photograph of Iris Norris, was given pride of place on the wall. Iris had posed for the photos session in black dress or in a black skirt and white sweater. In all studies a narrow black patent belt accentuated her waist, which had been reduced and measured at nineteen inches for the session. If needed, her waist gave full testimony to the figure forming efficacy of her favourite corsets, the 17 inch long Gardner 'Godet' style, known as their L 267 pattern and to Copere clients as the 'Jean'. The photograph also graced the cover of the first Fanny Copere book, 'The Corset Question'.

 

On the wall beside the door, were posted the rules regarding employeeís pay, agreed to under the auspices of the corset Wages Council. In 1977, it was still only 90 pence (US$2) per hour. Adjacent were the two diplomas that Frank Gardner had earned at college, one for corset making and the second for corset design.

 

With the coming of new clientele, the range of fabrics traditionally stocked and available was expanded to include the most expensive broches imported from France and Belgium as well as satins and that much favoured by men and surprisingly many lady clients 'gold spot' in matt black with shiny amber spots. The fabric is well illustrated in the photos of the 'Margarita' style in Fanny Copere's catalogue (see Section 10). The new clients cared not only for function, but were ready to pay for the aesthetics of their garments. They also valued the observations and advice of someone like Mrs Norris who clearly reduced her waist as assiduously as they did, someone who had personally experienced and understood the difficulty of coping with the dreaded yet periodic challenge of overcoming skin breakdown whilst continuing to tight-lace.

 

Conventional corsetry still formed the bulk of the bespoke (custom made) business but Gardnerís found their skills expanded to the making of corsets of every style. Corsets suitable only to wear at corset soirees such as classical mannequin corsets (see Wilbro's catalogue style PCMM 5), worn by those seeking to train a delicately minced gait in the high heeled shoes or boots they probably bought at Regent Shoes before it became Ravel. They also made many more male cut high top corsets, and shoulder straps were a frequent provision of military type 'high top' corsets for the older male client.

 

Deep suspender belts continued to be made bespoke, but other new sales were made in selling bulk production of standard styles for firms of outfitters in UK, USA and Germany who sold corsets to clients who were discovering the pleasures of corset wearing in the more liberated atmosphere of the late 60s and 70s, when dressing for pleasure by both sexes was becoming more acceptable.

 

10  THE SEVENTIES

 

Several firms placed regular bulk and bespoke orders. One of the earliest was P. Cutler of Westbourne Grove run by Pauline Cutler who died in the late 1980s, and whose firm became Cover Girl, when it moved back from Paddington to Upper Street in Islington, not far from Gardnerís, in 1973.

 

In 1972-3, Gardnerís took out a classified advert in a UK men's magazine, 'Men Only', which ran for several issues. With the help of a husband and wife who were both clients, new catalogues and price lists were prepared. The enthusiastic pair assembled all the artwork. The wife was laced into three styles of corset specially made for her by Gardnerís; a waspie, the Godet and a side lacer. She posed, sans stockings, for the camera. The resulting photos were used to illustrated the ladies catalogue, which was printed on pink paper and offered the three basic styles plus a narrower waspie. No mean artist, the husband depicted the four male styles, a casual, a high top and an Edwardian fluted style. This was produced on blue paper. These catalogues continued in print until the firm closed in 1981.

 

     

 

 Fanny Copere's corsets

 were usually copies, or re-

 sold versions of the Gardner's

 corsets shown here.

 

 

 

Styles 'La Taille', 'Godet', 'Hook-side, lace-side' (couldn't they think of a name?), and the 'Modern Waspie Mini'.

 

A word about the patterns used. All corsets were based on patterns, which had at least five panels in each half corset. For fluted (Godet), high top and training styles, six panel patterns were used, not including the flutes or 'petals' in the models with a hip spring of greater than about 12 inches. All corset comprised a facing fabric and a twill lining. All were interlined to give the corsets the 'weight' and strength that tight-lacers appreciate, and which readily distinguishes the real bespoke corset from imitations. Bones were inserted between the facing and lining using a specially designed pushing tool which reduce the number of raised seams which can lead to skin abrasion even if a camisole or vest is worn. For those who insisted on diagonal boning, strapped across panel seams or if the client insisted on inside strapping, then Gardner's practice was to use not to use bone casing but to use a strapping fabric, plush faced if possible again to reduce the amount of seam contact with the skin, a luxury rarely found on corsets today. Lace frills at top or bottom or both, were optional extras.

 

Suspenders were always made to customerís choice, sewn on or detachable and, with the move to narrower straps, ĺ inch became standard and the 11/8 inch width they usually used, and which appear on most of the styles photographed for the Fanny Copere catalogue, was classed as 'wide'. Until 1978, Gardnerís provided suspenders with stocking clips, or as their corsetiere called them 'ends', which had the traditional hard rubber buttons with a central reinforcing shaft rivetted to a backing plates and a cloth hanger. When this design went out of production in 1979, Gardnerís were forced to provided first thick button and then the thinner nobless rubber 'all in one' designs. A consequence of this change was that clients quickly complained that their stockings tops were slipping off their suspenders at the most inconvenient moment. Mrs Norris initially blamed the phenomenon on the sheen in the modern nylon used to knit non-stretch stockings, but in the end she found a solution. She eventually counselled clients to bulk up their buttons with tissue paper, although several resourceful husbands glued small discs of rubber cut to size using an eyeletting punch. They then painstakingly glued the discs onto each and everyone of their grateful spouse's suspender clips! 'Progress' is no respecter of preference. The security of their suspender clips was paramount and quite outweighed the questionable inelegance of a visible 'bump' being discernable through a close fitting skirt.

 

Bulk orders came from overseas retail firms like Finecraft of Hollywood. Even in the late 1980s, the corsets worn in most of the corset illustrations had been made by Gardnerís. In perusing photos from the 1960s, still in their 1980s catalogues, Iris would casually say, "Thatís one of ours, and that".

In 1977, Gardnerís ran an advertisement in 'Tit Bits'. The old established periodical, which coincidentally had encouraged tight-lacing in the early years of the century, had come full circle and was once more acting, albeit indirectly on behalf of a corsetiere, to contact potential tight-lacers.

I think it can fairly be said that whilst the Gardner and Copere girls were, let's say, classic 'English roses' that one might take home to met Mother, their American sisters were certainly not! - Ivy

 

 

 

The encyclopśdic mind of my husband remembered a scene from that marvellous WWII film "The Cruel Sea" where Moira Lister plays the part of a woman far more cruel. He reckoned that not only did Miss Lister resemble the lady on the right,  but she probably wore similar foundations to ease her figure into the satin sheath of her dress. - Ivy.  The scene is very moving. A naval officer returns from convoy duty on the Atlantic and on his last night before resuming duties, his wife has dressed to go out with friends, not him. She is obviously having an affair. The poignancy is emphasised by the beauty of his wife that she dangles before her husband in a frustratingly off-hand manner "Heavens, I look a sight" she breathes as she exits to join her friends. The phrase is typically female in that perfection can never be achieved "Don't I look a sight", but to her husband she does look a sight, and a beautiful one at that. He drowns before she sees him again.

 

Another agency was established in the early 1970s by A. Compton under the name of 'Fanny Copere' and operated from Castle Street, Richmond, Surrey, UK. A range of eight corsets was offered including six designs based on Gardner's patterns, and two based on those of Vollers of Portsmouth, Hants, a business which coincidentally had also been founded in 1899.

 

Three models were used to present the range and all wore 'cat suits'. The cover featured a the youngest posing in Gardnerís waspie style, five other styles were modelled by a blonde woman while the Godet, known as 'Jean', was modelled by an older brunette woman. None wore stockings so the suspenders hung loose.

Isabella and Jean models

 

Copere also began publishing books on tight-lacing with the photo of Iris Norris on the fitting room wall appearing on the cover, with the caption 'A wasp-waist of the Nineteen-Seventies. Bust 38 inches, hips 40 inches, waist laced in to 19 inches' There were three other photos of Iris in the book.

 

Another company, which used Gardnerís for special orders, was the large firm of J.D. Williams of Manchester, which by the 1970s had changed its name to Wilbro. In its range it offered three ranges of made to Measure: 1) Period Corsetry made to measure - 9 styles; 2) Made to Measure for Ladies - 5 styles and 3) Made to measure for Gentlemen - 7 styles. Miss Margaret Beck, their resident corsetiere, passed all their bespoke orders to Gardnerís, a fact which can be confirmed by comparison of its made-to-measure range with those in Gardner's own catalogues.

 

Following is a cross reference between the names under which the three organisations sold the same Gardner's styles

 

Gardner's Name

 

Modern Waspie Mini, L79

The Cinch, L73

Le Petit Taille, L271   

Old style, L257 (underbust)

Old style, L257 (overbust)

Godet, L267

Hookside, L227 

Copere's Name

 

Miss Anita

Miss Copere

Collette

Margarita

Isabella

Jean

           -            

Wilbro's Name

 

-

-

-

MMCL 4

-

MMCL 5

MMCL 2

 

 

On the domestic side of Iris Norris's life, over the years she had seen a son and daughter marry and grandchildren appear. But now Iris and John were in today's term 'empty nesters'.  A redevelopment of the part of Islington where they lived saw them take up the offer of assistance to relocate to a new town, Milton Keynes, some 50 miles from Euston on the Birmingham line. The choice was easy since Iris's brother and sister-in-law had settled earlier. However, in keeping with their roots, in the early 70s, they chose to move, not into a new house, but to one of Edwardian age within the new city in nearby Old Bletchley, Bucks. This would not have been of note except that in deciding to buy a home for the first time, albeit with the children off their hands, Iris and John were faced with paying the mortgage and that meant them both continuing to work full time. It wasn't easy for it meant rising at 5 am, driving two miles to catch an early train four days a week to Euston, and even then their respective journeys weren't over. Iris took the 14 bus along Euston Road, left at King's Cross station, up Caledonian road as far as the stop by the library at the corner of Lofting Street. From there she'd walk east up the steep hill cutting left into the former mews of Barnsbury Terrace and across the west side of the square to No 28. She had a key and would let herself in. Then she'd work 10 hour days and faced the return trip. Recall that she always wore tight-laced corsets and did this journey, wasp-waisted with straight-seamed stockings, a proud and elegant example to the modern generation, for close to a decade.

The legendary corsetiere  Iris Norris  wears her normal Godet corset style corset

 

 

Note the waist and the satin skirt.

Mrs. Norris knew just how to dress to please a man in the nicest possible way.

In the last few years, Mrs Norris' duties had extended beyond simply machining to taking all calling appointments at which she would give clients advice, expertly measure them or give trial or final fitting for newly made, partially complete or complete corsets. She dealt with most of the mail order side of the business which required careful record keeping, secure and discreet packing of parcelled corsets and trips to the Post Office. She met with sales representatives to ensure that a sufficient stock of material and bindings was maintained in house at a time when suppliers and manufacturers were closing and such things were not easy to find. In many respects she was Gardnerís in all but name, yet was still an hourly paid employee and time ticked by.

 

Father Time reaped the last generation of regular corset wearing women, while their daughters and granddaughters had been beguiled by radical changes in women's fashions and were never to progress to the satisfaction gained in wearing real boned, busked and laced corsetry. Whilst few of them rallied to the extreme call of the cause of feminism, and actually burnt their bras, they did espouse the Mary Quant revolution, which gave women the 'liberation' of tights (pantyhose), which meant that almost overnight they consigned stockings to the rubbish bin. There they joined their girdles and suspender belts, the need for which had been obviated.

 

Ivy Leaf's website includes countless recollections of the period after 1970 which saw such catastrophic attrition in the corset industry of which the first large victim was W and H Symington of Leicester, which closed their doors at about the same time as Gardnerís.

 

The Jean model that Iris habitually wore

 

11 CLIENTS

 

The story would be incomplete without a few words on some of the clients of the final twenty years. Ethel Granger who had the smallest waist in the world at 13 inches patronised Gardnerís for a while though as many knew, while everyone liked the modest and long suffering Ethel, they found that William was usually overbearing, especially in his insistence on assuming the fitting duties customary entrusted to the corsetiere in the fitting room.

 

On the ladies side apart from Ethel Granger there were many women, like Iris herself, who had cultivated and maintained a 20-inch hip spring for many years. Several wore corsets cut to a 17 inch waist. All of them needed, of necessity, the fluted hip style, either the high cut Godet, L 267, which Iris always wore, or the Petite Taille, L 271. These were always provided with lacing eyelets that were reinforced with brass washers for tight-lacing. The connoisseur of corset design will also notice that on Iris Norris's corsets the eyelet pitch is reduced from 3/4 inch to close to half an inch for the three pairs of eyelets on either side of the waist line which was defined of course by the mandatory tape reinforcement. All this in an effort to reduce eyelets tearing out under the strain of the tight-lacers pull on the stay-lace!

 

On the other side of the business, Iris recalled that Gardnerís made corsets with a 16 inch waist for a gentleman client of Wilbro in Manchester. Of their own clients, Basil Costin, acknowledged by Kunzle, was one of several small-waisted male clients on their books who favoured corsets sewn up with a 19 or 20 inch waist. Several were ex-army officers, who still wore high top corsets every day. Others were men whose initially accompanied their wives to appointments and who with the encouragement of both spouse and corsetiere opted to take up the practice of corseting too.

 

Ever conscious of privacy, Iris would amusedly recount how, unless requested otherwise gentleman's corsets ordered by mail were made up with a set of four suspenders sewn on. The reason; just in case the parcel was opened by the hired help who would then naturally assume that the item was for 'the lady of the house'!

 

 

12 CLOSURE

 

Throughout the 1970s Gardnerís continued to deal with regular suppliers of materials like Devine and Thurstonís, both located in the Old Street district of London, not far from Islington and just north of the City of London financial district.

 

By the late 1970s, the revolution in under-fashions was making inroads into the viability of suppliers. Demand was slackening at a prodigious rate. Devine relocated to Southend-on-Sea in Essex, 20 miles east of London on the north bank of the lower Thames estuary. Alternative sources of supply were not interested in the small, though steady level of orders that Gardnerís would place.

 

Iris Norris would often voice to clients how discouraged she felt at these developments. She found that her ability to make corsets to the quality her clients wanted and her self respect and professionalism demanded, was severely compromised. Ever inventive she cannibalised old corsets wherever she could, especially in the search for spoon-busks favoured by herself and lady clients with large hip springs. In any case she was no longer young and, though still vigorous and full of energy, she found the lure of retirement in the country and the end to three hour a day commuting, to be too great. She retired as soon as she was of the age to take her pension.

 

After 82 years and with no successor, Gardnerís was forced to close and an era ended. Yet closure did not occur without distress, as former clients searched for alternative salons but seemingly to no avail given their budgets.

 

13 REBIRTH: A HAPPY ENDING

 

Happily this is not the end of the Gardner story. As so often happens, miracles do happen. In response to the near clamorous demands of the clients, who by now were often friends as well, Mrs Norris to most, but Iris to some, decided not retire from corset making. She continued for close to 20 more years, but that's another story.

 

 


INTERESTING  POSTSCRIPTS

 

[1] Frank Gardner coined the name in the 1960s.

[2] The Thornhill shop later became a greengrocers, but that business closed its doors in the 1970s and in 1985, when much of this note was originally penned and reviewed by Iris Norris, the property lay vacant.

 

 

 

The MEDICI CORSET

 

The story of Gardner's would be incomplete without reference to the logo that appeared on their letterhead. It was a depiction of the famous Medici metal corset cover. The story and related facts are the cause of a good mystery.

A reproduction of it had appeared in photographs advertised in Sporting and Dramatic News and sold by Madame E. Kayne of Brighton in the late 1930s. There was always controversy as to whether the model in the photo was actually wearing it or had contrived to stand behind it in a trompe díoeil. But now, relying on the actually transcribed words of a gentleman customer of Gardner's for close to 30 years, some light is shed on the matter:

A picture of the replica Medici Corset

 

ďI suppose you knew that Gardner's had the 13" Medici metal corset cover. He (Frank gardner) showed it to me once and said that shortly after the war it appeared in the mail without any note or letter. I tried to buy it from him, but he always refused to sell. I just wanted to admire it. ď

 

It was to remain in Gardner's and was indeed shown to interested, privileged clients such as the writer quoted above. However, sometime around the time Gardnerís closed the metal corset cover disappeared. Mrs. Norris believed she knew who it was but had failed to recover it. A newsletter issued in the 80s and 90s made appeals for its return. There is no doubt that it is out there somewhere and now, thanks to the world wide web, it is to be hoped that, whoever is its arguably illicit, and certainly temporary, guardian might contact Ivy Leaf and tell her of its whereabouts. If nothing else it would put the soul of Iris Norris to rest on a matter that troubled her greatly in her later years

 

Maybe if it is returned readers can advise where, and in which museum, it might be placed.

The picture referred to above, is almost certainly faked. There were no women at that time that could wear a 13" waist and the disturbed curtains point to two women here - Ivy. The picture comes from the 'Corset Question'.

 

AXFORDS

Did Axfords spin off from Gardners? I can't remember; certainly their corsets were very similar being reproduction Victorian in satin. I have included two pictures from Axford's brochure of the 1980s. This is probably one of their best selling corsets, the model D.27.

In November 2016 for the 2017 calendar, Cathie Jung posed in an Axfords D.27 with a 21-inch waist. It was, of course, far too big for her, however, she shows off the corset to far better effect than the model in the centre. In fact, to my eye, the unworn corsets on the left and Cathie on the right show the corset at its best because of the waisted shape.